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"A Nature Observer′s Scrapbook"

Bees, Wasps, Ichneumons and Ants

Tawny mining bee (f) Tawny mining bee (mine)

Tawny mining bee

Andrena fulva

There are some 60 species of Andrena mining bees in the UK. One of the most colourful is the female Andrena fulva with her thorax covered in rich russet hair and her abdomen banded in burnt orange. The males on the other hand are much more representative of their common name, having a tawny thorax and a paler abdomen. They are also smaller, slimmer and have white hair on the face.

Their mines can be found in areas of sandy soil and are easily recognised by the volcano shaped mounds of excavated material topped by pencil diameter sized holes. They often choose to do their mining in grassy lawns and cause some concern about children being stung in the foot. But their 'sting' is very weak and not able to penetrate so they are incapable of causing harm.

These are 'solitary' bees, so it is a case of one female to one hole in the ground. Each hole is the entrance tunnel to an underground nursery of several individual cells branching off from the main tunnel. The female will stock each cell with pollen and nectar for a single larva that will remain underground until emerging next spring. Each female will prepare many such nursery cells to ensure the future of the species. In order to prevent loose soil particles falling into the tunnel the top few centimetres are solidified by fluid produced by the female. But when the nursey is completed the entrance hole will be plugged to deter intruders.

Early in the season they obviously have to take advantage of whatever happens to be in flower (as evidenced by the female in the upper image on a dandelion) but, from May onwards they are recognised as a principal pollinator of current bushes and fruit trees and should be seen very much as the gardener's friend.

12.04.2005Suddenly aware of much activity in front garden.
27.04.2006Mining activity starts 2 weeks later this year.
28.04.2008Female, first of the year, seen around Pulmonaria in back garden.
10.04.2009First females of the year, seen around Pulmonaria in back garden.

Andrena nigroaenea agg. Andrena nigroaenea female Andrena nigroaenea male

No common name

Andrena nigroaenea

With over 60 different Andrena species in the UK the bee in the upper image could be one of several very similar species. I assume that it is Andrena nigroaenea because it was found in the same location and at the same time of year as the two specimens seen below - which have been positively identified by microscopic examination. Hopefully this demonstrates that one cannot always rely on photographs for identification of similar looking species. Sometimes images are suffixed with the term 'agg.', indicating that they are representative of an aggregate group of similar species.

Like the Tawny Mining bee (above), these are solitary ground nesting bees, excavating deep tunnels in sandy soil and pushing the spoil to the surface to form little mounds. Every so often a side chamber will be dug out to accommodate one larva. This will be provisioned with a paralysed insect on which an egg is laid. The chamber is then sealed, before the female moves on to create the next chamber.

Nest building can be a protracted business as it is influenced by the weather. Cold or wet spells will cause the bees to become dormant. But the first dry sunny day will usually see activity start up again.

The egg is left to hatch and the larva, a white grub, will develop in isolation, feeding on the food provided for it. When mature, the larva pupates and will remain underground until the following spring when the bee will emerges from the pupa and instinctively breaks open the chamber wall and makes its way to the surface.

As in many insect species the females are larger and more robust than the males. They have more hair on their bodies and legs and consequently appear more colourful. The males have a tuft of longer pale facial hair between the eyes, are slimmer and in sunlight their abdomen appears to be shiny dark brown.

These bees are very active but not at all aggressive and can be very interesting to watch.

12 to 24.04.2005 Males and females much in evidence around sandy soil.
13.04.2008 A bright sunny day and many bees actively nest building in grass and flower borders.
31.03.2009 Warm sunny day and suddenly bees much in evedience around last years territory. Several small exit holes seen and one freshly excavated mound.
01.04.2009 What a difference a day makes. We now have hundreds of nest mounds in the sandy soil of the lawn and flower borders.
28.03.2010 Warm sunny day and first emergent A. nigroaenea seen sleepily wandering about, grooming itself and taking a tentative first flight.
01.04.2010 The lawn is now alive with activity and hundreds of mounds.
13.04.2012 First activity of the year after a wet and chilly start to April. Numbers not as good as in the past.

Nomada goodeniana, top view Nomada goodeniana, underside Nomada goodeniana, front view Nomada goodeniana, wing venation

no common name

Nomada goodeniana

Despite it's rather wasplike appearance, Nomada goodeniana is a true bee. It will usually be found closely associating with Andrena ground nesting bees - for the very good reason that it indulges in cleptoparasitism.

Instead of digging its own underground nest site, the female Nomada goodeniana waits until an Andrena female has excavated a nest tunnel and has provisioned a nest cell with pollen for her larva. This will take many pollen gathering trips and the Nomada female will take advantage of the Andrena's absence to visit the cell and lay her own egg in it.

