The Mason Bees.. some last days

I think the little colony of mason bees who have given us so much pleasure over the last couple of months are getting towards the end of their allotted span. I find myself feeling sad because they have been such a delight and we have become very fond of ”The Girls” Here are a few notes detailing their time with us.

A Brief Diary of the Mason bees

bee house

I was late getting my bee house assembled. Its frame was appropriately an old frame from Dad’s beehive with drilled logs, hollow plant stems, a ready made bee house and all mod cons.

I wondered if any bees would even find it, never mind make a nest there.
So, back in March I was ridiculously excited to find a female mason bee exploring the twigs and a hopeful male hanging around too.

March 20th:  First investigations


Following glorious warm weather a glossy bright and new female checked out the hollow stems

and a hopeful male arrived.


But nothing much seemed to happen in April. There were no takers for my bee house. It was so wet and so cold. I wondered if all the bees had died.  But gradually with the help of a few sunny days I began to see more and more of them flying.

The males and females will mate and then sadly the males die. It’s a very short life for them, but for the females things are  just getting busy.

They investigated every inch of the house and surrounding walls, every knot hole in the fence, every nail hole and crack in the mortar and even the definitely-too-large wind chime tubes.
Watching them choose their homes was fascinating. They went in and out of all the cardboard tubes and the holes I had drilled.
They even squeezed into much-too-tight ones and they tried some of the hollow plant stems.
But I was surprised  to find that they were not only picky, but rather modern in their choices.. rejecting the rustic and twiggy natural homes,  preferring the modern prefabricated regular and clean cardboard tubes..or is it that they are closer together and can maybe hear each other, perhaps they pass on information or just generate some extra heat creating a warm, welcoming and safe little colony.

Who knows what goes on in those little bee brains?

The wind chimes hang outside the kitchen window and on 25th May I heard a very loud resonating buzzing.
Thinking it was a bee caught in a web or in some sort of distress I looked everywhere. But it was a Mason bee trying out a windchime for size. It persisted for about 3 days, returning exploring,
weighing up the pros and cons and presumably enjoying the vibe!


Then hurahhh… back in the bee house on the 25th May one nest was completed, a time to celebrate!

On the 26th two..

Mason bees need mud to construct their nests and in a north facing corner of the garden we have a dank miserable patch of earth which I call Death Valley. Nothing grows there. It is always damp and always in shade, but I have learnt over the past few months that almost everything has its uses and it proved to be the Girls’ favourite mud-gathering quarry.
And not only my little colony but Mason bees came from all around.

At the height of nest building activity about a month ago I counted 25 bees busily running around and collecting little balls of building clay for walling up their nest cells.


They gather up balls of  mud in their strong jaws and carry it back to the nest. The ground is alive and buzzing! If you were to stumble upon this activity by accident you might well be alarmed…but the gentle Mason bees only have nest building on their minds!

They got off to a good start in May and we counted 9 tubes filled.. then everything stopped at the beginning of June. There was no activity for days and again  I wondered if they had died…but on a sunny day they started to reappear.

19th June

Slowly little black horned faces and twitching antennae came to the entrances of the tubes. They shelter in the empty holes..some even using my nicely drilled logs!

They waited until the sun warmed them up and sometimes seemed to confer before flying off to resume collecting pollen, nectar and mud.

IMG_0911 T

here was a rush of activity in the few sunny days we had, they returned to Death Valley to collect mud and sealed up at least 15 more holes. Since then the weather has been off and on and I have been busy. Sometimes I would pop out to see how they were doing. Little black faces sometimes yellow with pollen peered out from holes and occasionally one would emerge and wait for the sun before flying off. But activity has been declining.

27th June, Today
Today was warm and there is still some activity but perhaps only a couple of bees are left. To date they have completed or partly completed 35 cardboard tubes, one drilled hole in the log and one plant stem. But the remaining girls are looking a little shabby, a little bald and definitely faded. They are a little lack lustre and quiet.

mason bee poppy
One unexpectedly revelled in the pollen rich stamens of an early morning poppy.  The other stopped to rest on a sunny borage leaf.


She stayed on the leaf for about 15 minutes. A good opportunity to immortalise this hard working bee.  You can see quite clearly one of her strange little horns.

This evening just one bee was digging…

And here are my last two girls…at 7.00pm, doing what they do so beautifully and doing what gives them their name.
These are the Mason Bees… they build… they do not destroy!


