Blue Bees are Back Again!

As nature does when days grow longer and temperatures warmer, spring brings tender baby leaves which soon grow big and plump buds with unfolding petals. Wildlife is energized and preoccupied with family responsibilities, and insects emerge from dormancy, also preparing for their next generation.

Blue Orchard bees, Osmia lignaria, have materialized in my garden this past week. They are blue, buzzing, and beautiful.

Having a sip or collecting for a nest, this Blue Orchard bee worked the flowers of Martha Gonzales rose.

The adult Blue bees flying around now are the eggs laid and hatched a year ago. These are solitary bees and unlike honeybees, not part of a hive. Females lay their eggs in holes of wood or masonry and don’t have a crew of sisters to care for them. The adults prepare the nests by gathering a mix of pollen and nectar known as “bee bread” and then lay their eggs on that bread to nurture the larvae once hatched. Each egg is sequestered in its own room to grow and develop, each room separated by a mud-n-leaf matter wall. Female eggs are laid in the deep end of the hole, the male eggs toward the front of the hole.

Mama bee working in a hole. She is near the front, completing the egg laying in that hole. She is likely to find or make another set of holes in which to repeat the process.

Another difference between honeybees and Blue bees (as well as other native bees) is that the Blue bees carry pollen on their abdomens, rather than on their leg pockets or corbiculae as honeybees do.

Pollen is visible on this bee’s belly. The pollen is the bit of yellow seen at the side of her abdomen.

It’s been a good spring for these bees, more activity than I recall from last year. I’ve seen many working around the Martha Gonzales roses, nibbling leaves to add to the nest sites.

These are such gorgeous bees! They’re fast flyers though and always on the move, which is challenging for clear photos. As I observe and attempt to photograph, these bees are blue flashes, sparkling in the sun.

A lucky shot of this bee heading for its nesting hole.

Near this bee apartment, made from untreated wood with drilled holes and bamboo tubes, there is constant activity, flying in, zooming out, and dotting the wood with metallic color.

Blue Orchard bees are used in commercial farming because they’re excellent pollinators, besting the beloved honeybees. I’m happy that they found my garden and each early spring add to its life and activity–and beauty.

It’s easy to attract these and other wonderful native bees to your garden. Plant a variety of native flowers that bloom throughout the growing season; provide water, some shade, and dried wood, like large limbs from shrubs or trees. I don’t stack my wood piles, but lay the wood randomly (mostly in the back of my gardens) so that rats don’t have a safe place to set up their homes. Leave some area of your place on the Earth free of grass and garden so that there is available bare soil for ground nesters. Don’t use pesticides.

You can also build bee houses, too.

While bee houses or hotels aren’t as labor intensive as honeybee keeping, it’s still a good idea to clean out or replace (if using bamboo) the holes annually so that fungal and parasite problems are avoided. There are plenty of online resources and information for attracting native bees and giving them a safe place live out their lives. County Master Gardener groups, botanic gardens, and native plant groups are just some of the organizations promoting the inclusion of native bees in home gardens. Wherever you live, you can access information for your region on native bees and their habits. If you’re in Texas, check out these links to learn more and there’s lots more out there!

https://citybugs.tamu.edu/2018/06/11/caring-about-the-other-bees/

https://txmg.org/denton/north-texas-gardening/community-gardening/about-texas-native-bees/

https://biodiversity.utexas.edu/news/entry/leafcutter-bee-nest

https://biodiversity.utexas.edu/news/entry/a-proper-home

https://jmgkids.us/kids-zone/pollinator-hotel/

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.

https://www.nwf.org/en/Garden-for-Wildlife/Young/Build-a-Bee-House

http://www.foxleas.com/make-a-bee-hotel.asp

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!

Awakenings: Wildlife Wednesday, March

Wild things are throwing off the covers of winter and so are their garden partners!  Welcome to Wildlife Wednesday, celebrating all things wild in our gardens. Here in Austin, Texas, it’s not meteorolgically  spring, but it’s also definitely no longer winter.  Sure, it’s likely there will more cold days, but spring is busting out everywhere and wildlife are gearing up with life-affirming activity.

Birds–residents and winter visitors–have taken front stage in wildlife action for the last couple of months and they still are the leading characters of the garden.  There are other garden-dwellers who are angling to slough-off their winter wears and gear-up for a new life and the promise of a mate (or mates!) and family.

