Return of the Blues: Wildlife Wednesday, March 2019

Ah, the winter blues.  More accurately, the late winter blues.  Blue Orchard Mason bees, Osmia lignaria, are exiting their year-long incubation chambers and buzzing my garden.

The goal for their short lives is to mate, rummage around flowers and foliage for nesting material, lay eggs, and pack the eggs safely to ensure the next generation of bees who will appear, on cue, next February.

The blue bee bonanza is an annual event in my garden.  These beautiful insects–an eye-popping, rich, iridescent blue–zoom from the native bee houses where they grow up, to the garden and beyond, and then back again, as they mate and then gather pollen and other material for the next generation’s nesting chambers.

These bees are important for commercial orchards, but thrive in welcoming home gardens, too.  In our garden, we’ve placed several boxes with drilled wood and lengths of cut bamboo.  These bee houses are utilized by a variety of native bees throughout the year.  Because the Blue Orchard bee adults emerge in February, they’re the first native bees to pack away their babies in the bee houses.

Packed nursery holes, as well as some where a bee (or bees) have exited, and a new adult.

After mating,

…the females begin their egg-laying process in a hole in wood or masonry which is of a size and length that the adult female finds appealing.  The first eggs laid–those at the back-end of the cylinder–are female, and the eggs at the front–potentially the most exposed–are male. Between each egg laid, mom bee builds a wall of mud and pollen so that each is snuggled into its own room.  The entire nursery, all chambers therein, is then sealed firmly until the next year.

Do the girls get pink rooms and the boys, blue?  Nah, the rooms are gender-neutral, as far as color choice goes.  However, gender differentiation is present: the female eggs-larvae-adults are at the furthest end of the nursery cylinder so that those most responsible for successful procreation are best protected, or so suggest the entomologists who study these bees.  The male eggs-larvae-adults are situated at the front of the nursery cylinders, emerging as adults first, so that they’re ready, eager, and awaiting their potential mates.

The two bees in this photo are males; one is fully emerged, the other peeking out, ready to take on his corner of the world.

Males have a white patch on their faces which is a mustache-like clump of white hairs.

Hairy dudes.

This fella rested on an upturned plastic bin under one of the bee houses.  He posed handsomely for me.  Or was he challenging me to a duel?  Or perhaps wondering what I am?  Who knows what a bee thinks?

The females (with the males, of course) mate, then begin preparations for laying eggs and provisioning for their offspring.  This female wriggled and writhed around the pollen-laden center of a Desert mallow bloom. 

Unlike honeybees, who carry their pollen packs on their legs in what are formally known as corbiculae or pollen baskets; I call them pollen pantaloons, but that’s just me. Blue Orchard bees,  members of the Mason bee family, carry gathered pollen on their tummies.  This is the best shot I  managed of a female heading into a nesting chamber with pollen.  These gals are fast fliers!  I’ve observed creamy white pollen-coated tummies, as well as cheery yellow and orange, color depending upon what bloom, or blooms, the female worked.

The females fly into the holes head-first, making their way to the back of the cylinder, then working their way forward–one egg and egg prep–at a time.  Mom bee rolls the pollen into balls, adding nectar and microorganisms, to make pollen bread. Each egg is laid on its own ball of pollen bread, which will be the food source for the larvae.  A mud wall is built, sealing in the egg and its food source.  Then mama works on the the next egg and chamber, so it goes until she reaches the front of the hole, which she seals thickly with mud and pollen.

The female has chosen this bamboo cylinder for her nursery. To the left, see the two cylinders with holes; adult bees, plopped in last year, have exited their nursery chambers.

I don’t grow any fruit trees, though I have some early spring blooming trees in my garden  There are flowering fruit trees in my neighborhood–peach, apple, and pear–and I expect that the blue bees nesting my garden visit those flowers.

Building native bee houses, or hotels, is easy.  Using untreated wood and providing a variety of different sized holes for different sized bees, you’ll attract a wide array of native bees to your garden.  You can even leave cut logs from downed, or pruned, trees in your garden, and with some aging of that wood, the native (carpenter) bees will find them.  Check out these links for instructions and ideas about attracting these fascinating and beautiful pollinators to your garden.