At 7.30 pm they had finished. Their newly completed tubes are dark and still wet. They may not be the prettiest of bees but we have become extremely fond of them. They are as wild as a wild thing can be but we look out for them.

I don’t know how long they will continue before they just run out of steam.
With the turn of the year they are on the wane. In their carefully provisioned and sealed nest cells their grubs will spin cocoons and become tiny adult bees and wait.

They will wait until the winter is over.

Wait for a beautiful spring day next year to start a new generation of delightful Osmia rufas, the gorgeous and adorable red mason bees.   See you then little ones 🙂

The Humming House..Osmia rufas everywhere

I have found a temporary home, not yet the admirable one I am hoping for, but this little cottage will be fine for now and its setting is quite lovely. It’s only a few yards from the shore of Grafham Water and the 8.9 mile cycle track which skirts the waters edge, and bounces you through woods and fields, up, down and round the reservoir.
If I was happy about the location, I was even happier when, opening the car door to unload the luggage, I was met with a hum, a very loud hum. The whole building, two cottages and the outhouse were humming. The walls, roofs and the surrounding air were thick with the hum and buzz of clouds of bees, and it turns out we will be sharing our accommodation with hundreds of busy Osmia bees.
They are just everywhere, living in every nook, cranny, crevice, nail hole, airbrick space, and in every tiny chink in the mortar. They are in the eves, in the gap between the door frame and the bricks, they are behind the fascia boards, they are in the roof.

……….and out.

and out
Watching the constant to-ing and fro-ing is dizzying with lots of jostling for access to the nest entrances. The exposed holes in the structural bricks used for the decorative inset have all been enthusiastically colonised. Optimistic spiders have strung webs between the bricks but these robust little bee are not much deterred by them and clamber over or break through the sticky strands I have only seen one wrapped up and stored for later.

Spider’s webs draped across the bricks

The bees hum all the time. We are lulled to sleep with the hum. We are woken with the hum. I hear them in my dreams and I could swear that when you put your ear to the bricks, the cottage walls are gently vibrating.
Lost bees wander into the house and have to be rescued. Mating couples had to be gently and respectfully coaxed away from footfall and from under car tyres. They are out and about early and finish work late, endlessly backwards and forwards, carrying load of pollen for food stores for the developing larvae and mud to seal up the nest cells. I watched the females collecting mud from a nearby damp rut in the road. They will carry this back to their nests in their awesome jaws and tamp it down with their strange little horns. After three days this mud source had dried up in the sunny warm weather, but by the edge of the water they will, I am sure, find more. I filled a couple of nearby plant pots with wet earth.. just in case.

osmia collecting mud
Female Osmis rufa bees collecting mud at the side of the nearby road.

These pretty bees will not live to see their offspring develop into bees. The larvae stay in the nest, eating the pollen supplies, getting larger and larger, eventually spinning a cocoon in early autumn.
The bizarre and wonderful process of pupation sees them develop from grub to a little bee and they spend the winter hopefully safe and secure in their cocoons to emerge in the spring. Females may make make 5 or 6 nests of 6 to 9 cells. By the look of all the activity outside here there will be many more bees next year!
Below: I found a lost female bee looking wistfully out of the window this morning. You can see her little horns very clearly.

osmia at window
On being offered my helping hand, she happily climbed on board, after waving a worried leg at me.

I took her outside and she flew away. If you do have mason bees there is no need to fear them at all..they don’t sting.
Observing these bees now poses more questions than it answers. How far do they go to find water, mud and food? Why are so many bees using one hole. I know these are solitary bees but I have watched and counted ten bees using the same entrance. I suppose the wall is just full of individual nests. It must be honeycombed with nest tubes, It’s an odd thought that the fabric and insulation of the cottage is partly made up of sleeping bees.
According to the owner of the cottages the bees have been here for years. I wonder how much of the existing nest material they re-use and does that mean the nests are prone to parasites?

bee nest holes

A little yellow bottomed bee carrying pollen in her scopa is disappearing into the mortar. Some of the construction holes in the bricks are semi blocked. Is this old or new building? There is one at the top left of the photo.

Go to Paul’s Solitary Bee Blog where he has been recording his “beekeeping”(in as much as you can “keep” wild bees) for 6 years. His recent post “ Thank you solitary bees” details some key facts about these wonderful helpful friends of the gardener and pollinator of our fruits.
I wrote about, and painted, the red mason bee in my There will be Apples post last April. I am so delighted to be sharing some time and space with them here in Grafham…. a few sketches tomorrow!

