March has almost finished and in this upside down year it certainly has not been “in like a lion, out like a lamb” as the winds are roaring down the country. It continues to be exceptionally mild, going to 21 degrees centigrade a couple of days ago. Seemingly this winter has been the mildest since 1880.
I hope the little plums on the large tree in the foreground of the picture above don’t all get blown away.
This year the daffodils in the front garden were beautiful but the clumps were needing to be divided. I cannot plant bulbs at the bottom of the back garden because of the tree roots but I had a cunning plan! Kourosh was cutting out turf where he is planting wild flowers so I decided to cut out a shallow trough for the bulbs and cover them with the divots of turf. I must admit I found there were more bulbs than I had expected and carting the divots was more tiring. The resulting plantation is eccentric but if even twenty percent catch I shall be pleased.
Actually this is the sort of planting I would really like and there are masses of them all around us at the moment. Nature is much more cunning than I am.
this little white flower are out in abundance in the woods nearby. The white flower is Potentilla sterilis or the barren strawberry which I have been calling a wild strawberry up until today when I read this post on WordPress from Catbrook Wood. We do get wild strawberries too, but later, of course.
We continue to add as many bee and insect plants as possible into the garden. Today it was the addition of Polygala myrtifolia. It is of South African origin and tender but it is well protected in a corner of the front garden although it will need to be covered if we get hard frosts.
It is supposed to flower all year round but more plentifully in the spring. You can see the stamens full of pollen tempting the bees.
Will it be more successful than the Camelia which has a successful but short season?
The female Osmia cornuta have arrived to keep me amused. I was amazed to watch this one decide to clean out a hole another insect has used so that she could re-use it. I have a variety of empty holes available but she capriciously decided that this one was the one that she wanted.
This blue tit has been providing us with entertainment every morning as he tries to see off another male that peers at him from inside our car. I would imagine it is the spring and the mating season that makes him more aggressive but it does seem that he is rather looking for trouble.
These intruders get everywhere if you let them.
Continuing on the theme of garden animals, can you see the one in this picture?
Clue it is exactly in the middle of the photograph and is not easier to see in real life.
Give up? A frog in the hand is easier to spot. There are a lot of these little tree frogs (Hyla meridionalis) around this year.
I posted my first Mason bee update on 25 March and I was really satisfied that I had attracted Osmia to my new Mason bee houses and I hoped to gather a bit of data on what might be suitable spots to situate Mason bee houses and what sized holes they preferred.
Firstly, no surprises, it looks like in France, at least, the bees prefer a sunny position. Out of the first three new hotels that were put up, it was the one on the wall in the front garden, with the morning sun, that attracted the most bees.
The bamboo canes had been chosen to give a diameter of 6mm to 1cm. I think the smaller diameter was favoured but my task was complicated as a potter wasp decided to use the hotel too. The potter wasp is responsible for the filling of the larger hole in the picture and the open holes are where the wasps have already vacated. I presume some of the other holes may hold wasp larvae.
The Bee hotel in the plum tree that received only dappled sunlight through its branches has Osmia and some other insects nesting but like the one under the willow at the bottom of the garden received fewer Osmia than the sunny hotel.
The bees arrive!
Keeping on track, not only did my original hanging house hatch out last year’s Osmia cornuta and have some more bamboo canes re-occupied but the new neighbouring one on the wall was even better received.
The O. cornuta preferred the new nest on the wall either because it was sunnier or because it was fixed securely to the wall rather than swinging on the branch of the lilac.
And then a second variety!
I had first seen the O. cornuta males around the old nest box at the beginning of March but in April I spotted another species of male Osmia in the garden.
The Osmia rufa are not as brightly coloured as the O.cornuta and hatch out and fly later. I had never noticed them in the garden before.
Both the O. rufa and the O.cornuta have curious prongs on their heads just under their antenna. The prongs are used to tamp in the mud they bring to seal their nest.
With two species of Osmia nesting in the hotels my husband became concerned that they would run out of holes or feel overcrowded so he hastily built a fourth hotel to go on an outbuilding wall that receives the sun all day long.
The third Osmia provides lots of entertainment in the summertime!
The Osmia leiana were the next arrivals in May and stayed around well into July. These little bees really put everything into building their nests. Gradually they fill the holes, cell by cell, and you can get a better look at all the action as they complete the last one or two compartments. I had now three species of Osmia nesting!
The Osmia leiana is not so colourful as the other two Osmia but nested for a longer period and the females even slept overnight in the bamboo of the hotel.
