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A wall of bees


One of my favorite blogs, TrogTrogBlog, is written by Christopher Wren, a beekeeper and nature photographer living in northern England. Anyone who manages to take photos of wild bees has my immediate attention, but Christopher is especially talented. He says:

My interest in bees began seriously when I started keeping honey bees three years ago but spread to bumble bees and solitary bees through my photography. The blog started last June mainly as a way of sharing the photos I took and things I saw with a wider audience. You’ll see it covers all types of natural history and not just bees, but at this time of year I could put bees in almost every post.

This particular post appealed to me because of the wall. Just think, a wall 400 years old was built around the time European settlers first came to North America . . . and the solitary bees love it just the same.

Thank you, Chris, for letting me run your story, A Wall of Bees.

This beautiful old cob wall stands alongside a lane leading to the church in the village where I grew up—Nether Heyford in Northamptonshire, England. The wall is probably more than four hundred years old and is home to thousands of solitary bees, each with its own separate nest. I walked past it hundreds of times when I was young, on my way to ring the bells in church, without realising its secret.

Cob is an ancient material used for building walls and houses. It uses a mixture of clay, straw and water and is strong and thermally efficient. Locally the mix included stones and animal bones. Several of the older houses and cottages in the village have cob walls.

When I visited the village last week there were dozens of bees flying in front of the wall. Most of them were female hairy-footed flower bees (Anthophora plumipes), with only a couple of males (I think most of the others will already have died off after mating). The females were bringing pollen and nectar back to their nests and they hovered for a few moments before finding the right hole and diving in.

There were also quite a few cuckoo bees, Melecta albifrons, a specific cleptoparasite of Anthophora plumipes. They were easier to photograph as they were settling on the wall and walking around from hole to hole trying to judge which nest to invade. Interestingly the incoming flower bees paid them no attention. Melecta bees have a different shape with a flatter abdomen and no scopa (pollen-collecting hairs) on the back leg. Most have prominent white patches on the abdomen and legs although some almost completely black. They also have brownish wings and a much quieter buzz than the flower bees.

I also saw a few tawny mining bees (Andrena fulva) at the outer and lower edges of the wall.

Christoper Wren


The old cob wall. © Christopher Wren.


Solitary bees nest in the cob wall. © Christopher Wren.


Thousands of solitary bees live in close proximity. © Christopher Wren.


Anthophora plumipes female. © Christopher Wren.


Anthophora plumipes is also known as the hairy-footed flower bee. © Christopher Wren.


Anthophora plumipes female entering her nest. © Christopher Wren.


Melecta albifrons is a cuckoo bee, parasitic on the hairy-footed flower bee. © Christopher Wren.


Melecta albifrons looking for a nest to invade. © Christopher Wren.


Melecta albifrons. Cuckoo bees lay their eggs in the nest of other bees.  © Christopher Wren.


Melecta albifrons lets the Anthophora bee do all the work. © Christopher Wren.


Melecta albifrons patiently waiting. © Christopher Wren.


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  • I think I will be building a cob structure soon! i expect bees to far outlive me (us).

  • I have a cob wall full of bees that look very much like Anthophora plumipes – but in Oregon so probably not the same species. This summer I want to identify them.

  • Wigierski National Park in Poland which has has protected similar habitat for bees. I hope the wall in Nether Heyford is never repaired in a way that destroys the bees. There is an 18th century wall of mud, earth & straw topped with clay tiles in the village of Rearsby (Charnwood district of Leicestershire) England which is habitat for a large number of solitary bees. Solitary bees should be part of historical tourism and the protection and restoration of traditional construction methods, as well as part of permacultural cob-building (see below).
    Mark Luterra,
    I live in Oregon too – and identified Anthophora bomboides from 2 different cob walls at local “permaculture” non-profits (here in Lane County). I explained about 1) their unique pollination services (they can sonicate aka buzz pollinate) for local wildflowers and food crops and 2) the way to redo the wall without bees inhabiting it in the future yet maintaining the bees in the area . Unfortunately, regardless of what they were told, the bees in one case were killed by the thousands, including with pesticides, and in the other case were (for the umpteenth year in a row cobbed over yet again, drastically reducing the population. These groups operate on a budget, and had folks paying thousands of dollars each to learn cob building, not com-building/bee habitat maintenance. These and other communities like them could be setting up native bee education walls for little expense and to much benefit for all involved.

  • Thank you for sharing, beautiful pictures. Bees are amazing, kudos to Dr. Carl Jurica for introducing me to a bee hive.

  • I have a wall that is popular for solitary bees but the wall needs repairing and I want to preserve the bees’ home, any advice?

    • Jo,

      That’s a tough one because as soon as the bees emerge the holes get reused. Maybe you could repair half the wall one year and the other half later? That way you would only kill half the population at a time so it might recuperate. Does anyone have ideas on this?