Thoughts of Mason bees and faeces

I have a shop bought bee nest that I have hanging in the front garden on the lilac tree.

Bee house in lilac tree

Bee house in lilac tree

I have been interested in increasing the number of solitary bees nesting in the garden and I was hopeful that in doing so any observations might be useful to others attempting to do the same thing.

One thing occurred to me was that while it was very easy to obtain lots of information on different patterns of nesting boxes to tempt these little furry friends to nest, there was less on what they would be eating.

I noticed that my Mason bees (Osmia rufa) were busy building nests on the 2 April last year (great things digital cameras, for dating your photographs!).

Mason bee checking out holes

Mason bee checking out holes

That means that the males probably hatched mid March, assuming that the females hatched about two weeks later and got straight onto the business of building nests.  The bees are short-lived and the females only live for about six weeks.  Mine were not active for as long as that, at least I did not observe them for as long as that.

But more than the flowers, it is the time for blossom in the trees.  The willow and plum trees in the garden were in flower in March, the rest followed on in April.

Bee in pear tree early April

Bee in pear tree early April

Bee in plum tree early April

Bee in plum tree early April

What I did next was to check out what flowers were flowering in the garden then.  I was quite surprised by what was around in the photographs and what was being visited by bees and other insects.  Aubretia, red dead nettle (Lamium purpureum), lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria), wild violets, Sarcococca confusa, winter honeysuckle (lonicera-fragrantissima), lamia, Starof Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum) and hellebores were all out when I checked back. That was just in the garden and I’m sure there would be more wild flowers; I certainly saw a lot of violets on my walks.

Bombus muscorum, in red dead nettle, ( Lamium purpureum)

Bombus muscorum, in red dead nettle, ( Lamium purpureum)

Bee on red dead nettle

This bee had no problem finding pollen at the beginning of April

This is completely circumstantial guesswork as to what the Mason bees could feed on but I felt reasonably smug about my photographic detective work……Then I read “Food Plants of the red Mason bee  (Osmia rufa L.) determined based on a palynological analysis of faeces” by  D a r i u s z T e p e r (Journal of Apicultural Science, Vo. 51. No.2, 2007).

This paper explains how a nest of Mason bees was observed over two seasons. The nest was covered nightly by a net so that the bees were prevented from making a quick escape in the morning.  The bees, taken short, were obliged to relieve themselves on the net before being released to go about their daily business of nectar and pollen gathering.

The researcher then painstaking scraped off the faeces from the net and made slides for microscopic examination to determine the origins of the pollen that was still undigested enough to be identified.  Now that is what I call dedication.  It puts my trawl through my old photos into perspective.

A simpler method would be to destroy the nest and examine the pollen packed around the eggs or to try extract some but leave the eggs in the hope they would hatch.  Teper’s method, however, is not invasive and does not destroy the eggs.  According to the paper the Mason bees visit twenty two families of plants, most of which provided the bees with both pollen and nectar but  29 % provided the bees with only pollen.  Among these pollen providing species are wind pollinated plants such as the Beech, Walnut and Oak.  Wind pollinated plants provide ample pollen which is much needed to provide the protein for the growing larvae inside the Mason bee nests.

The willow tree (Salix alba) at the bottom of the garden may be an ideal site to try another homemade bee house.    I am a little bit behind on the preparation of new nest boxes but I hope to remedy that in the next few days.

Buff-tailed bumblebee  (Bombus terrestris)

Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

I can’t resist posting a photo I took on Thursday (8.2.13) of the queen bumble bee (buff-tailed, I think) out foraging.  It was only about 8 degrees C but we had some sunny spells that we have not had for a while.  She had obviously  felt the need to stir and pop out for a bit of refreshment before settling down again somewhere warm.  She reminded me I had to stir and get active if I wanted to attract more solitary bees to the garden.

