It’s a warm, sunny spring day at Paignton Zoo and I’m standing on the lawn opposite the Field Conservation & Research office by Crocodile Swamp. I’m staring at the grass. Why? Because of the mini volcanoes.
There are small cones of soil with holes in the top scattered across the lawn. They look like tiny volcanoes. They’re the work of tawny mining bees – specifically, female tawny mining bees.
These solitary bees fly from March to May. The females dig holes that can be up to 30 centimetres deep and lay as many as 25 eggs in chambers off the main tunnel. Each egg is sealed in with a supply of nectar and pollen. The larva hatches after a few days, grows quickly and pupates within weeks. The adults emerge in spring after hibernation.
While the female is busy with all of this, the males are flying about frantically with just one thing on their tiny bee minds - sex. It’s a not unfamiliar arrangement in the natural world; the females do all the hard work while the males exist only to mate.
These busy ginger bees appear with the warming sun. They spend most of their lifecycle underground, but emerge into the better weather – not unlike some members of Zoo office staff after a long winter.
Tawny mining bees are harmless – they don’t sting. Rather, they are useful pollinators of garden plants, fruit trees and crops. Although the mounds of soil can be surprisingly large for a small insect, their nests don’t damage the lawn.
This bee is yet another fascinating example of the extraordinary variety and richness of the natural world. Look out for the temporary signs around the lawn between Crocodile Swamp and the Vet Centre. You might also like to take a closer look around for mining bees in your lawn and flower beds at home.
With thanks to Dr Tracey Hamston, our UK Conservation Officer, and artist, ecologist and public speaker John Walters, who came to draw the bees and take photographs.