I was able to watch Nomada females land close to Andrena nigroaenea nest entrance tunnels and apparently 'sniff' the tunnel to check whether there was either an 'owner' at home or, an open pollen stocked cell available.

Eventually, when the cell has been stocked with pollen, the Andrena will lay her own egg on it and seal the cell. The sequence of events there after is uncertain but at some stage the Nomada larva will dispose of the Andrena larva and then pupate to emerge the following Spring.

The rather vicious looking jaws seen in the third image are required to break out of the nest cell wall.

Having thus taken all the time consuming hard work out of preparing a nest site, the successful regeneration of the Nomada goodeniana species can take place in a fairly short time span and the adult bees are unlikely to be seen outside the months of April to June.

22.04.2009 Four specimens seen inspecting Andrena nigroaenea nest entrance tunnels.
23.04.2010 Females again seen parasitising Andrena nigroaenea nests.

Nomada sp (flava?)

a 'Cuckoo' bee

Nomada sp. (flava?)

Yes, it does look like a wasp, doesn't it. But no, its a cleptoparasitic Cuckoo bee, the likes of which preys on mining bees like the one above. Notice that the thorax is covered in short hair which is not a common feature in wasps.

There are several Nomada species which look confusingly similar and short of doing DNA analysis, a post mortem or peering at their cheeky bits at very close quarters, it would be foolish for an amateur to attempt a positive identification. Suffice to say that it 'could' be Nomada flava which is known to predate on the Tawny mining bee above - so, since they were both found in the same area, there is some circumstantial support for the suggested identification.

The female Nomada enters the underground nest of the mining bee and lays her egg, cuckoo fashion, in the prepared nest. I have read a report which suggests that the male Nomada sprays the female during mating with the scent of the mining bee therefore making the female 'acceptable' in the mining bees nest.

It was noticeable that these cuckoo bees were quite 'macho' around the Prunus laurocerasus flowers, chasing off other bees and insects which happened to get in their way.

They are most commonly on the wing from April to June, which is a bit early for the true wasp population.

04.05.2005 Found on the evergreen 'cherry laurel' flowers by pondside.

Nomada species

no common name

Nomada sp (striata?)

Although there is not much of a family resemblance to the previous species, it has been suggested that this is another member of the Nomada genus of cleptoparasitic bees.

This is a numerous group and precise identification is very difficult without close microscopic examination. Of the similar looking species, N. striata is suggested purely on distribution map data.

These are solitary insects which lay their eggs in the nests of other bees to be reared by the host - cuckoo fashion.

24.05.2005 Found on nettles.

Red-tailed bumblebee

Red-tailed bumblebee

Bombus lapidarius

When I first found this large bee clambering on coarse vegetation by a ditch, I assumed that it had just emerged from pupation and had not yet stretched its wings. But a couple of hours later, it was still in the same area - with its wings still in the same waxy, crumpled state.

Compassion took over. I offered it a teaspoonful of honey and water mix - and it scoffed the lot. That gave me the chance to see it's long, strong black tongue in action lapping up the liquid.

So, now what? One can hardly take a wingless bee to the vet, so I fell back on the theory, 'let Nature take care of its own'. Next day it was nowhere to be found and in its flightless state it wouldn't have got far.

A chat with a bee-keeper revealed that this mal-formed wing condition is not as rare a condition as one might imagine. But the reason we don't come across it often in the wild, is that it is Nature's way for the weak and vulnerable to be the first to succumb to predators. No room for sentiment in Nature.

........... Or, was my act of kindness the wrong diet at the wrong time. Should one simply not intrude at all and let Mother Nature get on with things in her own inimitable way?
She has certainly coped pretty well, so far.

04.08.2003 Found on coarse vegetation by a ditch.

Vespula germanica queen Vespula germanica queen V germanica worker

German wasp

Vespula germanica

This is one of the social wasps which build football shaped nests of wood pulp paper which can contain hundreds, even thousands of egg cells. Some species suspend their nests from branches or overhead beams but this particular species builds underground, initially taking over an old mouse hole or similar cavity, before excavating a considerable chamber - up to a foot across, to house the colony.

The fertilised queen (upper two images) will overwinter and will start to build the nest on her own in the spring, laying an egg as each cell is completed. Within a few weeks the first workers, all females, will start to hatch and will take over the building duties allowing the queen to concentrate on laying all those hundreds, thousands of eggs in a few short months. It will be mid to late summer before male wasps will be produced.