All the Osmia bees have strong mandibles to help them in building their nests. The O. leiana were prolific nesters and nested in all the bee hotels, even building a few nests in the hotels in the shade under the trees.
Then there is the Anthophora!
I have Anthophora plumipes nesting in the stone walls of the house and in May they were feeding on the blue Cerinthe in the front garden. I think this is a female of the light form that I have here starting off her nest in the holes of the trunk section of the bee hotel in the front garden.
The Anthophora have nested in the bored wooden holes in the cut tree trunks of the bee hotel on the out building too. They nest deep inside the holes but their presence is noticeable as they leave “paths” of sawdust on the bottom of the holes. They do this in the holes in the house walls but the “paths” in this case are like fine sand produced as they excavate their nests in the soft limestone.
And the Anthidium!
Another bee that nests in the bee hotels is the Anthidium. It is called the cotton bee in French for obvious reasons. She gathers the soft hairs from plants such as Stachys and brings them to the bamboo canes to make her nest.
Frequently the nest is made deep into the hole and the cotton does not protrude so it is easy to miss their nests. It is really amazing to see the quality and quantity of cotton that this bee produces. I have a great attraction for this lovely bee.
Different Megachiles arrive!
I had noticed suspicious pieces of leaves missing from plants in the garden during the summer and I had suspected leaf cutting bees but I had never caught any “in the act” so I could not be sure. So I was ecstatic when at the end of August I found them nesting in the sunny hotel on the outbuilding. They were so engaged in their task that they did not object to being watched. I found their determination and hard work fascinating to watch.
Some leaf cutting bees also nested in the hotel in the front garden but they were not early risers and I used to enjoy watching them wake up. This little bee had been so busy that she fell asleep on her back with a piece of leaf for a blanket. I took the photo at 9.49 a.m. and she was awake shortly after.
Hole sealed with rose petal
At the beginning of September one of the leaf cutting bees used rose petals to make her nest. I did not see her but the end result was beautiful. I think they are most likely to be Megachile centuncularis.
I am puzzled by this hole as it is shiny (I couldn’t manage to get a photograph to show the shine). Who has filled this hole? Is it another species of bee such as Colletes which line their underground nest with a cellophane? Or is it some other insect?
The other puzzle is how many different types of bees are nesting in the bee hotels? I have photographed six different species of solitary bees in this post. In addition, I think there is more than one species of Anthophora in the hotels and what about the ones I’ve missed?
I am always on the look out for parasites and predators, which are numerous.
I was concerned when I saw this on the nests at the end of September.
This wasp came around at the end of September and seeing her putting her long tail into the bamboos I worried that she had been laying eggs in the bees nests. Apparently she prefers to parasitise wood boring insects but the larvae of the potter wasp which also used the bee hotel could also be a target.
And then there’s our lizards!
The lizards can be a bit of a pain as they insist on squeezing in between the bamboo and sometimes they will dislodge one causing it to fall. I replace it but I think a winter job will be to put a backing behind the bamboo to keep out the lizards. I comfort myself thinking that they will eat any little flies that might be lurking around.
I’m just not sure how vigilant my lizard guardians are but I can always hope.
I joined Amelia in England for a couple of weeks, but now I have just returned to our home in France and to Amelia’s “afrenchgarden”. She is still in England, staying with my daughter and her new baby girl.
So, I have decided to write this short blog updating you of some of the things that have happened in our garden whilst I was away, and I suppose address the blog also to Amelia, telling her what she is missing and reminding her of her neglected duties.
Our neighbours have told me that whilst I was away it rained, and rained. The evidence for me is the knee deep grass, and an abundance of strange giant weeds. The climbing roses with their branches full of flower are tumbling on the ground.
The peony under the olive tree looks somewhat neglected but still is charming.
In front of the house, the rose Pierre de Ronsard [or as sometimes called Eden Rose 85], as well as the malva are impressive, although a little untidy.
Amelia has been planning to grow alpines in the large stone trough near the house. In her absence a giant lettuce and a few tomato seedlings have grown in the midst of the saxifraga and delosperma.
The vegetable patch is now full of broad beans, as well as peas and spicy mixed salad leaves. I am sure that Amelia would have loved some fresh salad for lunch.
The cherry tree that we carefully transplanted last autumn and have kept our fingers crossed, has not only survived well, but has born fruit.
I am not sure why nepeta has been called catmint, for to me it is a butterfly and bumble bee bush. At this time our several nepeta bushes are laden with a variety of bumble bees and butterflies.
