We spend a lot of time worrying about honeybees, but many of our native bees go unnoticed. Most of us would recognise bumblebees, but lots of the c.250 species of solitary bee here might pass us by. And that's a shame. Not just because we have some very pretty and interesting solitary bees, but because they do a lot of useful pollination work. Many of them are in sharp decline, particularly those with particular feeding and nesting habits.
Some of the more obvious solitary bees are miners, but many nest in crevices or plant stems. Typically the female bee will lay an egg in a cell, which she provisions with pollen and/or nectar before blocking up with mud or leaves. She will start off with females and leave the males until the last cells available; they emerge first, and hang about waiting to jump the females when they appear (this is the only useful thing they do, by the way - the rest of their lives they spend footling about - (no clever remarks - Ed.)).
Solitary Bee Nesters
One of the reasons behind their decline seems to be shortage of nest sites, and - in sharp contrast to bumblebees - artificial nesters do work for them. Having said that, it has been difficult to find the right design - we have been looking for years, and - finally - we think we've found it. This nester might look like a section of drainpipe with funny cardboard tubes, but a lot of thought has gone into it. What are its key features?
1. The nesting tubes are a generous 15cm log - much longer than the kind of thing you'd find in a garden centre. This means more eggs and greater safety.
2. The outer plastic cylinder is much longer than the tubes, giving further protection from marauding birds and the weather.
3. The tubes are the right circumference for a range of common solitary bee species, including Red Mason bees, Blue Mason bees, Orange Vented Mason bees, Patchwork Leafcutter bees and some Cuckoo species.
4. Nesting tubes have removable inner tubes. This is really important. If you have a nester, if all goes well it will attract a lot of solitary bees. And lots of solitary bees means... lots of solitary bee parasites. These inner tubes will allow you to thwart them. Instructions come with the kits, but this great blog by solitary bee enthusiast Ron Rock will give you a clue.
Solitary Bee Nester Starter Kit
Each starter kit consists of:
1. Main tube holder and fixing bracket.
2. 30 nesting tubes.
3. UV Resistant rubber bands.
4. Nesting tube refills (you can easily order more online).
5. Instruction booklet.
6. Bumper 20g wildflower seed packet, native species only, selected to include the most helpful bee friendly wildflowers our friends at British Wildflower Seeds could think of. This best selling mix is suitable for gardens and covers 10 square metres. Full instructions on the packet. This seed packet normally sells for £9.95.
Supplier: Mason Bees Ltd / British Wildflower Seeds