These bees are called solitary bees, and we have over 250 different species in the UK, some of which you may have heard of; leafcutter bees, mining bees and mason bees to name a few. These bees are fantastic pollinators, however they are much less known than honeybees and bumblebees. They are not aggressive at all and so we should be encouraging them in our gardens, and once you know what to look for, I’m sure you will find plenty!
Solitary bees nest in the ground or in cavities such as hollow twigs or holes in wood. When a female solitary bee finds a suitable nest, she will create a compartment where she places a pollen ball, stuck together with nectar, and then lays an egg on top. She will leave a space for the egg to grow and then build a partition wall, repeating the process until the whole tube is filled. As males emerge a few weeks earlier than females, the adult lays female eggs at the back of the nest, and males towards the front.
Some species will overwinter as adults and some as pupae, emerging in the following spring. Once males emerge they will look for a female to mate with, dying soon after mating. Once a female has been mated with, she will begin looking for a nest and the cycle continues.
Certain species of bee use different plants to create their nests. Leafcutter bees cut circles from leaves to line their nests, favouring plants such as rose, beech and wisteria; mason bees will use mud, clay or chewed up plant tissue; and the wool carder bee will collect hairs from plants such as lamb’s ear to construct her nest.
To help support populations of solitary bees in your garden you can create your own bee hotel where you can watch the life cycle of these fascinating creatures. It truly is an amazing thing to see a little bee carrying materials to make a nest all by herself.
Here are downloadable instructions on how to make a bee hotel, ranging from easy to moderately difficult. Please see the picture gallery above for examples of how each one looks.
- Wooden tube hotel (Clean annually and replace tubes every 2 years to prevent disease build-up). See the video above for demonstration.
- Wooden block hotel (Clean annually and completely replace every 2 years)
- RSPB Bee B&B (Clean annually and completely replace every few years)
Alternatively, you can buy ready-made bee hotels. The best hotels are ones that can be cleaned easily as they will last longer and will not need to be replaced every 2 years. A good example of this is the Wildlife World Solitary Bee Hotel.
You will be able to tell if you have any residents in your hotel when there is a mud, leaf or resin ‘cap’ at the entrance of the tube. Sometimes bees will not fill tubes completely though, so be sure to have a good look down the tube.
If you notice any birds feasting on your bee hotels, attach some chicken wire to the front to deter them. This will not affect the bees and will ensure they do not make a nice snack!
A few things to remember:
- Bee hotels need to be properly looked after to be most helpful to bees. It is no use making or buying a bee hotel, putting it in your garden and forgetting about it. Each document outlines the best methods for overwintering and cleaning the houses to reduce fatalities and spread of disease.
- Plant a range of bee-friendly flowers in your garden and leave a patch of grass unmown so that when the adults emerge they have plenty of food. Wild bees have a much shorter foraging range than honeybees, and so they will need plenty of pollen and nectar sources close by.
- Bees also need water! Fill a bucket or tray with water (preferably allow it to fill with rain) and place large stones in it so that they can drink safely.
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