I have not neglected my duty to check on the newer bee houses that I made and we placed under the large plum tree. “She” will be pleased to know that the tenants have indeed moved in and four of the holes are now filled – I am not yet sure if by mason bees or some other species.
More holes have been filled in the older bee house that we positioned in the front garden. I believe that they are occupied by a small fruit wasp, as well as mason bees. Just below the wasp I also saw what I think is an Anthophora female who hopefully has chosen the bamboo to nest in, as she has been flying back and forth to her preferred hole.
Near the terrace the poppies are rampant. I think some of the wild poppies sadly have to be “weeded.” Sorry I did say that I will have more respect for the weeds.
But I am glad that last year Amelia placed a marker where a pyramid orchid had grown. This year the weeds had not stopped the sweet plant which is once again in bloom.
So my tasks are all ahead of me: to cut the grass, to harvest Amelia’s precious broad beans as well as the peas, in addition to finding places for all the new plants that Amelia has sent with me to plant in the garden. A busy second half to this June.
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.
Then a bee arrives but it is not Osmia cornuta and it has attached something to the bamboo.
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.
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.
The mason bee seems oblivious to the danger and continues on her masonry business.
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.
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.
This shows the yellow ventral brushes better but was taken later than the following pictures.
The packet has now been stuck into the centre of the bamboo, eleven minutes after being brought back.
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.
It is not far for them to go to the Star of Bethlehem flowers (Ornithogalum umbellatum) to recharge their energy levels with some nectar.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
This afternoon I saw more than Mason bee circling around the Mason bee house. The nests have hatched – I thought, and rushed to check which ones had opened.
I was quite surprised to see them intact and at first puzzled.
However, I could see the little white heads so I knew that they were males.
The photographs are poor as the box is in the shade in poor light. However, I could plainly see their white tufts. They not only landed on the nest but they explored inside the tubes.
I was pleased to see these males arrive as I had always assumed the hatching females were to mate with their brothers who hatched earlier. It seemed to go against the principle of shuffling the gene pool in sexual reproduction. Apparently the males can be more promiscuous and will travel in search of females rather than waiting where they have hatched.
I still have to wait to see if my nests will hatch.
The new Mason bee houses are all in place. I must admit that the building of these houses are all due to the skills of my long-suffering husband. There are plenty of helpful sites on the net if anyone wants to make some themselves. Compared to the shop built house I think ours are better, if the Net information is to be believed. It is suggested that holes be 10 cm. long whereas our shop built nest had bamboo tubes of only 8 cm. long which were not well protected from the elements. Again the opinion seems to be between 6-8 mm. diameter for the holes and some of the bamboo tubes from the shop built house were 1 cm in diameter.
I was pleased to have been given some large bamboo poles but found most of them were too large in diameter to be used. Some of our bamboo tubes were cleared of internal walls by a manoeuvre with an electric drill which I do not think was in keeping with Health and Safety regulations so I will let you work out your own methods for that. It is amazing how many bamboo tubes you can squash into a given area, we have had to put a few larger ones in as filler but they will also act as a comparison with the finer ones.
Using a spare roof tile as the protection from the elements, this first style was quickly realised using cut bamboo canes and tied securely to the plum tree in the back garden.
The roof tile serves again in this model but the holes are provided in a birch log specially drilled with a 6mm drill bit. The whole is firmly wedged into the willow at the bottom of the garden. The tree is already covered in furry catkins that will provide lots of pollen when they have fully flowered.
Mark III has pride of place in the front garden, not far from the original house and sports a choice in 6 or 8 mm drilled holes in a log with additional accommodation available on a second level, provided by bamboo in varying diameters but chiefly between 6-8 mm.
I think the houses are in place with plenty of time to spare.
I was both disappointed and confused when I compared the photo of our original bee house last April with the bee house as it is at present.
There were four sealed holes in April 2012 on this face of the house, whereas there are only three now and one of those has a tiny hole in it.
In addition, the two sealed holes now present, were not there last April. I was under the impression that there was only one brood a year so it looks as if I’ll have to keep a closer watch on the holes this year to see what is happening. It could be predation.
I thought this cute lizard was just curious and looking for a cool spot to relax in but now I’m not sure.
I hope the new bee houses will be looked upon favourably. Two filled hole on one side and another filled hole on the reverse (with a little hole) does not seem a great stock of future Mason bees but I am hopeful that there may be others hiding away in the stone walls of the house and surrounding buildings.
I have a shop bought bee nest that I have hanging in the front garden on the 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!).
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.
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.
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 gardenmay 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.
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.