Discovering the abundance of wildlife in our gardens

A male hairy-footed flower bee

A male hairy-footed flower bee - Credit: Archant

Self-isolation naturally limits the opportunties open to a wildlife photographer - but look hard enough, and there’s plenty out there.

Flower bees are full of energy

Flower bees are full of energy - Credit: Archant

The pandemic sweeping across the world, the UK and Derbyshire is a terrible thing and one that will have touched the lives of all of us in many ways. By the end, the world will be a very different place and I hope we can celebrate and re-evaluate our relationship with those who have risked their lives and worked tirelessly to bring us through this difficult period.

Millions of us - myself and partner included - have had to self-isolate for many weeks. This period will have affected us all differently and many will have turned to hobbies and activities that we wouldn’t devote much, if any, time to; I suspect there will be thousands of incredibly tidy gardens for the first time in years.

Spring in isolation, and particularly because the weather was largely incredibly sunny, was difficult for me as a wildlife photographer. I should have been heading out each morning before dawn to work with singing birds on moors, woods and marshes. This is something I do every year and really look forward to during the dark days of winter.

However this was not possible, so my recourse became my garden. Not for the first time I was really glad I had planted nectar-rich plants over the last decade. March was fairly quiet in the air space over the flower borders but as April (without its showers) rolled in the activity levels and flight paths quickly filled up. I noticed many species but as a photographer I was drawn immediately to just two - dark-edged bee flies and hairy-footed flower bees. Both these species have flight patterns that gave me a good chance of in-flight images and both have body shapes that I just love. As an avid science fiction film fan, I imagined the insects as small spaceships heavily weaponised at their front ends - though in reality nothing could be further from the truth as both are entirely harmless to humans.

The dark-edged bee fly

The dark-edged bee fly - Credit: Archant

Dark-edged bee flies are exactly that, flies. However, they are also bee mimics, an adaptation that is designed to fool bees so they can lay their eggs in bee nests. They have delightfully round, fluffy bodies that really do make them look like a bumble bee. However, they only have one pair of wings (as all flies do) unlike true bees which have two pairs.

Their key feature, and one that can create a buzz of fear in observant humans, is that they have an incredibly long proboscis which resembles a huge needle sticking straight out of their heads. This fearsome-looking weapon is simply a long tube that allows the charming insect to probe for nectar deep inside flowers; a superb feeding adaptation.

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One other morphological (body shape) feature is that they have really long legs which dangle down as they fly. They use these legs to balance on the edge of a flower as they hover and use the long proboscis to probe for nectar. When seen sideways-on this really does make an incredibly delicate and beautiful image.

Bee-flies parasitise solitary bees. They lay their eggs at the entrance to their nests and the young grub after hatching works its way into the bees’ cell and feeds on the stored pollen and nectar. After pupation it will emerge during the next spring. They love a wide range of flowers but in my garden they have a real penchant for aubretia.

A dark-edged bee reaches its target

A dark-edged bee reaches its target - Credit: Archant

The second species that I fell in love with (with such a fantastic name) is the hairy-footed flower bee. In some respects, they resemble bee flies - round and (in the males’ case) fluffy. However, they differ in many ways. The two sexes are very different. The males are greyish-brown but the females are black with stunning yellow hind legs - there are few more attractive bees in the UK.

They don’t fly like bee flies, which hover and move slowly through the flower beds like ponderous old men out for their daily saunter. Flower bees, in contrast, are full of busy, impatient energy, as if they really don’t have enough time to get everything done so proceed through life at a rush.

The females move rapidly from flower to flower using their stunning tongue to probe for nectar and pollen. The males, however, which emerge a week or two after the females, have an insatiable urge to find a female, so patrol every patch of likely-looking flowers (in my garden they love pulmonaria) at break-neck speed, swooping around the patch before engaging warp drive to the next patch.

Their fuel demands must be massive, so they have to stop every now and then to refuel on the nectar-rich flowers. Like the females, they have an amazing-looking tongue, but unlike the bee fly, it is not held permanently out but protrudes just before they zoom into a flower.

A dark-edged bee in mid-flight

A dark-edged bee in mid-flight - Credit: Archant

As I photographed them, I loved the images with the tongue protruding because they reminded me of mini star-fighters, something Luke Skywalker might use to tackle the next Death Star.

Their lovely name comes from the legs of the male which has one pair that are extraordinarily hairy. They use these as visual signals during their courtship of their ebony partners. When they find a female the hectic dashing around immediately stops as they then switch to hover mode and slowly circle around the female.

Flower bees are far more common in the south of Britain, but they are moving north as the planet warms. I certainly can’t remember seeing them a few years ago, yet this spring I have noticed at least eight males and females. Of course, this could easily be explained by my presence each day watching the same flower bed for hours at a time.

Self-isolation is something I and millions of others had never considered months ago and, whilst it created many problems (all of which I am happy to bear), it allowed me to get on incredibly intimate terms with many insects that share my garden. Perhaps something I wouldn’t normally have done, and it did allow me to fall in love with two stunning spring fliers.

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