In Search of the Ashy Mining Bee – Eline Tabak

The Land Lines Blog is delighted to share this new piece on lockdown, and a search for the ashy mining bee! This summer, after an uptick in the number of people caring for and visiting gardens and green spaces in ways they haven’t before, Eline Tabak writes about her experience of lockdown, and her search for a more elusive species of insect around her current home in Bristol.

Lockdown has compacted my life into four points. They’re good ones, though, and I recognise how lucky I am in midst of a pandemic. Like a scalene triangle, my home lies in the centre of three distinct green places: a park, a cemetery, and a nature reserve. While, to my amateur eyes, the park has remained the same as any other I know asides from the usual comings and growings of spring, the heathland nature reserve reminds me of my childhood and has been a delight to see change these past months. The biggest surprise, to me, was the quiet beauty and joy of watching the cemetery grounds come alive. During my walks at the cemetery (alone and with others), I’ve come across grasses I was unaware existed. The weeks brought a variety of greens, whites and yellows, browns and purples, the odd allium and common wheat. I have also discovered that what I thought was wild garlic (well, it is) is really not the only thing called wild garlic, and that I should really just give up on forcing myself to try and remember what everything is called in Dutch, German, and English—not to mention local and regional varieties. Who knew there were so many plants called wild garlic and that they have so many different names?

Cemetery Grasses (Photo by Eline Tabak)

And everywhere I go, I am on the lookout for bees. While I keep an eye open for all bug varieties and the occasional spider, bumblebees are my favourite. It’s something about the way they are so small and quick, yet big and lumbering at the same time. I’m not an entomologist, and I often don’t know what I’m looking for (or talking about). My knowledge of bees often comes down to that there are many (around 20,000 described species and counting) and that they’re all hairy and have two pairs of wings. Looking with not a slight amount of jealousy at the bees the Americas and other continents have to offer has also made me realise that there are almost 300 different bee species in the UK, and that I have yet to see most of them. Even worse, I don’t know what most of them are called. Having only recently started walking around with a bee guide in my pocket back in the Netherlands, I sometimes still think about mining bees in terms of sand bees (as we call them in Dutch) and, if I’m being honest, I prefer the simplicity of describing and naming common bumblebee species in terms of where you tend to find them: the garden, soil, and fields. There’s something in the unassuming character of tuin-, aard– en akkerhommels.

Bumblebee (Photo – Editor’s)

Most of my time is spent in the centre of this scalene triangle: home. Just before lockdown, I was worried when I saw bumblebee queens fly around too early (not to be confused with the early bumblebee), and spent some time looking up what I could do in case I found one in my garden. The realistic answer was, of course, little to nothing at all: when the queens wake up too early and find their way into your garden, they also fly away again because that’s what bumblebees do, and then they either survive or die. It is simply too early in the year, and too cold. As a household, instead of focusing on where we cannot go or what will be inevitably lost, we try and do our best to make the garden as welcoming as possible for other critters. There is a little pond and a variety of shrubs, trees and flowers have been flowering since February. From the blossoming pear and apple trees, to the rhododendron and roses, to the buttercups and sweet peas—bees love to visit our garden. Our little garden may not boast the numbers that the local nature reserve does (which has most recently recorded 83 different species), but it’s certainly a start.

Photo by Eline Tabak

After moving to Bristol, finding the ashy mining bee became somewhat of a goal. I had seen their tiny silvery bodies before in the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery—together with the message that we could find them on College Green. One of my greatest lockdown disappointments was that I had enough green spaces around me, and so I really had no reason to walk to College Green. Fortunately, the ashy mining bee is quite common in the UK and I knew it had been spotted at the nature reserve, together with Nomada lathburiana. However, common enough does not mean it’s everywhere, so I imagined waiting at least another year to find my ashy friend, with lunch breaks at College Green while keeping watch – and more frustration, because most of the time I really do not know what to look for. Recognising exactly what’s around me does not always come easy, and it only seems fitting that, during a socially distant birthday picnic at the park — not the nature reserve, not even my peaceful cemetery, but the carefully cultivated and mown-down park — we found an ashy mining bee flying around us and trying to join the party (or rather, trying to gain access the cake tin). In a lot of nature writing (and documentaries or film), first encounters with the animal other are often portrayed as a one-of-a-kind experience, weighty and life-changing. However, I never travelled much before pursuing an academic career, and it never felt like such an encounter would fit with my life, or the places I inhabit and visit. The banality of this first meeting felt good.

Photo by Eline Tabak

For now, I have decided to focus on what’s around me. I have bought field guides for bees, day-flying moths, lichen and grasses. I managed to peacefully co-exist with a house spider in my room for a week, and I keep rescuing the honeybees that fly into the house but cannot seem to find their way out. I make sure to appreciate every small tortoiseshell, red admiral, cabbage white, clouded yellow, comma and orange-tip butterfly I see in my little triangle. If anything, lockdown has given me the time and space to look at and truly appreciate my direct environment. There’s still a lot here I don’t know the name of—in either English or Dutch—and I recognise that that’s OK, too. Now, rather than preparing for fieldwork and native bee-spotting in Canada, I talk to my housemates about how we can make the garden more attractive for butterflies next year. Different plants, or a different feeder? Probably both. We have also discussed that although we think our make-shift pond in the garden has given us damselflies, we’re really only certain that it’s brought a lot of mosquitos into the house.

Hoverfly – Photo by Eline Tabak

With all the grasses, and bees, and mosquitoes again comes the realisation that I’m extremely lucky — privileged even — to have a garden and these diverse green spaces around me. Whether in the local park, one’s garden, allotment, balcony or even curbside, lockdown has (re)connected many of us with our immediate and local surroundings. Travelling all over the world to see the more than human world around is exciting, eye-opening, wonderful — but sometimes an ashy mining bee flying around a cake tin will do.

Ashy Mining Bee, by Andy Scott (Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0, no changes)

About the Author

Eline D. Tabak is a PhD researcher in the environmental humanities at the Universities of Bristol & Bath Spa (SWW DTP) with a background in comparative literary studies. She studies narratives of insect decline, paying particular attention to how these stories reflect upon practices of care and questions of (in)attention regarding wildlife extinction. Before moving to the UK, she was a Cultuurfonds Fellow working on climate change fiction at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich, Germany.

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