Life in the wildflower verge: Part I

After an absolutely dismal May which was quite literally a wash out, it’s nice to see the return of sunny skies here in Aberystwyth. Thanks in part to all that rain, and the absence so far of the council mowers the wild areas around the harbour have sprung into life providing a habitat for all kinds of creatures.

Towering grasses

Among the tangle of grasses are numerous wildflowers (some might call them weeds!) which provide a home and food for numerous species from small mammals and birds right down to the tiniest inhabitants. There is so much life to be found here, most of which goes on unnoticed right beneath our feet.

Time to dust off my sigma macro lens and delve back into this world of fascinating mini beasts, part of an ongoing series I like to call ‘life in miniature’.

Wildflowers overlooking Aberystwyth harbour

Today’s bug hunt began on a scorching hot morning beside the harbour. Each summer here the grassy banks spring to life with large purple mallow flowers and these intriguing looking towering plants with distinctive umbrella shaped flower heads.

Hemlock water dropwort with umbrella like flower heads

Hemlock water dropwort is a member of the umbellifer family, plants named for their characteristic appearance. This beautiful plant may look rather unassuming but is actually highly poisonous and can be fatal to both humans and animals who accidental consume it.

Hemlock water droplet flowers up close

Whilst we may certainly want to avoid dining out on this plant, it is a favourite food source for many pollinator species. With short, dense clusters of flowers there is easy access to plentiful nectar for hungry insects.

Honeybee sipping nectar

As these insects feed, their bodies brush against the flower stamens collecting and distributing pollen as they go. Honeybees were in particular abundance, collecting food to take back to their nest which was likely not far away, hidden deep within the harbour’s stone walls.

Honeybee dusted with pollen
Honeybee in mid flight
Probing for nectar

The female honeybee is responsible for collected pollen, which she does in in ‘pollen baskets’, specialised depressions surrounded by hairs on her rear legs. As the bees body gets covered with pollen, she then grooms this down onto her legs and compacts it together into a neat little parcel.

Honeybee grooming her antenna
Honeybee with pollen baskets on her rear legs
Foraging honeybee
Busy bee
A honeybee feeling her way with her antenna

With more than enough nectar to go around, the honeybees appeared quite happy to share this buffet with their much larger, furrier cousins the bumblebees.

Pollinators at work

Like the nimble honeybees, female bumblebees also collect pollen on their rear legs. The colour of the pollen baskets is an indicator of the flower the bumblebee has been feeding on. This female buff tailed bumblebee has clearly been enjoying the spoils of a flower with bright yellow pollen before visiting the hemlock plants, whose pollen is a pale creamy colour.

Female buff-tailed bumblebee
Feeding bumblebee

The buff tailed bumblebee is identified by it’s two dull yellow stripes and whiteish tail, often with a buff coloured line between the tail and abdomen.

Buff tailed bumblebee tail
Bumblebee with enormous pollen baskets
Clinging on

Whilst we are all pretty familiar with the honeybee and bumblebee, a couple of lesser known species also made an appearance among the flowers. The first a rather menacing looking (but actually harmless!) mining bee.

Mining bee head on!

Mining bees are part of the solitary bee family which comprises of 250 species in the UK alone. These bees are not communal nesters like the honeybee and bumblebee, as their name suggests they nest independently and live mostly solitary lives.

Mining bee feeding on flowers
Mining bee – exact species not determined
Mining bee cleaning

I also caught a very brief glimpse of what looks like a wasp, but a search online later revealed this to be a nomad bee. This bee is in fact a brood parasite, laying it’s eggs in the nests of mining bees and then playing no further part in raising their young. When the nomad bee hatches they kill the host’s young and steal the food store, tirelessly collected by the mining bee mother.

Nomad bee

More tiny inhabitants of the hemlock patch included a fly, a couple of species of hoverfly and a soldier beetle.

Fly on hemlock
Drone fly – a large species of hoverfly
A much smaller variety of hoverfly
Red solider beetle clambering between flowers
Red solider beetle

The common purple mallow flowers were unusually quiet in terms of insect life today, just a couple of bumblebees to be found with a dusting of pollen, and one of my favourite bees, a leafcutter bee resting on it’s leaves.

Buff tailed bumblebee on a mallow flower
Leafcutter bee


All photographs copyright of Claire Stott/Grey Feather Photography © 2021
www.greyfeatherphotography.com

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