Tuesday 18 March 2014

Accumulating aculeates

I was really chuffed to have local naturalist Jeremy Early visit our sites last Thursday, staking out some possible bee and wasp 'hotspots' for surveying in the coming season. I had only recently learned the word aculeate, which is the group of invertebrates including bees, wasps and ants.

At the moment, you might be noticing a lot of pale-yellow fuzz on trees: these are the catkins of Willow or Sallow trees (Salix sp.). Before their leaves are fully open, the male trees produce catkins with copious pollen and nectar; a great food source for early invertebrates waking up from hibernation. 

Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly on Willow catkins, North West Zone

The past week or so, we had been seeing plenty of large bumblebees on the wing, but this day was comparatively quiet despite the good weather. Instead, some other niceties were out and about including Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell Butterflies. Just a few days earlier, this same Willow was frequently visited by large, sleepy queen bumblebees, newly awoken from hibernation. Here is a pic of a lovely queen Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) I had managed to net...

Buff-tailed Bumblebee queen (Bombus terrestris)

I hear that bumblebees would have to be severely provoked to sting us. Also, that the sting of queen bumbles cannot penetrate human skin, although I'd rather not test this theory!
   Over in Ashley's Field we staked out some of the flowering Blackthorn shrubs to see what would come humming by...

This type of hoverfly, called a Drone-fly (Eristalis tenax), is an excellent bee mimic

 Bee Fly (Bombylius major).
Another great mimic, this is a parasite of solitary bees and lays its eggs in their nests.

So, those were some of my pics. Here are some of Jeremy's photos from the day... They're not too bad I guess.

Peacock Butterfly (Inachis io) - Jeremy Early

Male Drone-fly (Eristalis tenax) - Jeremy Early

Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly (Aglais urticae) - Jeremy Early

As well as being a keen entomologist, Jeremy's hobby is wildlife photography and he is particularly skilled at snapping nature in-situ (as in its natural surroundings). I need to invest in a better camera!
   Tom S. and I recently met Jeremy at the Surrey Biological Recorders Seminar, where he was giving a talk about all the wildlife in his Surrey garden. We were already excited about our plans for Honeybees at Gatwick, so after his talk I made a beeline (ha!) over to him to ask about one of his slides: a photo depicting a massive bee house made out of natural materials.

Jeremy's insect boxes, aka the Bee and Wasp Hilton
Jeremy's garden has given us some great inspiration for a new volunteer project and one we can build on over time. He has many bee boxes and areas of standing deadwood to suit all manner of bees (he has recorded over 80 different species so far in his garden!). Boxes with drilled wood, bricks, bamboo canes, reeds and cardboard tubes have all proved popular with the local aculeates.

The wire mesh protects the homes of these hard-working insects from becoming a feeding station for birds such as Blue Tits and Great-spotted Woodpeckers.

The boxes have been well used since Jeremy installed them. As you can see, some of these tubes look like they have been plugged up. This is because they have been used by solitary nesting bee species such as the Red Mason (Osmia bicornis).

Jeremy and his splendid camera

You can check out more of Jeremy's photography and find out more about his incredibly absorbing book on natural history here: My Side of the Fence 
   Bees and wasps, like many invertebrates, are often overlooked and misunderstood by us. Did you know we have around 250 species of bee on the British mainland? They also play vitally important roles in ecosystems, such as pollinating flowering plants and providing food for other animals. If we ever lost them, and I don't just mean the Honeybees, we could be in quite a bit of trouble.

Many aculeates also lead fascinating and dangerous lifestyles, such as the sneaky behaviour of cuckoo bees, or the life-and-death struggle of spider-hunting wasps, all which can be seen in the British landscape. As the season goes on, I hope we can get records at Gatwick of as many different species of bee and wasp as possible.
   Find out more about Britain's bees at the Bumblebee Conservation Trust

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