Key insect pollinators of spring

Free nectar in return for pollen-moving services is an ancient, ongoing trade between plants and insects. Our ID guide explores some of the most common early pollinating insects.

Insect on flower

Free nectar, in return for precise pollen-moving services — its an ancient trade-off between plants and insects that’s been going on ever since flowers evolved about 140 million years ago.

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Plants growing and flowering early in the year, especially in woods that are rather shady later in summer, are serviced by early pollinators — themselves taking advantage of a less-crowded if cooler season.

We take a look at some of the most common spring pollinating insects, including flies, hoverflies, shieldbugs and bees.

Common bee-fly

As it drinks nectar from a primrose with its long tongue, its wings beat so fast as to be invisible. It lays its eggs, bounce-bomb style, in the tunnels of solitary bees.

fly on flower
Large Bee-fly (Bombylius major) harvesting nectar from a Primrose flower/Credit: Getty

Brown hoverfly

Slim and shiny with orange-brown hairs, it is one of several similar hoverflies. Sallow blossom, blackthorn colt’s-foot and dandelion are favourites; it also visits thistles to lay eggs.

Fly on wall
Brown hoverfly/ Credit: Sandy Rae

Bumblebee hoverfly

Very large eyes and long narrow wings help distinguish this superb bumble-mimic. It is either all-over orange-brown or has a black abdomen with pale tail-tip. Visits sallow blossom.

Hoverfly on flower
Bumblebee hoverfly/Credit: Alamy

Shieldbug fly

Its bizarre, broad coloured wings make it look like a shieldbug, which it parasitises. It visits cow parsley and other umbels in wet meadows, damp hedgerows and woody edges.

Fly on flower
Shieldbug fly/Credit: Getty

Ashy mining bee

Distinctive white hairs on head and thorax contrast with a shiny blue-black abdomen in the female. Nests in well-drained soil. Often on gorse, hawthorn, buttercups and oil-seed rape.

Bee on ground
Ashy mining bee/Credit: Getty

Early mining bee

The large broad females have a bright orange thorax, shining black abdomen and orange tail-tips; males are narrower, brown and black. Often seen on dandelion and wood anemone.

Bee on leaf
Early mining bee/Credit: Alamy

Hairy-footed flower bee

Like a small squat bumblebee. A squadron of brown and grey males (with feathery feet) will pursue a black female as she darts round red dead-nettle.

Insect on flower
Hairy-footed flower bee/Credit: Naturepl

Early bumblebee

The first bumblebee out has a lemon-yellow collar band on its thorax, an orange tail and frequently a yellow abdominal band. It visits colt’s-foot, sallow and dandelions.

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Bee on flower
Early bumblebee/Credit: Getty

Garden bumblebee

Yellow bands across shoulder and thorax-abdomen join and a white tail. Its long head (and tongue) is linked to deep flowers such as dead-nettles, ground ivy, bluebells and comfrey.

Bee in flight
Garden bumble Bee/Credit: Getty