Updated: 25th February 2021
Also known as Early colletes; Vernal mining bee; Spring mining bee; Spring colletes; Vernal colletes.
This enchanting bee - Colletes cunicularius has several common names as listed above, from 'Early mining bee' to 'Vernal mining bee'. However, interestingly the Latin name Colletes cunicularius appears to refer to neither of the common names given, with no mention of 'spring', 'vernal' or 'early'. As discussed elsewhere on this site, 'Colletes' means 'one who glues'. 'Cunicularius' means 'burrows' or 'miner'.
This is the largest Colletes in Britain, with females approximately 10-11mm in length, and males recorded as slightly smaller and slimmer (9.5mm - 10.5mm). Males have paler hair than females, the latter being rather dark in appearance. Falk (author of Field Guide to Bees Of Great Britain And Ireland) notes that in males "the abdomen can give the impression of hair bands from some angles though these consist of long hairs".
Not surprisingly given its name, it is one of the early Colletes bees to emerge and can be seen in the UK from early March to May or sometimes June. As I write, its actually July (just!), but I took these photographs in May - I simply haven't had time to upload them previously due to personal commitments!
This species is native to particular habitat ranges within the UK and also Europe and appears to favour locations with sand dunes. In these areas, the bees nest in south-facing slopes, and the sand is soft and loose.
These photographs were taken at an SSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) in North Wales, UK where this species is known to nest - in fact, there is a notice and photographs on the information board for the site. It's the same location where I have photographed the silvery leafcutter bee, among others.
Colletes cunicularius nest in burrows in the sand. BWARs (Bees, Wasp and Ant Recording Society) notes that these burrows are typically 45 - 55 cm deep(1), with cells built at the end of side branches, but others note that tunnels can reach as deep as 80cm (2).
Being a member of Colletes, as with other plasterer bees this species lines its nest cells with a cellophane-like membrane that serves to protect against bacteria and fungi, whilst also acting as a waterproof barrier.
Again, author Steven Falk notes that the Early colletes is especially associated with Creeping Willow (Salix repens) at sand dune sites.
At this particular SSI, other willows and dandelions (Taraxacum) are also appealing.
In Britain, this species is considered rare, and features on a number of lists (2):
A key predator is Sphecodes albilabris in Europe. This species is not recorded in Britain, however, I certainly noted a Sphecodes species prowling nearby!
Unfortunately, I was unable to capture a very clear photograph, however, if not albilabris, I wonder if it could be Sphecodes pellucidus - the Sandpit Blood bee.
It is known to be a predator of Andrena barbilabris, but Falk notes that this species is sometimes absent where Sphecodes pellucidus is present, suggesting that it might be bivoltine and using other hosts at some sites.
Sphecodes are cleptoparasites of various ground nesting bee species. The images above are of females - these are the first to appear (at least with most Sphecodes species), and they seek out nests of their target host in which to lay their eggs. Upon locating a suitable host nest, they enter, open up a cell, destroy the grub or egg of the host species currently inside and promptly replace it with their own egg. They then reseal the nest cell before leaving the host nest.
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