All about bees

Wild bees are pretty amazing creatures.  I already knew that – I have the books sitting on my bookshelf and in my wishlist to prove it.  But I attended a talk this week that gave me even more reasons to love bees and, hopefully the inspiration to go out and study them in the local area (as there are not that many records for this part of the country).

Most bees are excavators, although some nest in holes in walls (or bee hotels) and some make their nest in empty snail shells (they hide these under sticks they collect – how cool is that?).  They provision a cell with pollen, lay an egg and seal it up, then leave more pollen and an egg and onwards until they reach the front.  Girl bees will be at the back with more pollen (because they are bigger larvae and bees) and boy bees at the front so they emerge first and are ready when the girls emerge.

One species of furrow bee is sometimes a solitary bee and sometimes a social bee – in the north they are solitary and in the south they are more likely to be social – the queen producing workers to forage whilst she guards the nest.

One solitary bee , Ceratina cyanea, (which unfortunately doesn’t seem to live in Northamptonshire) is fairly unique in a) living in bramble stems and b) surviving the winter as an adult.

Bees also have their parasites and cuckoos – in fact 27% of bee species in this country are brood parasites – that means they take over the host’s nest rather than killing and eating the larvae (although the queen often gets killed).  Fortunately, the parasites are rarer than their hosts – otherwise they would soon wipe themselves out.  One set of brood parasites are the Nomada bees (that look a lot like wasps) – these wasp-like bees are about the same size as their hosts and find them by smelling their nests.  I took these pictures of the Ashy Mining bee and its associated Nomada parasite at work.

Ashy Mining Bee
Nomada Bee – Parasite of Ashy Mining Bee

There are lots more amazing facts that make solitary and bumble bees worth studying, but I don’t want to reveal all their secrets.

130 species have been recorded in Northamptonshire, but only 80 have been recorded since 2000.  Some may have been lost, mainly due to land use change, but some may still be here just waiting to be found.  Now where’s my guide book and sweep net?

Bee Festival

Thanks to social media I discovered that Coventry University (their Centre for Agriculture, Water and Resilience) were running a two day bee festival just down the road at Ryton Gardens with the fantastic Steven Falk author of the THE bee ID book – and it was free.

I sat through three brilliant talks in the morning with three interesting and very enthusiastic presenters.  First there was the aforementioned Mr Falk.  How he crammed in so much information in less than an hour I don’t know.  He spoke about his book, discovering new species including the use of DNA to prove an 18th century naturalist right and the different families of bee – I don’t think any of us there will forget the Pantaloon Bee!  Next up was Andrew Salisbury from the RHS talking about the trials that they’d carried out at Wisley to find out if native, near-native (i.e. Northern Hemisphere) or exotic (Southern Hemisphere) plants were better for pollinators.  The answer – depends on the pollinator.  It was very interesting to see how they carried out the trial, such a lot of meticulous hard work.  I was also interested to hear that they only saw 80 butterflies over the multi-year survey – I am not sure that butterflies visit gardens in great numbers unless you have a buddleia.

Finally we had Brigit Strawbridge talking about plants and pollination.  She almost contained her enthusiasm for bees!  Fact of the day that I learnt was that you won’t spot honey bees on lavender unless it is warm as it takes hot weather for the nectaries to fill up enough for the short tongued bees like honey bees to be able to feed.  But brambles keep on providing nectar for days – that explains why the bees love my silver stemmed Rubus and shun the lavender for it!

In the afternoon Steven Falk entertained a large crowd on a search for bees around Ryton Organic Gardens – he was hoping for 20, but we were all satisfied with the 17 that we did see – including this Osmia leaiana showing its orange pollen collecting scopa on the underside.

Osmia leaiana-osmia leaiana

The whole festival was put on by BloomsForBees a new initiative promoting Citizen Science and plants for pollinators with a new App and website to help log the bees and the plants they are enjoying.

