Country diary: mining bees are getting down to business

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Bumblebees have begun to bong off the kitchen window. It’s bee season, or something like it, and as spring creeps slowly northward there are about 270 species gearing up to demonstrate just how many ways there are of being a bee. Of those, about 250 are solitary bees: most make their nests in the ground; some find homes higher up, usually in old beetle burrows; a few occupy disused snail shells, sealing off the nesting chambers with chewed foliage. But it’s the colonist species that catch the eye.

Among them is the mining bee. In the park, between the roots of a horse chestnut, the work of an early mining bee community is under way. The hulking females – russet fur stoles, antennae like liquorice wands – seem more sluggish than the far smaller, zippier males. It’s a pleasure to crouch in the milky sunshine for a while and watch them go about their business (the great entomologist JH Fabre used to do this, and was taken by the locals to be an idiot).

Then there is the honeybee. Last summer I found a feral honeybee colony in a cavity in a churchyard beech near my house. There are very few, if any, truly wild honeybees in the UK – they are all beekeepers’ lost lambs. I’ve been staking out this colony as the weather has warmed. Up until the autumn, the entry hole was slick and sticky from the passage of honeybee feet – a sort of apian industrial overspill. Now the bark is dry. In December I saw a squirrel slip inside. Honeybee colonies typically see the winter out in a shivering cluster, deep in their nests, with the precious queen at its heart. But there are no signs of life here yet.

Meanwhile, on the canal beside the church, the drake mallards are showing signs of wear: the daily brutalities of the duck breeding season have left bare patches in their breast plumage. And it’s spring for the rooks too, although it’s been spring for them ever since nest-building began in the late winter. In the fields they’re gathering up scraps of sheep’s wool. Imagining the feel of dry wool on hard bird-beak sets my teeth on edge, like the sound of nails on a blackboard.

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