Bees, bees, bees...

Originally written and published in May 2014

It’s bee season. Honey bees, solitary bees, bumblebees; they’re all starting to become more active as the days warm up and pollen and nectar are produced in abundance. I made a bee ‘hotel’ for the first time this year, and I’m delighted with how popular it’s proven to be thus far with the red mason bees, Osmia bicornis. I’m writing this whilst sat underneath it, and they are making regular trips to and from the bamboo tubes in the hotel. I have about eleven tubes sealed so far, with more due to be sealed in the next few days I imagine.

It’s fascinating to watch the process of nest making. The female red mason bees choose a tube that they’d like to set up as a nest site, and it’s here that they’ll lay their eggs, in individual cells. They make numerous trips into the garden to forage for pollen and nectar (dandelions are popular at the moment) which they deposit in the tube. Once they have enough pollen they lay an egg and then start to make trips into the garden for mud, to seal up the cell. This creates a cosy self-contained little space for the egg to first develop into a larva which will eat the protein packed pollen, and then the larva will pupate into an adult bee and hibernate over winter. Come spring, the adult bee will burrow through the mud that is sealing the cell and emerge to mate and start the process all over again.

There are often several cells in a single tube, divided up with little walls of mud. Eggs that will develop into female bees are laid at the back of the tubes, with eggs that will become male bees at the front. Males emerge first and hang around the nest sites waiting for females to emerge so they can mate as soon as they appear. As this is the first year that my bee hotel has been in situ, there are no females to emerge this spring, but that doesn’t seem to stop the male bees from hanging around - the females that are setting up nest are regularly accosted and manhandled from the tubes by the eager males! One year too early I’m afraid chaps…

I’m hoping that we’ll soon start to see leafcutter bee activity. The process is the same, but instead of using mud to seal their cells and tubes, they use neatly cut pieces of leaf, which gives them their name. I’ve popped a rose bush underneath the hotel as they like the leaves from roses. It’s a bit too early for them to be on the wing though yet.

It’s quite easy to set up a bee hotel of your own. I’ve got off the shelf ones and my ramshackle homemade one, and it’s the homemade one that is in use at the moment; they don’t seem to be interested in the others! Should have saved my pennies… I used the instructions in Kate Bradbury’s wonderful book, The Wildlife Gardener. I highly recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in gardening for wildlife - it’s full of beautiful pictures and Kate has a lovely writing style - it’s a joy to read and is incredibly informative.

I’ll keep you updated on the bees’ progress. I could spend hours watching them…!