As the underground nest grows in size (the one I found was at the base of a flowering cherry tree), so it becomes necessary to excavate soil to accomodate it. The third image shows a worker leaving the nest with a soil ball, twice the size of her head, held between her mandibles. This will be deposited some distance from the nest site and the worker will return with wood pulp scraped from wooden fencing to make more paper for the nest material.

Wasps may also be seen carrying paralized flies, caterpillars, etc. back to the nest to feed the young grubs but, the adults favour a sweet diet for themselves and will take nectar, ripe fruit and, as we all know, picnic jam. They can become quite inebriated on fermenting apple juices.

As autumn draws on, the old queen, her faithful workers and the males will all die off leaving just a few young fertilised females to survive the winter as next year's queens.

There are several wasp species which tend to look superficially similar and the casual viewer is unlikely to distinguish between them - anything with yellow and black stripes is - a wasp! For those with the courage to look a wasp in the eye before swatting it, one of the key identification features are the facial markings.

Images two and three, showing three little black dots between the eyes, identify these wasps as either V, germanica or V. austriaca. We then have to look at the yellow marks at the rear of the thorax (upper image).
V. germanica has four, V. austriaca has two.

V germanica night guards

I always thought that wasps went to sleep at night. But the bottom image, taken with flash, clearly shows that these ones were still active at the nest site at 01.30hrs. Whether they were on normal routine guard duty or had come up for some fresh air on a warm night, I cannot say.

08.06.2005 20mm queen found indoors - not for long!
26.06.2005 Nest site located at foot of flowering cherry tree in paddock.
18.08.2005 Nest site still active at 01.30hrs
09.04.2008 A very sleepy queen, found in a shed, was released onto a hollow tree stump.

Common wasp Common wasp

Common wasp

Vespula vulgaris

The Common wasp is also a social species and mirrors the reproductive habits of the German wasp above.

It can be quite difficult to distinguish between these two species. The abdomen markings, although markedly different in the two species featured here, can be quite variable and are not a safe identification feature.

However, the females of the two species do exhibit distinct facial markings - if you are prepared to look them straight in the eye! The Common wasp has a prominent dark 'anchor' mark between its eyes, whereas the German wasp has three small dots.

The markings on the males can be more variable and it is often difficult to positively identify them.

The young queen pictured right was found on a mild February day, presumably having just awakened from hibernation. She was a bit slow and unsteady on her feet for a while but gradually became more active and positive before flying off.

Common wasp's underground nest

The large pear shaped nest, seen on the right, was dug out of a compost heap after the occupants started to become aggresive in late July. It measured 330mm in diameter by 380mm tall and was accessed through a 100mm entrance tunnel 60mm wide. 'Quite a substantial structure and yet incredibly light weight.

I had intended to slice it open to see the internal structure but the intricate thin walled honeycomb construction seemed so delicate that I'm sure the whole thing would have just crumbled away.

Common wasp larva

As it was, parts of the outer wall were damaged and some of the fumigated occupants fell out. Amongst them was the 12mm immature larva shown on the right. Unlike many insect larvae that have to fend for themselves from birth, the larvae of the social bees and wasps are quite helpless at this stage and rely on constant care and feeding from the worker population.

07.10.2005 Tired specimen found dying on indoor window ledge.
13.02.2006 Young queen found stretching her legs on a mild day
05.03.2006 After a week of freezing weather, warm sun lured out another young queen.
25.03.2008 Queen found on window in warm sunshine.
31.07.2009 Large nest removed from garden compost heap.

Potter wasp at nest. Potter wasp at nest. Potter wasp's pot.

'Potter wasp'

    ......... or Gymnomerus species ?

This wasp, one of a great many 'solitary wasps', had constructed a very thin walled tube of mud in the crevice of the pointing between two bricks on the house wall.

The upper image captures the moment that I first saw her, working away head down in her nesting 'pot'. Based on what happened next, I presume that she had placed a paralized grub or insect within the cell, because she eventually backed out (second image), turned around and reversed back into the 'pot' tail first. I presume again, that this was to accomplish the act of ovipositing an egg on the food source.

She then flew off and I would guess that her next task would be to seal the cell with a plug of mud and to prepare another nest cell. Although I waited some 40 minutes, I did not see her return.

However, two days later (lower image) the nest had been increased in height, capped off and given a second external coat of reinforcing mud all round.

The upper image shows that the abdomen is 50% black with one thin yellow band just behind the thorax and then four thin yellow bands on the terminal abdominal segments.

There are a number of very similarly marked wasps and short of microscopic examination it is well nigh impossible to positively identify individual specimens. However, it has been suggested that from the shape and position of the nest, this may 'possibly' be a Gymnomerus species.

