Recycling – Solitary Bee Style

Our resident Hylaeus (Yellow-Faced Bee) has finally stopped nesting in the Oasis house… and the new spot she has chosen is interesting to say the least!

She’s taken over a cell that has recently been vacated by a Mason Wasp who hatched out this year. I initially saw a small, black insect going in and out of the cell and assumed that it was another Mason Wasp, perhaps one of the smaller species, until one morning I saw this tiny face looking back out at me.

When she’d sealed the cell, it looked like this. Hylaeus bees use a form of resin to seal their nest cells which is almost transparent. It doesn’t photograph brilliantly but it’s to the right of the nest hole here with the Mason Wasp original mud capping still in place on the left.

After finishing this nest hole the Hylaeus moved to another (empty this time) cell in another part of the same beehouse. She seems very protective of her nest cells and is unwilling to leave them, even at night. I found her bent double in this almost finished cell – the only way she would fit. This didn’t look like the most comfortable position but she was still there the next morning!

I’m not sure how common this type of nest tunnel recycling is, but if anyone knows I would love to find out! I’ve noticed the Leafcutter bees re-using cells that have been vacated by Mason Bees – but they clear out every trace of the former occupants, whereas this Hylaeus seemed to be taking advantage of the tunnel size and shape left by the wasp.

Weekend Round-up, 26th-28th May 2018

It’s been the second Bank Holiday weekend in a row where we’ve had gorgeous weather, so it was a great opportunity to spend some time in the garden.

On Sunday I constructed a makeshift hide out of potted plants and trees on the top patio and sat out for most of the day with my camera. This got me a little bit closer to the bird feeder and the change of angle meant that the background was a lot more pleasing to the eye (taking photos from the kitchen window catches the brick wall of the garage as the backgound) –

I also had a great view of the bird bath and was pleased to get my first ever picture of our regular Coal Tit visitor. He’s normally in and out of the garden in a flash, shooting from the hedge to the feeder and back again in seconds. I also hadn’t seen him use the bird bath before so this was a real treat –

The bird bath was busy for most of the day due to the heat. I have to say I was slightly jealous at this point – I was so warm that I’d have loved a human sized pool in the garden.

The first fledgling Sparrows were out and about too. They aren’t too sure about the bird bath yet, having a quick dip and then retreating to perch on the garden furniture to dry off.

The Bumblebee nest is still going strong, though I am slightly worried about the Red Mason bees. We started off this season with 22 completed nest tunnels, and yet now the Mason Bee season is starting to end we only have one completed nest tunnel. I have to say I’m a bit upset about this as I was sure we’d have loads of completed nest tunnels based on the amount of bees we had this year. The majority of them seemed to disappear over a weekend and left nest tunnels half completed.

I was watching the bee houses when I noticed activity in a house that so far hasn’t been used this year. At first I thought it was an early Leafcutter bee, but Twitter informs me that we are hosting our first ever Orange -Vented Mason Bee (Osmia leaiana). These bees seal their nest tunnels with plant mastic – essentially chewed up leaves, so I am eager to see a completed nest tunnel.

She’s to be found mainly pollen gathering and drinking nectar from the Cornflowers in the garden. They must be her favourite as she visits them all in turn several times a day.

So all in all, very much a weekend of mixed fortunes.

A case of mistaken identity

When I got back from the apiary on Saturday afternoon I went straight out into the garden to finish off some small jobs I’d started in the morning. Only to come flying back in straight away to grab my camera as I’d seen that another batch of Mason Bees had started hatching out.

IMG_7878-1-2

IMG_7882-1-2

A huge male Mason Bee hauled himself out of one of the tubes – I’m guessing he was causing a bottleneck as three smaller males tumbled out straight after him. The large male plunged straight to the floor so I picked him up to move him to a safer place.

He was so comfortable on my hand that he started an extensive grooming regime which included pooing liberally on me – this is a first, and I think it must be some kind of post hatching cleaning ritual. Poo aside, this was great as it was lovely to be able to get right up close for a good look at him and to take some pictures.

As I mentioned, this boy is huge for a male Mason Bee – he’s about the size of a female. This meant that every time another male saw him, they presumed he was a female and grabbed him. There wasn’t a great deal he could do about it, as newly hatched bees seem a bit woozy at first. All he was trying to do was get himself clean and come around from his long winter sleep. But every time he was spotted, a confused male bee would latch on.

