Thursday, 30 April 2015

Bombyliid fly

This strange-looking insect is a bombyliid fly or large bee-fly (Bombylius major).  Despite its fearsome appearance it is harmless (to us) and the long proboscis is used for sipping nectar.

The bee-fly is not harmless to solitary bees and wasps, however, because it is a parasite.  It is a bee mimic so that it can get close to bees and their nests.  The female bee-fly flicks her eggs into or near the nest of a solitary bee or solitary wasp and the larvae that hatch eat the food stored in the nest as well as the bee or wasp larvae.

When I saw hairy-footed flower bees in The Alnwick Garden the other day I noticed bee-flies were taking nectar from the same flowers at the same time, illustrating how good the mimicry is, to our eyes at least.  This is a large bee-fly

And this is a male hairy-footed flower bee.  

I presume that hairy-footed flower bees are unwitting hosts of bee-flies.  They are also parasitised by the cuckoo bee Melecta albifrons but I didn't see any of those.  Maybe they aren't found this far north (yet!).

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Hairy-footed flower bee

This was a surprise.  The hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes) Is mainly found in the south of England, where it is a common solitary bee at this time of year.  I noticed a group of all black bees, looking like small bumblebees, in the walled garden at The Alnwick Garden.  They all had yellow or orange back legs, although some were carrying pollen, and they were being chased by smaller, brown-coloured bees.  I took a few photos (difficult as they move so fast) and when I got home was able to confirm that these were hairy-footed flower bees.  The Alnwick population has been noted recently and seems to be a northern outlier compared with the normal range of this bee.

This is the female who is all black apart from orange back legs which look yellow when carrying pollen.

And this is the male who is smaller and has white facial hairs like many male solitary bees.

Here you can see why it is called the hairy-footed flower bee (hairy-legged might be more accurate).

Hairy-footed flower bees have a louder and higher-pitched buzz than bumblebees and move noticeably faster when foraging.  They usually nest in old walls but also in cliffs and banks.  They have long tongues and prefer deep-throated flowers such as pulmonaria (lungwort) as seen here in Alnwick.

For really good pictures of the hairy-footed flower bee see Ed Phillips' photos here and Stephen Falk's photos here.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Nest box camera update 4

It is now four weeks since the blue tit started building the nest and it looks more or less complete.  She has been very busy this afternoon bringing in feathers and other soft stuff and rearranging things.

Last night she slept in the box for the first time.  I can't remember any of the previous birds doing that until all or all but one of the eggs were laid.

Sometimes the male follows the female into the box to feed her a spider but otherwise he leaves all the work to her.

I think it is probable that the first egg will be laid in the next few days.  Regular updates will appear on the "Nestbox camera 2015" page accessed via the tab above.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Bird of the week - Stock dove

The stock dove is another pigeon with a puzzling scientific name - Columba oenas.  Columba is Latin for pigeon and oinas is Greek for pigeon so there was perhaps a certain lack of imagination.  "Stock" in the common name derives from an old word for stump or tree and they do nest in holes in trees.

Stock doves are fairly common birds but probably often overlooked because of their superficial similarity to feral pigeons (which are descended from rock doves).  They are fixtures in my garden and in recent weeks have been here half dozen at a time.  They are very fond of nyger seed and are usually found under the nyger seed feeder.  Males and females are similar in appearance (see here for a comparison) but easy to tell apart at present as the males are chasing the females.

The overall English population has been fairly stable in recent years after recovering from poisoning by insecticides used in the 50s and 60s.
The Bird Atlas shows that the North East of England is one of the regions showing a strong recent increase in the population (blue dots on this map).

You can watch a BTO video on identification here and listen to Kate Humble's BBC Tweet of the Day here.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Cross-eyed woodpecker

This guy hit the kitchen window with a tremendous bang this afternoon.  When I went out to investigate I wasn't expecting to find anything alive but he was.  A magpie had heard the bang and was showing an unhealthy interest so I picked him up to keep him safe.  He was completely stunned and only semiconscious but had no obvious major injury.  I checked also that he wasn't ringed.

It took about half an hour before he was really with it.  He was happily sat on my finger without seeming to realise I was there and then another woodpecker called very close by and he suddenly flew up to the top of a tree.  Let's hope he's OK and will be back in early June with his chicks for more photos.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

The Hole-in-the-Wall Gang

This is a fascinating story.  Behind this mud plug in the stone wall of the house are several red mason bees, ready to emerge.  They have been there for ten months with one or two males nearest the exit and the females behind.  Red mason bees are solitary bees and overwinter as pupae within this hole - all the adults died off last summer.  (Honey bees overwinter as a colony and bumblebees as hibernating queens.)

Last May the female bee took over this old screw hole for a trellis and laid a series of eggs, each in its own compartment provisioned with pollen and nectar and walled off from the next by mud brought in from nearby.

The female has two horns on her face to help with moving the mud, hence the name Osmia bicornis (previously Osmia rufa).

This is the male, with longer antennae and a narrower waist, looking for a mate. 

Not a great photo but here is the female bringing in a mouthful of mud to seal the hole.

and here is the hole as she left it.

This year I am hoping to tempt the solitary bees (including red mason bees in spring and leaf-cutter bees and others in summer) to take up residence in this purpose built solitary bee house.

This compartment contains a drilled out log (8mm holes) and raspberry canes.

This one contains a variety of plant stems and grass stems of different diameters.

This contains a small log and drilled out bamboo canes.

This one has a larger log with holes of various sizes and other plant stems.

On the side I have made a perspex-sided observation site with 8mm grooves where I hope to be able to photograph the bees.

This is a separate small bee house containing tubes of rolled up brown paper.

It will be interesting to see if the bees take to these houses.  The red mason bees should emerge in the next few days. Last year they caught me by surprise but this year I am ready for them.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Nest box camera update 3

This is the state of play after three weeks.  It has been an eventful week with a serious take over bid from a pair of tree sparrows last Tuesday and Wednesday.  One tree sparrow was in the box looking round on at least two occasions but the blue tits are still in possession.  I know one shouldn't take sides in this situation but I am pleased the blue tits won.  There are tree sparrows in at least half a dozen other boxes.

The nest will be top right as we look at it and the female blue tit is in and out of the box very frequently, sorting out the material and often not bringing in anything new.  Sometimes she takes bits of moss or straw out again.  The nest space still has to be lined - probably with moss and feathers.  She doesn't roost in the nest at present and usually won't do so until more or less all the eggs have been laid.

More frequent updates are posted on the "Nestbox camera 2015" page via the tab at the top of this page.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Bird of the week - Collared dove

The collared dove has a strange scientific name Streptopelia decaocto.  Streptos is Greek for collar and pelia means dove, which is fair enough, but decaocto is eighteen.  This is supposed to sound like the call but it sounds to us much more like rather disheartened Newcastle fans calling "Un-it-ed Un-it-ed" after five consecutive defeats.  The name was chosen by Linnaeus, who was Swedish and the Swedish for eighteen is aderton so I wonder if that is how the name originated. 

Collared doves are now a common sight in gardens.  They first bred in England 60 years ago (when a young twitcher, Bill Oddie, went to Norfolk to see them) and there are now a million breeding pairs!  This shows the population increase over the last 40 years.

The population density map shows they are predominantly birds of England and of lowland and urban areas.
Read more about collared doves here and here.  Listen to Sir David Attenborough's BBC Tweet of the Day here.