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Of Snailshell Bees and Where the Wild Bees Live.

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Sunday 20 May 2012

Of Snailshell Bees and Where the Wild Bees Live.

On Wednesday, to my great delight I saw the astonishing snail shell bee in action.

Earlier this year Trevor had very kindly emailed to tell me of a probable Osmia bicolour nesting location quite close by and so, on the only hopeful bee spotting day last week, we spent a fascinating couple of hours on a chilly but dry morning scanning a local south facing scrubby bank.

We were looking for the female Osmia bicolour bee who so charmingly finds  ready made homes in empty snail shells. She is quite small and extremely pretty with brilliantly coloured dark ginger hairs on her abdomen and a black head and thorax and not that easy to see in amongst the scrub and leaves. The first one we saw was just resting in a fleeting patch of sun and if she had been the only one I saw I would have been happy but like any good TV reality show the walk just got better.


None of my photos do justice to this lovely bee and her endeavours.. They are very quick and I had great trouble trying to focus but it is a record.

We then saw Bee number two, first examining an empty snail shell and then moving it around .. presumably to get the opening in the right position and sheltered from rain. We could not quite see how she moved it but from what I have read and blogged about before, (see my more extensive  “Bee-on-a-Broomstick” post  from 2010) they pull rather than push, holding onto the ground with their jaws and dragging the shell.  How ever they do it, it’s some feat…its a very large shell for a very small bee!

Along the way we also saw many dainty little grizzled skipper butterflies for which the site is being managed and protected. Trevor explained that this was the perfect time to see them and we must have seen about a dozen making the most of a briefly sunny morning. Their status is “HIGH” on the Butterfly Conservation priority list and they are becoming increasingly rare.

The grizzled skipper

We saw a couple more Osmias as we walked along and hundreds of snail shells.. why there I wonder? And then just as we reached the end of the bank one bee flew down into the grass to an almost completely invisible shell tucked in amongst some tufty leaves and I watched in complete fascination as she flew backwards and forwards with more pieces of dried grass and twigs to cover up her home.
It was transfixing! She was so very quick and so very busy, bringing now a short piece, then a longer piece and on one occasion a grass stem so long that its trailing end caught on all the surrounding tall grasses and had to be abandoned,  but not until she had made several frustrated approaches and landing attempts. The piece of grass must have been at least 8 times longer than the bee and her efforts were valiant, but you could see they were doomed. “No no”we said “get a smaller piece”.. its hard not to get involved!

You can just see the bee, the pale snail shell is just to her left. The long, abandoned, pale twig runs almost the full length of the foreground.

Here she is just over the shell having dropped off another stick.

We had to leave her to her building. She will have laid her eggs, maybe 5, in this shell nest, carefully partitioning off each cell with chewed grass and sealing up the end with more chewed grass and tiny pieces of stone. If all goes well the eggs will develop and the new bees will stay in their exquisitely designed home until the following spring.

I should add that we were very careful where we put our feet that day! I think I will be joining the Jain monks soon and shudder to think how many tiny things perish under a careless footfall.

We saw other wonderful things.. the tiny pretty field pansy, a huge female cuckoo bumblebee Bombus sylvestris, a brilliant Small Copper butterfly…


A beautiful lesser 3 bar moth…

an elegant green sawfly, beeflies and many more unidentifiable small mining bees,  but the snail shell bee was treat of the day for me.

Where do the Wild Bees live?

At the shows I am often asked “where do bees live” and there is no one easy answer, their nest choices are many and varied and I am learning more and more about their ingenuity and resourcefulness all the time.

Here in the Empty Garden I do, now, at last, have some Mason bees taking up residence in my bee house. 

A little black Hairy Footed Flower Bee has spent days excavating the roots of the struggling strawberry plants in the strawberry pot. She has left spoil heaps of soil on the paving stones and is constantly whizzing back and forth on a sunny day. Her high pitched zizzzz is quite distinctive.

There are big mining bees constantly trying to dig holes in the lawn and my friend Matthew gave me the remains of a Bombus pascuorum nest which had been found in a compost heap.

