LSE is all about diversity, but we at LSE Bees have been a bit behind the curve. Not when it comes to humans, we hasten to add – the LSESU Beekeeping Society is diverse and inclusive, with members from a wide range of backgrounds and academic disciplines. But when it comes to bees, we have tended to focus almost exclusively on Apis mellifera, a.k.a. the European honey bee. Until now…
Britain has over 270 species of bees, and the honey bee is only one of them. Of the rest, the vast majority – nearly 250 species – are solitary bees. They have fascinating names – cuckoo bees, mason bees, leafcutter bees, flower bees – and even more fascinating lives.
Unlike honey bees, solitary bees do not form colonies (sometimes it’s good to be antisocial, argues Silvia Golumbeanu), nor do they produce honey. However, they are very good at pollination. Why? Because they are clumsier! Honey bees carry pollen in specialised pollen baskets on their hind legs. But as this excellent article explains:
some solitary bees are incredibly good pollinators because they are so bad at it. Mason and leafcutter solitary bees store pollen on their undercarriage, dropping it here, there and everywhere. One red mason bee can match the pollination work of more than 100 honeybees, research indicates.
And because unlike honey bees, they have no honey stores to protect, solitary bees do not sting! Brigit Strawbridge has a great post about which bees sting and which don’t, where she writes:
[female solitary bees] are equipped with tiny stings but rarely, if ever, do they use them. You would have to squash them to provoke them to sting – and even then, the sting on most of these bees is so insignificant that it cannot even pierce human skin.
So while honey bees, bumblebees and butterflies get all the limelight, solitary bees remain the harmless, unsung heroes of the pollinator world!
Sadly, many solitary bee species are more threatened than the commercially-cultivated honey bee, and in greater need of protection. Come spring, we hope our nest-box will attract mason bees, leafcutter bees, and maybe some even rarer species. Best of all, the box has observation panels, which means we can see the bees making nests and laying eggs inside!
If this short blogpost has piqued your curiosity about solitary bees, there’s a great article on the Wildlife Trusts website, or you can watch this short documentary:
LSE Bees would like to thank the Sustainable Projects Fund whose generous grant helped us purchase the Solitary Bee Observation Nest Box, as well as LSE Sustainability and the Passfield Hall team who helped install it.