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.

Who’s home or even whose home?

I decided to make this small addition to the Buzz Exhibition set, because, as well as seeing bees busy around flowers, you might just see a little solitary bee head peeping out at you from various holes.

Holes in the ground, in wood, in the dried and hollow stems of plants or in the old crumbling mortar in walls.
I always think the best nature guides have information about where you might find things.. and after all, “home” is where you will find most of us some of the time.
I took this a couple of weeks ago.  A little mining bee dozing at its burrow entrance just below our balcony.

bee at nest

So who might you see? A tawny mining bee looking up at you from her volcanic activities in the lawn; the wasp like white face of a Hylaeus peering at you from an old nail  hole in a wooden fence.

You might see the dark face of Osmia rufa, the orchard bee emerging from her new bee home which a kind hearted  person has provided for her.
If you are lucky you might catch a delightful male Megachile willughbiella complete with moustache and furry front legs. emerging from some crumbling mortar in an old wall or even an opportunist home in a garden hose, or old door lock.

It’s a lovely bee which I have yet to draw. I can’t quite understand why it is so endearing when wild things use our old discarded bits and pieces for their nests.
We had an old clock case in the potting shed where a robin made its nest every year and last summer my friend Gill ‘s son could not use his jacket until the wren and her little ones had decamped from the pocket. It’s a whole other set of paintings!

Who’s Home?


Watercolour and pencil on Arches HP 8”x 8”

There Will Be Apples!.. (if you have an Orchard Bee). Osmia rufa again.

I knew I was going to repaint this one, so here is this serious little mason bee again.

I have to be completely frank .. she is not the most elegant of bees.

The female bees have rather large heads, which plus the accompanying horns give her a rather pugnacious appearance.
She will use the horns to shape the mud for her nest.
I have written about the Osmia Orchard bees both UK and USA before here, so I am not going to say much more and there is oodles of info on the internet.

Solitary Bee Blog
One delightful and fascinating blog is from Paul at Paul lives near Paris and charts his life with his solitary bees and his successes and failures in trying to increase their numbers. He talks about his concerns, his observations and conclusions with affection and humour.
He doesn’t have fancy bee nests, some are as simple as beer cans and rolled paper.
He is a diligent and resourceful carer. I particular liked his use of a black socks to keep out the light and prevent his cocoons from premature emergence (from an early post here).
There are some short films with French bird soundtracks and lots of info about the care of Osmia rufa and cornuta
I am quoting a piece from his intro which is interesting, not only because of his appreciation for and understanding of these lovely bees but for the curious attitude of the French.

“According to the experts, each bee can pollinate up to ten times more flowers than a honey bee but they are in no way aggressive to those in their midst. Over here in France, they are often misunderstood by people looking on; where my ‘colony’ of bees live, the locals here refer to them as lazy bees because they don’t produce honey (and thus appear to be of no exploitable value). For me however they are a source of inspiration. What they achieve in their focused short existence leaves the world in a much better shape – in 2007 our orchards were full of fruit.”

I hope you are getting your message across Paul.

The Painting I changed the painting, made her a little smaller and daintier, and, in tribute to their unsung work in the orchards, she is now flying up towards apple blossom. .. I think this will also be the title of the painting…


There Will Be Apples.

osmia 2sm

Watercolour and pencil on Arches HP approx 7 x 8”

The Red Mason bee, Osmia rufa, first studies.

I have started my next series, “20 British Bees” with this little bee,The Red Mason bee, Osmia rufa.

I painted a couple of heads a few days ago here. This is the one whose female of the species, along with O corniforns and O cornuta, has little horns on her face which she uses to mould the mud when making her nest cells.

These bees are really delightful and not as destructive as people think. They rarely make new holes in your walls but rather use existing holes. This is an orangey-red haired bee, and very similar to O cornuta but as far as I can make out, rufa’s last two abdominal segments are darker and rufa is the most common Osmia species in Britain.

These nice hardworking little bees will do for the British orchard what BOB Blue Orchard Bee Osmia lignaria will do for the USA’s fruit crops. If osmia lignaria is BOB then osmia rufa should really be ROB 🙂 Research has found that:

“One female Osmia rufa does the pollination work of between 120 and 160 honeybees. Another advantage is that even in orchards which already have honeybee hives, when these are augmented with mason bees, there is a demonstrable improvement in yield, fruit quality and shape. The same is true when Osmia is the sole or major pollinator. And importantly, mason bees are not susceptible to the Varroa mite. The Red Mason Bee is docile and safe with children and pets. No specialist training is required in their use and they are never a nuisance to neighbours. They are also fun to watch and, by providing them with nest sites, their conservation is encouraged.”quoted from Cropfosters from Chris O’Toole, Bee Systematics and Biology Unit, Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Just as there are commercially available nests for osmia bees in the USA there are also many companies in the UK who can supply nests, and I think cocoons. These bees will not be active for very long, just from April to June.

