Did you know there are 267 species of Bee in the UK? I didn’t. My knowledge of bees is basic, although for some reason we learned a lot about the ‘waggle dance’ at university. It turns out that my knowledge of solitary bees is even more so. Up until this past month I had no idea that 90% of the Bees in the UK prefer to live a solitary existence. Unlike honey beesThey don’t live in a colony or ‘serve’ a Queen. Instead single female bees of Solitary species will build their own nest. Nesting materials vary depending on species.
Some prefer to site this underground, digging out a narrow tunnel to form a nesting chamber. There are even 3 species of solitary bee that nest in empty snail shells. Others are ‘aerial nesters’, choosing to build nests within cavities or hollow stems, as well as artificial ‘Bee hotels’.
Our ‘bee house’ is situated on the west facing wall of the farmhouse. It is attached (rudimentarily and precariously) to a downpipe, and is surrounded by flowers. Roses, nasturtiums, snapdragons and centaurea provide a plentiful supply of nectar which solitary bees use as a food source. I put it up at the beginning of Summer, hoping that it would attract some attention. Every so often I have brushed off cobwebs from the tubes, hoping that by keeping the entrances clear it would give potential occupants a chance to investigate. It must have worked, because last month someone paid a visit.
I had been tidying some of the potted plants on the patio when I noticed a bee buzzing around near the ‘hotel’. It flitted around outside before landing and crawling into it. I was ecstatic. I couldn’t believe it was being used. Not wanting to disturb our new arrival, I left the bee to continue its work without me ‘hovering’ over it. A couple of hours later, progress had been made.
Whilst marvelling at the neat cap that now covered one tube , I became aware of another visitor to the hotel. At first all I saw was the tail end of a bee disappearing into a tube, lugging a portion of leaf. The scrap of vegetation seemed to be almost half as long as the bee carrying it.
A leaf cutter bee! This female, working independently and parallel to the other, was also furnishing her nest. There are now 3 mud capped tubes and at least 2 leaf filled chambers.
Female solitary bees furnish their nests with everything their offspring need to make it to adulthood. Balls of pollen and nectar are placed in the cavity, with an egg laid on top. Several eggs may be laid in one tube, with ‘partition walls’ dividing it up into individual rooms. Once the nest is full, the bee seals the end. The choice of sealant varies – mud, chewed leaves or even fine hair.
If I asked you to picture a bee in your minds eye, chances are you would see a honey bee or a bumble bee, rather than a species of solitary bee. But Solitary bee species are just as important, if not more so, for the survival of humans . 1 in 3 mouthfuls of food we eat relies on a pollinator species. Solitary bees are more efficient pollinators than honey or bumblebees. In fact, a single mason bee can do the work of 120 honey bees, making them incredibly important for food production.