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25 Feb 2021

Bees and Ben Lawers

Written by Helen Cole, Senior Ranger
A queen bumblebee rests on a bright yellow dandelion flower.
Queen bilberry bumblebee (Bombus monticola) | photo: Anthony McCluskey
Our pioneering restoration of mountain woodlands at Ben Lawers has provided ideal habitats for wildlife species, some of which have previously gone unrecorded.

Bees are well known as plant pollinators, and the floral diversity of Ben Lawers provides an array of habitats for them.

Of the 270 British bee species, many of us are familiar with the honeybee (Apis mellifera) and with bumblebees. We’re pleased that 9 of the 24 British bumblebee species have been recorded at Ben Lawers, including the rare bilberry bumblebee (Bombus monticola) and the broken-belted bumblebee (Bombus soroeensis). Most of these species are social, living in colonies.

Less familiar are the species that comprise the remainder of the British bee fauna, collectively referred to as solitary bees. These generally create individual nests, although they can be grouped close together. Many burrow in the ground, in dry, sunny areas that warm up quickly, so their presence can be detected by looking for the entrance holes, which often have small mounds of soil next to them. Their flight periods are associated with the flowering of the plants on which they rely for pollen and nectar. They can be quite tricky to identify, which means few have been recorded on the reserve.

Local bee expert Anthony McCluskey used lockdown to search for solitary bees along the Morenish Woodland Trail. He suspected its south-facing aspect and areas of bare soil would provide good nest sites. Since many bee species are willow (Salix spp.) specialists, the restored woodland would provide good foraging habitat. His instincts proved correct, and he made some exciting finds.

Several of the species he found were mining bees. In April, he spotted several female Clarke’s mining bees (Andrena clarkella) foraging on willow catkins after spending the winter as freshly emerged adults in sealed natal cells. They are very hairy, red on the thorax and black on the abdomen, and have pollen baskets not just on their legs but also on their abdomen. They can form large nesting aggregations. Although a widespread species, there are almost no records in the central Highlands. However, recent finds in Glen Lyon too suggest it is maybe more prevalent here than currently known.

A solitary bee rests on some soil on the ground.
Female Clarke’s mining bee | photo: Anthony McCluskey

Flying in early May were two other willow-feeding species. The northern mining bee (Andrena ruficrus) also uses dandelions (Taraxacum spp) as a nectar source and can form small nesting aggregations. The males are described as rather nondescript, which may explain why there are very few records in the central Highlands, making this a good find.

The orange-tailed mining bee (Andrena haemorrhoa) is a large, distinctive species with orange hairs at the tip of a mostly shiny black abdomen. It also feeds on pollen from other plants including hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) and herbaceous plants such as dandelions, coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), greater stitchwort (Stellaria holostea), wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa) and buttercups (Ranunculus spp). This is reflected by its flight period lasting into July. It nests singly or in loose aggregations and is fairly ubiquitous.

As their name suggests, females of the tormentil mining bee (Andrena tarsata) collect pollen from tormentil (Potentilla erecta) so this species is found in heathland, occurring into late August. They nectar at brambles (Rubus spp), harebell (Campanula rotundifolia), wild angelica (Angelica sylvestris) and yarrow (Achillea millefolium). There are probably fewer than 100 records in Scotland, but they are well-distributed in the uplands.

A significant record of a very rare species was a female lime-loving furrow bee (Lasioglossum fulvicorne). Only eight other records existed for Scotland, all from a small area of the Cairngorms. As a species strongly associated with calcareous soils, it’s probably not surprising to find it at Ben Lawers; feeding on pollen from a variety of flowers, it has a long flying season. From the few observations of nesting, it’s thought to be truly solitary.

Many bees don’t collect pollen or build nests, but rob the shelter and supplies of other species. The females of these cleptoparasites, like cuckoos, lay their eggs in a host’s nest; the grub destroys the resident eggs or larvae and feeds on stored provisions. Nomad bees are all parasitic and their markings resemble those of wasps.

A single female small nomad bee (Nomada flavoguttata) was found, but they’re easily overlooked because of their small size. Eggs are laid inside the nests of several ‘mini-mining’ Andrena bees, so the distribution and flight season is dependent on these. Records are sparsely distributed in this part of the Highlands, and none of the potential host species has been recorded at Ben Lawers.

The bilberry nomad bee (Nomada glabella) is so newly described that it isn’t in many books yet but is very similar in appearance to Panzer’s nomad bee (Nomada panzeri). Females lay their eggs inside the nests of the bilberry mining bee (Andrena lapponica), which, unfortunately, wasn’t spotted but must be there.

These time-consuming observations are extremely valuable indicators of the significance of the Ben Lawers flora for biodiversity and pave the way for plenty more monitoring to be done. We look forward to expanding our knowledge of these vital creatures.

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