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Monday 30 July 2012

New Bees in the Block and a Leafcutter.

New Bees
A few days ago I was delighted to see new bees exploring my bee house. Some are using the same sized holes as the mason bees and even some of the spare cardboard tubes and some have gone for slightly smaller holes that I drilled in a couple of logs. I watched them coming and going but not with any obvious leaf sections so I am wondering if this is another Osmia bee rather than a Megachile leafcutter. To my inexpert eye they look very similar!


The two photos show the same bee busy sealing up one of the drilled holes. She stands on the outside and works her way round the entrance sealing up the nest with chewed plant material. She works from the rim inwards. It’s a slow process involving many trips backwards and forwards.

Watching the bees returning to the bee house I am interested that sometimes they seem unable to locate the right nest. One sniff seems to tell them if it is right or wrong, but rather than land and try another entrance they take off and seem to need to reorient themselves and zoom in again. Sometimes it has taken 6 attempts.

They enter head first with, I am assuming, pollen for the bee bread, then they back out do a neat turn and reverse in to, again I presume, lay an egg. They are active early, as soon as the first rays of sun hit the bee house, this morning it was 8am. But they move slowly, noticeably speeding up as they and the day gets warmer… but then so do I. :)

Leafcutter cutting

Yesterday I was over by the lambs ear plant, looking to see if the woolcarders were about and happened to see a bee land on a nearby bindweed leaf. I have rather let things go here and “weeds” abound, the thinking is that something is better than nothing but now I find that this dreadful invasive plant has a use, because the bee rapidly cut a neat semicircle from the edge of the leaf and flew off.

They are fast…superfast. I ran to get my camera but the bee returned to her cutting twice before I could get a shot. I watched for about half an hour and she must have made 6 visits. She seemed quite choosy about which leaf, seeming to need a good starting point on the edge or to get into the perfect cutting position. As she cuts, she rolls the leaf in half and  flies with the folded section held under her body. Once she cut a piece so large she needed to land and rest on another leaf before taking off again.  Despite being fairly near my bee house this bee was nesting somewhere else, she sailed over the hedge, up and away,

Here is my only reasonable photo of the bee in action.

And here the neatly cut bindweed leaves. The precise pattern is distinctive of leaf cutter bee activity. Other bee friendly weeds, field pansies and field poppy stems in the same shot. There are many, much better photos of leafcutter bees in action on the internet and some short films...but it is nice to have my own record!

I have not been entirely clear as to which leaves the leafcutters use. I know they like rose leaves, other books say “various” leaves. But which ones and why? I wonder if they choose leaves which have chemical, possibly anti fungal properties. I wonder how they evolved this behaviour and I wonder at their industry and ingenuity. The wonderful French naturalist Jean-Henri Fabre who I have talked about before also pondered this. From “Bramble Bees and Others”

“the Osmiae make their partitions with mud or with a paste of chewed leaves; the Mason-bees build with cement; … the Megachiles made disks cut from leaves into urns; the Anthidia felt cotton into purses; the Resin-bees cement together little bits of gravel with gum; … Why all these different trades?”
Why indeed?

Close by the bindweed I have seen similar bees on the knapweed. You can see their funny and characteristic pollen collecting behaviour as they wriggle around the flower with uptilted abdomen transferring pollen to the stiff gingery hairs of the scopa. Again I am unsure of the species.

There is so much to learn and understand about bees and I am aware I am such a novice, but not knowing the exact species does not in any way detract from the sheer enjoyment of seeing them, hearing them and knowing you have provided a few of the right flowers.

Like the birds, bees come and go as they please. It’s the wildness of them all  that I love so much.

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Monday 16 July 2012

Our Little Blue Eyed Bee, Osmia spinulosa

Last week I had another very good trip with Trevor to the local wildlife site where I had seen the fascinating Snail Shell Bee back in May. See my blog post  Of Snail Shell bees and where the Wild Bees live.

The site is about twenty minutes by car from my house and the land is much chalkier. This may account for the huge number of snails and the consequent presence of the snailshell bee, Osmia bicolour. .. and, to my delight, another bee who uses snail shells for nests, the charming and blue eyed Osmia spinulosa.

We saw quite a few as we walked along and then were lucky to find a female fast asleep in the centre of a flower. She was completely oblivious to both us and our cameras and stayed like this for a good five minutes, only flying away after a beam of sun broke through the clouds and warmed up her flower.  From a casual glance you would easily mistake her for another species of bee. There are quite a few which have a similar orange haired scopa...but the eyes are the clue, the beautiful and unusual blue eyes which exhibit the strange Moiré pattern of the facetted compound eyes of bees.

We did not spot any of the shell homes, with the very lush vegetation at the moment it would be hard to find them as they are hidden away at the best of times. These little bees are more common in the south and you may find them on flowers of the daisy family in areas of undisturbed, rough tussocky grass.

Before posting this I checked the ID with my bee mentor Alan Phillips who also double checked with bee expert George Else so I am pretty confident about this one.

There wasn’t very much sun but enough to liven up the bees and encourage some butterflies. Meadow Browns were everywhere, we saw dainty skippers and this pretty Marbled White which stopped to feed on the knapweed.  


And lastly, almost invisible and resting on a fence post, a huge Privet Hawk Moth, our largest moth. On the wing it has an almost 5 inch wingspan.

What beautiful things they are with their silken wings and soft, pinky, brown-grey colours. (very, very paintable!)

