I guess it’s a safe bet that you know what bumblebees look like and you’ve probably seen them cruising around flowers if you’ve a garden and, like me, you’ve been outside impersonating a lizard by basking in the recent, lovely sunny weather.
If I asked you what bees are vital for pollinating a third of our food crops and most of the UK’s flowers, I’m sure you’d say the bumblebee and honeybee. However, they’re not the only ones – there are around 270 types of bee in the UK and one of these is almost 200% more efficient at pollinating flowers than even the honey bee.
This miracle worker is the red mason bee which is particularly common in gardens and urban areas from now until about July. I’ve had quite a few in my house recently and at first I thought they were fluffy hoverflies! These bees are gentle animals which would turn down your party invitation, as they prefer to live on their own and, even better, rarely sting unless you handle the female really roughly (and then, wouldn’t you in her place?). Most of the UK’s bees are solitary like the red mason bee, but the popularity of the bumble and honey bees gives the impression that all bees live in colonies. Believe it or not, of the 270 types of bee in the UK, 250 types (species) of bees are solitary ones.
Red mason bees make a bee-line (sorry!) for houses and gardens because the cracks in south-facing brick walls are the perfect place for making a nest. Holes in bramble stems, dead wood, vertical cliffs and soil banks are other favoured places – and those insect hotels that many people put in their gardens are a des-res. The bees won’t do any harm to your brickwork – they don’t enlarge the cracks or holes, but simply use them as they are.
The female builds a pod from mud and lays an egg inside, adding lots of pollen and some nectar for the youngster to eat when it hatches. She makes lots of pods in a row along the length of the crack or hole, then seals it up with soil/mud. She makes lots of nests close to each other and will then even defend the nests from predators
What I love most about these cute bees is that the female has a special ‘brush’ on her stomach for collecting pollen, she doesn’t collect it in pouches on her legs like bumblebees and honeybees do. The ‘brush’ is made of lots of hairs and after she’s collected a lot of pollen, she’ll look like she’s wearing a bright orange or yellow apron!