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Arabella B. Buckley

Solitary Bees

W E all know the Hive-bee well, but perhaps you have not noticed that there are other kinds of bees flying in the garden. Some of these are about the same size as the hive-bee; some are much smaller, and they are differently marked.

Most of these are solitary bees. There are no neuters among them, only males and females living in pairs. Others live in great numbers in the holes of sandy banks, but do not work together.

If you have ivy growing on your cottage, you must often have noticed small bees flitting in and out of the flower. Among these there will most likely be one, about half an inch long, with a black body covered with a tawny down. She will have two little horns on her head, and is called the "Two-horned Osmia" (1, Plate, p. 51).

If you can watch one and follow her, you may see her fly into some old rotten post, or tree-stump. Then if you cut into the post near the hole you will find a curious nest. For this bee bores a long tunnel and builds a waxen cell at the bottom. Here she lays an egg and puts round it bee-bread, made of pollen and honey from the flowers. She has no groove in her leg like the hive-bee, so she carries the sticky pollen in the thick hairs under her body, and scrapes it off with a comb on her feet.

When she has laid the egg and put in food, she seals the cell with wax, and begins another on the top of it. So she goes on till she has filled the tunnel.

But how is the bottom bee to get out? Her egg was laid first and she has eight or ten others on the top of her. Strange to say they wait for each other. They all become perfect bees about the same time, and, if one below is ready sooner than the others, she eats through the cover of her cell and tries to push past her neighbour. But if the one above is so big that the bee cannot get by without hurting her, she waits patiently till all are ready.

Another little bee which you may often find is the Sleeper bee (2, p. 51), so-called because she often sleeps in the blossoms of flowers, where you may find her. She is thin and black with a square head and strong jaws, and she has a little yellow down on her hind body or abdomen. She too burrows in posts, but very often she makes her nest inside a large straw. In olden days, when cottages were thatched, hundreds of these bees would build in the larger straws of the thatch, and might be heard buzzing about the roof.

Then there is another bee which you cannot help finding. This is the Leaf-cutting bee (3. p. 51). Have you not seen the leaves of rose-trees with pieces like a half-moon cut out of their edge? If you watch you may see a bee doing this work.

She is about the same size as a hive-bee, but rather stouter, and her body is black with soft brown hairs over it. She clings to the leaf and turns round in a circle biting as she goes. Just before she has finished she opens her wings and so balances herself in the air. Then, when the last bite is made, she flies off with the piece of leaf carried between her feet and her jaws.

She goes to a hole in the ground, which is straight down for a little way, and then turns, and runs along under the surface. Here she packs the leaf in and goes back for more. With several pieces she makes a little thimble, in which she lays an egg, with food round it, and closes it with three or four round pieces. Then she begins another thimble, pushing it in, so that it fits a little way into the last one. In this way she builds about seven cells, each with its egg and bee-bread, for the grubs to feed on till they turn into bees. Though you will easily see the bees cutting the leaves, you will not so easily find their tunnels, for they fill in the earth again at the top, so that the entrance cannot be seen. The best way is to follow a bee which has been cutting a leaf, but she is so quick you will have to be quick too. Sometimes she makes her hole in a willow tree when the wood is soft.

There is another Osmia which makes its nest in the stem of the bramble. It hollows out the pith and covers the cells with it. When you see a blackberry stalk with the end bitten off, you may as well cut down a little way with your knife and see if there is a tunnel in it, with bee-cells, or wasp-cells, inside.

Another very curious bee, called the Carder bee (4, p. 5l), lines its tunnel with fluffy hairs and cotton stripped off plants. You will remember that the ragged robin and wild campion have their stems covered with thick down. The "Carder bees" strip this fluff off the plants, roll it up in a ball, and fly away with it to their nests in the ground, where they use it to make their cells.

Solitary bees do not store honey for the winter like the hive bees. They die off in the autumn, all except some mothers, which creep into holes and sleep till the spring, when they make their nests and lay their eggs.

There are so many of them that I cannot tell you about them all. You must watch for yourselves, and you will soon learn to notice the little holes in the trees and the ground, and in some of them you are sure to find curious creatures.

Notice different kinds of solitary bees, and try to find their tunnels in the spring.