Thanks again to Trevor for another illuminating walk. It is always a pleasure to walk with someone who is both knowledgeable and appreciative. Next time I am hoping to see the tiny harebell bee..if it ever stops raining!

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Wednesday 11 July 2012

The Woolcarders have arrived!.

I am back to the blog after finishing a big commercial job which has re-kindled my first love, of pen and ink work. It is the most wonderful medium and  I will be able to post more about the job when the website goes live. Also this week I have had to swap the tiny brushes for house painting brushes to try to catch up with the last bits of decorating and make the Ugly Bungalow more like home.

In between, when a ray of sun struggles through the rain, I go out and see what is happening in Bee World, aka the Empty Garden. The rain has done us some favours, newly planted trees have been happy and general growth of everything, particularly the weeds has been.. well …exuberant. And the garden is buzzing! Bees, hoverflies, and crane flies are everywhere. It really goes to prove that if you plant the right flowers they will come.  And, joy of joys,  I have woolcarders! 

The Wool Carder bee. Anthidium Manicatum

A day or two before I made the last post about the Mason bees I went out to look at the Lambs ears, Stachys byzantina in the garden and there to my complete amazement was a very handsome male woolcarder bee sitting on a leaf in a (fleeting) patch of sun. I had noted it down as 25th June.


Male Anthidium manicatum resting on Stachys leaf. You can clearly see the 3 fighting spines on his abdomen. He must seem to be a formidable opponent

In the spring when I planted a tiny little new stachys plant, barely a couple of leaves, I had no expectation that woolcarders would come.

In this new garden, nothing of much interest for bees would have been here last year, except the spring blossom of apples, cherries and hawthorn and we don’t have many well stocked gardens nearby. I grew the stachys in the hopes that eventually these gorgeous bees might find me and here they are!

So the questions are, where have they come from? Where were they last year? If there is no domesticated stachys available what would they use for there woolly nests?

In the occasional sunny spells I go out to watch them. The male is extremely entertaining and constantly patrols his patch of flower spikes. His life seems to be one of perpetual vigilance, for intruders into his airspace and for a visiting female. He occasionally rests on a leaf but his current preferred lookout spot is the plastic cover of the pond pump. It gives him a good view of approaching enemies or mates.

 Resting on the plastic pump cover

He is always on guard, his life a heady round of nectar, sex and violence.  Along may come an unsuspecting bee or fly, innocently looking for food from the little purple stachys flowers and he is immediately up and into attack mode:…dart to vicinity of enemy, hover, assess threat and strike.  He is very fast.  The hover flies seem to be just an irritant which he chases away but the bumble bees seem to be his particular bête noir! I have watched him knocking poor unaware bumble bees from the flowers they are feeding on.  He will hover for some time before striking. His loud high pitched buzz is very distinctive and I am noticing similarities in sound, flight and general behaviour to the earlier hairy footed flower bees.

The woolcarder family seem to be relatively late risers and don’t much like the rain either. It was about 10.30 am today before I saw them and after even a light  shower they vanish..where do they go and I wonder where they spend the night. ( My bee friend and helper Alan Phillips told me that last year his male anthidium spent the nights sheltering in the toilet overflow pipe!) Bees certainly do seem to emerge at different times of the day, the bumble bees, I know are out at first light and fly till dark. As for female nest building, I have yet to see any signs of them“carding” hairs from the leaves.

Here are some intruders who make the most of his temporary absences.


An unwary bumble bee.

A little solitary bee who was given just a gentle nudge.


A glittering green fly.


A bee mimic who was chased away


as was this little hoverfly.

Here is another photo of the male taken this morning, showing his handsome white haired legs and yellow mandibles. They don’t seem to worry about me or the camera. I guess we are just too big.

This is, I think, the female.. they don’t stop  for long, which is wise really!.. so they are hard to photograph. They are considerably smaller than the males with slightly different facial markings and slightly different spots on their abdomens.

For more information I have turned to my bee bible, the very excellent “Bees of Surrey” by David Baldock  and I am fascinated to learn that Gilbert White of Selborne  in 1773 was asking the very same questions. His Journal entry for August reads;

“Apis manicata. This bee is never observed by me ‘till the Stachys germanica blows, on which it feeds all day: tho’ doubtless it had other plants to feed on before I introduced that Stachys

David goes on to write;

“the females forage almost entirely on labiates including selfheal, betony, black horehound,hedge woundwort and garden catmint”

My woolcarders also feed on the nearby labiates, including the big ugly motherwort and the salvias, but they especially love the very beautiful meadow clary, salvia pratensis, whose flowers are deep purple blue and which has grown quite well on this heavy clay soil. I hope it survives the winter.


Meadow Clary


I do have some selfheal, but have not seen it busy with bees yet, my betony is struggling to flower and my catmint has been decimated by the neighbours cats.. despite being surrounded by a twiggy fortress and a sonic cat scarer.. The things we do for the bees!!

It’s raining now and bee watching is over for the day. I wonder how long these lovely bees will be around and if they will perhaps make use of my bee house in some way?

Over the months watching the bees and seeing their very special relationships with plants has posed many questions. Every day there are more questions. Some will be in the next post.

Now I am back to prettying up the Ugly Bungalow….. sigh…” lipstick on a pig” comes to mind, which has always seemed a bit unkind to pretty pigs.  

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