Wild Things

photo guide to solitary bees

A photo guide to springtime solitary bees

  • Lisa Williams

Entomologist and bee enthusiast Lisa Williams introduces some of the delightful solitary bees we might see this spring...

Spring has finally sprung and you may notice small solitary bees buzzing about and zipping from flower to flower.  We have around 250 species of solitary bee in the UK and some of them are easily seen at this time of year. I get good numbers in my garden but if you don’t have a garden then a walk in the local park/nature reserve or even around a housing estate with green spaces means you should be able to find some solitary bees. 

Here are a few species to look out for.

Female Andrena Cineraria
female Ashy mining bee

Andrena cineraria, the Ashy Mining Bee, is a very easy species to ID, since they have this lovely grey hair, making them very distinctive. They are about 10mm in length and nest in bare earth, and visit a wide variety of flowers.

Male Andrena Cineraria
male Ashy mining bee

Andrena fulva is the Tawny Mining Bee and the female bees are easily recognisable being 10mm in length and having dense orange/red hair all over.  

Female Andrena Fulva
female Tawny mining bee

The males are smaller and less distinctive but have fantastic white facial hair. 

Male Andrena Fulva
male Tawny mining bee

They will nest in bare earth and lawns, making small earth volcanoes where they have emerged.

Earth Volcano In Lawn

Anthophora plumipes, Hairy-footed flower bee, is a sexually dimorphic bee meaning the males and females look very different. They are often mistaken for a bumblebee but zip around the garden much faster than a bumblebee. The females are black all over except for their pollen brushes on their hind legs which are orange, whereas the males are a buffish/orange colour with a yellow face.

Female Anthophora Plumipes
female Hairy-footed flower bee

Male Anthophora Plumipes Yellow Face
male hairy-footed flower bee, note the yellow face

They like to nest in old walls or cliff faces. Their favourite garden flower by far is Lungwort (Pulmonaria), so this is a good plant to include in your garden.  I also frequently find them visiting white and red dead-nettle.

photo guide to woodland flowers

One of my favourite solitary bees is Andrena nigroaenea, the Buffish mining bee. The females are about the same size as a honey bee and are a beautiful pale orange colour and very furry. The head and the tip of the abdomen are black haired and they have fluffy orange pollen brushes on the hind legs which are good things to look for when trying to ID this bee.  

Female Andrena Nigroaenea
female Buffish mining bee

The males are smaller and can look similar to other species of mining bee.

Male Andrena Nigroaenea
male Buffish mining bee

They nest in bare earth or lawns and sometimes in walls and visit a wide variety of flowering shrubs and flowers.  

If you have spotted some Andrena species then you might also see small hairless red and yellow bees that look a bit like wasps whizzing around. These are Nomada bees and are cleptoparasites of some of the Andrena species of bees.  This means that the females lay an egg in the nesting burrow of the Andrena species and when it hatches the grub destroys the egg/grub of the Andrena species so that it can feed on the food left there.  Nomada bees aren’t the easiest to ID to species, since they can be quite similar. 

Male Nomada Goodeniana
male Nomada goodeniana

Here you can see Nomada goodeniana which is the cleptoparasite of Andrena nigroaenea. This is one of the larger Nomada species being 8-10mm and has a black and yellow abdomen, and orange legs and antennae.  

Another common Spring solitary bee is Osmia bicornis, the Red Mason bee. These bees are between 6-10mm but have a chunkier look about them than Andrena bees.  The larger females are furry with a bright orange abdomen and a black head, whilst the slightly smaller males have white facial hair and an orange abdomen.  The males also have much longer antennae than the females.

Female Osmia Bicornis
female Red Mason bee

Male Osmia Bicornis
male Red Mason bee

This species of bee likes to nest in old wood, soft mortar in walls, hollow plant stems and will use garden bee hotels too. It has been known to nest in some odd places too including the casing of a hosepipe, wooden garden furniture or even a keyhole if the hole is of a suitable size! They use wet mud to build their nesting cells. They visit many species of plants including cultivated plants so is a good bee to look for in your garden.

 If you look closely at Dandelion flowers in early Spring you can sometimes see very small black bees feeding. These are most likely Lasioglossum bees, Furrow bees.  They can be very hard to ID due to being very similar and very small and often have to be viewed under a microscope to make a definite ID. 

They are separated into non-metallic and metallic since there are 4 species that have a metallic green sheen to them and are very beautiful when the light catches them. The metallic species are particularly small at around 4mm.  

Lasioglossum Sp
Lasioglossum sp.

One of the commoner non metallic species is Lasioglossum calceatum, the Common Furrow bee.  They are around 5.5-7mm and are not as furry looking as Andrena bees, the abdomen in particular looking bare.  The females emerge in spring, but the males don’t appear until July.  

Female Lasioglossum Calceatum
female Common Furrow bee

The final bee species I am going to talk about is another Andrena species, since Andrena are the most common spring solitary bees.  Andrena haemorrhoa, the orange-tailed mining bee is a species that can be found in a variety of habitats including gardens, farmland and urban environments.  

It is a fairly easy bee to ID since both the females and males have bright orange hair on the tip of the abdomen, hence the common name.  The females are 8-10mm and have orange/red hair on the thorax with a black abdomen, the males are slightly smaller and not as recognisable but look for the orange tip to the abdomen and you probably have Andrena haemorrhoa . They like to nest in grassy banks and visit a variety of flowers and spring shrubs. 

Female Andrena Haemorrhoa
female orange-tailed mining bee

Male Andrena Haemorrhoa
male orange-tailed mining bee

It is quite easy to attract spring solitary bees into your garden, just plant some of their favourite food sources. Some good spring shrubs to have are flowering currant, blackthorn, hawthorn, viburnum and cherry. Other spring flowers that attract the bees are crocus, forget-me-not, lungwort, perennial geranium and perennial cornflower. It is always good to leave a patch of your garden wild, since wildflowers are the bees natural food source, for instance dandelion, white dead nettle, red dead nettle and clover. To encourage solitary bees to nest in your garden try and leave patches of bare earth around the edge of your flower borders or in your lawn.

I hope you have enjoyed my guide to spring bees (summer guide coming soon!).  If you would like to learn more I recommend the Flickr site of Steven Falk and the book Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland by Steven Falk and Richard Lewington.  

All photos by Lisa Williams. Please follow me on Twitter for more wildlife photos @lisajrwilliams

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