I find that more and more people these days understand that there are more bees than just the Honeybee and the 'bumblebee'. I think it is in part due to the popularity of Bee Hotels, and people realising that the 'bees' that use them are something rather different: 'solitary bees'.

But delving deeper into this world of 'solitary bees' can seem rather daunting. After all there are some 225 or so species in the UK. However, I thought a little tale from my garden this week might inspire you if you are just starting to delve into their fascinating world (although I should point out that I am no expert - we are all on the learning curve somewhere!).

My story starts with my Mound. It is a pile of logs covered with the spare soil from when I skimmed the top layer off my wildflower meadow. I'm a big fan of introducing contours into a garden, because when you create ups and downs, you create cool, damp areas in the north-facing shade and warm, baked slopes where they face south.

My Mound means that different insects and other invertebrates can take advantage of the different microclimates, and if there is one group of species that likes hot, sunny places, it is solitary bees. Bee Hotels suit just the few solitary bee species that like to nest in horizontal tubes, but many other species like to lay their eggs in little tunnels in bare soil.

Well, as I walked past the Mound this week, my eye was drawn to this, flying slowly low over the ground:

Can you believe it - this is a bee?! Yes, it looks incredibly like a wasp, but it is actually Marsham's Nomad Bee.

It homed in to another of its kind, which was sat next to a hole in The Mound. They were clerly not friends, for a fearsome fight ensued:

So what is going on here? The story behind the bust-up reveals much about the world of solitary bees.

Let's start with the 'solitary' bit - what's that about? Well, the Honeybee and the social bumblebees are brilliant at organising themselves, with a queen bee in charge of a band of female workers. In contrast, in the world of the solitary bees, each queen is a lone agent, who finds a male to mate with, and then works alone to create a nest, lay her eggs, and provision them with pollen and nectar. She will die before her larvae even hatch from the eggs. (At this point, I need to just add the caveat that there are actually a few species of 'solitary bee' that DO have a queen and workers, albeit in a rather primitive way. There's always someone willing to break the rules!)

However, here's the weird bit. Over 70 of our bee species are nest-breakers. They are cuckoos. They steal into the nests of other bee species and take advantage of all the hard work already done by the other queens. Their job is to undertake sneaky raids underground, and their target is the nests of the Chocolate Mining Bee.

So it was no surprise when a Chocolate Minig Bee queen emerged from the hole; the two Nomad queens must have sensed that she was in there, and their battle was all who would get the prize. Can you imagine the Chocolate queen's horror at emerging to find that her nemesis was waiting outside? Here she is:

Now that my eyes were focused down at ground level, I then spotted another much smaller cuckoo solitary bee. She is a Fabricius' Nomad Bee, with her red coloured abdomen (which you can just about see here) and her black-red-black antennae. She, too, is looking for nests to raid, although here target is those of a species called Gwynne's Mining Bee.

Now you might not have these species in your garden, but spring is a brilliant time to spot solitary bees. So the next time you are outside, take a little time to stop and look.

  • Look for activity over any bare soil - solitary bees often dart about barely an inch above the ground, zigzagging back and forth. Stand still and one is soon likely to settle. Don't cast your shadow over it, for it will as likely take flight again.
  • And look for solitary bees at flowers. Many species love dandelions, forget-me-nots and Alexanders, and soon many will turn to fruit tree blossom and that of Blackthorn and hawthorns as it unfurls.

You are likely to see hoverflies, too, but the antennae are a giveaway - look in the photos above how those of bees are very long, wiry and segmented, splaying out from the face.

Take the time and I'm confident you will find a whole strange world, so close to home. And maybe you will consider building a little Mound yourself, just a raised bank of soil, a home-from-home where little dramas will unfold right in front of your eyes.