Bees in the reeds

Blog post by Robert Morgan on 15 May, 2018

Bees have been in the news a great deal recently, and rightly so. Scientists warn of their continuing decline and remind us of the essential part they play as pollinators. There are over 275 species of bee represented in the UK, and along with ants and wasps form the order Hymenoptera. Among the reed-beds of NWT’s Broadland reserves, two species, with particularly fascinating and unusual lifestyles, find their home.

Yellow Loosestrife Bee, at NWT Hickling Broad

Yellow Loosestrife Bee, at NWT Hickling Broad

The Yellow Loosestrife Bee is small and black (just over a centimetre long), and as its name implies can be found on Yellow Loosestrife flowers. However, it is not collecting nectar but floral oils, which it utilises as waterproofing for its nest burrows. Often choosing wet peaty ground the waxed burrow also has a water-proof lid, which prevents flooding during high water-levels; this clever strategy possibly protects the growing larva from parasites. It is Britain’s only example of an ‘oil’ bee, on the wing during July and August they are reasonably easy to find. Following them when they leave a flower is frequently rewarded as they often take you directly to their burrow.

The sea of reed waving back and forth in a late summer breeze can often seem relatively empty, content to whisper the passer-by quickly on their way. Closer inspection by the inquisitive may find an odd protrusion at the top of the occasional reed stem. These are the curious creation of the Cigar Gall Fly.  A complex and somewhat mysterious ecology revolves around the gall, with many benefactors from the fly’s life-cycle. The gall-case, once left empty by the departing insect, is quickly occupied by a tiny bee.  The Reed Yellow-faced Bee (one of a family group of twelve) is intrinsically linked to the fly, requiring its vacated gall as a chamber for several of its grubs. The nest cell is filled with pollen and one egg is laid per cell; fertilised eggs become females, unfertilised become males. This tiny bee can be found throughout the summer on the edge of reed-beds, nectaring in some numbers on umbellifer flowers such as Milk Parsley.

Yellow Loosestrife Bee, at NWT Hickling Broad

Cigar Gall at NWT Ranworth Broad

With a good selection of well-illustrated books on the market now, identification of bees is much easier and you may end up helping our staff record some of the other species found on NWT reserves. With many of our bee species visiting even the smallest urban gardens, you can also help by planting native wildflowers, leaving a small area overgrown or building a ‘bug hotel’.

Robert Morgan is Assistant Reserves Manager for Broads South.
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