I had a fantastic day, made some new friends and renewed my love of bees.  A recent workshop about solitary bees that suggested that there was no point trying to ID solitary bees unless you were willing to learn latin and kill the bees for subsequent dissection dampened my enthusiasm quite a lot.  Steven Falk loves giving bees English names that make them more memorable and showed how much there was to discover without the aid of a killing jar and microscope.  And, as for his knowledge of flowers…  All I can say is if you get the chance to go on a Bee Walk or Workshop with Steven – grab it and his book which has been sitting unused on my shelf for too long.

It’s lichen a whole new world

Did you know that lichens are included in many high end perfumes?  They harvest 25 tonnes of a particular lichen each year in Macedonia, transport it to Germany to distill the oils and then add it to the perfume.  Apparently it makes the scent stick to the skin for longer, a desirable property in an expensive bottle of smells.

What about dyes – the original Harris tweed was dyed using lichens.  But, they can also give more interesting hues  – especially if you wee on them to fix the colours in the fibres.

Or, throat pastilles?  Because lichens usually live for so long they have developed some unusual chemicals to combat attackers so researchers are investigating their antibacterial properties for potential medicinal uses.

They have a downside too.  They absorb nutrients and anything else in the atmosphere – including radioactive elements and heavy metals.  When they are used as a foodstuff this can have disastrous consequences.  The Sami reindeer herders have the highest incidence of throat cancer in the world – they eat the reindeer that eats the lichen that absorbed radioactive elements after the Chernobyl disaster.

Sadly we have killed off many of their lichens, as a result they have now found a use in pollution monitoring.  In the 1970s anxiety was rife (amongst lichenologist at any rate) that we would lose many lichen species as they couldn’t survive the acid rain  – indeed in some places old trees still don’t have any lichens on their lower trunk or branches.  Then there was a worry that the lichens that specialise in high nitrogen environments (so love the pollution of diesel cars) would take over and crowd out the other lichens.  Fortunately this has not come to pass and we have over 2,000 species of lichen in this country (compare this to the  1,800 species of flowering plant).

I learnt all this and much more in one hour listening to Ivan Pedley of the British Lichen Society talking about lichens in churchyards.

For those that may not know, a lichen is a symbiosis of an algae (or occasionally a cyanobacteria) and a fungus.  The algae does the photosynthesising and the fungus provides the nutrients from the atmosphere and protects the algae from dehydration.  They grow quite slowly and some are more susceptible to pollution than others.   It was proved that the Rollright stones (ancient monument in Oxfordshire) were vandalised by the Victorians – some of the stones had the wrong lichens and so were probably imported to make the circle look good, and others had been lifted from a horizontal position – the lichens were 400 years old (estimated from the size) on one side and just 150 years old on the other!

Apart from showcasing the variety and beauty of lichens – some small stone ornaments had tens of species of lichen on them – the main point of the talk was to illustrate how easy it is to lose some of these ecosystems (home to may little bugs).  Churchyards are particularly important in this country for lichens; the species present will vary from region to region because of the type of stone.  But all too often lichens are lost when gravestones are scrubbed or put in the shade or stood against a wall – lichens need sunlight for photosynthesis.  If they were birds or mammals, or possibly even insects, there would be an outcry if we went round just scrubbing them out, but we regularly do that to lichens – and some in Northamptonshire are quite rare, specialising on our ironstone.  So the take home message of the evening was – don’t clean your garden ornaments or gravestones, rebuild your dry stone walls, replace your fence posts or even clean your car (Ivan was proud of the five species on his four year old Ford).  You might have 20 or 30 species of lichen on there!

churchyard lichen

Clarke’s mining bee

I went to Brandon Marsh recently to see if I could see anything different bird-wise and so, armed with telescope, sound recording gear and small digital camera off I went.  Birding was pretty much a wipe out unfortunately (see additional post), but as I didn’t have my macro lens with me I was bound to see something I wanted to photograph.

