A day in the life of the bee hotel

We hung one of the new bee hotels within easy site of the patio so that we could watch the bees come and go: imagining relaxing as we sipped our coffee.  For the naturally curious it doesn’t quite work out like that.

Take a warm sunny day in May, the temperature has reached 30 degrees C, then everything shoots into action with the bees.  The Osmia cornuta had blocked up eight bamboo rods and I was getting ready to do a blog on how things had gone.

A bee arrives

A bee arrives

Then a bee arrives but it is not Osmia cornuta and it has attached something to the bamboo.

The baddies arrive

The baddies arrive

Leaving her nest exposed, what looked like a cuckoo bee arrived and some little flies were also hanging around, one is just above the head of the black and yellow guy.

Drosophilidae type fly

Drosophilidae type fly

I always think of little fruit flies as harmless but a fly – Cacoxenus indagator – is a parasite of the mason bees.  There is a very interesting New Scientist article on Cacoxenus indagator and they look suspiciously like these flies.

Mason bee returns

Mason bee returns

The mason bee seems oblivious to the danger and continues on her masonry business.

Two unconcerned bees

Two unconcerned bees

I found the behaviour of the bees peculiar as I had read that they often chased off cuckoo bees that approached their nest sites.  It is now six minutes since the little packet has been hanging on the end of the bamboo cane.

Yellow ventral bristles

Yellow ventral bristles

Osmia rufa have yellow ventral bristles called scopae so this could be an indication of the species of these bees  but the photographs are not too clear.

Better yellow shot

Better yellow shot

This shows the yellow ventral brushes better but was taken later than the following pictures.

Packet embedded in hole

Packet embedded in hole

The packet has now been stuck into the centre of the bamboo, eleven minutes after being brought back.

Almost finished

Almost finished

It took another five minutes of work until she was finally satisfied with the finished job and that meant borrowing some mortar from the neighbouring hole.  Excuse me, madam, but that hole has been in place since the 15 April and you were not around at this time.  This leads me to the accusation that you are purloining the mortar of an Osmia cornuta.  I’m not sure whether the plea that you are tired and need a break is a good enough excuse.

Taking refreshment

Taking refreshment

It is not far for them to go to the Star of Bethlehem flowers (Ornithogalum umbellatum) to recharge their energy levels with some nectar.

Back to the baddy

Back to the baddy

One thing is sure cuckoo bees don’t build nests and it is just what this one appeared to be doing.  I think I can see a clutch of eggs in the hole.

Partly sealed hole

Partly sealed hole

This is no Nomada bee but a potter wasp, probably Ancistrocerus sp. and perhaps Ancistrocerus auctus.

In this case it would be no particular threat to the mason bees as there was plenty of room for everyone so that would explain their lack of concern for the black and yellow visitor.

There were more surprises on the way for up until now no-one had shown any interest in the holes in wood on the lower log.  Then along came one of my favourite bees.

Anthophora plumipes female

Anthophora plumipes female

She had caused me a lot of problems to identify as she is a light form not like her ginger sisters in the UK.  They also nest in the house wall at the back and nectar on the Cerinthe in the front garden but more about them later.

Needless to say I was happy to see them trying out the bee house for size.

Clean out

Clean out

I’m not sure what she is doing here.  Perhaps removing some of the sawdust but when they nest in the walls they tend to kick out the dust with their feet.

Anyway it was a very exciting day.  The photographs were much poorer than I had hoped for but the nest is too high for me to hold the camera and avoid trampling on the border underneath.  We erected it for the bees not thinking sufficiently about photographing them.

I checked on the state of play later in the evening at eight p.m. and was surprised to see the wasp still there.

Settled for the evening

Settled for the evening

There are now twelve bamboo canes blocked up but the cane the potter wasp blocked up, is identical to my eye to the ones the bees have closed up.  This is the first visit from the wasp that I have noticed so I presume this is her first nest in the hotel, but perhaps not the last.  The wasps are carnivorous and supply their nests with grubs and caterpillars.

So it looks like I may have a pest disposal and pollinating service working side by side!