Many people have told me of Bumble Bee nests in birdboxes, often now the Tree Bumble Bee Bombus hypnorum and I have had several accounts of Leafcutter bees nesting in flower pots. Bombus lapidarius might be under your shed or in amongst tree roots.. and silly mining bees love to nest on well trodden paths with some predicable results.

On Friday I walked up behind the reservoir and found two sunny rape field margins where the pale dried surface of the earth was spotted with dark mounds of newly excavated damp soil. It looked like a little outbreak of measles.


A mining bee colony, Grafham, 18th May

Tiny mining bees were constantly coming and going, accompanied by what I think was a sand wasp who ran in and out of everything, both the bee nests and the newly formed cracks.


A pollen laden bee pauses over its nest hole before diving down

Sand wasp (??) emerging.

The mining bees are very funny and tend to sit just inside the nest.. in this field of pimples you know you are being watched by many tiny eyes.

A big Andrena bee was also investigating the holes but was far too large to get in. I was not really sure what it was doing.. whether it was lost perhaps or looking for a start.. why not use an existing burrow and save work, but these would have been a very tight fit. I do know that different species nest alongside each other but this seemed to be the only one of its kind here.  I wonder what the outcome was?


The Andrena bee investigating a hole..for size??

and taking a break, looking rather disconsolate after trying many holes.

The more I watch and learn, the more questions I have.. and biggest question of all is how can I possibly have enough time in one short life to answer even a few of them??  :)….
eg: Just why are there so many damp loving snails on a sunny dry bank in Cambridgeshire and why are the starlings stealing chunks of my newly planted lavender and chamomile. I read that they use it to fumigate their nests.. clever things!


Blogger Dani said...

And I thought there were only honey bees - well, that is all we see here. Fascinating - thank you :)

20 May 2012 at 10:49  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also found some Osmia bicolor last weekend at a BENHS meeting near Thetford, Norfolk/Suffolk.

Your rape field bees are either Lasioglossum or Halictus. The 'sand wasp' is in fact a bee and a species of Sphecodes, which are cuckoo's of the two genera mentioned. The large Andrena might be A. nitida but can't be sure.

With the snails, maybe you found a Songthrush 'snail anvil' (sometimes the shells aren't smashed but the contents are shaken out leaving an intact shell)?

20 May 2012 at 13:00  
Blogger SylGrant said...

Thank you so much for your information, art and photography. I love getting your posts in the mail and love hearing about bees and related. Your art work is amazing. Thanks.

21 May 2012 at 04:33  
Blogger Africa Gomez said...

Brilliant post! I loved your Antophora nesting in strawberry pots, I always wanted to have this sp nesting in my garden, I know what to try now. Is your pot in a particular orientation, south facing maybe?

21 May 2012 at 21:01  
Blogger sharp green pencil said...

Thanks all for your very kind comments..
Dani.. I am sure you do have other bees!! they will just be small and fast. :)
Alan.. thanks as always for your help. The snails shells were actually all along the bank. There must be something that grows in the summer which they like. I hope your osmia was putting on a good flying display!

Sly.. thank you thats very kind. I am really enjoying seeing the bees.. the snailshell bee was a real treat!

Hi there Africa. Well I am amazed to have this little bee in the pot. There is not much forage for her in my garden and I thought they liked to nest with others. But yes it is S facing very sunny and warm and dry.. I have a dilemma now.. do I water the strawberry or not?

24 May 2012 at 14:12  
Blogger Africa Gomez said...

Thank you Valerie! I shall try next year. I am not sure I would worry too much about watering your strawberries as bee cells are lined with a waterproof material, and being at the bottom of the pot is unlikely to be very flooded. Searching online I found somebody who succeded in atracting many A. plumipes with an artificial nest: an apple crate filled with loam(?) and let dry, although the video shows some sort of silty clay

24 May 2012 at 17:16  
Blogger Jane Adams said...

I can't begin to decribe how jealous I am of you seeing a snail shell bee - how wonderful to be able to watch it covering its nest. A treat!

You comment about the starlings interested me. I've been watching the goldfinches on the ground picking dandelion flower petals and flying off with them. I've read on a few sites they use them in their nests! They were very particular about the ones they took. It was obviously a special flower arrangement!

15 June 2012 at 19:27  

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