I noticed my first small bees of the season (buff-tailed bumble bee and honey bee notwithstanding) – there were quite a few buzzing about and they seemed to be nesting in small holes in the ground – therefore they must be mining bees.  In fact, one nest site was on a path to a hide and I was worried I might stand on some.  I have seen a couple of mining bees before (ashy and tawny) and despite the fact that these were red in colour they were neither of the above.

IMG_1496It looked at first as though there might be two different types as there were some that were much paler in colour, but they did seem to be sharing the same nesting sites and holes, and I therefore concluded that they must be males to the red coloured females.  Sexual dimorphism (where there are visible differences between the males and females) seems to occur quite often in bees.


Unfortunately I got the ID wrong on these, but was corrected by a lovely iSpot member.   These are the male and female Clarke’s Mining Bee (Adrena Clarkella).  According to the BWARS site they are often the first solitary bee out in the spring – sometimes as early as February and continue flying until May.  They like pollen from Willow – hence the large number around Brandon Marsh I assume.  They built their nests on a sandy slope – presumably to catch the sun.  The bees seem fairly tame – so I think that next time my macro lens will come with me to try and get some better shots.  Now that I’ve seen it once I hope I’ll be able to recognise it the next time.

I learned today that Iachnis Io is more than just a pretty face

Thanks to Radio 4 and Butterfly Conservation’s Richard Fox.  I am talking about the peacock butterfly, one of the four butterflies that overwinter in the UK and, along with the Small Tortoiseshell, the Peacock is the one you might come across in your garage or shed.  (In case you are interested the other two butterflies are the Brimstone and Comma, both of which spend the winter in vegetation disguised as leaves.)

Apparently about half of the adult butterflies overwintering (they go dormant rather than hibernate) are predated and don’t make it through to spring.  But, the peacock increases its chances threefold.  Firstly the outside of their wings is dark, almost black making them difficult to see in the dark places they find for winter.  In daylight their bright markings are thought to resemble eyes and either put off predators or cause them to attack the wings, away from their body.  When they are attacked they flap their wings making quite a lot of noise (you can clearly hear them in the summer when they are feeding in the garden).

All these are things that I already knew about, but what I didn’t know is just how effective the defence mechanisms of the peacock are.  Their bright colours and eye patterns just don’t help when their predators, often bats and mice, are usually looking for food in the dark.  However, the clicking of their wings has been demonstrated to scare off mice and bats – after a close encounter with a predator the butterflies tend to move to somewhere safer to spend the winter.  However, even more amazing, when they are out in the sunshine, not only do the bright colours and eyes help them see off predators such as blue tits, but they have apparently been shown to scare birds as large as chickens causing them to start making the same alarm calls as when they come across predators such as foxes.


I wonder what the chicken sees and thinks it has found?  So, when you next see a peacock butterfly, don’t underestimate it…

I learned today … a bit about nanosilver pollution

OK, so this may not sound that interesting unless you are an environmental scientist, but hear me out – although I am going to save the best bit to last to keep you reading.

Silver is ubiquitous these days.  Although its antimicrobial properties have been harnessed for medicinal purposes for centuries, it has more recently been found in socks, shower heads and various medical consumables such as swabs.  Although, a recent study of silver containing textiles in Denmark found that a lot of the articles claiming to contain silver had no trace when tested in the lab (see Chemistry World July 2012) but I digress.

A lot of the ‘new’ silver products contain nano (aka very, very small) particles of silver and this is where the controversy has arisen.  There has been concern raised about the effect of nano particles on the environment and human health.  By their very nature of being incredibly small they can get to places that larger particles can’t reach and there is the potential that they may have different surface and chemical properties.   Studies have shown that, depending on the method used to incorporate the silver into the textile or article, there is a high chance of the nano silver being released into the environment, especially if for example it is put through a washing machine.

