Country diary: spring’s dramatic upwelling of life | Environment

At last those winter rains have ended and the sun shone here for two full days. Suddenly it is time for cock pheasants, flushed crimson with testosterone, to fight long tail-twisting battles; for wild violets to flower quietly over our meadow-lawn; for goldfinches to strip spider thread from the back wall to bind their nests; for hairy-footed summer-bees to zip among the rosemary blooms, and for buff-tailed and early bumblebee queens to truffle the green hellebore heads in a last garden before the marsh. They’re all part of that dramatic upwelling of life which Roger Deakin once called “opening time in nature’s great saloon”.

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Female Clark’s mining bee
Andrena clarkella at a breeding colony in Claxton. Photograph: Mark Cocker

It is also a moment for the first solitary bees and I climbed the gate and lay on the rabbit-warrened south-facing bank to luxuriate in their brief presence. So many people are exercised these days by the plight of the honeybee, but, as Steven Falk and Richard Lewington’s fabulous Field Guide to the Bees of Britain and Ireland makes plain, there are 274 other species in our islands. My local population is probably of Clark’s mining bee in the genus Andrena, which alone holds about 70 species, many of them identifiable by the tiniest structural differences.

Mining bees are unobtrusive extras of early spring but this species has a habit of nesting in large colonies and once you key into their 1-cm-long presence they become commonplace. Females are a fraction more conspicuous, with black velvet bodies and a thoracic plush of gorgeous chestnut. A favoured spot in our parish is on bramble, where they rest on the leaves between feeding bouts. Willow blossom seems a food of choice and sometimes they are so smothered in pollen they resemble sugared yellow bonbons.

Clark’s bees may breed in colonies but each underground nest is a separate chamber and accessed by a burrow ringed by a minuscule circlet of spoil. The benefit of communal breeding sites is that the bees can jointly defend their brood. A drawback is that it attracts the parasitic attentions of the wasp-like early nomad bee Nomada leucophthalma, which lays its eggs on those of the mining bee, with the usual horror-story consequences.

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Early Cuckoo bee
leucophthalma searching for nests of its host at a Clark’s mining bee colony. Photograph: Mark Cocker