Top Five Insects I’ve Seen – #5 – The Tawny Mining Bee (Andrena fulva)

Not my best shot, but the one that shows the colour the best. Although still not great as my cheap phone camera didn’t do colour well! The thorax is covered in a deep red fluff that really stands out amidst the muted greens of spring. The abdomen has this incredible sunset-stripe effect of darker stripes fading into lighter ones. The female tawny mining bee is not only an incredible sight, but the species itself is a wonderful pollinator for flowers that bloom in spring. (Credit: Me)

The Andrena genus of bees is astounding! These are the bees you are most likely to see around May-early June before the honeybees really kick off their hives. If you’ve ever been out on a warm, sunny day in April and seen lots of bees in the air, the bulk of them will be Andrenids.

They are mostly ground-nesting (or mining bees) preferring loose, sandy soils. They are also mostly solitary so do not form social groups, although they may nest close to one another. They are pretty widely distributed across temperate regions; Europe, North America, Asia etc. The tawny mining bee is, to the best of my knowledge, native to Europe.

In appearance many Andrenids have the familiar fluffy black-and-yellow/orange colour scheme and can be pretty indistinguishable from one another. But some of them are very striking and our Andrena fulva is definitely one of them!

It was a tough call between this and the ashy mining bee (Andrena cineraria). I love the awesome monochrome of the ashy. They look like tiny little bee-wolves (not to be confused with the bee-hunting wasp, the beewolf!) and they are adorably fluffy.

The ashy mining bee (Andrena cineraria) almost made this list. Similar in behaviour to the tawny, and most other Andrena species, this is definitely one of my favourites but doesn’t quite have the impact of a female tawny (Credit: Me)

However there is something about the tawny that just hits me in the inspiration. Something about this little bee with its burning, fox-red fluff that makes me gasp whenever I see one.

I should not need to talk too much about the incredible pollination services offered by bees. As Professor Seirian Sumner recently wrote in her incredible book ‘Endless Forms: The Secret World of Wasps’ (definitely get your hands on a copy! Linky here) “bees are just wasps that have forgotten how to hunt.”

Bees evolved from wasps. Specifically they evolved not to require meat, other invertebrates, to feed their young (larvae), but instead evolved the means of using pollen as that protein source.

As a result bees and flowering plants have co-evolved together. Plants have evolved specific traits, colours, shapes etc. that attract bees, and bees have evolved things such as fluffy bodies or specific movements or behaviours that permit them to dislodge and carry pollen. It is a great example of mutualism – a type of symbiotic relationship where two species benefit from their interactions with one another.

When not seen on flowers, Andrena can often be found resting on leaves or surfaces. Here is a female tawny mining bee just having a chill. (Credit:gailhampshire CC-BY-2.0)

If you say ‘pollination’ to someone as a word-association exercise, most people will probably think ‘bees’. Rightfully so, as most evidence suggests they are one of, if not the most important provider of pollination services. However the sad fact of this immediate association is people then neglect the other important pollinators – hoverflies, wasps, butterflies, flies, beetles etc.

What’s more people tend to associate bee pollination with the honeybee. They talk of importing more honeybees to aid pollination. However increasing the number of honeybees to stop the decline in bee populations could actually be harmful to species like the Andrena which do have overlap with honeybee activity. Over-reliance on the semi-domesticated honeybee for pollination could harm, rather than help, as it could out-compete our native, wild bees.

It’s almost like the natural world is a complicated, chaotic web of interactions and we should be considered and careful in how we mess with it!

A male Andrena fulva – A lot less conspicuous than the female, but no less beautiful or valuable. (Credit: gailhampshire CC-BY-2.0)

As for what the tawny mining bee pollinates? Almost anything that could flower in spring! Buttercups, oak, berries like gooseberry or blackcurrant, hawthorn, beech, flowers like daffodils etc. I’m not sure you could possibly provide an exhaustive list because they can be pretty generalist.

The tawny mining bee exhibits what is known as sexual dimorphism – a difference in appearance between the sexes. It is only the female that has the striking red coat, whilst the male is an altogether more unassuming and quite generic Andrena-looking bee.

Sadly as of writing this (June 21st 2022) the tawny mining bee will likely be reaching the end of its activity for the year. They are most active between March and mid-June. But next spring do keep your eye out for this striking little species and admire just how stunningly, beautifully red the females are!

They are unbelievable, and a demonstration of the amazing beauty of our six-legged buddies, and the many different forms, shapes, sizes and colours they can show.

If you wish to get more involved or learn my about insects and invertebrates here are some links to The Royal Entomological Society and Insect Week resources.

Royal Entomological Society Website
Twitter
Facebook
Instagram

Insect Week Website
Twitter
Facebook
Instagram

Or you can read some of my other articles about insects and invertebrates below.

My Top Five UK Insects I’ve Seen: Introduction
An introduction to my top five insects, and a short look at why we need to see our insects differently.

Top Five Insects #4 – The Rose Chafer (Cetonia aurata)
An otherworldly jewel of a beetle.
Top Five Insects #3 – The Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaeae)
Proof that moths can be as amazing as butterflies, with a lovely caterpillar!
Top Five Insects #2 – The Thick-Legged Flower Beetle (Oedemera nobilis)
A charming iridescent green flower beetle, some of whom have thick thighs!
Top Five Insects #1 – The Ruby-Tailed Wasps (Chrysis sp. or Family Chrysididae)
Stunning little jewels that can teach us much about the diversity of wasps and insects.

Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals – #1 – Wasps
A look at wasps in all their diverse beauty and glory and why they are important to us. A long-read.

The Wasp Tragedy – How Can We Help?
A few tips on how you can encourage wasps and other insect and invertebrate biodiversity in your home or garden.

Insects: The Savage Eden Before Your Eyes
A more in-depth look at my journey as I developed a relationship with insects and their role in our ecosystems.

Grown-Ups Guides: Hedge-Hunting for Bugs!
A short guide on how a total novice can get started appreciating the tiny wildlife in the undergrowth (safely)! Aimed at adults.

Human Bias and Animal Myth in Conservation
Not insect-specific but hugely relevant. Adapted from a twitter thread looking at how humans form ideas and relationships with the natural worl

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Karl Anthony Mercer is a writer, poet, author, musician and part-time dandy. He can often be found squatting in fields looking at insects (he is an unapologetic wasp fanatic), wandering around museums over-dressed, or hiding in a dank corner singing sad songs on a small guitar. His writing on WordPress consists of MercersPoems - an outlet for his poetry often using natural imagery, gothicism and decadence to explore the struggles of living as an autistic person; and We Lack Discipline - Where he writes about factual, often academic topics he has learned and is interested in (e.g. biology, psychology, Roman history etc.) with an inimitable, often light-hearted and irreverant style. You can support Karl by; Subscribing to the We Lack Discipline Patreon - https://www.patreon.com/WeLackDiscipline Or buying him a coffee (he loves coffee!) - https://ko-fi.com/welackdiscipline

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