On arriving home last night the first female bees had started to emerge, so I’m hoping that this poor chap will finally get some peace!

Weekend Round-up – 12th – 13th May 2018

The garden is continuing to burst into life now that Spring is finally here!

The first workers have started to emerge from the Buff Tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) nest in the garage wall. They’ve found a really good pollen source somewhere – they are bringing bags of it in. I’m really looking forward to being able to watch this nest at close quarters over the summer.

There was another big Mason Bee emergence on Saturday, still only males so I am presuming that the females will start hatching out soon.

I was honoured to see that my all time favourite bee, the Ashy Mining Bee (Andrena cineraria) made a visit to the garden! This appeared last year, predictably just after I’d driven all the way to Brockholes nature reserve to see them! It’s a beautiful bee with black and white stripes. I still don’t have a decent picture of one, so I hope it comes back.

I was also pleased to see another Orange Tailed Mining Bee on one of the new clematis we have just put in – I think she approves!

And another unidentified Mining Bee hanging out on the trellis. I need to find a way to create a suitable habitat for them to nest in here!

On the mammal front we were supervised during an early morning gardening session by a Field Mouse I have nicknamed Ferdinand. I haven’t managed any daytime pictures of him yet, but I have managed to capture him on the trail cam.

Mason Bees emerge in the garden!

I’ve been patiently waiting for the Red Mason Bees to emerge since I put the houses back out at the beginning of April.  Predictably, almost the minute that I did, we had a spell of weather so cold and autumnal that the heating went back on(!), accompanied by monsoon-like rain.

This week though, there were some hopeful signs.  The weather gradually warmed and I saw the first Red Mason Bees at NQ Growboxes at the start of the week.  Things tend to emerge earlier there than in our garden due to it’s city centre location – it’s usually 3-4 degrees warmer there than here in North Manchester.  With the temperature set to sky-rocket and it being the same few days that the Mason bees emerged last year, I knew I’d be keeping a close eye on the beehouses this weekend.

I’ve never seen Red Mason Bees emerge from their nest cells before.  For the past few years they have hatched out on a weekday, when I was safely at work.  I was quietly hoping that this would be the year I’d get to see this for myself, and hopefully get some pictures!

When I arrived home from work last night, a couple of males had hatched out and were patrolling the area round the nest box!  There were still another 20 sealed cells though, so as soon as it got warm this morning I headed outside with my camera.

The males had resumed their patrolling duties, until I noticed one of them had stopped and alighted on a bee house where he seemed to be trying to burrow into one of the sealed cells.

IMG_7405-1

A moment later, a Mason Bee broke through the capping and out of the cell, he was so fast that I wasn’t quite quick enough with my camera and only managed to catch a couple of shots as he hauled himself out-

IMG_7411-1IMG_7412-1

 

Where he was immediately pounced on by the male waiting outside.  A short scuffle later, and the disappointed ‘midwife’ male retreated once he realised that the freshly hatched bee was not a female.

By this time a scratching noise could be heard coming from several cells as bees chewed through the mud cappings sealing them, so I settled back down to wait.  Not long later I saw a small hole opening up in one, and I managed to finally capture a Red Mason Bee taking his first look at the world!

IMG_7451-1

IMG_7450-1.jpg

Once emerged, he stayed on the beehouse just long enough for me to get a photo – I can’t believe how fresh and bright he looks here.

IMG_7442-1.jpg

5 more cells have hatched today, so the area round the beehouses is currently swarming with males waiting for the females to emerge.  Such a difference from a week ago, when it was still rainy and cold!  I’m looking forward to watching the bees over the coming weeks, and fingers crossed they choose to use the several brand new empty beehouses I’ve put out!

Bumblebee Nest Box Project

The latter parts of last Winter felt like a long old slog. We had several snowfalls from December through to Match and while I love snow and those half light Winter days, I found myself impatiently waiting for the first signs of Spring. In preparation for when the warmer weather would eventually arrive, I decided to start work on my beehouses and habitats in the garden.