Bright Little Blue “Berry Bee” Osmia aglaia

A thoughtful lady commissioned this little blue bee painting for her bee enthusiast partner.  We had discussed what might be most relevant for the area of the USA where she lives and I knew he was keen on mason bees so the beautiful little Osmia aglaia came to mind.

It is the blue “Berry bee” and not only are they the most beautiful colour and very dainty, but I also have 4 little specimens here to help me.  They had been sent to me last year by  Dr Karen Strickler who is the Queen of “Bobs” (Blue Orchard Bees) in the USA.

See more about her here at Pollinator Paradise. Here I on my hand are three little female bees, shimmering blue/greens in the light and with the characteristic large heads. There is one smaller male on the left who is distinguished by size and his nice white moustache.

osmia sps

The Osmia aglaia is another member of the most charming Osmia family of bees, they are in turn members of the Megachile family of leafcutters..

Oh, and an interesting little fact is that “megachile” means “big jaws”,  for cutting away at those leaves and carrying mud etc. I guess.
I know it is bad science to attribute human traits to insects but when you watch megachiles  for a while, they seem particularly pert, very business like… and very very charming!

Apart from being gorgeous, these little bees are extraordinarily useful to us because they pollinate many fruit crops amongst them the cane “berry” fruits particularly in the Pacific Northwest of the USA. They may be metallic blue, green or rust/bronze in color and nest in tunnels in wood,about 3/8 – 1/4 inches in diameter.

Sometimes these will be old holes left by beetles or woodpeckers (a bit dangerous I think as woodpeckers are rather partial to a bee grub or two ) or just hollow woody twigs  You will see them out and about as adults in the late spring, when the  Rubus is in bloom… but only in the USA. (We do have our own very beautiful Osmia bees here in the UK just not quite so colourful).


Image of osmia aglaia from USAD Raspberry Page. Photo Credit Steve Werblow, Homestead Magazine

Osmia aglaia are particularly partial to raspberries and are becoming more and more important to berry growers as the honey bee population is in decline. Jim Cane from the Bee Lab at USDA Agricultural Research in Utah and Karen have been seeing how useful they might be to local raspberry farmers in Oregon.

Read more about the Oregon Berry Bee project, here. Do your best to encourage these sparkling little bees into your garden. Plant some delicious soft fruit to give the bees some pollen and then enjoy the produce they help to create for you. Keep in mind that they seal their nest tunnels with mud, so a mud source nearby is handy.

They will look for food close to their nesting sites so they need flower and water sources to be close to hand.. or rather wing! Foraging is a hard work and uses up lots of energy so they don’t tend to venture too far from home. See a recent article about native bee pollinators in the USA here from


Osmia aglaia. The Berry Bee, approaching Raspberry flower

osmia sm

Watercolour and pencil on Arches HP … 9×9

I had an anxious nail biting wait of two weeks for the parcel to arrive in the USA. It’s sometimes hard, when you have spent a long time on a painting, to entrust it to the vagaries of the British and US postal services.
But eventually it arrived and I am so pleased that the little bee has found such a very appreciative home! I always tell my clients that if they are not happy they can return their bee to me!.. but they never do.
Somehow bees just creep into your heart somewhere.. sounds a bit soppy but it’s true…. 🙂

BOB, The Gentle Blue Orchard Mason Bee : Osmia lignaria

The headline that first caught my eye when I started reading about these bees, says it all.. “This Bee Is Gentle” … A fact that is reiterated again and again, here is a quote from “The New Mexico Native Bee Pollinator Project” calling on gardeners in NM to help make “bee corridors”;

“Gardens for the more flamboyant hummingbirds and butterflies have become popular; now the bees need our support. There’s a fear factor with bees however, even among nature lovers.
Honey bees sting because they have a treasure trove to defend, and a queen who lays all of the eggs. Not so with native species: the vast majority of them are solitary bees who ARE VERY DOCILE and do not sting unless they are handled roughly.

When we become educated about our bees, a new understanding develops that they can be both safe and a delight to have around.”

This comes from the USA site Pollinator Paradise which has as much information about Blue Orchard Mason bees and other helpful native bees as you could ever wish for. It is run by Dr Karen Strickler who I have to thank for information, samples and pointing me in the right direction for my research on these bees.
Orchard bees have many champions and I have been amazed by how many suppliers are selling mason bee items, you can buy mason bee homes, which come in many different varieties from high rise blocks to bundles of straws; you can buy mason bee videos, mason bee online courses, and of course the bees themselves which come as little cocoons with full owners manuals.

