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On a wing and a prairie

I wanted to say more about the mining bees I discovered last week. According to my sources at BugGuide.net this bee is in the genus Anthophora, but that is all they could say based on my photo. So I looked up Anthophora in A Field Guide to the Common Bees of California and learned that “you often hear these bees before you see them.” This was encouraging news because that is exactly what happened.

Anthophora
This Anthophora is on a sweat shirt. After a few photos, I released it back to the prairie.

On that day I was walking the trails at Mima prairie looking for bees to photograph, but other than a few Bombus vosnesenskii, which are as common as dandelions, I wasn’t finding anything. I was giving up when I heard a noise that sounded like a honey bee swarm. I stood stone still for several moments before I could pinpoint the direction. What I found was a patch of kinnickinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), a low-growing shrub in the Ericaceae family, clouded over by a mass of bees.

Kinnickinnick
Kinnickinnick has deep bell-shaped flowers that require bees with long tongues.

These bees were fast. I tried to photograph them for a half hour before I realized they were never landing on the blossoms, they were only hovering over them and milling about. That behavior, coupled with their white faces, lead me to believe they were all males. They weren’t foraging—they were waiting for females to stop by their fully-guarded kinnickinnick. “How about a nice meal at my place, sweetie?” Smooch, smooch.

The bees moved so fast that I could barely see them, let alone photograph them, but I got the impression they were very hairy, about the size of a honey bee, but blocky rather than tapered at the abdomen. They seemed grayish, but it was hard to tell. I finally went for my butterfly net and scooped a few into a test tube.

A few minutes in the test tube subdued them, at least momentarily. The one I finally photographed walked out of the tube and across a sweatshirt. “Gotcha!” I whispered, pressing the shutter. Not a great shot, but something.

Later on, I read that you can sometimes see groups of males in the early morning, clustering on nearby plants and hanging by their mandibles while the females sleep in their underground tunnels. Not all species do this, apparently, and I don’t know about this one. Nevertheless, I headed back to the prairie the next day before sunrise.

I didn’t know where to look, but it seemed like a worthwhile effort. The idea of multiple males, soaked in morning dew and hanging by their jaws, was a satisfying thought.

But, alas, nothing. However, the prairie was eerily beautiful at that hour, and peaceful. No birds, no bees, no hush of wind, and it smelled like the produce aisle of a grocery store—wet, cold, and green.

Subsequent trips to the prairie have revealed no more mining bees, but I’m on a mission to find the ladies. Next in line to bloom is camas, so I will take a look at those.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Mima-Prairie-at-sunrise
Sunrise at Mima Prairie.
Morning-dew
Dew drops on last summer’s grass.
Mounds-of-Kinnickinnick
Mounds of kinnickinnick. As soon as the mist cleared, the bee activity began anew.

Comments

Muddyvalley
Reply

Camas has just started to bloom here in the valley!

andrew
Reply

I once looked at a house that had what I thought was honey bees everywhere. After getting to the back yard I realized there were tunnels everywhere, we’re talking hundreds of tunnels. They had brought in tons of sand to build up the building pad for the house. Though it was 10 years later, under all that grass was good soil for miner bees. It probably helped that the entire woods were tulip poplar as well.

Rusty
Reply

Andrew,

You’re right. Mining bees love sandy soil, as long as there is enough clay and organic matter mixed in to keep the tunnels from collapsing. It sounds like a perfect place for them.

Bill
Reply

Rusty,
I have some mining bees I see every spring here in Minnesota. They seem to like an area I keep mowed so it is easier to get at the ground to make their tunnels. While they may or may not share the tunnels they seem to like to nest near each other. Is there an area of fairly open ground near where you are seeing the males?

Rusty
Reply

Bill,

I’m sure there is, although I didn’t find it. I walked in ever-bigger circles around the site, but never saw bare soil or tunnels. I haven’t given up, however. I will check again.

Anna
Reply

Oh my, those pictures of the early morning are marvelous.

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