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