The Bearded Mining Bee

Andrena barbilabris

By Gavin Ramsay

Photo: Silvery male Andrena barbilabris G. Ramsay

One of 68 UK species in this genus of mining bees, the action of this bee as it dives into its home of loose sand is something to behold. Although infrequently recorded in Scotland, this species is widely distributed and may be present in many more places than are already known. Look out for a small bee, diving head first into sand, then effectively swimming to bury itself out of sight and into its tunnel of loose sand. The entomologist John Walters posted a short video on X showing this behaviour:

Why does it do this? It must bring some advantages to counter the risky nature of living in such unstable habitats. Perhaps it makes life difficult for some of the usual nest parasites although it is still parasitised by its own species of Sphecodes.  Keep your eyes peeled in sandy spots and you may be rewarded by finding a new location. Its main season is April to June.

In Scotland you can find it in sandy eroded sections of river banks (the photos are of bees along the river Tay near Dunkeld), sand dunes and sandy areas of sea cliffs, sandy heathland and even sandy bunkers on golf courses!  In some parts of Europe, it thrives particularly well in sandpits formed where sand and gravel are extracted, hence its other name, the sandpit mining bee. Conservation biologists have noted that the common stipulations to reinstate such industrial sites when extraction is over may be damaging to populations of unusual solitary bees, including this one. This species is also one of the most abundant discovered in and beside urban pavements in Belgium!

Why the beard? Those stiff hairs probably aid its ability to shoogle through loose sand to get down to its nest. I haven’t been able to find research on this species, but tunnel depth in Andrena can be 10-20cm or even down to a metre or more.

Photos: Andrena barbilabris females beside the river Tay near Dunkeld
G. Ramsay.