Solitary Bee Week

Although we are all familiar with the important role that bumblebees and honeybees play in pollination, over 90% of the UK’s 267 bee species are in fact solitary bees. Pollinating animals are responsible for one third of the food we consume and solitary bees are particularly efficient pollinators. Unlike other bees solitary bees do not have pollen baskets and so transfer much more pollen between flowers, meaning a single red mason bee provides a pollination service equivalent to 120 worker honey bees. This makes them a critical resource in our gardens and wider countryside and one that we should all be keen to protect. We have collated some information below on how to help encourage and preserve these fascinating creatures.

Ivy Bee © Sophie Cooper

Solitary Bee Ecology

Solitary bees use a wide range of nest sites including tunnels in wood or mortar, plant stems and even snail shells. They lay eggs in a series of cells and then block the entrance with materials such as mud, leaves or fine hair. The female lays an egg with a food source, made from pollen and nectar, before building a partition wall and moving on to the next cell. The bee larvae hatch, eat the food source then overwinter as a cocoon before emerging the following summer as adults.

Solitary Bee cells in the Solitary Beehive

There have been extremely worrying declines in insect numbers recorded across Europe, and solitary bees are no exception. The increased use of chemicals in farming, loss of flower meadow food sources and loss of nest sites in hedgerows and gardens are all combining to drive down numbers. The good news is that it is easy to provide food sources and nesting habitat in your garden to help solitary bees and increase pollination. 

Providing Resources for Solitary Bees

Provide food sources for solitary bees by planting wild flower seeds, native trees such as hawthorn and willow, bee friendly plants such as ivy, foxgloves and lavender and allowing plants such as borage and thistles to flower in your garden. Nest sites can be provided by leaving dead wood and stems standing, creating a patch of bare earth or mud bank for mining bees and by installing wild bee houses. 

BeePot Bee Hotel © Green & Blue

With careful design consideration, bee houses can provide shelter and nesting sites for solitary bees. Bee houses can be manufactured from a variety of materials but should have a good overhanging roof to protect the nesting tubes from rain, nesting holes between 2 and 10mm in diameter and a solid back. It is better to have a number of smaller bee houses, rather than one large house to reduce the risk of parasites finding the nest. Alternatively we have a wide range of solitary bee nesting habitats available on our website.

You can tell which species of bee is using your bee house by examining the material used to plug the entrance hole. Different species also emerge at different points in the year. The most common species likely to populate bee houses are red mason bees who use mud and are active March – July, leafcutter bees who use leaves and are active May – September, and wool carder bees who use fine hairs and are active June – August. Please note that there are fewer solitary bee species in the North of England and Scotland.

Leafcutter Bee in Action © Green & Blue

Solitary Bee House Siting and Maintenance

Insect houses should be sited at least 1m off the ground, facing south or south-east, with no vegetation covering the entrance and in full sun as insects need warmth to keep moving. They should be firmly fixed so that they don’t move in the wind. If your box is likely to be occupied by red mason bees then it is helpful to ensure that there is a patch of damp mud nearby. In order to maximise the chances of adults emerging successfully from the cocoons, it is a good idea to bring bee boxes indoors into an unheated shed or garage during the winter to avoid them getting too damp. The boxes should then be taken back outside in March in time for the new adults to emerge. There is some debate as to whether brick / concrete boxes should be cleaned but they can be cleaned out with a tent peg and pipe cleaner. Boxes with cardboard tubes should have the tubes replaced regularly. Keep an eye out for failed nests and tiny holes in the mud entrance as this can indicate that the nest tube has been taken over by parasites. 

