Wednesday 30 August 2017

Of Snowdrops and Hairy-footed Flower Bees

Male Hairy-footed Flower Bee
It’s February 17th and I’ve just seen my first Hairy-footed flower bee of the year. She’s foraging amongst the snowdrops in the gardens where my husband, Rob, works, and I can barely contain my excitement. I watch her darting from flower to flower, her proboscis extended as she sups the nectar provided by these earliest of blooms. I am enthralled. Her small black furry body emits the high-pitched buzz so typical of this species, that first alerted me to her presence in the flowerbed - and I am smitten, all over again, by this charming little bee.

I can’t believe I don’t have my camera with me! I have never before seen a Hairy-footed flower bee foraging on a snowdrop and would so love to have a photograph to accompany my record when I submit it to BWARS (Bees, Wasps, Ants Recording Society) later today. I wonder if mine will be the first sighting this year, or perhaps even the earliest sighting ever....?

The Hairy-footed flower bee’s scientific name ‘Anthophora plumipes’ (plumipes meaning ‘feather-footed’) sounds, to me, almost as beautiful as her common name, although the ‘plumipes’ part only really applies to the male of the species. The male’s middle legs are elongated and adorned with long feathery hairs, which he uses to transfer secretions from his abdominal glands to the female’s antennae whilst he mates with her. It looks like he’s covering her eyes with his legs whilst he does this.  I have no idea what might be the significance of this transfer of secretions during mating; it is but one of many mysteries I have yet to unravel in my on-going quest to understand more about the fascinating and beguiling world of bees. 

Unusual amongst our British bee species, male and female Hairy-footed Flower bees are quite different to each other in appearance, although both are fairly easy to recognise and identify in their own right, even for complete beginners.  Hairy-footed females are jet black all over, with bright yellow/orange pollen brushes on their hind legs, whilst males of the species are golden-brown in colour (fading to a paler colour as they spend more time in the sun) with pale yellow faces and, of course, very beautiful hairy legs.

Although Hairy-footed flower bees are solitary species, they are often mistakenly identified as bumblebees... and with their rotund body shape and complete covering of hair this is hardly surprising. However when they first emerge in early spring there should be less confusion, for the only bumblebees on the wing at that time of year are the enormous queens who have just emerged from hibernation.  Compared to these huge bumblebee queens, Hairy-footed flower bees are actually quite small. 

Colour, shape and size aside, the easiest way to recognise this bee - and to tell it apart from other bees - is undoubtedly by its behaviour. No other species of bee (apart from other related Flower bee species) behaves, forages or sounds quite like the Hairy-footed flower bee. Zipping back and forth from flower to flower, with such speed and purpose that you can barely keep your eye on them, and then hovering for a few seconds in the air like miniature humming birds as they probe for nectar and pollen with their long pointed proboscises; their behaviour really is most distinctive and almost un bee-like. Add to this their highly pitched ‘buzz’ and the male’s territorial tendencies, and there’s no mistaking a Hairy-footed flower bee when you meet one....

Female Hairy-footed Flower Bee

Tuesday 22 August 2017

Bees: where to begin?

A few more passages from the opening chapter of the book I'm writing....

Bees. Where to begin….?

Given the enormity of our reliance upon bees as pollinators of human food crops, it beggars belief that we (by we, I mean you and I; not the scientists who study insects) know so little about them. Mention the word bee to most people, and images of bee hives, beekeepers and honey are the most likely things that will spring to their minds. However if I were to give the same people a sheet of paper and some coloured pencils and ask them to draw me a bee, most of them would draw something shaped a little like a rugby ball with striped yellow, white and black bands to which they might attach a head, six legs, two antennae and a pair (or two) of wings; something that looks, essentially, like a bumblebee.

So there is clearly a little confusion as to what, exactly, a bee is.

In actual fact, Planet Earth is home to at least 20,000 different species of bee. This is quite a staggering figure; one which surprises most people when they first hear it, especially if they have previously only been aware of the existence of honeybees and bumblebees.  Of all these different species, only 7 are honeybees, around 250 bumblebees and the rest are solitary bees. (N.B. of the so called 'solitary' bees, some groups actually have social structures. I have not yet fully understood the varying degrees of sociality amongst these groups; it's a complex subject and one I'm still trying to get my head around)

Bees are incredible in so many ways, that I will barely manage to scratch the surface of their existence in this book. My aim is simply to introduce you to certain aspects of their world; a world which, for the last decade or so, has filled me with ever increasing wonder and joy as I have immersed myself in watching, listening and tuning in to the bees (and other wild creatures) that I come across in my garden and on my travels around the UK. By sharing the knowledge I have gained, together with my observations, understandings and realisations, I hope to inspire you, too, to fall in love with these extraordinary little beings… or at least to see them in a different light and want to find out more about them.