Bees are back!  The honeybees have been around all winter, though on the coldest days, they remained well-tucked in their cozy hives to keep warm.  But the season is nigh for the emergence of the native bees and first in line are the Blue Orchard beesOsmia lignaria.   The highlighted link takes you to my March 2017 Wildlife Wednesday post, where I wrote about these stunning bees as they emerged at exactly the same time last year.

Two adult bees emerging after a year of development in the holes of an insect hotel.

The Blue Orchid adult bees live for about a month and during that time, they mate, and then gather pollen, leaf material, and mud for their offsprings’ incubation chambers.

I found this Blue Orchard bee chewing away at the leaf of my Old Gay Hill rose. It’s the leaf material that they gather which gives the packed holes a green tint.

Females lay their eggs in the holes of wood,

This female is regurgitating her gathered material, so she’s head-first in the baby-bee incubation chamber. Check out the packed green tinged hole; is that green from my rose-leaf??

…or masonry,

…and then pack the holes to protect the developing bees for the next year.

A just-emerged adult Blue Orchard bee. You can see the holes that the adults emerge from in the packed nesting material created last February/March.

It takes a full year for these blue beauties to “cook till done” but it’s time well-spent.  Currently, every time I walk by either of my two insect hotels, there is a flurry of shiny blue activity as the buzzers have mated and are bringing in material to secure their babies’ future.

With as long a screw that I could find in our garage, I cleaned out those drilled holes where it was obvious that a bee had emerged, so that it’s available for the next generation. I couldn’t quite reach the end of the drilled holes in some nesting spaces, but cleared many spots.  I also added a few more cut bamboo pieces and drilled wood blocks to the boxes.

I like blue bees in the garden and will happily welcome more next year!

 

Squirrels are ever-active and always cute.  And annoying.

Eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger)

 

Winter and spring are the best times to see woodpeckers in my garden and this year, they haven’t disappointed.  I hear and see Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Melanerpes carolinus,  nearly daily.  A male and female are regular visitors (mates?), enjoying the commercial suet I provide in the cool seasons.

A handsome male.

This male sat for quite a time in my Red oak tree, enjoying the rest.  Maybe his tummy was full.

At another time, he (or a buddy) worked the bark of a neighbor’s tree.  Check out the holes to his left!

I don’t see the female as often, but snatched a quick shot of her one day as she nibbled at the suet.

Suet is a bit gross (all that fat!), but birds need fat during winter and so I oblige. Personally, I’d choose cheesecake.  Or ice cream.  Ahem.

I only provide suet in winter and spring; once it’s hot, the suet spoils quickly.  During the warm months, I’ve tried a recipe of non-animal fat suet (peanut butter with seeds and cornmeal), but there were no takers.

 

A few mornings each week, I take a handful of peanuts out for the Blue JaysCyanocitta cristata.  They love their peanut treats!

Sometimes they line up along the fence line like planes on a runway, awaiting departure.  Each bird waits its turn for a peanut-grab and take-off.

 

A pretty-boy House FinchHaemorhous mexicanus.

Perched at a bird bath.

The males are in full-mating color form, accompanied by lots of singing!

 

White-winged Doves are common here in Austin, but in my garden I rarely see Inca Doves or specimens of like this pretty Mourning DoveZenaida macroura.

The bird’s blue eyeliner echos the blue of the bowl it waddled past.

Its been hanging around for a week or so, nibbling seeds and resting in the sun, and walking that weird walk that doves are known for.

 

Another common bird, replete in his stunning spring plumage, is the Great-tailed GrackleQuiscalus mexicanus.

This photo doesn’t catch the luminous colors that his feathers display when the sun shines.  Instead, on this cloudy morning, the feathers showcase the velvety black that complements his striking eyes.

 

Not my favorite bird and an invasive pest,  I rather admire the plumage and coloring of the European StarlingSturnus vulgaris.

Starlings show up in late February and are bullies at the suet feeder.  I  usually stash away the suet when I see them congregating and chasing off the local songbirds, because a group of Starlings can finish a suet block in an hour, if allowed the opportunity.  I have noticed that they only appear in the mornings, so I hang out the suet in the afternoons once they’re gone.  This year, there haven’t been as many Starlings, for which I’m grateful.  They are joyous bathers and make great use of my birdbaths and the bog area of the pond.

The seasons are changing:  winter to spring and summer to autumn.

Who’s visiting your garden in this time of change?  Please share your photos and stories of wild critters this past month.  Remember to leave a your link when you comment.

Happy wildlife gardening!