What’s That on My Flower? (Part 2)

What’s That on My Flower? (Part 2)

Early spring bees and a bee mimic

 
By Betsy Thorsteinson

 

As soon as plants flower in the spring, there are bees to pollinate them. I mentioned in my first article (What’s That on My Flower? – Part 1) that honey bees are often the first seen but wild bees are out early too. Here are a few of the first pollinators you will see in the spring.

DUNNING’S MINER BEE (Andrena dunningi)

About the size of a worker honey bee, this solitary mining bee is happy to dig its nest in suburban lawns, bare ground and waste places. Studies have shown that as soon as the ground softens in the spring, Andrena leave their nest cells and wait in their tunnels just below the ground surface for the first warmth of a spring day. Sometimes they appear before flowers open, and they patiently live on their fat reserves. They are seen April through June, after which they die, leaving their young developing underground until the next spring.

Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Dunning’s Miner Bee (Andrena dunningi) by early spring crocus, May 3, 2023
Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Dunning’s Miner Bee (Andrena dunningi) on striped squill, May 10, 2021
Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Dunning’s Miner Bee (Andrena dunningi) pollinating bloodroot flower, May 9, 2023
  • Greater Bee fly (Bombylius major) April 29, 2021

NOMAD BEE
(Nomada sp)
Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Nomad Bee (Nomada sp), May 4, 2023.
Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Nomad Bee (Nomada sp) – May 4, 2023.

Around the same time as you see Dunning’s Mining Bee, you may see this little red bee. It belongs to the genus Nomada, the only genus in North America with all-red bees and, not being very hairy, it looks a little like a wasp. It is a nest parasite of the mining bee, and though it nectars on flowers, it doesnt need to collect pollen as it relies on the mining bee to do that work. It will look for the mining bees tunnel to lay its eggs.

TWO-SPOTTED BUMBLE BEE (Bombus bimaculatus) 

The very first bumble bee I see in the spring is the two-spotted bumble bee. Researchers have found that it can fly at seven degrees celsius! The queen creates her colony quickly, taking advantage of the ephemeral first spring flowers. There is only one generation a year, and the life cycle of the (mostly underground) colony ends earlier in the year than that of most bumble bees. This is a very common bumble bee and can be easily identified by the two spots of yellow on the second segment of its abdomen (they sometimes form a W shape). The problem in identifying it is that its wings often cover this area when it’s on a flower, so look for a very early big bee with its middle segment (thorax) covered with shaggy yellow hair with a black area in the middle, and a spot of yellowish hair on the top of its black head.

Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Two-spotted bumble bee (Bombus bimaculatus), May 4, 2023
Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Two-spotted bumble bee (Bombus bimaculatus), May 4, 2023
Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Two-spotted bumble bee (Bombus bimaculatus), on Geranium maculatum, June 22, 2022.
Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Two-spotted bumble bee (Bombus bimaculatus), on Geranium maculatum, June 22, 2022.
Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Two-spotted bumble bee (Bombus bimaculatus), on Geranium maculatum, June 22, 2022.

Spring Bee Mimic – BEE FLY (Bombylius major)

I’m going to end this article with one insect that looks like a bee. It is a bee fly all dressed up to look like a bumble bee. It has a system for retaining water so it can exist in drier habitats than flower flies (see What’s That on My Flower Part 1).  It does not go from flower to flower as bees do. It seems to do more hovering at flowers, sipping nectar with its long tongue. Pollen sticks to the tongue so it is a good pollinator, but it is also a parasite on wild bees and spends the rest of its time looking for bee nests. Once its eggs are in those nests, the fly’s young can eat the bee’s pollen provisions and also the bee’s larvae.

So, it seems sometimes wild bees can’t catch a break, but you, as gardeners, can help them thrive in your garden by providing suitable nesting sites and a source of pollen and nectar from early spring to fall. Since 70% of wild bees are ground nesting, another thing that helps them is providing areas of soft ground, not heavily mulched with bark chips, or other thick mulches; just compost suits them best.

Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Greater Bee Fly (Bombylius major) April 29, 2021 Greater Bee fly
Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Greater Bee Fly (Bombylius major), April 29, 2021