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5 Jul 2022

Mining bees – why do they mine?

Written by Roddy Hamilton, ranger in the North East region
A plump and furry bumblebee perches on some grass. It has yellow and black stripes with a white bottom.
White-tailed bumblebee
Why do mining bees mine? It’s a question I never really thought I would ask.

On a stone dyke near Crathes Castle there is a cut-through that people use to enter a wood. I use it from time to time, and I must have passed it scores of times and not noticed – but on this June day I saw them: myriad tiny holes in the packed sandy surface of the soil that had gathered between the stones. The soil had been compacted by people walking over it, which had created the perfect conditions for some wildlife to live there – solitary bees. Could they be mining bees?

Then, later, lying on the grassy banks of the Flight Pond at Castle Fraser, I saw the same thing on the path. Holes about the size a worm might make, but again this was no worm – it was solitary bees, definitely, that look similar to honey bees.

Identifying bees can be a little tricky. The world of bees is complex but interesting. An obsession with bees can occur when curiosity gets the better of one’s wariness. Perhaps I speak just for myself, but if you are happy to do it, stand between the branches of a hawthorn tree in early summer. The buzzing sound from the levels of bees all around you is an immersive experience, like being encircled by an electrical current.

Observing at close quarters individual bees working their way round flowers becomes a learning journey ... and a privilege. To observe their tiny etiquettes and disagreements becomes an honour. You begin to see the machinery of their bodies and wonder at how perfectly they’re adapted to the job, as well as see their place among the other insects using the same resource – the hoverflies and the wasps.

Although there is in fact a large number of different bee species, we most readily recognise bumblebees. They are the poster boys and girls of the pollinator world, beloved by us humans for their plump furriness. To investigate bees is to quickly become drawn into a beguiling world, where mining bees are only one of many possible obsessions.

Take for instance the tree bumblebee. It’s a good one to watch out for and was seen recently by one member of staff in the North East in the nest box in his back garden. The tree bumblebee is one of those species that has changed its range. Recently it was only found in southern England but it is now increasingly recorded here. And although we have fewer trees old enough to have cavities, it does well out of our habit of providing nest boxes for birds.

Or what about the wool carder bee – currently one of Crathes’s Fantastic Five. It’s not impossible to see but it is a wondrous find, with its yellow spots down its sides – you might even witness its habit of gathering fibres from plants for nest material (from where it gets its name).

At my house, a modern building, early in the season I am used to seeing bees entering the ventilation grills of my home. Are they, as I have suspected, mason bees? Mason bees like nail holes or soft, pitted brickwork and are known to use buildings in this way. I would be pleased to have them yet I’ve not seen any evidence for them nesting, only their incessant curiosity, noseying in and out of the grill.

On the sandy paths of the dyke and the pondside walk, the solitary bees proliferate. It really is difficult to tell how many there are. They manage to evade the footsteps that helped create their habitat and then duck into their burrows so fast that it’s impossible to get a good view. Even when you wait patiently for them to re-emerge, they seem to bide their time. Look at them closely and they may be looking at you. They can tell when you’re watching them. Maybe they understand that they should not reveal their nest-place.

Why are they called solitary bees? Because the queen, after laying her eggs, leaves the nest, never to return. This is unlike social bees such as bumblebees and honey bees, who remain to produce further offspring. And do solitary bees sting? Well, they can do, but generally they’re a peaceful bunch.

And so why do mining bees mine? Well, maybe it’s for protection. Since they are solitary bees, they lack the benefit of safety in numbers. They may share burrow entrances but they will always have separate accommodation underground – there’s a lot going on beneath those tiny holes in the path.

I love this place, I leave no trace

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