Busy bees: Single mothers inspect other nests before building their own

Solitary female bees inspect other nests for signs of danger before choosing where to build their own, research suggests.

Researchers say the clever bees looked for signs of parasite infection in other species’ nests and used this information to select a safe place to bring up their own children.

Scientists from Queen Mary University of London set up artificial nests in parks and grasslands in Faversham and Harpenden in 2016, and in London from 2016-2018.

They did this to study the behaviours of different species of solitary cavity-nesting mason bees.

In solitary bee species, female individuals – single mothers – build their own nests, with the male bees doing no work.

Researchers also tested the ability of these species to notice other cues of parasite infection in the surrounding environment.

They found solitary bees were surprisingly intelligent in their observations and were able to remember geometric symbols found next to parasitised nests.

The bees were also able to avoid nests near these symbols in future breeding periods.

Dr Olli Loukola, lead author and postdoctoral fellow at Queen Mary University of London and the University of Oulu, said: “It’s amazing that solitary bees are able to use such a complex strategy in their nest-site decisions.

“It really requires a sophisticated cognitive flexibility and it is fascinating to uncover how much genius is found in these small-brained solitary bees.

“Despite being solitary, these bees live in communities and can learn from each other.

“As environmental factors such as nesting suitability, predation and parasitism change both spatially and over time, it makes sense for bees to glean information from their neighbours, even if they aren’t the same species.”

Dr Lars Chittka, professor of sensory and behavioural ecology at Queen Mary University, said: “There are around 20,000 solitary bee species in total and about 150 live right here in London.

“In these species, female individuals, ‘single mothers’ build their own nests.

“The male bees never do any work.

“Our research suggests that despite the fact that these females largely work alone, they’re able to use cues in their environment and activities of other animals in their surroundings, to successfully protect their broods.”

The study is published in the Animal Biology journal.