All bees are not created equal — 6 facts you need to know about solitary bees

by Cat Woods

When people think about bees, they tend to think about hives, colonies, queens. But there’s another kind of bee that’s just as important, and even more common! Solitary bees are important pollinators that, as the name suggests, work independently. Here are six facts about these fascinating creatures!

Pollination - How Do They Do It?

Most solitary bees collect pollen on their legs on specialised hairs called the scopa, however these hairs do not form a basket like we find in honey bees. Pollen may be moistened with nectar to allow it to stick more readily to these hairs when pollen is being actively collected by the female bee. Some other species, such as leafcutter and mason bee species, collect pollen on specialised hairs on the underneath of their abdomen. Finally some yellow faced bees don’t have pollen collecting apparatus at all so swallow the pollen, regurgitating it when back at the nest. 

A Colourful Bunch

Solitary bees come in many different sizes, colours and shapes. Common solitary bees are mason bees, miner bees, sweat bees, wool-carding bees and carpenter bees. They vary in colour from basic black to bright metallic green, blue or red. Some solitary bees superficially resemble wasps. 

Making a Bee House a Bee Home

Working alone, the female collects building materials for the nests and food for the larvae, then builds an individual cell for each egg. She lays each of her 20-30 eggs on top of a ball of pollen stuck together with nectar. She builds a partition wall, then repeats the process until the tube or hole is full. Then she closes it with mud, leaves or fine hairs before moving on to the next tube. (This is in contrast to most bumblebees and honeybees, where the queen lays the eggs and a team of other bees work together to look after them.) 

The Life Cycle of a Solitary Bee

The female solitary bee’s eggs hatch into larvae, eat the pollen and enter hibernation, staying in the cocoon for around 11 months throughout the summer and winter. The following spring, the larvae pupate, turn into adult bees and emerge from their nest. Once outside of the nest, the average lifespan is a brief 4-6 weeks. 

Top Performers of Pollination

Contrary to popular belief that the honeybee is the best pollinator all our plants, flowers and trees, solitary bees outperform these larger species hands down. They don’t have pollen baskets on their legs (unlike social bees), so they lose much more pollen as they fly, making them the star pollinators of the bee world. A single red mason bee for example, pollinates 120 times more flora than a single worker honeybee. 

A Shared Threat

Perhaps the only thing these bees do share with other species is that their habitats are under threat from wide-scale industry, agriculture and urbanisation. The use of pesticides has contributed to the depletion of many insect species, while intensive farming and mass construction have destroyed forests, hedgerows, wildflower meadows and other habitats. 

Before You Go...

By now you’ve surely heard of our bee project, aimed at helping solitary bees? We’re running a series of workshops from the middle of January until March where participants will receive a free bee house, as well as full instructions on how to use them and maximise their potential. Places on the in-person workshops have now been filled, but stay tuned for a DIY bee house workshop that will teach you everything you need to know to make your own! There are also loads of free resources over at our bee house project page. Go check it out!

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