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30 thoughts on “A day in the life of the bee hotel

  1. Amelia, these shots are wonderful…
    we’ve also got a couple of our bee nest “boxes” on the plant stand by our “patio”… one is of the same type as your drilled block….
    with 6mm, 8mm and 10mm holes [so far 14 ex 8mm, 3 ex 6mm and 9 ex 10mm are filled]…
    mainly, or wholly, by Osmias…
    we haven’t had a potter wasp like yours visiting whilst we’ve watched, but we’ve had that little fly present!
    I thought it might be a parasite, thanks for the confirmation…
    The other nest supply is like yours, but using teasel and thistle stems….
    they weren’t being used at all…
    I was watching as one was inspected…
    the bee walked all the way through…
    and flew away from the back…
    it was the first time I’d seen one even go to the “box”….
    the drilled block seemed far more suitable to them…
    then I thought… the drilled block has a solid end…
    I’d just been digging and filled the ‘back’ with a wodge of soil…
    since then, I’ve noticed many more bees looking at the tubes.
    They obviously don’t like an open ended view!

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    • Damn… I also meant to say…
      have you been listening to the excerpts from “Sting in the Tail” on BBC Radio 4 this week…
      9.45am in the UK, 10.45 for us in France and on Listen Again on the Radio 4 website…
      Pauline and I have decided that we must get the book!!

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    • That’s really interesting. I suppose the ones that nest in holes in walls and wood might prefer closed holes. It is difficult to see if things are not being used, you never know some other creatures might use the open ones but perhaps not mason bees.

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    • Disperser, it takes very little time…eg: to do a block type, it took twenty minutes to drill 30 holes in a 15cm offcut of oak from our firewood pile… and that included getting the drill out, fitting the three different size bits and hammering in a couple of large fence wire staples to hang it by… even if it isn’t actually hung yet, it is still being well used.
      And I didn’t countersink the openings the way Amelia has… so that saved time as well!

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  2. There certainly is a lot more going on than you realize from a casual glance. I feel like you are writing a sequel to “the secret life of bees” 🙂

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  3. Fantastic post. You’ve taken some amazing photos. I have a bee hotel of my own and the holes get filled and then broken open as seasons change but I’ve never seen any real work. The most I’ve been able to spot is the odd wasp hovering in front. I always think that if I’m standing in front (my hotel is low, about the same height as my honeybee hive) the insects will stay away. But your insects don’t seem bothered at all by you or your camera. Maybe I’m just not patient enough.

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    • I’m totally with you here. What I do worry about is solitary bees disappearing from regions we did not even know they existed in. Around here no-one looks at the bees even the bee keepers can’t recognise the bumble bees.

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    • I’m glad you liked it, Charlie. I had such fun watching them. I have to admit I have my favourites. The Anthophora plumipes is fluffy and makes a noise a bit like a bumble bee, so I have to admit I am very partial to this one.

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  4. So much for a relaxing cup of coffee 🙂 I wonder if the bees show any interest in what you are doing? They must be aware of your presence. On another subject entirely, I remember commenting on one of your other posts about a cherry tree that blossoms twice a year. My tree has just begun it’s autumn/early winter blossoming and I thought you might be interested. http://silkannthreades.wordpress.com/2013/05/06/2010/ The last few days it has been too cold for the bees to be in the blossom but, if the weather warms a little before winter sets in, they may be back.

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  5. Fabulous observational series as always. And it’s really great to watch how much you are learning. I’ll have to make sure to read regularly — my bee knowledge is really patchy, as they are just a sideline interest for me apart from the Bumbles.

    I am sure your fly is Cacoxenus indagator. Paul Beuk, who runs Diptera.info, says ‘There is no proof they attack the larvae and probably are commensals. However, in case of food shortage (a mother bee not enclosing ample quantities of food for her offspring or too many drosophilid larvae) bee larvae may starve.’

    I’ve got them too, on my back door.

    I’ve been interested to note that it is O. cornuta that nests in my back door, but O. rufa in my bee hotels in the orchard.

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  6. It is interesting that your bees have chosen different sites, it may all be a matter of chance. I think Drosophila may have got a couple of canes in the old hotel that have never opened but I am not going to disturb them until the autumn. My learning curve is going up steeply but with bees the horizon extends even further into the distance.

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    • I’m in Surrey at my daughter’s house helping her with her new baby daughter and she has the most beautiful tiny Osmia coming to an old wooden table top used as a bird feeder. They are the males, I hope I will see the females who will arrive later. She has no bee hotel as it is a new home but we will attend to that before next spring!

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