Hairy Feet

Species by species, the buzz is returning. Buff-tailed bumblebees have been active on and off throughout the winter in Whiteknights Park, sustained by ornamental winter flowering plants like Mahonia. Now their relations are beginning to wake. First, a deliciously sunny day up at the Warburg saw a white-tailed bumblebee queen and good numbers of Lasioglossum solitary bees on the wing. In the week that followed, the first male hairy-footed flower bees darted about Whiteknights Park.

Most bees have pretty hairy legs and feet, as insects go. Females, especially, have a dense comb or basket of hairs on their hind tibia, adapted for gathering pollen. The hairy-footed flower bee is so called for the long, dangling hairs streaming off the tarsi of the male’s middle leg. A kind of foot beard, if you like. It’s a fairly large solitary bee with marked sexual dimorphism: males have a beautifully gingery thorax when fresh, and unlike any bumblebee have creamy yellow markings on the face, whilst females are black apart from orangey hairs on their hind legs. This is a good time of year to see them, since they’re one of the earliest solitary bees to fly.

Getting to know bees has been one of my naturalist’s resolutions for several years now. I’ve only been sporadically successful, with the odd exception such as a very pleasant lunch break spotting spring bees in the company of expert young entomologist Ryan Clark, whose excellent piece on the subject of spring bees is included in the Wildlife Trust’s Spring book. A foray into bee-walking last year was fun, though I lacked dedication. I have pledged to fix this, and bee-walking 2016 started well on Good Friday with five species of bumblebee queen out and about (only four ‘counted’ for my survey, since the only red-tailed I saw was not on my official transect), not to mention a lovely supporting cast of comma and peacock butterflies, more of our hairy-footed friends, and the first bee flies of the year (Bombylius major).

So, I’m going to optimistically declare this the year of the bee, but I do have two good reasons to do so. One is the publication of Steven Falk and Richard Lewington’s beautiful field guide (and complete set of keys) to Britain’s bee fauna. It won’t magically make the identification of every bee a complete cinch, but it’s a magnificent piece of work and will, I think, prove a turning point in the general level of interest in more overlooked solitary bees. The second is a bee-themed student project which I’ll be co-supervising. That should guarantee more hours out in the field looking for bees and plenty of time helping our student with identification and research back in the CWAC lab. I can’t wait to get stuck in – you might even say I’m buzzing!

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