Mining Bee © Ed Phillips

Suggested Solitary Bee Houses

Bee Brick

This Bee Brick can be used in place of a standard brick or as a standalone bee house in your garden or wild patch. Available in four colours. £29.99 £39.99

Solitary Beehive

This unique solitary beehive is made from durable FSC timber and designed specifically to attract solitary bees which are naturally attracted to holes in wood. £23.99 £29.99

 

Red Mason Bee Nest Box

The nest box is supplied with 29 individual nesting tubes, two sets of screws and plugs for mounting, and full instructions. £10.99

 

BeePot Bee Hotel

This is a fantastic concrete planter which doubles as a nesting place for solitary bees. Available in a range of colours and sizes, this is the larger size, the mini version is also available. £42.95 £49.99

WoodStone Insect Block

This WoodStone Insect Block is constructed from durable, FSC certified WoodStone with a nesting area created from reed stems.

£24.95 

 

Urban Bee Nester

This urban insect hotel is part of the contemporary range of wildlife habitats that have a sleek design for city living.

£20.99 £27.50

 

Suggested books on solitary bees

Solitary Bees
Paperback | July 2019| £19.99
An introduction to the natural history, ecology and conservation of solitary bees, together with an easy-to-use key to genera.

 

The Solitary Bees: Biology, Evolution, Conservation Hardback | September 2019| £27.99 £34.99                           The most up-to-date and authoritative resource on the biology and evolution of solitary bees.

 

 

Handbook of the Bees of the British Isles (2-Volume Set) Hardback | October 2018| £130 £150

With photographic material of over 270 bee species, this comprehensive handbook is a once-in-a-generation identification work to the British bee fauna.

 

Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland Paperback | December 2018| £27.99 £34.99

A comprehensive introduction to bee classification, ecology, field techniques and recording, a full glossary, and information on how to separate the sexes and distinguish bees from other insects is also included.

 

Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees                Paperback | April 2019| £9.99 

Award-winning author, Thor Hanson takes us on a journey that begins 125 million years ago, when a wasp first dared to feed pollen to its young.

 

In order to increase awareness of how vital a role our solitary bees play in pollination, the first week of July has been designated as Solitary Bee Week. You can get involved by pledging to create nesting sites or plant food sources for bees, writing poetry or recording bee sightings.

 

Naturalist and author Mike Dilger on building a wildlife sanctuary in his garden

Mike DilgerMike Dilger – enthusiastic naturalist, freelance presenter and author of My Garden and Other Animals –  on the rewards and challenges of creating a wildlife sanctuary on his doorstep.

You always wanted to own your own nature reserve – do you remember what first stirred your interest in wildlife?

The trite answer I always give to this question is that as I was dropped as a small child! As no other members of my immediate family were interested in wildlife I think my passion for natural history may have been genetic. I have vivid memories of spending hours watching butterflies on a huge buddleia bush in our next-door neighbour’s garden when I was around seven and also wanting to know what all the bird songs were. What really started me off was when I acquired my first pair of binoculars (10 x 50 Prinz from Dixons, for the record) at the age of eight, leading to me learning the calls of all the different birds, starting with the wood pigeon. That was over 30 years ago and I’ve never looked back since!

What were some of the pitfalls and high-points of creating your own garden wildlife sanctuary? Any surprising visitors?

One of the pitfalls of creating an attractive and inviting place for wildlife is that it is impossible to dictate (unlike an immigration officer), as to what comes in. For example, having built compost bins in the hope that grass snakes would take up residence, I was more than a touch dismayed when only rats seemed keen to take advantage of the warm, moist accommodation on offer. I was also keen to provide home for as many nesting birds as possible, but after three sleepless nights, the jackdaws building a nest in our chimney simply had to be evicted before we lost our sanity.

Down stream at dawn - Christina HolveyIn terms of high points, there were simply too many to recount – you’ll have to read the book to uncover them all! The meadow stood out as a stunning success, and in addition to turning up a wide variety of wild flowers, enabled me to add grassland butterflies, like ringlet and gatekeeper, to my garden tally. The simple of addition of a pond resulted in an incredible six species of damselfly and dragonfly laying their eggs into the water. With plenty of food also permanently on offer for the birds, a grand total of 61 species were recorded visiting the garden throughout the year. With foxes and badgers all regular visitors, the biggest surprise of all was the brief appearance of an otter in the brook at the bottom of the garden, which I was lucky enough to spot early one morning whilst listening to the dawn chorus! (see picture – right)

In many ways the best aspect of turning the garden over to nature was the fact that it was a joint effort with my partner Christina – with the project soon becoming our labour of love. When it finally came to producing the book, I provided the words whilst Christina produced the lovely art-work which can be seen studded throughout.