My first project has been a Bumblebee nest box. It’s a bit of an experiment. Last year I was the grateful recipient of a bird box containing a nest of Tree Bumblebees who had taken up residence in my Mother in Law’s garden. Tree Bumblebees, despite what their name suggests, are famously adaptable and will nest just about anywhere they think looks comfortable – one nest was found in an old tumble dryer outlet hose! They seem to love bird nesting boxes –

This has the added benefit that they can easily be moved if they are inconveniently situated.

I’d enjoyed watching the comings and goings from the nest box until the end of the season. When the new Queens emerged and the nest died out, I missed them. I wondered if there was a way that I could encourage them to return to the garden this year, and maybe set up home?

Bumblebee Nest Box Project

You will need :

– A bird box. Mine comes from Wilkinsons – their boxes are good value and I use them as the basis for many of my bee habitats.

– Some garden moss

– Animal fur (optional). Mine was loose fur kindly donated by my cats after I’d combed them.

Firstly choose the site where the nest box will be placed. It needs to be somewhere where the bees won’t be disturbed and the nest box won’t be subject to vibrations. Tree Bumblebees live quite happily alongside humans but on rare occasions they have been known to act defensively if they feel their nest is being threatened. So choose your site carefully – mine is placed on a wall right at the back of a flowerbed, at a height of around 7 feet from the ground.

Double check that the bird box fits securely on it’s fixings, so it is flat against the wall and won’t blow around too much in the wind. This can be a problem in my garden which is a bit of a wind tunnel, and I sometimes have to reshape the holes on the back of the bird box slightly to make sure they fit properly on the nails used to hang it.

Collect your moss – there is no shortage of this in our shady garden after winter. Let it dry out for a few days so it isn’t damp when it goes into the box.

Once your moss is dry, place it and the animal fur if using into the box. We are trying to make it feel like the box has been previously used as a birds nest, which seems to attract bumblebees. Screw the front onto the box and hang, and wait to see if it attracts visitors.

I couldn’t believe it when, just a couple of days after hanging my box I saw a Tree Bumblebee Queen going in and out of it! After a few days of furious activity, it all went quiet again so sadly I think something must have happened to the Queen. I hope that as one Queen found the box and liked it enough to start nesting, others will – so I will be keeping an eager watch for the rest of the season. Who knows, maybe one of last year’s Queens will emerge from hibernation and find it?

A strange place to sleep…

I put some empty bee houses up a couple of weeks ago, and as dusk falls tonight one of them is housing an unusual inhabitant…

She seems to be roosting. I’m not sure why she hasn’t chosen one of the largest tubes as she could fit her whole body in there. But who am I to question?

My first Early Bumblebee of the year. Spring is definitely on the way.

The Leafcutter Diaries 3 – Balsam Days

One day while watching our Leafcutter, I realised that her behaviour had subtly changed.  Usually her foraging trips were short – she would leave to collect pollen and nectar and then return only a couple of minutes later.  Now her trips were 15-20 minutes long, and when she returned she’d started to land and rest near to the beehouse for a couple of minutes before resuming her nest building activities.

Her appearance had also turned a touch ghostly.

36110089515_f6285fdccf_k

Despite her now distinctly mouldy looking appearance I didn’t panic – I had seen this before in honeybees.  Our Leafcutter had found a patch of Himalayan Balsam somewhere.

Himalayan Balsam is a striking, pink flowering plant which grows to about 2m in height. It was introduced to Britain in the 19th century as an ornamental plant.  Unfortunately it is now one of the UK’s main invasive plant species.  It very quickly colonises and overcrowds native species, killing them off.  Despite it’s pretty appearance, it’s a bit of a thug – our apiary backs onto a riverbank where Himalayan Balsam grows, and each year we find strands of it growing straight through the concrete apiary floor.

Balsam

It’s very common on waterways – it is found on all of Lancashire’s main rivers.  I don’t have a major river near the house, but there is a brook about ten minutes walk away – this would also explain the increased length of our Leafcutter’s foraging trips.

At first thought, it seems odd.  Why would a bee expand so much energy flying to a plant some distance away, when there were perfectly good alternatives nearby?  One of the reasons that Himalayan Balsam is so successful in dominating other species is that the nectar it produces is so beloved by bees.  Given the option they will choose Himalayan Balsam over most native species of plant.  And when entering the flowers to get to the nectar, they are covered in the plant’s white pollen – which they then take to another Balsam flower.  Therefore Himalayan Balsam has evolved to ensure that it is very well pollinated – at the expense of the nearby native plants which suffer decreased pollination and therefore slower growth as a result.

