This year we have had a very cold spring, and most plants and wildflowers are way behind their normal growth levels, but yet again the humble and resilient Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)has saved the day.
Dandelions can flower all year, but in April they absolutely explode into blooming and our environment and our food depends on the fact that the massive amounts of pollen produced by the dandelion blooming sustain vital pollinating insects at a time that would otherwise be a crisis for them, and then result in a crisis for us. In fact, I believe we should have a dandelion festival every year to celebrate this most important of all spring wildflowers. This is my video dedicated to the dandelion:
Above is one of our rarest pollinators, the Tawny Mining Bee (Andrena fulva) and this species also depends heavily on the dandelion for pollen, especially as this bee emerges in late March and flies mostly in April, and to a lesser degree in May, before dying off by early June and not being seen again until the following spring.
However, big bumblebees depend on them too, like this huge Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris). Let’s celebrate the dandelions. They deserve it.
From the beginning of this weekend until the end of the next weekend is Heritage Week here in Ireland, so there is plenty on. The emphasis is often a little too much on cultural heritage, so make sure you experience some natural heritage yourself. This month is a great time to see nature, and at the moment butterflies are putting on magnificent displays in the gardens all around Wicklow. To help beginners with identifications and to showcase the creatures themselves, here’s a little video showing you just what’s out there, or even in your garden:
As promised, a few words and photos about the Tawny Mining Bee, Andrena fulva. The first time this species was recorded in Ireland was 1927, in Kilkenny. But last year another, also an individual bee, was found in the same area, and it became only the second recorded in Ireland. But this species has been in my garden here in Wicklow for at least a number of years, I just didn’t know it was so rare in Ireland. And furthermore, there were loads of them, and they had dug hundreds of nests all over an aerated area of the lawn.
Only two weeks ago nesting Tawny Mining Bees were discovered in Kilkenny, so it is definitely a resident species. At the moment the National Biodiversity Data Centre is looking for any reports they can get of this bee, especially of nests. So here is a little bit about them.
Firstly, look out for their mines. There are a number of different species of mining bee found throughout Europe, and in Ireland, but none looks quite like the Tawny, and none builds nests exactly like it either. Firstly, the female bee is like a very small bumblebee, and her nest is basically a 2 cm high by 4 or 5 cm wide cone like a miniature volcano. The hole at the top is 1 cm wide. Most other mining bees are much smaller as are their nests.
If you have Berberus in your garden you are especially likely to have these bees, as they love Berberus blossom, which is due to open soon. Now, there are a number of mining bee species around, and another that also makes a volcano-like cone is the closely-related Andrena haemorrhoa. This bee is smaller than the Tawny Mining Bee, and the female has special hairs on her hind legs for collecting pollen, but which look like cowboy chaps.
One of the most interesting things about solitary bees (bees that don’t live in colonies) is that almost every species is targeted by a special parasite, a “cuckoo bee”. There are many different species and types of cuckoo bee, and like the cuckoo bird, they lay their eggs in the nests of their host species. But, most importantly, the larvae of the cuckoo bee eat the larvae of the hosts. Mining bees are usually parasitised by very small, wasp-like bees of the Nomada family. These bees are becoming rare across Europe due to pesticide use, but they are still thriving in Wicklow.