These photos below are from “Bees of the World” by Christopher O’Toole and Anthony Raw, where there is an excellent section on the Red Mason bee. The top photo shows some artificial homes, with mud seals put in place by the female when the nest is complete.

osmai gathering mud

In these bottom photographs rufa is collecting mud and carrying it home in her powerful jaws.

“She uses mud to partition and seal the cells Several nesting females may find the same area of mud and their activities can create a distinctive hollow or “quarry”. She uses the horns to tamp mud into position when closing a cell.”

So look out for quarrying bees come April! Like other members of the Megachile family she carries pollen, not on her legs, but in the scopa of stiff hairs under her abdomen, see also Anna’s Megachile “Leafcutter Bee” here.

Interestingly,the above author, Christopher O’Toole, retired from Oxford University and set up the Oxford Bee Company whose products include bee homes and books about the Red Mason bee.
These products are readily available in the UK, and, if designed and approved by him, should be good!

The Paintings

IF all goes according to plan, the “20 Bee Paintings” and some accompanying flower paintings will be on exhibition in June. Things are still not decided yet but it means I have to get a move on. I am still deciding on format and size for the series, so this is a trial piece. Some sketches and trials..

os rufa sketch sm os rufa sm

Colour study, plus I have given her a nice nest hole in a wall with a handsome moustachioed mate.

mason bee sm

And then I added some ivy as well, which I have just sketched in for now. I will paint a final version, once I have really decided on the layout size etc

. mason bee and ivy sm

This bee project will be three months of work.. I do hope you won’t be too bored! …but I do promise some flowers and other things as well!

A Buzz in Middle C…Bumble Bees for Crops

The more I read about bees, the more the little bits of information begin to make sense of things I have casually observed over the years. For example, I used to think that when the Bumble Bee changed it tune from low drowsy hum to high pitched buzz it was a sign of extreme irritation or frustration.
Now I know better.

There might actually be a bit of frustration involved because what the bee is doing is shaking the anther of the flower to release the pollen inside.. clever thing!
I am sure that keen naturalists know this already but, while I understood that Bumble Bees were important pollinators I had no idea they were used on such a large scale by commercial growers.

How it works In some flowers, particularly of the Solanum family, i.e. eggplants, potato, tomato, and Vaccinium, i.e. cranberry, blueberry, bilberry and huckleberry, the pollen is contained in tube shaped anthers, with only a small aperture at the tip for the pollen to escape, rather like a salt or pepper pot.


Eggplant diagram from’s pollination guide here.

While a little pollen can be dispersed by wind or the action of insects bumping into the flowers, the Bumble Bee has a better method. It grasps the anther and shakes it. Here from a very good short article, from, Sue Rosenthal explains

“Bumblebees, … actively collect and eat not just nectar but also protein-rich pollen. And a bumblebee can cause a flower to discharge a visible cloud of pollen through buzz pollination.
The bumblebee grasps the flower with its legs or mouthparts and vibrates its flight muscles very rapidly without moving its wings. This vibration shakes electrostatically charged pollen out of the anthers, and the pollen is attracted to the bumblebee’s oppositely charged body hairs.
The bumblebee later grooms the pollen from its body into pollen-carrying structures on its back legs for transport to its nest”

Read more here. Susan also goes on to tell us that the

Buzz-pollinating bumblebees make a distinctive, middle-C buzz”… and that they also “use the energy of buzz pollination for other purposes, for example, compacting soil in their underground burrows (bumblebees don’t build hives like honeybees) or moving a pebble or other obstacle.”

They are so smart!

Great photo of Bumble bee (I think B impatiens) firmly grasping a tomato flower from Canadian tomato growers Gipaanda Greenhouses here. A company who seems to care about every aspect of production.

Here is a nice piece of film of Bumble Bees in action on a blueberry crop from KoppertBiological here.

It demonstrates perfectly the change in pitch as the Bumble Bee (I think B.terrestris) vibrates the flower.

While other native bees also use buzz pollination, Honeybees don’t, and it is estimated that 8% of the flowers of the world are primarily pollinated using buzz pollination.

Growers have tried alternatives.. such as electric toothbrushes or the commercial “Electric Bee” but the humble bumble is far more effective and cheaper.
Like Koppert above, the award winning company from Israel, here is one of growing number of companies who supply Bumble Bees for growers.
They have a very nice site explaining all about the pollination process and will provide you with a box of big bouncing Earth Bumble Bees ( Bombus terrestris), ready and eager to pollinate your tomatoes, peppers, strawberries, eggplants, courgettes, cherries, avocados and blueberries.
The bee boxes are fully equipped with sugar water and nectar and insulation.

bee box pic_1621

You can of course encourage your own little colony by providing them with boxes, like this ready made one from Ethical Superstore UK here.


or, for other ideas for nesting boxes from the Bumble Bee Conservation site’s “Join Our Nest Box Trial” here..

Of course after all that hard work, the Bumble Bees may just prefer that old coat pocket, so you could just console yourself with some of these….

Gorgeous smiling chocolate Bumble Bees… Ahhhh…..from The Chocolate Store here.