Tawny Mining Bee
I helped my neighbor and friend Tom install his first honeybee hive today. Once we finished we noticed an inordinate number of another bee species flying around us. Walking over to a cut slope in the lawn, we both saw a significant number of bees flying low along the ground.
At the time, neither of us had any idea of what species of bee we were observing, or if the bees could be harmful to Tom’s nearby honeybee hive.
The hot, southern exposed slope dominated by bare ground is ideal habitat for the Tawny Mining Bee (Andrena fulva).
As the bee’s name suggests, it will “mine” a hole in the ground to lay eggs, which it then deposits nectar (food) for the larvae.
This is a photo of a female in her nest. Unfortunately due to the high contrast, she is hard to see. As I looked over the slope, I could see literally a hundred holes, all of which when I watched for a few minutes appeared as being active.
My first thought was that this species of bee may be highly aggressive and was killing any other insect that happened to come nearby. That turned out not the be the case.
The female of the species has a well defined fur coat of “tawny-colored” hairs that is quite diagnostic. As I looked at my camera photos and did some on-line taxonomy, one source described the females color of that being similar to a red fox. In this photo a smaller male Tawny has captured a larger female for the purpose of mating.
Looking around the sloped, sunny lawn, I began to realize, this is not an aggressive bee, and that what I was observing was a sex-driven bonanza. This photo shows another male capturing a female for copulation.
Here is another photo of two males holding a female in position . . .
. . . and another.
Now it starts to get a little freaky, as many males will gang-up on a female.
I actually observed both males and females together in what looked like a ball of bees. The “active” ball would actually roll down the slope as the bees attempted to position themselves. It looked like transformers morphing as frenzied bees tagged in and/or out of the mixed martial arts (MMA) action.
This all looked like a mutual effort to me, and I suspect that this breeding/mating ritual was at its peak.
I have seen mining, digging and sweat-types bees on numerous occasions, but have never really paid attention. I was intrigued this time, because I had to know if these bees could cause a threat to the newly established honeybee colony. It took an hour of internet research time to finally determine that what I was looking at was the tawny mining bee, but it could possibly be another species. I say this only because, the bulk of the on-line resources suggest Andrena fulva, but the Maryland Biological Network does not have any reference to this species in Maryland, but does have others within the genus present (but, which none of the documentation looked like what I was observing).
Apparently, the tawny mining bee is native to England and parts of central Europe and is naturalized in the United States. The bees are harmless, do not sting, are solitary and nest communally as nesting aggregates. The bees are very efficient pollinators and appear to favor fruit trees, as hatch is timed to late April.
I’ve seen the phenomenon of many bees flying low to the ground in a loose aggregate. Now I know that it is part of a rather involved mating ritual. It just so happened that Tom and I were observant at the rare time when the bee is not solitary! So the bottom line is this. I see no reason to move the honeybee hive, as the Tawny does not represent a threat to honeybees.
Honeybees on the other hand have a reason to sting, as they need to protect their precious honey, but us beekeepers have our ways around that issue.