Solitary in name, Solitary in Nature

When you think of a bee, what do you think of? A Bumblebee, or Honeybee or maybe something less romantic? Perhaps a painful sting?

When any of us think of a bee, our mental images derive from our experiences with a group of bees known as ‘social bees’. They are called ‘social bees’ because they live in colonies headed by a queen. It is for protection of “Queen, Honey and The Colony”  they developed stings and sometimes behave so aggressively.

Yet, there is another type of bee. This bee we know less about. A queen does not rule this bee. This bee has no honey to protect. This bee has no young to defend. This bee has no sting. This bee likes to live alone.

This passive gentle bee is called the Solitary Bee and I find an almost Buddhist-like quality within them as they happily fly around, minding their own business and pollinating crops.

The Solitary Bee resembles a furry fly and is non-aggressive. The biggest danger you have is that they may tickle you to death! They are found in gardens, parks and the countryside. Their life cycle has a simple beauty.

The new-born males are the first to emerge from their winter shelter. They feed on nectar and hang around the nest site waiting for the females to surface. The males  don’t want to be anywhere else at this time, because the female only has one thing on her mind when she appears. Her mission is to choose the best male and teach him all about the ‘birds and bees’.

After the males have done part in reproducing the species, the boys fly off and spent the rest of their life eating nectar and pollinating flowers. Everything now depends on the female.

The female starts to construct a five-inch long thin tunnel, which she divides into six cells. In each she lays an egg and provisions some food for the hatched egg to eat. This is named ‘bee bread’ and it is a pellet of nectar and pollen she collects on foraging trips. There are some things in nature which fill you with awe. Here is one of them. 

The amazing female Solitary Bee lays her unborn young in a specific order. Starting from the back of the tunnel she will lay – female, female, female, and male, male, male. How on earth does she know how to do this? I have no idea whatsoever. The reason is to protect the unborn females from wasps – their deadliest enemy.

If a wasp finds the tunnel, it squeezes itself in and may manage to break open one or two of the chamber seals, reach in and get to one or two of the unborn males and eat them, However, no wasp can get far enough through all the narrow chambers to eat an unborn female, so the females are safe. The males are expendable but the females are not. (I get a sense of unease that there are women’s heads nodding in agreement all over the country thinking to themselves ‘no surprise there!’)

Now with her work complete the female flies away, to also spend her life eating nectar and pollinating plants. It is often forgotten that 81% of our food production depends on the pollination services of wild bees. 

There are three types of Solitary Bee, the Mason, the Miner and the Megachile and they are disappearing. Habitats are being destroyed by large-scale agriculture, the spread of roads, factories, business parks and so forth. Spraying of herbicides and pesticides has a drastic effect on these gentle shy beneficial insects. (We all have to eat and we all have to work so this is not a lecture).

What a fantastic little insect. Nature is superbly interesting and your garden has a complete world within it. 

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