While not a notifiable invasive species like Japanese Knotweed, it’s now widely recognised as a problem and parks, nature reserves and estates try to keep it under control by holding ‘balsam bashing’ days.

While I’m not the greatest fan of Himalayan Balsam for the reasons outlined above, our Leafcutter certainly seemed to be thriving on it.  She very quickly finished another nest tunnel.

35512408840_073e766da6_k35731013362_a614bb5823_k35060849274_06b0bfb497_k

The Leafcutter Diaries 2 – 8th July

I’d seen ‘our’ Leafcutter roosting in the beehouses for a few weeks now, but tonight was very happy to see that she’s started nesting there!  As I went out into the garden after work one night I saw her going to and from the beehouse, returning each time clasping a section of leaf before taking it into the tunnel.

I grow a rose bush in the garden especially for Leafcutter bee nesting material – I’d read that rose leaves are their preferred choice when constructing nests.  I’d been watching this carefully to spot any signs that it was being used with no joy, and each trip the bee made to fetch leaves was very short – with only a minute or so between her leaving the beehouse and returning.  So where was she going?

It didn’t take me long to find the answer.  About 6 feet away from the beehouses is a Snowberry bush, and this showed the tell-tale signs that a Leafcutter bee had been at work.

34952356153_7eb9a70a4e_k

That night I also managed to get a shot of our Leafcutter bee-hind, which meant that from this and her size I could finally identify her as a Wood-Carving Leafcutter Bee (Megachile ligniseca)

35721645916_d0296159cf_k

I staked out the beehouse over the weekend and managed to get a shot of her bringing a leaf back to the nest.

35678801741_346dc5b21e_k

I thought she must be getting close to finishing this nest as she seemed to be ‘auditioning’ new tunnels in between completing the current one, flying around the front of the house to view all the options and popping in and out of tunnels for a closer look.

Then by the end of the weekend, she’d finished!  Leafcutters always seem to like to finish a nest off by sticking a full leaf to the front for a final flourish.

DSC_1044

 

Leafcutter Diaries 1 – 21st June 2017

Every evening when I get home from work one of the first things I do is head on out into the garden.  I love to potter around for 5 minutes of so, filling the bird feeders and checking out what’s been going on – it gives me some much needed reprieve after a long day at work and busy commute.

Today as soon as I opened the door I could hear a strange crunching noise coming from the bottom of the garden.  I headed down there and found the source of the noise at the beehouses.  One of the houses I made this year was a bit of an experiment and uses dry plant oasis as the nesting material.  It was this house the sound was coming from.  I made myself comfortable and waited.

As it happens I didn’t have to wait long before the culprit emerged – a Leafcutter bee!  She was entering each hole and chewing them to make them precisely the right size for her.  Every couple of minutes she’d back out of the hole, pushing the ‘spoil’ out behind her as she went.  I ran for my camera and managed to get a couple of shots but the combination of the dull evening light and her frantic activity meant that these weren’t the best.  All the same, I wanted to record this.  We’d had Leafcutter bees in the garden before foraging, mainly the smaller Patchwork Leafcutter bee (Megachile centuncularis), but this was the first time I’d ever seen one near the beehouses.

35450432395_ac19e65df6_k

This Leafcutter seemed larger than the normal foragers though.  I knew there wasn’t much possibility of being able to ID her (she had to be female as the chewing is nesting behaviour) due to the amount of oasis she had stuck to her body.  I’d just have to hope she found the accommodation on offer acceptable and decided to stick around!

34608849074_69d9afb664_k

Goth Bumblebees, some unlikely garden visitors

A couple of weeks ago I returned home from work to find that my mother-in-law had been trying to reach me.  The reason?  Her window cleaner had reported that there were bees in a bird box attached to the side of the house, and she wondered if I could help find out what they were.

Without even seeing them I was pretty certain of what they would turn out to be – Tree Bumblebees!  The window cleaner had said they definitely weren’t wasps, and a nest box is too small for Honey Bees to set up home in, so Tree Bumblebees were the most likely candidate, as they are a species that particularly love bird boxes.

