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 Tool Tower (and Bee Home)

The small towers which are built into the walls of the Walled Garden at Easton are fascinating and very appealing little constructions. I wonder what they were first designed to be? They do have names. One is called the Apple Store and this one is the Tool Tower. It is also a tower of bees because, just like the humming cottage here, the Osmia rufa have taken advantage of the holes in the decorative brickwork and made it their home, lots of them!

tool towerside sm      tool tower detail sm


A couple of sketches of the tower with its decorative brickwork.

brick notessm

There are different colours and sizes of brick and stone and quite an elaborate roof structure. The roofs have rather nice fishscale tiles which I should have made better notes of.

Nice home for bees!

Bombus hypnorum, here, there and everywhere.

The Natural History Museum list six bumblebees, “The Big Six” as being the most common bumble bees in the UK. But I think very soon they will have to add another because although this pretty bee is a relative newcomer to the UK, it is spreading fast. It’s the Tree Bumble Bee, Bombus hypnorum  which was first recorded in the UK in 2001.

It has very distinctive colouring, a ginger thorax and a  black abdomen with a bright white tail. Someone said it looks as though it has been dipped in white’s true.

b hyp

B Hypnorum colour key from Paul Williams great interactive bee identification charts at the Natural History Museum here.

I saw it last year in London and I have seen them everywhere I have been this year.
First in Dad’s garden in March.  Then at Easton on the 15th April buzzing around the plum blossom on a sunny wall.


B hypnorum Easton Walled Garden,  photo Val Littlewood

Then today I walked up to the Church in the village and saw one feeding on an arching bony cotoneaster, its flowers barely noticeable, which was crouching over one of the old graves there.

It’s a lovely and slightly unkempt churchyard. I like to wander around there. The wild flowers and unmown areas are great for bees.

hyp grafham church

The hypnorum above, accommodatingly showing its pretty white painted tail, was waving a warning leg at a little B Pratorum who had come too close.

The diminutive flowers of the cotoneaster were humming with them. They are tiny and so bright, a brilliant acid yellow as opposed to  the tawny yellow of the hypnorum. I wonder if they are newly hatched. They were very busy and whizzed about rather too quickly for me to get a good photo.

prat2      b prat

Bombus pratorum on cotoneaster, Grafham Churchyard

They are really delightful little bees. I had planned to get a painting of the Hypnorum done for this summer’s shows because people will be able to see them in many areas of the UK and they are very pretty.  I have just sketched it out for now and plan to show it feeding on the early plum blossom at Easton.

Easton Hypnorum sketch

Bombus hypnorum sketch sm

Meanwhile the Humming Cottage here is still humming, but our charming little Osmia rufa mason bees are slowing down. A few faded and balding bees are still getting into the house. I put them on the chives outside the back door.

osmis rufa faded

They bury their heads in the flowers and then, suitable revived, fly off.
I will miss them.

Some Osmia Sketches

The weather is still beautiful, if colder now and I am reluctant to be indoors. I spent most of the day out cycling and walking by the water, and failing miserably to get any good bee photos.

But eventually I made myself sit down with a sketch book, paints, a pencil and my models, two Osmia rufa bees. One male and one female.
Despite my best efforts to rescue, revive and release the lost bees (seven today), some have died.
I found 3 papery little bodies when we moved in, curled up on the window ledges.
As sad as this is I have to be practical and can make some studies which all helps my knowledge and understanding. And it’s a chance to pay a little homage.

osmia bee male

The males have long antennae and moustaches but are quite a bit smaller than the females.


osmias 2

Male and female Osmia rufa, casualties of .. well ….just of life… I guess.

Three days ago there were lots of males, now it seems just females are getting into the house.

I suppose they are looking for a nest site and have taken a wrong turn somewhere in the labyrinthine wall cavities.
I am trying to get back to some daily sketching after what seems like a long time.
Hopefully poco a poco, a little every day. 🙂

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!

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!