Since 2013, the German Trust “Wild Bee of the Year” has been selecting an interesting bee species every year from the 134 bees in Germany, which depend on the flower pollen of very specific plant species, in order to raise their offspring. The distinction is designed to raise public awareness of these bees, to show that they are under threat and that they need protection. It is hoped that this will encourage people to go out and look for the insect in its natural habitat.
This year, the Large Scabious Mining Bee has been selected. It gets its name as it relies on pollen from a few specific varieties of Scabious plants which grow in wildflower-rich grassland, a habitat which is in decline across much of Europe. There, it burrows (or mines) into the soil to make a nest to lay its eggs.
You can recognize the Large Scabious Mining Bee (Andrena hattorfiana) when you see it, especially during its foraging period from May to August. It can usually be spotted from a distance as it is significantly larger in size than a honey bee and is recognizable by its distinctive markings: red legs – purple pollen that sticks to the bee’s back legs, when it forages on the blossoms of a wildflower called Mournful Widow (or Sweet Scabious).
It’s almost exclusive dependence on the Mournful Widow however, has resulted in it becoming an endangered species. As more and more wild meadows were turned into crop land over the past decades and those that remained were frequently mown, the Mournful Widow plant has widely disappeared – and with it the Large Scabious Mining Bee, putting it onto the Red List of Wild Bees in Germany.
Reduced or fragmented wildflower habitat, which provides important nutrition and nesting resources, has become a major problem for wild bee survival in many European countries as highlighted by the plight of the Large Scabious Mining Bee.
So what can be done to help? To support the Large Scabious Mining Bee to find nutrition throughout the foraging season, it is necessary to maintain flowering in the existing meadows, mowing them only once or twice a year. Planting scabious flowers in the garden or adding the Mournful Widow to seeds mixtures for flowering strips will also help to provide more areas of foraging habitat for our wild bee species such as the “Wild Bee of the Year 2017”.
The Large Scabious Mining Bee is striking: with a length of 13 to 16 mm, it is larger than most other bee species and the abdomen of most females is red. Together with the purple leggings from the pollen of the Mournful Widow this really is a bee among bees. No wonder that its picture features in many books about pollinators.
She is parasitized by another wild bee, which is called Nomada armata. The “armed nomade” bee shows cuckoo-like behavior, smuggling its own egg into the Mining Bee’s nest. The Nomada larva kills the other bee’s egg and feeds on the supplies collected for its offspring.