Wednesday, 27 July 2016


Serendipity (otherwise known as Hayley) sent me an email as I was pondering how to start this bee blog, and provided me with a perfect topic. (Thank you!) ‘What are these bees doing in the windchimes?’ was the query, referring to a couple of attached photos. Well, I muse, how lucky you are to have them in the windchimes. The pictures show a mother solitary bee building a nest for her young, but let’s backtrack a little first.

Mention the word bee and the first thing that comes to mind is honeybees. They live in a family, cooperating over housekeeping, rearing young, building comb, looking after a queen, and collecting pollen and nectar. They produce honey which keeps the whole colony alive over winter.

Alternatively you may think of bumble bees, big, fluffy, colourful creatures. They have a lot in common with honeybees, living communally, supporting a queen who lays all the eggs in the nest. The colony does not survive the winter however. At a certain stage in the summer, new queens are produced, along with some male bees, and the colony declines. Only new queens survive the winter by hibernating. In spring a single queen starts the whole process single-handed.

But by far the great majority of bees are solitary, with very limited if any communal life. The bee in the windchimes is a leafcutter bee – an appropriate name. (The species is probably Megachile centuncularis or Megachile willughbiella – I would need to ask an expert.) This female emerged from the nest maybe a month ago. She mated fairly soon after and searched for a cavity suitable to lay eggs in. The windchime is perfect, but they will use any convenient hole – a beetle boring in a tree, a woodpecker hole, hollow plant stems, and so on. I have seen them fill nail holes, holes in garden furniture, locks, hose pipes and outdoor taps.

She remodels the cavity to her satisfaction. First she cuts discs of leaf from whichever plants the species favours. These discs are pushed to the far end of the cavity, so they form a pad. Next comes a spectacular feat of muscles and dexterity. She precisely cuts long pieces of leaf with her jaws and flies back trailing each piece, which she wrestles into the hole to create a cigar-shaped roll. Inside that she puts pollen and lays an egg. Then she seals the cell with many more round pieces. She repeats the process until the tube of the windchimes has anything up to twenty young. She never sees her young, as they remain in the cells, slowly developing over the next eleven months. Next year the young will bite their way out of the nest, ready to start the cycle again. 

What a bonus to have in the garden. I look forward to reporting on their progress.

Matt Beewatcher

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