By James Duncan
Learning and Engagement Officer
The Hairy-footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes) is the largest of the five Flower Bee species found in the UK. It's a common visitor to parks, gardens and urban spaces, though we're lucky in the south as it's most widely distributed in this region. The appearance of this bee frequently heralds the beginnings of spring, though occasionally the males may fly in late February. Once noticed, you'll realise just how numerous this little species is - should your garden happen to contain Lungwort (Pulmonaria sp.) you'll be all the more likely to see it frantically darting around as it's one of their most irresistible nectar sources. They certainly aren't limited to Pulmonaria, and Primrose, Green Alkanet, Comfrey and Ground-ivy (amongst others) will all attract the attentions of this bee.
These Flower Bees are certainly characterful - the males in particular zip around at inordinate speed, interspersing that with bouts of immaculate hovering. The males frequently indulge in territorial disputes and can be witnessed chasing rivals away from their favoured flowers in a flurry of furious high-pitched wing beats. In fact, they're far more akin to Hoverflies, a world apart from our more ponderous, bumbling Bumblebees. Their life cycle is also entirely different as they're not a social species, they're a solitary bee - no colony, no workers, no queen. Sometimes this fact may appear incorrect; if nest conditions are favourable they may be seen communally in significant numbers, giving the appearance of a single colony. Their most frequent targets for nesting are old walls and soft mortar joints, though they're not entirely averse to ground nesting on the bare, clay soils of cliffs and quarries.
Unusually this Anthophora also displays sexual dimorphism, where the males and females look remarkably different. The females are typically a little slower to emerge than the males, taking flight a couple of weeks later in the season. They're usually dark, (often black) with rusty pollen brushes on their hind legs and often approach flowers with their lengthy tongue extended. The males are somewhat more recognisable as they're most commonly buff-ginger-haired with a rather marvellous yellow lower face. During bouts of nectaring you may also observe a feature that gives the bee part of its name - plumipes, loosely translated as 'feather-legged.' This relates to a fringe of hairs, a feature used to more commonly split the bee from a much rarer cousin, the Potter Flower Bee (Anthophora retusa).
Hairy-footed Flower Bee - male © James Duncan