20.06.2005 Nest found about 1m above ground in the pointing of the house wall, facing east.
03.11.2005 Surprisingly, at this time of year, the capping of the nest has been holed - by predators perhaps? The hole is hardly big enough for an emerging potter or a parasitising RubyTail.

Ruby-tail wasp Ruby-tail wasp

Ruby-tail wasp

'Chrysis ignita' group species

One might have thought that a colourful insect like this might have been easy to identify but, as with the species above, there are several different species which look very similar so, it is convenient to classify them as belonging to the group of which 'Chrysis ignita' is the most common.

This is a parasitic wasp and it parasitises the potter wasp above. I was able to watch two of these metallically coloured red and green wasps patiently wait until the potter had flown off, and then quite leisurely take turns to enter the potter's nest head first, turn around inside the 'pot' (they are only about half the size of the potter), and with head just level with the pot's entrance, and much twitching of their antennae, presumably lay their own egg along side the potter's egg.

Whereas the 'potter' grub would feed on the food source that the female had provided, the Ruby-tail grubs will feed on the 'potter' larvae.

20.06.2005 Watched two specimens parasitise a potter wasp's nest by the house front door.
22.06.2006 First sighting of the year of 1 wasp in back garden.
29.05.2008 First sighting of the year of 1 wasp in back garden.

Ophion obscuratus. Ophion obscuratus - detail

Ichneumon species

Ophion obscuratus

The Ichneumons are parasitic insects within the diverse Order of Hymenoptera - diverse because it embraces sawflies, ants, bees and wasps. Ichneumons are often commonly referred to as wasps or flies.

There are several species within the Ophion genera that look very similar and identification in the field can be difficult. When viewed from above they have a long narrow reddish brown body but from a side view, the thin curved waist broadens out to a deep abdominal region. When positive identification is not possible, species are referred to as Ophion agg (indicating that they are members of the larger aggregate generic group).

Ophion obscuratus can be identified by the pale corners of the 'stigma' (the dark mark on the leading edge of the forewing) and the distinctive pale marks on the top of the thorax (lower image).

Members of the Ophion, and the similar looking Netelia genera, lay their eggs in the caterpillars of various Noctuid moths. Because of this, the females have no need for the long (often dangerous looking) ovipositors which many of the other Ichneumons need to reach deep seated wood boring larvae.

25.09.2006Attracted to light at backdoor.
07.10.2008Attracted to light at backdoor.

Ichneumon sarcitorius

Ichneumon species

Ichneumon sarcitorius

The vast majority of Ichneumon species can be very difficult to positively identify by sight alone. Microscopic examination is usually required for positive determination.

This is one of the exceptions. It has a unique combination of leg markings (left image), thorax and abdomen markings and wing venation (right image). Furthermore, the tip of the abdomen shows that this is a female. The male is slightly larger than the 12mm female and has slightly different markings.

Most ichneumon species are 'endoparasitic', ie, their eggs are laid on and develop in the larvae of other insects. This species parasitises the caterpillars of certain noctuid moths.

13.10.2007 Quietly sunning itself on a gate post.

Ichneumon suspiciosus ?

Ichneumon species

Ichneumon suspiciosus agg.

Like many Ichneumon species, this is a member of an aggregate group of very similar looking species (hence the 'agg.' suffix) that cannot be definitively identified without recourse to close microscopic scrutiny.

The yellow and black banded antennae and legs and an overall length of 15mm (excluding antennae) suggests that it might possibly be Ich. suspiciosus - or something similar!

It is an endoparasite of moth larvae. That is, the adult female ichneumon inserts an egg under the skin of a caterpillar and the resultant wasp larva will slowly develop internally within the caterpillar until the caterpillar enters pupation. The parasite will then enter its own pupation and, on completion of its metamorphosis, will be the sole adult insect to emerge.

This will take place in summer or autumn and the emergent adult will hibernate throughout the winter to fly again in spring coincident with the emegence of adult moths and the next generation of their caterpillars.

17.07.2007 Found on Salix caprea tree.

Lasius umbratus image

Ant, no common name

Lasius umbratus

I'm not sure what made me give this ant a second look. But, it didn't look quite right for the common black garden ant, Lasius niger. So I took its picture and sought advice.

Back came expert opinion that it was a wingless queen Lasius umbratus (it is just possible to see the scars where the wings were attached to the thorax, just behind the front legs). Since this species spends almost all of its life underground at the base of old trees and stumps, it is rarely seen.

Mating takes place in September and the queens then fly off, lose their wings and search for suitable new nest sites. So the opportunity to see them is quite short.

The new colonies will be set up in the nests of other Lasius species ants found around suitable tree stumps and boulders.

06.10.2007 Found 15m from old chestnut trees and a pile of fallen branches.

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