Blackthorn blossom glistens in the bright sunlight and bare branches are beginning to show the first signs of foliage as they sway gently in the spring breeze here at RSPB Sandwell. There's the tiniest of blue tits perched on a branch outside the office window, ruffling his feathers as the spring rain showers across the valley. Come rain, come shine, our volunteers and visitors are enjoying spotting all the different signs of the changing seasons and new growth is appearing all the time: tiny clusters of white snowdrops, blackthorn blossom, vibrant daffodils and little yellow and purple crocus too. Birds tweet and call to one another from high treetops and in the flowerbeds a variety of bees begin their daily pollinating routine.
Thanks to some unseasonably mild weather earlier on in the year we've been seeing more and more of our buzzing friends beginning to emerge across the reserve. One of our volunteers photographed the first mining bee at our Bee Bank next to the Hide - a male Andrena Clarkella or Clarks Mining Bee. Male solitary bees are usually the first to emerge after winter.
As we move into April there will be more bees appearing such as hairy-footed bees, which may look like bumble bees but they are in fact super furry solitary bees. You might have heard them referred to as chimney bees due to the sooty black fur of the females. These hairy-footed bees will make a loud sound whilst feeding on flowers such as lungwort (also known as pulmonaria). Lungwort can usually be found outside the visitor centre and is a semi-evergreen perennial with coloured petals that can vary from pink to blue.
You might also spot the tawny mining bee, which has only been recorded once at RSPB Sandwell Valley back in 2015 and hasn't been seen since! Hopefully all this warm weather will bring them back onto the reserve. Female tawny mining bees have dark orange fur and like to make their nests in loose soil. They're one of the most common urban bees so you might even see them in your garden at home.
We're hoping to see Queen bumblebees and Queen wasps soon having emerged from their winter hibernation. Did you know a bumblebee can survive temperatures as low as -19 degrees? Once awakened by the weather the Queens will usually look for a place to start a nest, which can vary from old rodent holes to compost heaps.
Two other types of bee that have been spotted on the reserve recently are furrow bees (also known as slender mining bees) and nomad bees (also known as cuckoo bees). Our work party was quite excited at having discovered the latter last week whilst doing some conservation work. Nomad bees look more like wasps and bees with their yellow and black striped abdomens, and they lay their eggs inside the nests of other bees rather than digging their own! Nomad bees can often be seen feeding on small flowers such as dandelions, forget-me-knots and buttercups.
early nomad bee
Some species of bee like to nest underground whereas other species like to nest above ground in trees and sometimes even in bird boxes. Last year we had a hornet's nest in one of the oldest oak trees on the reserve. (You can read more about this story here).
Another insect you might see at this time of year is the dark-edged bee fly - which is not actually a bee although it shares the name and does look like one from a distance. However, if you look at one closely you'll notice the differences. Like a normal bee the dark-edged bee fly has a furry body, but it also has patterned wings that are a dark colour on the rim and a very long proboscis for drinking nectar. Dark-edged bee flies can usually be seen during the spring and love gardens, woodlands and flowers such as primrose and violet.
dark-edged bee fly
What signs of spring have you spotted so far this year?
- The Team at RSPB Sandwell Valley
Photography credit: Wali Taylor
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