I was inspired to write this post after a twitter exchange starting with this message:
There appear to be about 225 species of solitary bee - think id unlikely!!! But so pleased something is using bee box :)With this post, I hope to give you an overview of what species of bees are likely to use bee hotels. In fact, only a small number of the over 250 species of solitary bees in the UK are likely to use bee hotels, so, with a bit of patience, identification is likely. For a start, not all solitary bees use bee hotels as they do not nest in cavities. Many solitary bees nest in the soil (the mining bees), others prefer the mortar of walls, or dig their nests in dead wood, or prefer much smaller holes or crevices than those provided in commercial bee hotels, which are usually made out of bamboo or reed canes. Mind, you, many more solitary bee species will be found in your garden than the ones that use the bee hotel. Once a female bee choses a tube in the bee hotel for nesting, you are likely to notice some activity, as she stocks the nest with nectar and pollen, lays eggs and builds partitions between the cells where her offspring will grow. Once she runs out of space in one tube she makes a stout plug and may start to fill another tube with more cells. The males searching for females or patrolling the area of the bee hotel can also bee noticeable.
— Ragged Robin (@CarolineIrwin3) July 13, 2013
In addition to bees, other insects like some digger wasps or the cuckoo bees or flies that parasitise the bees themselves or spiders will also be seen on or near the bee hotel. My experience is on the north of England, and with home made bee hotels made by drilling holes in pieces of wood, so it is likely a few more species will be found to use bee hotels in the south.
For identification purposes, time of the year, general size of the bee (use a honeybee as a guide) and colour patterns are useful. Also, it is very helpful if you can check what the bees are carrying as nest materials and the colour of the brush of hairs under the bees' abdomen that they use to carry pollen. The material of the plug covering the finished nests can also provide information as to what species built it. Once you can recognise the species or species group of the bees using your hotel, they are bound to provide an endless source of fascination, and bee watching may be addictive, so make sure you place your bee hotel in a spot you can easily and comfortably watch at close quarters!
These are likely to be the first bees in spring using a bee hotel and the most likely species to use bee hotels. The bees are active from March to May. The females are reddish, with large, black heads, and size similar to honeybees. They have characteristic 'horns' on their faces, which they use to mould mud (above). Males are also reddish, smaller and with a white moustache. Males often sit on or near the bee hotel, sunbathing and looking for females.
Mason bees use mud to partition cells in the bee hotel holes. They will travel from the bee hotel to the edge of ponds where they fetch mud, a little pellet at a time. Click here for more posts on Red Mason Bees in BugBlog.
These are much smaller bees and there are two similar species, Osmia leaiana and Osmia caerulescens (the blue mason bee proper). Males of both species are metallic green. They like to sit on the nest or stones or leaves at low level to sunbathe and from there they do patrolling flights in search of females. The females are metallic dark blue with a dark pollen brush underneath (O. caerulescens) or dark brown with an orange pollen rush (O. leaiana, above). Both species use chewed leaves to partition their cells.
These are high summer bees, flying from mid May to August. I have two species in the garden, a large one and a small one. There are other common species in the UK, so care should be taken with identification. The male of the large species, Megachile willughbiella, is easier to identify, as it sports white-golden mittens on its front legs, which are very visible as he sits on the nest or sunny spots and grooms himself. Other identification features are the colour of the pollen brush on the underside of the abdomen: either orange (in the smaller species M. centuncularis, above) or red and black in M. willughiella (below). It is worth checking your bee hotel in poor weather, as these sun-loving bees like to use it as shelter in cold or wet conditions. More on leaf-cutter bees in BugBlog.
Female Megachile willughbiella. Note the red and black brush of hairs under abdomen
Megachile willughbiella male. Note the pale 'mittens' on his front legs.A few photos of the looks of the finished nests follows.
Two M. willughbiella males with two Osmia rufa (grey mortar looking) and a O. leaiana/caerulescens at the top, which is made of chewed leaves).
A completed nest of a leaf cutter bee, Megachile. They use circular sections of leaves to make their nests.
Two recently completed nests of Osmia leaiana/caerulescens (I suspect the former, which in the last few days has been feeding on knapweed). Photo taken today.
The same area of the bee hotel on the 11th of May, just an Osmia rufa nest had been completed then.
Ectemnius sp. a digger wasp, emerging from its nest.
More on Bee Hotels
Bees Wasps and Ants Recording Society.
Natural History Museum