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The Hairy-footed flower bee

The blog post this month is submitted by Aoife O’Rourke, Conservation Officer for SW England.

This month I have decided to write about the hairy footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes) as this year we have received many emails asking for help to identify this ‘strange small black bumblebee’.

Although the Hairy-footed flower bee can easily be confused for a bumblebee - it is in fact a species of solitary bee. It is roughly the same size as a bumblebee and quite stout with a dense furry body.

I must admit this species even tricked me when I saw it for the first time last spring, as it is not found in Ireland, and as I am Irish my first thoughts were that it may be a melanic (dark variant) bumblebee. However, once I watched it perplexedly for a few minutes I realised that it couldn’t be a bumblebee, and that’s when I discovered this beautiful species. The males and females are sexually dimorphic, meaning that they look very different to one another. The females are black with orange leg hairs on the hind legs (fig. 1), whereas the males are light brown in colour (fig. 2) and have very long distinctive hairs on their legs (hence their descriptive name).

Hairy-footed flower bee Fig.1

Figure 1. Female Hairy-footed flower bee.

Hairy-footed flower bee Fig.2

Figure 2. Male Hairy-footed flower bee.

The Hairy- footed flower bee is typically a spring species, and can be spotted on the wing from early February until late June. Its distribution is mostly confined to southern areas of the UK, and it is commonly found nesting in soft mortar walls, or on some occasions in the ground. As you can see from Figure 1, this species has a relatively long tongue, and feeds from flowers with long tubular corollas. One of its preferred forage plants is Lungwort. As this species is early to emerge, it is an important pollinator of early spring flowers.

The key way to differentiate the Hairy-footed flower bee from the bumblebee is by watching its flight behaviour. Hairy-footed flower bees have a fast darting flight, compared to bumblebees which tend to be much slower and have a ‘bumbling’ gait.  

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