Blue orchard bees overwinter as dormant adults so you can watch them emerge in the spring ready to start work, For a comprehensive listing of suppliers of everything, go to Pollinator Paradise here. You will be there for hours..!

So why all the fuss? Well this little bee is an ace pollinator of fruit crops and again, in face of the honey bee decline, the native bees are coming into their own.
If you have a small domestic orchard.. apples, cherries and other tree fruit just 50 blue orchard bees will help secure you a good crop.
(These bees are endearingly referred to as “BOBs” by the US Dept of Agriculture and there is a good article about them plus their possible predators here.)


BOB, on apple blossom from Karen Strickland at Pollinator Paradise

Minor mining

Although these are “solitary” bees, with each female making her own independent nest, they are gregarious and like to nest close to each other. They are opportunist nesters and will use old insect holes in wood, nail holes, and spaces in crumbling mortar.
They are not destructive as often thought as they do not burrow into mortar, but just make do!

Their name mason bee comes more from the fact that they seal their nests with mud.. so they make rather than destroy. They also like old hollow canes and can have as many twenty nest cells in one cane. J

ean-Henri Fabre, who I mentioned in the last post had hoped to find some Osmia nesting in the upright hollow reeds used by gardeners and farmers for fencing and supports…..from “Bramble Bees and Others” 1915:

I have often explored them in the hope of finding Osmia-nests. My search has very seldom succeeded. The failure is easily explained. The partitions and the closing-plug are made, as we have seen, of a sort of mud which water instantly reduces to pap.
With the upright position of the reeds, the stopper of the opening would receive the rain and would become diluted; the ceilings of the storeys would fall in and the family would perish by drowning.

Therefore the Osmia, who knew of these drawbacks before I did, refuses the reeds when they are placed perpendicularly.


Smart these bees..!

diagram nest

Drawing by Mike Kridle from Pollinator Paradise here


The Orderly Queuing of Bees.. with just a bit of nipping and shoving.

The tubular nests are fascinating and it seems that the size of the bee may depend somewhat on the size of the tube. The bee painstakingly makes each cell, bringing pollen and honey to each, lays her egg, seals the cell with mud, then moves on.
The lava will eat the provisions, spin a silk cocoon and stay in this safe house until the spring. In a way that is still not understood the lava knows which way to face before it spins the cocoon, facing backwards would be a disaster as there is only one way out.
I detected a problem here… if the first bee at the back of the nest develops first how does it get out when its younger siblings are still in their cocoons?

“Bees of the World” by Christopher O ‘Toole and Anthony Raw explains:

“Because of the linear arrangement of the cells ..the youngest bee emerges first, followed by the progressively older bees. However as may be expected the oldest bees in the deepest cells often awake from their winter dormancy first.

An older bee is thus likely to meet with a still dormant bee in the next cell between it and the nest entrance.The problem is solved as follows: when the bee has bitten through the partition into the rear of the next cell it bites its way through the cocoon of the bee in front.
If the occupant is inactive the bee nips the rear of its abdomen. This awakens the second bee which begins to vibrate its wings.. Nipping is repeated if necessary until the bee nearest the entrance starts to bite its way through the nest enclosure

This is an empty cocoon which Karen Strickler kindly sent me.
It is a beautiful translucent thing, light but very strong and fibrous.. just 1/2inch long


It occurs to me that Orchard bee cocoons complete with housing would make a wonderful Xmas gift for the keen gardener and nature loving child.. and me… (taps Chris on shoulder!)

If you in the UK there is lots of advice in the Nigel Jones’s excellent “Solitary Bees” pages here. (interestingly Nigel appears to be a cat)

Bee Friendly Gardens

Dr Strickler has some good advice for creating a bee friendly garden here.
Attracting these little bees is more about getting the right flowers at the right time, as they are most active between April and July.

Bob sketches

This is a pretty bee, and another challenge as she is a shiny blue/black but also quite a hairy little creature. This is the female. The smaller male has a rather fetching moustache and longer antennae. I am saving him for later.




Bee number 14: Osmia lignaria, the very dainty Blue Orchard Bee

osmia lignaria blue orchard mason bee

Watercolour on Arches 300 HP, image 3.5”