Photo credit: Steven Falk
We are very lucky on our allotment site that we are part of the Whitehawk Hill Local Nature Reserve with its chalk grassland species of plants and insects. This means we can help protect some of these special creatures, including numerous bee species, by providing good habitat to support those living on the rest of the Local Nature Reserve.
I grow bee friendly flowers on part of my allotment including some native chalk grassland species. One of these is Pasque Flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris), a beautiful showy purple flower which blooms around Easter time with lots of pollen for early native bees.
At the same time as the flower is in bloom, I usually see my first Red Tailed Mining Bee (Osmia bicolour) zooming round my plot low to the ground looking for places to lay her eggs. This is a very natty little solitary bee with a black upper body and a rich orangey red abdomen or tail. The males look very different being a soft straw colour all over. Their conservation status is Nationally Scarce though they can be quite plentiful in the right habitat. The scientific description of solitary bee doesn’t mean that they are grumpy and lonely but that they live their life cycle without being in a colony.
The much more widespread domesticated Honey Bee, originally from Africa, and our native Bumble Bees are examples of bees which form colonies containing worker bees which support the colony. In the case of the domesticated Honey Bee these colonies are up to 40,000 individuals per hive and for Bumble bees between 50 and 200 individuals per colony depending on the species of bee.
The Red Tailed Mason Bee flying around my plot is carefully examining empty snail shells. She is looking for one just the right size to lay her eggs in. When she finds the perfect snail shell she will lay a series of eggs in cells provisioned with pollen and separated by partitions of chewed up leaf matter until the shell spiral is full and then she will seal off the entrance with particles of soil and chalk. Then she will camouflage the snail shell by placing small sections of dried grass stalks over it in a cone shape. I sometimes see a female flying past me carrying a piece of grass stem two or three times the length of her body, a somewhat surreal sight.
The adult bees are around from mid March to late June, mating and egg laying and then they die. Over the course of the next year the eggs in the cells will hatch and the larvae will eat the pollen then pupate to emerge next spring as a new generation to start the process all over again.
I love that this quiet and wonderful cycle is taking place on my allotment and get a thrill whenever I see a Red Tailed Mason Bee fly by on her quest for a snail shell to make into her nest.
Article by Tessa Pawsey