The problem with silver escaping into the environment is that the property that makes it so useful – the toxicity of silver ions released from an item – is the very thing that makes it an issue – it is toxic to all organisms depending on the concentration.

There is a worry that the nano silver would get into the water course and pollute and kill everything in its path (OK, that’s an exaggeration but you get the idea).  Not to mention that the sludge from sewage works is often spread on fields.  However, there is a chance that this fear is unfounded.  Firstly, it appears that the toxicity of the nano silver is due to the fact that, just like other forms of silver used in medicine since whenever, it is the fact that it is Silver and releases silver ions that causes the toxicity.  The tiny-ness of the particles doesn’t make a difference to the toxicity.

Secondly, it is the free silver ions that are the problem.  In the water course the silver tends to combine with sludge and forms silver sulphides – these are not soluble, so less of an issue.

Finally, when solid silver objects, such as silver spoons, are examined it appears that they release nano silver – so this is probably not as new an issue as previously thought.

However, I do have a cooler bit of knowledge that I learned today to share.  In order to test for soil pollution worms are used.  A clew (for that is the collective noun for a ball of worms) is put into a test chamber.  On the one side there is lovely unpolluted soil, on the other there is the potentially polluted soil.  Worms are so good at sensing when soil is bad that and should be avoided that they have their own ISO standard for determining the chemical quality of soil.

insect_worm_15-1669pxSo, what is the worms’ verdict.  When they are faced with soil contaminated with silver nitrate they won’t go near it and detect the silver straight away.  Put them in front of some soil with nano silver and they take their time deciding that it isn’t a good place to be and that it’s time to run away.  See, it was a fact worth waiting for.

Whilst the jury may still be out gathering evidence as to the environmental and health impacts of nano particles, the verdict of the worms is definitely in.

I learned today … about fairy rings

which is quite a coincidence as we were discussing this very topic at the weekend, except at that point I didn’t realise what they were.  If you see a circle (or circles) of lush grass or indeed dead grass, then that is a fairy ring.


These are caused by fungus growing underground – later in the year you might see the fruiting bodies, aka mushrooms.  If the grass is much greener and thicker that’s because the mycelium (the underground bit equivalent to plant roots) is adding nutrients, if it is dead grass then the the fungus is damaging the plant roots.  Each fairy ring is caused by a single fungus.

The rings are thought to start from a single spore that grows outwards until it reaches a certain size (around a metre) after which they run out of nutrients in the centre and start to form a ring, with nutrients passed around the ring to the point where they are needed.  If the ring hits an obstacle such as stone the bit by the stone will die and the rest will grow around it.  However, if it hits a larger obstacle such as a path it will stop growing and die.  There were many reasons postulated for this, but it was discovered that the fungi are very polar and grow in one direction only, therefore if the is blocked they can’t grow anywhere else and therefore run out of nutrients.  If they run into another fairy ring they compete with each other and both die!  Despite this there are records of some fairy rings that are over 100 years old.  According to one article I read there is a fairy ring in France that’s 600m in diameter and thought to be over 700 years old.

Fairy rings are also found in woodlands where they are known as tethered fairy rings as the mycelium are attached to the tree roots.  The fungi gives the tree water and mineral nutrients such as nitrogen that it extracts from the soil and in return gets sugars from the tree.  The mycelium are often seen in borders where they look like a mould on things like bark chips.  In fact, fungi are one of natures great recyclers, being one of the few organisms that can break down lignin from trees due to the complex enzymes they contain.


Although fungi are very diverse; there are around 5 million species worldwide compared with 400,000 plant species, in the UK there are about 60 species that form fairy rings.

As can be gathered from the name fairy ring, there is a lot of folklore associated worldwide with these mushroom manifestations, worryingly enough the legends seem to have continued into the twentieth century.  I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say it involves fairies and dancing and having to do all sorts of superstitious things such as running round the ring nine times with your cap on back to front if you find yourself in one of these rings.