As much as the appearance of new buds on trees or the thickening of bloom stalks on spring perennials, the arrival of the adult Blue Orchard bees heralds the onset of Spring in my garden.  New life emerging and continuation of the alliances between flowering plants and their pollinators confirms a time-honored environmental zeitgeist of the natural world.

What indicates spring–or autumn–for your garden?  Please share your wildlife garden observations and insights, then leave a link to your post when you comment here–and happy wildlife gardening for March!

22 thoughts on “Return of the Blues: Wildlife Wednesday, March 2019

  1. Pingback: Wordless Wildlife Wednesday – All the fun of the fair | Frogend dweller's Blog

  2. Great article, Tina. I have seen these blue bees in my garden though I don’t yet have a bee hotel operational only old fallen branches. Can you tell me where you have located your bee hotels….in the sun, shade, out in the open or against a structure. I have a pretty one but don’t know where to put it. Thanks, Robin


    • Excellent question, Robin and I’m sorry I didn’t address that in the post. Both of my bee houses are located in protected spots, facing east. They are situated under the eaves of the house and the patio roof, so there’s no direct rain which gets to them and facing east so that the harsh west sun isn’t a problem. The wood that I leave in my garden is also under the eaves of the house. In the real world, of course, wood falls where it falls, but if you have a protected spot, it’s probably best to place your bee house there. I hope you attract lots of tenants!


    • I do too, Allison. Interesting about the ends being open. All the ones I’m aware of, either in DIY or pre-made have closed holes, but you may be right that the bees can work both ends. Something to look into and learn about.


    • Thanks, Judy–bees are boss! Honeybees get most of the press, but native or wild bees are vital and It’s so easy to attract them that really, anyone no matter where their home/garden is located, can do so.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wonderful post, Tina, with the usual fabulous photos! Up where we are, Pieries blooms are some of the first to sustain the Mason bees. I saw a talk about them a few years ago, where they handed out a very useful plant list, tailored to our area.


    • Thank you, Anna. I think most garden groups, native plants societies are on board with helping gardeners make native bees welcome. The plus is that it’s so easy.


  4. Thank you for another excellent blog post, and I really enjoy learning more about bees. I’d seen some bees around my yard with what looked like pollen blobs on their bellies, so thank you for explaining that mason bees keep it there! I especially love Mr. Bee with his handsome mustache. I’ve wanted to set up a bee tube nest for several years – perhaps this will inspire me to finally get to it.


    • Thanks! Bees are fascinating, whether honeys or natives, they’re all worth learning about and having. I’d like to have more of these houses, but haven’t gotten to it either.


    • Thanks, Shirley. You’re right, as long as there are native plants, some wood and/or masonry, a bit of bare ground around for the ground nesters, every garden can have native/wild bees.


  5. As it happens, the title of the presentation for Monday’s NPSOT meeting is “Native Bee Natural History, Biodiversity, and Conservation.” I’m looking forward to it immensely. i am curious about the female in the desert mallow. She seems a little more green that that vibrant blue of the male. Is it a trick of the light? I see metallic bees out and around, but I know suspect many are sweat bees. Hooray! it’s another learning process.

    These are beautiful, and so many of the details about their life are fascinating and absorbing. Those little individual chambers amaze me. We think of bees being busy when they’re gathering pollen, but that’s only the half of it.


    • I wondered the same thing about the bee in the mallow, but there don’t seem to be any other metallics around right now, I tend to see them in late spring and the rest of the year. Yes, I do think the light shows here more green, though. I’ve seen one other blue orchid–this week, in fact, at the mallow. I agree that they’re beautiful. For years, I’d seen them at my Mt. Laurel blooms, but didn’t know what they were until we placed the bee houses and they were up close and personal. The cold this week slowed them down, but they’re back up and running. Flying. 🙂

      I once saw a video of a bee, probably not the blue orchard, but another native, and it showed in time-lapse how the female builds the chambers. I should try to find that video–it was fascinating.


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