Most of us are aware that bees are important pollinators, but far from being in awe of the fact that something so tiny is capable of achieving something so extraordinary i.e. pollination.... we tend instead to take this gift (or service as it is so sadly referred to these days by economists) very much for granted. I use the word ‘gift’ with consideration and awareness of the fact that a gift is usually something that has been given with intent to a recipient. As bees and other pollinators go about their daily business of foraging for pollen, their aim is of course to collect as much as possible to take back to their nest to feed, or provide for, the next generation of their species. Bees are no more setting out to ‘gift’ us their services than they are setting out to ‘pollinate’ the plants they visit, but the result, in my eyes, is one of the most wonderful gifts that nature bestows upon mankind, and one without which we simply would not survive.....

So, ‘Bees pollinate flowering plants’. This we know. But how exactly do they achieve this? How does a bee, newly emerged from its brood cell or cocoon, recognise that plants provide it with food, or which flowers contain the best sources of pollen and nectar? Which bees (or which other species of pollinating animal for that matter) pollinate which plants? How do they know which flowers have already been worked and which still contain rewards? How do they access the more complexly structured flowers? How do they extract pollen and nectar? How does the plant make sure that pollination actually takes place? How do bees carry pollen back to their nests? How do they find the same plant again? How do they communicate (do they communicate?) this information to other bees? How do they use the pollen……? So many hows?!

Sunday 20 August 2017

The Song of the Stream

Here are a few passages from the book I'm writing. The book is mostly about bees, but this little piece is about birdsong and the sound of water; written whilst I was staying away from home on a bee identification workshop. Work in progress...

Chapter 6: The song of the stream

Sunday 21st May 4.35am

I slept last night in a tiny little thatched cabin at the top of a garden somewhere in Oxfordshire. 
The cabin is nestled beneath mature trees in a semi-wild area of the garden and I have just woken to (or been woken by) the local dawn chorus. The room is warm so I step out of bed and open the door; now I can also hear the stream below as it makes its way through what I believe used to be a watercress bed.  It’s earlier than I’d like to be awake, but what a way to start the day.

Unlike the birds, the stream has not been to sleep, and it too has a song to sing. How can I describe the song of the stream? Simultaneously complex yet simple; 'of the moment' whilst also in continuous motion, it brings images to my mind of a never ending carnival procession. Depending on when, where and how you tune in, you either catch the full flow of its journey, or a little snap shot that can only be heard here, now, in this very spot where I am sitting. It is the song of a traveller. Does that make sense? I’m not sure, but know I want to explore this idea further.

I open the door wider. There is a lull in the birdsong now so I am better able to tune in to the stream. There must be some kind of fall because I can hear the sound of water cascading over rocks. It is so very soothing in its constancy; moving, perhaps dancing, with no sense of urgency. ‘Less haste, more speed.’ So reassuring. Almost meditative. I can tune in and out at will.

I wonder, if I were to record the sound for a few minutes now - and then again later - would I be able to tell the difference? Does it sound the same in the middle of the night as it does in the middle of the day? In the middle of winter as the middle of summer? Rainfall and wind speed and direction will surely make a difference; in the same way that an orchestra playing the same tune with fewer (or more) violins - or under different conductors - would sound different. The song of the stream is probably softened at this time of year by the leaves in the trees. I wonder how it would sound in mid-winter when the trees are bare.

I love the sound of living water and wish I could live forevermore in a place where I might go to sleep and wake up to this sound.

I'm listening to the birdsong again now and recognise it from yesterday morning. Same birds, singing in the same trees at the same time. But I don’t know who they are. I sing along with a few of them, trying to memorise the sequences and cadences in the hope I’ll be able to find and identify them on the RSPB website when I get back home this evening. I know what they’re ‘not’, which is at least a start. I can confidently say they are not chiffchaff or willow warbler, nor are they robin, blackbird, goldfinch, greenfinch, song thrush, sparrow or starling. Or cuckoo. My birdsong recognition skills are extremely basic, but I delight in those that I do know. I have a similar feeling, each time I recognise a bird by its song, to the feeling I experience when I overhear someone speaking in a foreign language and realise I understand what they’re saying. It’s the beginning of a connection. 

Of course the birds neither know nor care that I have recognised them, but know it; and somehow, at that moment of knowing, I feel a great sense of belonging. It is this sense of belonging that I long for beyond all other longings, for it brings with it a sense of peace so deep and profound that I find I have no need of, or interest in, the trappings and distractions of everyday life....

Brigit x

P.S. The little cabin I've written about here was in the village of Ashbury in Oxfordshire. I found it on Airbnb and really enjoyed my short stay there. Thank you Joseph!