Hartlebury Common is one of the UK’s few inland lowland heaths (as are our other local sites - Devil’s Spittleful, Rifle Range, Burlish Top, Habberley Valley and Pound Green Common). It is nationally important for the bees and wasps that breed here and the sandy ground is an important nesting substrate for many different species. The best time to look for them is in the middle part of a hot summer’s day when the sun is shining. They may be found amongst flowers from which they sip nectar or collect food to provision their nests, or they might be seen around their nest sites.
Bees and wasps choose specific types of nest locations that are consistent to that species. Some like to use soft flat sand, others only excavate tunnels in vertical sandy walls, perhaps where a bank has eroded. Other species like a firmer substrate on harder sand or amongst short vegetation. A few bee species use old snail shells, hollow plant stems, or old beetle holes and natural crevices in deadwood, which makes the dead trees and stumps important on the Common too.
Bees and wasps are the only insects apart from ants that make nests that they provision with food for their young; bees use pollen sometimes mixed with nectar, and wasps collect invertebrates. Most wasps specialise in collecting specific types of invertebrate prey eg spiders, weevils, aphids. Many bees only collect pollen from a small range of plants or rarely just one plant species. Cuckoo bees and wasps do not make their own nests as their young are raised in the nests of other species. All female bees and wasps have stings that are used in defence. In addition wasps use their stings to paralyse their prey and in a few species to carry their prey.
When you see a bee or wasp on the Common, it might be -
• searching for food for itself
• a male looking for a female
• a female looking for or near her chosen nest area
• a female collecting food to provision her nest
• a cuckoo looking for the nest of a different species
• a wasp raiding the nest of another wasp of the same species.
A few bees and wasps are social insects, such as the Honey Bee, some of the bumble bees and the Common Wasp. But the majority are solitary nesters, although there may be aggregations of nests in the same locality.
Some bees and wasps to look out for on Hartlebury Common:
Pantaloon Bee Dasypoda hirtipes. The female seen here near her nest is a beautiful bee with long colourful hairs on the hind legs which she uses to collect pollen and also as a brush to clear the sand from her nest entrance. This excavated sand is left in a fan on one side of the entrance hole. Nest building normally takes place during the afternoon.
Heather Colletes Colletes succinctus is usually seen when the heather is in flower as this is the main source of its pollen and nectar. The nests, often many close together, are usually in bare sand on south-facing slopes. The cuckoo bee Red-thighed Epeolus is often seen close to the nests.
Red-thighed Epeolus Epeolus cruciger. The females of this distinctive cuckoo bee can be seen lurking around the nest sites of the Heather Colletes waiting for an opportunity to go in and lay an egg in the wall of an unsealed nest cell. When the larva hatches, it kills the host’s egg or grub and feeds on the food supply.
Bee-wolf Philanthus triangulum. This is the largest and most impressive of the solitary wasps. It uses Honey Bees to provision its nest. It used to be an extremely rare insect in just a few sites on the south coast but in the 1980s there was a population explosion and soon it was nesting on the Common and other heaths close by.
Ammophila pubescens. This and the very similar A. sabulosa both breed on the Common. Both species provision their nests with caterpillars. The female makes several nests and checks each in turn, bringing in more caterpillars if required. She carefully closes each nest with little stones and sand between visits, and remarkably remembers where they are.
Cerceris arenaria. This wasp provisions her nest with weevils, especially Otiorhynchus spp. She can be seen hunting amongst the heather in July and August and returning to her nest with the weevil slung under her body. Nests are found along sandy paths and there are often many close together.
Ivy bee Colletes hederae This bee was first recorded in the UK in 2001, it has now been found in much of southern England and Wales. As suggested by its common name, ivy is the main plant used by this bee for pollen. It is seen when ivy is in flower from early September to early November. Ivy bees nest in loose, light or sandy soil on southern-facing banks and cliffs with ivy nearby for foraging. When conditions are suitable there may be thousands of nests in the same area. This bee has probably been on the common for only two or three years, but can now be seen in large numbers in some areas.