I learned today … that Galen was green

galenNot in the literal sense, but I think that he was perhaps the first practitioner of sustainable healthcare.  Although Galen (AD130-210) is well known as the basis for much medicine up until the 16th Century when his work on anatomy and circulation were proved to be inaccurate by Vesalius (one of my all-time heroes after Robert Hooke) and Harvey, he perhaps should also be lauded as one of the earliest sustainability managers.  According to the historians on a recent R4 podcast Galen had perhaps one of the biggest recipe books for drugs and treatments, receiving recipes from across the Roman empire; most of these were plant based and some survive up to the present day.  Not only did he prescribe remedies based on diet and exercise, but he also realised the effect of stress and mental health on physical health.

I think that if he were alive today he would definitely think that prevention was better than cure!

I learned today … that a new type of bee has found its way to the UK

OK, two bee posts in two days, but this was the most interesting thing I learned today (apart from the fact that potassium permanganate is used to treat weeping skin blisters as a last resort) whilst listening to a Radio 4 podcast.

First seen in 2001 the Ivy Bee ( Colletes hederae )is slowly progressing up the British Isles as shown on the survey map.   These bees start to fly around the end of August and have around a six week flight window coinciding with the flowering period of ivy.  Although I haven’t seen one they apparently look like furry ginger wasps.

As with many solitary bees these dig a hole in the ground in which to lay their eggs.  One pair will have around 10 offspring with up to 18 in a  good year.  In order to make sure the larva can survive for 10 to 11 months underground they provision the chamber where the egg is laid with up to 3million grains of pollen and nectar – this takes about 6 trips for each chamber – quite a task if you only live for about three weeks!

Although these bees are doing well – there is  no need to worry – as with other bees, the males don’t sting and the females are very docile.  As they have recently evolved they don’t yet have any predators here that have evolved with them and, as they don’t appear to pose any threat to native insects, let’s hope that they continue to flourish.  I’ll be setting a reminder in my calendar to look for them next September.  Looking at photos of them that I have found around the inter web I am fairly hopeful that I might recognise one if I see it.  I have included a photo below from Wikipedia taken by Hectonichus – maybe ginger humbugs was a good description!



Today I learned … that not all bees collect pollen on their legs.

I already knew about the existence of cuckoo bees.  These are bees that lay their eggs in the already provisioned nests of pollen collecting bees so that they don’t have to bother collecting pollen themselves.  This means that they don’t have the hairy pollen baskets on their legs.  This is one way of differentiating them from the hosts that they have evolved to mimic.  However, an interesting article by Mike Edwards in the excellent British Wildlife Magazine gave me an insight into different types of bees and why their efficiency at pollinating plants varies so much.

The standard belief is that there is a mutually beneficial relationship between plants and pollinators whereby plants provide nectar as a foodstuff for the pollinating insect. In turn the bee moves pollen from the male part of the flower to the female whilst collecting it to take back to the nest for their larvae.  This article revealed that this only occurs with certain species and that in many cases the plant is robbed!

bee or waspWhat I didn’t know before today is that some bees, such as this white faced bee, are almost hairless and eat the pollen and nectar they collect before flying back to the nest; therefore denying the flower its rightful pollination.

The best known bees are the honey bees and the bumble bees, however, I also learned today these are not very efficient pollinators.  In some cases these bees manage to get the nectar and avoid the reproductive parts of the flower and therefore don’t pollinate it at all.  However, even if they do collect the pollen in the baskets on their legs, they need to wet it with nectar so that it doesn’t fall out.  This means that the pollen isn’t readily transferred to the female part of the flower.  Honey and bumble bees are, in effect, pollen robbers!

Whilst googling cuckoo bees for this short article I also came across this cool picture on Wikipedia.  A cuckoo bee asleep, using its mandibles to hold on – what a fantastic shot!  Until today I didn’t realise that bees did this!