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



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