In praise of my plum tree

9 March 2013

9 March 2013

The blossom is just about finished and the green leaf shoots are starting to appear.

Plum tree in bloom

Plum tree in bloom

The first flowers opened on the ninth of February.

25 February 2013

25 February 2013

And despite the snow it has continued to welcome masses of bees, butterflies and other insects to feed on its pollen and nectar.

Peacock butterfly

Peacock butterfly

Even at this time when the blossom is coming to an end I love to be underneath it surrounded by its bitter almond perfume and feel the petals raining like confetti around me.

This year I have passed more time than usual under its branches as for the first time I noticed little mounds of soil like tiny mole hills.  As I stared into the tiny hole I thought I could see a pair of eyes staring back at me.

Miniature molehill and occupant

Miniature molehill and occupant

I had been putting up man-made bee houses to attract solitary bees into the garden so that I could watch them and here were a group at home under the plum tree.

They take a long time to come out of the hole if you sit beside them with a camera but although I had an idea of what they might be I wanted to get some photographs for identification.

Emerging from nest

Emerging from nest

To the naked eye the female bee looks very similar to a honey bee but from the nesting pattern I think they are Halictus scabiosae.

Mining bee arriving

Mining bee arriving

I saw this one arriving near where I was poised with my camera (pointing at another hole!)

Entering the nest

Entering the nest

Here she goes down into her nest.  There are at least ten nests closely associated under the plum tree and I have marked them with plastic plant name tags so I don’t stand on them.  I can’t find a great deal out about their life cycle but the females overwinter and start new nests in the spring.  They have queens which found the nest and lay the first eggs which develop into workers whose functions are similar to the honey bees; helping the queen lay eggs which later in the season will produce males and more females who will leave the nest to found colonies the following season.  So I should have these bees all summer.

Bee on speedwell

Bee on speedwell

Another surprise this week was that I saw bees gathering nectar from blue speedwell (Veronica spp) it is a pretty weed but much too small to be of use to bees, I had thought.  Pressing a ruler against the flower head so that it is flat, it measures one centimetre in diameter.

Impressive pollen sacs

Impressive pollen sacs

In this photograph the stripy abdomen is similar to the Halictus.  The pollen sacs are not as feathery as I would have expected but I wonder if this depends on what they are collecting.

1-IMG_5464That’s one happy bee!

Pussy willow stamens

Pussy willow stamens

Just as the plum tree’s blossom draws to an end, the willow at the bottom of the garden puts forth its yellow stamens.  Just as the buzzing in the plum tree diminishes day by day, the buzzing heightens from the willow tree.  The willow tree is much higher so I have to appreciate its visitors from afar.

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37 thoughts on “In praise of my plum tree

  1. As I look outside at the morning of persistent drizzle, which followed a snowy night, which itself followed a day and a half of rain, I draw great comfort firm the fact that Spring is at least getting closer!
    Mark Little

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  2. Fascinating to see what all the bees are up to. I don’t think I have ever seen a bee emerge from the ground. My bees are very busy in the thyme flowers and the rocket flowers. The days are still warm but the leaves are starting to change to autumnal tones.

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  3. Your plum tree is gorgeous. I used to have bees living in my cacti and succulent pots in the greenhouse. They didn’t do any damage that I could see but I did feel bad when it came to watering them. Dave

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  4. I have seen little mounds like these in my garden, and we have lots of solitary bees in the garden. Your plum is so far ahead of mine which is only just coming into flower. Christina

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    • Keep your eyes on the little mounds, its fascinating to see the bees pop in and out. I think the plum is a particularly early variety, like the wild types around here. The fruit is not large but good for eating and cooking and it gives a heavy crop.

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    • It could be. My photographs are not sharp enough but I thought I saw the two tone stripe of H. scabiosae on the abdomen. I know they are around as I have taken photographs of the male last autumn. The male is a beautiful bee. I could kick myself as there was a tiny “wasp” exploring the nests and entering for a short period. I meant to post the photo in case you had an idea what it was. I forgot.