Tree Bumblebees are a species that’s relatively new to the UK, having first been spotted in the South in 2001.  In the years since, they have spread to colonise much of the rest of England and part of Scotland.

Their rapid spread across the UK has been put down partly to their adaptability – they forage on a wide range of flowers and are aerial nesters who are not too demanding in terms of suitability of nest sites.  Oh, and the fact that in the UK we love our bird boxes, which are reminiscent of a Tree Bees favourite nesting spot – a hollow space within a tree.  This means they love urban gardens and are a frequent visitor to many.

Tree Bumblebee recorded sightings 2007, from the NBN Data Gateway – 2007

Tree Bumblebee recorded sightings 2016, from the NBN Data Gateway –2016

I went round the next day to take a look, and verified that they were Tree Bumblebees.  The male bees swarming around the entrance hole was a dead giveaway – behaviour that is common at this time of year as male bees hang around hopefully to see if an un-mated Queen will emerge.  My mother-in-law is not the greatest fan of bees, mainly because her daughter is badly allergic, and as the box was just outside her patio door their presence meant she was prevented from being able to leave the door open in the heat.  So I quickly volunteered to move the box containing the nest to my garden a mile down the road to look after for the rest of the season.

That weekend we waited until after dark to move the bees.  We arrived armed with a sponge which I used to block the entrance hole before removing the box from the wall.  Then we undertook a fairly nervous car journey with the nest encased in a carrier bag – an insurance policy in case the sponge fell out!  The bees within buzzed loudly as they knew something was up.

On returning home I quickly hung the box up on a nail I’d stuck in the side of the garage earlier.   The sponge was left in place – if it’s removed in the dark the bees may emerge and then not be able to relocate the nest.  I went to bed that night happy that the move had gone well, but worrying about whether our new garden tenants would have enough oxygen within the nest to see them through the night(!)

The morning came and to our surprise, the local male Tree Bumblebees had located the nest and were beginning to swarm around the entrance.

IMG_9191x-1

I nervously removed the sponge blocking the entrance hole to the sound of the now familiar buzz rising as the bees inside felt the nest box move.  I was convinced that the bees would pour out to see who or what was interfering with their home so beat a fairly hasty retreat, but only a couple flew out.  They immediately began taking orientation flights – flying in larger and larger circuits around the garden and then returning to the nest before setting out again.  This allows the bees to map the location of all the local landmarks (specific plants, the compost bin etc) which will allow them to find their way home again.

IMG_8649x-1

It was a couple of days later that I finally got a closer look at our new guests.  And I got a bit of a surprise – Tree Bumblebees are a very distinct bee with a bright orange thorax. There’s no other UK bumblebee that looks like them so they are very easy to identify.

21392173081_de0be5776b_k.jpg

There are more uncommon Melanistic variants though, where the orange is either faded or missing, meaning the bees are almost completely black.  And that’s what we had!

IMG_9265x-1.jpg

They are really stunning, and of course their unusual attire means I have to call them ‘Goth Bees’.

They have now been in the garden for a week, and seem to be getting used to their new surroundings.  On one particularly hot day this week I arrived home to find a group of bees clustered around the entrance hole, using their wings to fan warm air out of the nest.

IMG_9289x-1.jpg

These bees are excellent thermoregulators, fanning the nest to cool it if it’s too hot, or clustering together and using their flight muscles to ‘shiver’ and raise the temperature if it’s too cold.  They keep the temperature within one degree of 30 degrees centigrade at all times.

Many more male Tree Bumblebees are visiting daily – some days there are too many to count.  The females can get quite grouchy about this – yesterday I saw one female repeatedly grab male bees and physically fly them away from the nest.  It didn’t seem to stop the tenacious males returning, however!

The fact that the males are here means that it’s almost the end of the season for this nest. The new Queens will emerge and mate, before leaving the nest for the final time and hibernating until next year.  The bees within the nest will die off and the Tree Bumblebee cycle ends for this year.  My father in law can then have his nest box back! I’m going to miss these little bees once they are gone, so I’m going to site an empty nest box in this location, containing a little moss and animal fur to encourage Tree Bumblebees to inhabit it next year.  Who knows, maybe one of this year’s new Queens will take up residence?

It may only be a few weeks now that I get to spend with these bees, so I’m going to make sure I enjoy them while I can 🙂

IMG_9268x-1.jpg