Feather-footed bee

by Richard Jones

There's something buzzing around the grape hyacinths. It's a fat, furry brown bee and it's being very animated.

Richard JonesThere's something buzzing round the grape hyacinths. It's a fat, furry brown bee and it's being very animated. I love these insects and get a real buzz myself seeing them each year, because they're one of the true heralds of spring. Anthophora plumipes is not a bumblebee (although it's about the same size), and has no commonly used English name, which is a shame because it's a characteristic and widespread garden insect. I've always described it as the 'feather-footed bee' (the Latin - plumipes - is an apt descriptor here), but I've also seen 'hairy-footed bee' and 'flower bee'.

Only the males have the feathery feet - the middle pair - but I've never been able to find out what they use them for. The sexes are easy to tell apart without having to examine hairy legs, and it's the males that I've been seeing for the last couple of weeks, with their pale brown thorax and dark brown abdomen. The females are jet black, except for their back legs, which are bright orange with the hairs they use to collect pollen.

Both males and females are much quicker on the wing than bumblebees, zipping about at top speed between bursts of exceptionally accurate hovering. They also have a distinctive high-pitched whining buzz when they are flying. Often a bunch of males will relentlessly pursue a lone female trying to go about her business of nectar and pollen gathering.

The females make small tunnel nests in loose mortar, so old garden walls are better than new. I've no idea where they can be nesting round here, but someone must be less up-to-date with their repointing than most of my neighbours.

The first female I've seen (last Thursday) was also at the grape hyacinths, but then turned her attention to a twisted wrought-iron garden ornament. No place to nest in there, though.

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Gardeners' World Web User 14/04/2007 at 12:13

The small mammal referred to could be a vole, possibly a field or bank vole

Gardeners' World Web User 11/04/2008 at 12:02

I was sitting in the garden on Monday, enjoying a brief bout of sunshine, and watching the antics of one of those little creatures. I have always assumed they were bumblebees - so thanks for the info. There are certainly lots of places to nest in our garden!!

Gardeners' World Web User 13/04/2008 at 09:10

I get these insects on my grape hyacinths too and didn't know that they are not bumblebees. I am doing a member's experiment for Garden Organic to help establish a survey of the bee population in the UK so I need to be careful when I next spot it. I am still learning, I guess, but thanks for the info. They are lovely to watch and cheer me up.

Gardeners' World Web User 14/04/2008 at 17:17

Hi,I'm hoping someone can help me. I just took over an allotment just recently and I have come across some bees in the ground. Can anyone offer me some advice? Do I leave them there or do I have them removed? If they are beneficial I'd rather not disturb them unnecessarily. But they are where I wanted to plant my potatoes!!!! Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Gardeners' World Web User 15/04/2008 at 09:10

Hi Kate, if the bees are bumblebees they could be endangered, so I wouldn't try and move them. It's unfortunate that they've moved in to your potato patch, but they'll be really beneficial to your crops in the long term, being on hand to pollinate flowers and increase your yields.

You could try to encourage them to move elsewhere by buying or making a bumblebee nest box, adding some cut grass and moss to it, and placing it nearby, under a hedge or alternative sheltered place.

You could also visit the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, which has plenty of advice on identifying bumblebees and encouraging them to visit your garden, as well as how to make a nesting box. I hope this helps, Kate.

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