The UK is home to approximately 275 species of bee and Ireland is home to 97, and no, they don’t all make honey. In fact, the honeybee is the only member of the group who performs this task, and, along with the bumblebees, is the only social species. All told social bees, with queens and workers, account for a mere 10% of the bee species in the UK and 20% of the species in Ireland. The vast majority of species are solitary. This means that every female is fertile and each builds her own nest in which she places her eggs and provisions each one with enough food for them to develop into adults.
The other really important thing to know about solitary bees (once you know they exist) is that they are excellent pollinators, far better than bumblebees and honeybees. This is because when they collect pollen they leave it dry and carry it on specialised hairs on their bodies. Honeybees and bumblebees moisten the pollen they collect and pack it together. This means that when solitary bees visits flowers they’re more likely to lose pollen than other species. Solitary bees are important and they are vastly under appreciated.
Fundamentally, there are two things every bee needs: food and shelter. When we think about the practical things one can do to help bees it is images of flower laden gardens and parks that come to mind and of course this is incredibly important. But how often do we hear about nest sites? Not very. This is not just a problem in the wider media, primary scientific literature has given little attention to nesting locations, particularly in the UK and Ireland and particularly with regard to the solitary species that nest in the ground (which is most of them). Now, one can’t for certain say why this is, but it is likely linked to the fact that finding nests is difficult and time consuming, particularly if you are trying to conduct a scientific analysis and therefore need quite a lot of them. So, a new approach is needed in terms of how we collect this information and we think the most promising route to success is through citizen science.
To this end we have recently launched The Solitary Bee Project (thesolitarybeeproject.org), which aims to gather nesting data of four solitary bee species: Andrena fulva, Andrena cineraria, Halictus rubicundus and Colletes Hederae. Armed with this information, we not only begin to understand the needs of these important species but also the ways in which we can protect suitable nesting areas and even provide them, if need be. So, keep your eyes peeled over the next few months for ‘mini volcanoes’ showing up in your garden or local park because it could be a solitary bee moving into the neighbourhood!
Stephanie Maher (@SolitaryBeesUK) graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 2011 with a degree in Zoology. She is currently a PhD candidate at Anglia Ruskin University, UK. Find out more about taking part in her project at thesolitarybeeproject.org. Although the site is aimed at the UK, Stephanie is keen to get Irish records too!