How is the garden doing now after the interesting weather we have been having this year?

Currently the garden is looking soggy to say the least and to be honest the flower borders are ‘twixt cup and lip’, but the feeders are still being emptied on a daily basis and on a warm day the pond is still a hive of activity. Come the winter I’m looking forward to getting stuck in again and have a list as long as my arm of jobs to undertake… Creating a wildlife garden is one of the best projects I have ever undertaken, and continues to reward us every day, but sometimes it can feel like we’re painting the Forth Bridge – with wildlife gardening you can never stand back and say “finished!”

If anyone is inspired to undertake their own garden wildlife project, what would be your top tips to help them on their way?

Don’t be daunted! You don’t have to be the world’s most practical person to construct a wildlife garden – I certainly wasn’t, and yet am delighted with the results. Size is not important either. With our garden only marginally larger than the Centre Court at Wimbledon, we concentrated on quality (of habitat) rather than quantity.

My Garden and Other Animals jacket imageThe single, easiest way to improve your garden for wildlife is to dig a pond. It doesn’t have to be the size of a swimming pool (or even a bath-tub) but you’d be amazed at how it draws in the wildlife. By keeping it free of fish, we were able to provide a home for everything from pond skaters and pond snails to aquatic beetles and dragonflies. Plus the constant supply of freshwater also pulled in the birds too!

It’s also sometimes not about what you do, but what you don’t do. A quiet, unkempt corner, for example, can be worth its weight in gold in providing a refuge for some of the more introverted members of the garden wildlife brigade.

My Garden and Other Animals by Mike Dilger is available now in paperback from NHBS

 

 

 

Four great books for wildlife gardeners

With wildlife conservation high on everyone’s agenda, here are some recommendations to introduce you to the natural diversity of your garden, and help you to create a haven for wildlife on your doorstep:

Four great books for wildlife gardeners

Guide to Garden Wildlife, by Richard Lewington, is a field guide to all the wildlife you might expect to encounter in the garden – from mammals, birds and insects to invertebrates and pond life. The species descriptions are full of useful detail, and Lewington provides the intricate illustrations that make this a real treasure of a handbook. There are informative sections on garden ecology, nest-boxes and bird feeders, and creating a garden pond.

Gardening for Butterflies, Bees and Other Beneficial Insects, by Jan Miller-Klein, homes in on practical techniques for encouraging insect diversity in your garden. A large-format tour through the seasons, with additional sections on tailored habitats, and species-appropriate planting, this beautifully photographed guide is perfect for every bug-friendly gardener looking to provide a good home for the full range of insect life.

RSPB Gardening for Wildlife: A Complete Guide to Nature-friendly Gardening, by Adrian Thomas, is a fantastic encyclopaedic introduction to how best to provide for the potential visitors to your garden, while maintaining its function for the family. A species-by-species guide to the ‘home needs’ of mammals, birds, insects and reptiles is followed by a substantial selection of practical projects, and helpful hints and appendices, to get your garden flourishing – whatever its size.


Dr Jennifer Owen’s Wildlife of a Garden: A Thirty-year Study, is a rare and illuminating book, in which is recorded – in scrupulous detail – the evidence of dramatic changes in populations in a single suburban garden in Leicester over a thirty-year period. An abundance of beautifully presented data, discussed in the context of wider biodiversity fluctuations, is balanced with numerous colour photographs, illustrations, and descriptive natural history of the residents of the garden. Modest in one sense, but unbelievably grand in timescale – and in its completeness – the rigorous effort and expertise that have been applied to the task of collecting and interpreting these data make this study a real one-off in the field of natural history writing.