The Bilberry Mining Bee

Bilberry Mining Bee, Andrena lapponica

Another Bilberry specialist, this time nearer to home.

Walking in Trellech Common woods, above the Lower Wye Valley,  in the first week of May, I noticed some large Bilberry patches under the trees. Trellech Common bilberry patchForaging on the small pink flowers half-hidden by the leaves there was a good selection of bumblebees, mostly Common Carder, and Early Bumblebees, a few large White-tailed queens, and one or two Tawny Mining Bees – it was almost as bee-friendly as a well-stocked garden.  I took home an odd-looking white-tailed bumblebee that turned out to be a female of the cuckoo-bee Bombus barbutellus – a new one for me.

Trellech Common bilberry under treesI knew there was such a thing as Bilberry Mining Bee, which from its name – Andrena lapponica – sounds as if belongs to the far north, but saw nothing unfamiliar. I remained ignorant but hopeful, and came back twice more to loiter among the trees with my bee net.

Trellech Common bilberry

On the third occasion, I saw a furry red and black bee clambering around in the Bilberry canopy.

 

 

A. lapponica f.

 

This turned out to be the sought-after Bilberry Mining Bee. It is a handsome, medium-sized bee, with a black head, abdomen and legs, a red pile on the thorax surrounded by a golden fringe with long golden hairs on the front of the abdomen.

Silent Valley spoil heap

 

A few days later, in Silent Valley nature reserve near Ebbw Vale, I found several more of these bees at a nesting site on an old iron-ore spoil heap, now overgrown by heather. I did not see any Bilberry nearby, but the bees were laden with its white pollen, so probably found it higher up the mountain.

However, on the day I found the first bee I did not find any of this species – or any other bees for that matter – in a place where they might be expected: the open, sunny heathland of Beacon Hill NR,  where there is much Bilberry in flower, and which is less than half a mile from Trellech woods.

The opinion that it’s no use looking for bees in woodland (which I must have picked up from some authority), is proven to be false. At least, flowering Bilberry – and some sunlight at ground level – will bring in generalists like the common bumblebees as well as the specialist mining bee Andrena lapponica.

About Roger Ruston

In one of my ealiest memories I am knee-high, collecting bees from lavender in a garden on the South Downs. When I grew up I got a master's in zoology at Bristol and studied insects under Prof. Howard Hinton FRS (for those who know, that gives away my age). After several retirements from several lives I have created a wildlife garden in Monmouth, Wales, giving a space to insects, especially bees. In four years I have found 49 species of bee there and nearly twice that number in the surrounding countryside. I am a member of BWARS (Bees, Wasps & Ants Recording Society). My ambition is to assist local conservation projects by identifying and mapping the local bees. I think it is best to know what species we share our spaces with before they are threatened by the many human activities that can destroy bees. Ignorance is the greatest enemy.
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