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27 thoughts on “Thoughts of Mason bees and faeces

    • They are so common in the UK garden centres that I thought (incorrectly!) that they were universal. Other insects might be quite interested in a nice, dry space to pass the winter or lay their eggs and I think they are sometimes euphemistically called “insect hotels”. I have only noticed the mason bees in mine but I am sure it will depend on the area that you live in, as to what might take up residence. The green frog in the picture is a tree frog that is called La Rainette over here. She chooses to sunbathe all over the garden when it is sunny.

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  1. Here in Raleigh, NC they are almost a pest because any exposed wood they will bury and dig out a nest. Like a giant termite! The old shed is has hundreds of Mason Bee holes in it and its was build by the original owners in the 60s.

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  2. Great minds! I’ve been busy making bee hotels out of drilled logs of wood and blocks of limestone (well, that is until I busted the drill 😦

    Are you sure your mason bee is O. rufa? I get its close cousin O. cornuta (European Orchard Bee) in more numbers, and I can’t be sure from your photo which that is. O. cornuta is redder and hairier than O.rufa, but doesn’t occur in Britain, so if you are using British references to ID, you may be being led astray.

    Your bee on the pear blossom keys to Andrena sp I think (I really struggle with bee ID from photos, so just did the exercise for practice). The one on the deadnettle that isn’t Bombus should be Lasioglossum sp. Andrena = 3 submarginal wing cells, bands of hair from tips of abdominal segments, Lasioglossum = bands of hair from base of abdominal segments.

    Love the frog on the bee hotel!

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      • I had never heard of him. Thank you for the link, I loved his Mason bee homing experiments. He must have been an amazing man. I’ll need to find out more.
        I too had been thinking on good material for sealing the nests. He notes they are using the mortar from his path. I’ll have to check up on what is around here for the mortar, there is always lots of water sources in the garden. Hope you get your drill fixed. I have been given bamboo canes so I am going to use those too.

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    • Thanks so much for the ID’s! 🙂 I’ve been desperate to know about the one on the pear tree. I get a lot of those around here. I have several shots of one almost the same but very definitely with yellow legs. I was wondering about Colletes species but the yellow legs have got me stumped.
      I have more pictures of my mason bees so I will compare with O.cornuta, unfortunately, I think they are mostly rear end shots. Hopefully, some will hatch this year and I can be more discerning. I am not sure that all the sealed nests are still intact but I will post my findings later.

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      • I wouldn’t discount Colletes, or Halictus for this bee — I can’t quite decide what the D cells on the wing are doing from your photo, and that is crucial for distinguishing these two and Andrena.

        Glad you like Fabre — I think he is fantastic — one of the real founders of modern zoological research.

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    • They all have different life spans. The bumble bees all die out in the winter time apart from the young queen who overwinters. Many worker honey bees will only live 4 weeks while others born late in the season could live for a year.

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  3. Fascinating Amelia. Incidentally you can easily (and cheaply) make your own ‘insect houses’ by cutting bamboo into short lengths and wiring together. I have several dotted about the place. D

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  4. Very informative! I’ve go to do something about our house that in 5 years I have never seen a bee go near. (Nor a frog) This has spurred me to action: it’s nicely weathered now, and I’ll move it somewhere else in the garden for a start. Thanks for the impetus… RH

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  5. I love that guy inspecting poo to avoid too much disturbance of the bee. He gets a gold star from me.

    I have an “insect hotel” in my back garden that my hubby built. It’s got a lot of hollow twigs like yours but the insects don’t seem to like those much (at least not Sydney-based insects). He also took several cut up bits of logs and drilled holes in a variety of sizes thinking different insects might like different sized holes. Those holes are used and re-used – pretty much ever different size. Some holes are covered with mud, some with resin. I love going and looking at that hotel. But I almost never actually see an insect. And what I have seen is pretty much always a wasp of some variety. But I’m sure there is a lot of diversity there if only I was patient enough to sit around – maybe at dusk and dawn?

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