Country diary: Who would live in a keyhole like this?

Allendale, Northumberland: I had found neat semi-circles on the epimedium leaves in my garden, now I know who’s been busy

With the front door open, we eat our supper accompanied by the sounds of insects and all the activity of the late day. Outside in the garden, newly fledged wrens flurry among campanulas. A thrush bashes a snail shell against a stone and jays shriek.

I become aware of one particular bee as it hovers in the evening air, examining the door. It is about the size of a honeybee, and its dark brown abdomen is haloed in vivid orange hairs the colour of California poppies. Alighting briefly on the escutcheon round the keyhole, it disappears inside. A female bee, she is probably a patchwork leaf-cutter bee, Megachile centuncularis, one of the most commonly seen in gardens.

There are seven species of leaf-cutter bees in the UK – solitary bees that use pieces of leaves to construct cells in which to lay their eggs. Patchwork leaf-cutters are on the wing from June to August and choose sunny, south-facing holes or cavities, hollow plant stems or wood – or, eschewing my solitary bee nest box, a convenient keyhole. Unlike other bees that store pollen in baskets on their legs, these collect it on a pollen brush – a plump cushion of hairs that helps pollinate fruit and veg, wild and garden flowers.

Leaf-cutter bee notches inepimedium leaves.
Leaf-cutter bee notches in epimedium leaves. Photograph: Susie White

I had noticed neat semi-circles notching the edges of the epimedium leaves. Female bees cut segments with their jaws from roses, lilac, birch or honeysuckle, any material with the right flexibility, even sometimes from petals. As a bee chews, her legs grip the rolling up portion of leaf which she carries beneath her to the nest.

I listen for her approach, a higher pitched whine than the deeper drone of the bumblebees in the marguerite daisies by the door. There’s something fragile yet strong and beautiful about using leaves to swaddle her eggs. I peer into the keyhole. In its shadowy inside is a small green parcel, dolmades-neat, made from overlapping leaves. Each thimble shape is given a supply of pollen, glued with saliva and sealed with a leaf. The bees will pupate into adults in autumn and overwinter inside the cell … and until next year we will have to use the back door.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary


Susie White

The GuardianTramp

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