leafcutting bees

Perfect disks or ragged holes?

A leafcutting bee collecting pollen. Rusty Burlew

Point of view is everything. On Monday evening I attended a pollinator meeting in Olympia. Part of the discussion centered on leafcutting bees and how gardeners often lament the damage the bees inflict on their precious plants, as in “Oh no! Look what they did to my roses!” On the flip side, bee lovers are ecstatic, “Oh my! Perfect circles!”

If you’re not sure of my position in this debate, here are some photos of exquisitely missing disks. The leafcutting bees use the leaf and petal pieces to line their nests and build partitions. You can tell the size of the bee by the diameter of the circle. I have several species living here, Megachile rotundata, the small alfalfa leafcutting bee, the larger western leafcutting bee, Megachile perihirta, and another even bigger one that I haven’t yet identified.

I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent trying to photograph a leafcutter cutting, but I have never seen it happen. I sometimes see them dragging disks into their tubes, but so far, no cutting. If I leave the garden for even an instant, more circles appear. Perhaps I need a duck blind or a suit of camo.

Honey Bee Suite


Leafcutting bees are easy to identify by the way they hold their abdomens. This one has a load of yellow pollen. © Rusty Burlew.


This honey bee isn’t bothered by the cut petals. It appears that the leafcutting bee was interrupted and left her prize dangling. © Rusty Burlew.

Purple-cosmos Rusty Burlew

This bumble bee is equally unperturbed by the leafcutter damage. © Rusty Burlew.


These perfectly round cuts look they were done by machine. © Rusty Burlew.


Here the cut-outs were taken from a partridge pea. © Rusty Burlew.

Purple-cosmos Rusty Burlew

The leafcutting bees get both pollen and nesting materials from cosmos. © Rusty Burlew.


White cosmos are equally popular with the leafcutting bees. © Rusty Burlew.


This scalloped cosmos is fast disappearing. The little spider probably thinks it’s a good hunting ground. © Rusty Burlew.

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  • I was lucky enough last year to witness one in action on a wildflower out in our field. She was on the outside of the petal chewing the circle. I kept thinking, “You’re on the wrong side! You’re going to fall when you get to the last cut!” She knew more than me of course and once she made the last cut just flew off gracefully.

  • I love this post so much. I can’t imagine being upset about the beautiful cuts made by these bees- I’m delighted to see them, knowing the bees are making use of my garden in more ways than one 🙂

  • Thank you for the amazing information you provide on your blog, Rusty. You have piqued my interest in native bees as well as honey bees.

    There are a few colonies of leafcutter bees in between the concrete sections of a school that I maintain and have been asked to remove them. Is there a way to lure them out without poisoning them? I would like to give these beneficial creatures a new home.

    • Bruce,

      In the fall you can carefully dig out the cocoons and store them in a cool and dry place until spring. They will hatch about the same time next year.