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      • Not everything that hangs around will be an endoparasite. Sometimes they are kleptoparasites, just looking for a free feed, but not killing or even entering the host’s body. Not everything hanging around will be other hymenoptera either. Leucophora spp flies are fairly obvious snoopers (once you are looking!) around bee holes, and known as satellite flies for their habit of tailgating a target bee back to the nest. They will lay their eggs in the bee’s nest and their larvae will eat the waste products in the nest. They are the size of a small house fly, and similar in appearance.

        I wouldn’t describe Nomades or Sphegodes as tiny — they are smaller than their hosts, but not much. They look completely different though — not hairy and more colourful. Anyway, they won’t be out quite yet. They need to wait for the female hosts to be egg laying.

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  5. Colletes cunicularius is another possibility, and I’m wondering if all these photos are of the same species in fact. The Colletes is also parasitised, by a Sphecodes, so it is definitely worth keeping an eye on nesting activity and any tailgating by one species of another. With your superb observational skills, I’m sure you will come up with something 🙂

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    • I have just found another nest in a different part of the garden but this time on its own in a grassy part which seems strange. I have a better picture this time and I must admit this one doesn’t look like H. scabiosae

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  6. How wonderful to be seeing so much green-ness with flowers and bees. I feel like I live in a polar region when I read all those blogs about spring.

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  7. Got done shoveling the drive, then went for a walk in 25 deg (F) weather. A stiff northern wind was blowing, making it all just perfect.

    We’re a couple of months away from that, but thanks for giving me a glimpse.

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  8. Lovely stuff! I like that you marked the nests to avoid stepping on them.

    Are you sure you have been reading the correct info about the bees? The life cycle you describe sounds more like that of bumbles. My ‘Bees of the World’ book by Christopher O’Toole and Anthony Raw has a whole chapter on mining bees, which I think you would enjoy – they have all sorts of techniques to make their burrows waterproof and preserve their larvae’s food underground. O’Toole and Raw say that the vast majority of mining bees are solitary, although a few make communal nests.

    Most of the mining bee species work alone, each female mining down around 60cm below to form tunnels ending in a cell where she collects pollen balls, one per cell. When the pollen ball is complete, she lays an egg on it and seals off the cell with a plug of soil, before leaving. The deepest solitary bee nest ever recorded was found in Colombia and was at least 8ft 4in deep – probably the work of a number of generations of bees.

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    • I was commenting on the nesting behaviour of H. scabiosae which I have not positively identified. I got my info from a paper “Trade-off between foraging activity and infestation by nest parasites in the primitively eusocial bee Halictus scabiosae “Lienhard Andrea1, Mirwald Lea1, Hötzl Thomas1, Kranner Ilse2, Kastberger Gerald”, 2009. I agree the behaviour is similar to bumble bees and the differences in their nesting behaviour is fascinating. The Colletes live in aggregations but they have no worker bees. The weather has to improve before I get a chance to see them foraging again and I have to get some better shots to identify them or see some of their parasites following them. I have spotted another nest on its own and I think it may be Dasypoda hirtipes, once again I have seen this in the summer. If you ever come across a good book on solitary bees (not just bumbles) I would be interested to hear about it. I still have found no one in this area interested in solitary bees.

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      • Sorry for doubting your sources! I should have known better. Your garden is obviously a haven for all sorts of unusual bees.

        The ‘Bees of the World’ book by Christopher O’Toole and Anthony Raw that I mentioned above is the best book I’ve come across on solitary bees. I have another beautifully illustrated book that’s all about the different bees and wasps that exist, but in the UK only. It’s so old that it charmingly refers to bumble bees by their historical name of ‘humble bees’.

        You’re probably familiar with the British Bees, Wasps & Ants Recording Society website (www.bwars.com)? That has all sorts of useful information. Perhaps there is a French equivalent?

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        • Thanks for that. BWARS is great but I was wondering if I could get my hands on something more detailed and a paper book is still good for reference. I’ll check out your Bees of the World. Europe would be ideal. You can get so much on butterflies but solitary bees are more of a problem. I know you’ll keep me in mind if you come across anything. Amelia

          On Sun, Mar 17, 2013 at 8:33 AM, a french garden

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    • Our winter has been longer and much wetter than usual. I am hoping that the up side of this will be that I will see a lot more wild flowers as we have had several very dry years and I think this wet spell will bring up things we don’t see every year.

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