“She sticks her bum in the air to tell the boys she has mated” – My First Leafcutter Bee

KATE BRADBURY describes how her heart swells with pride as she gets a visit from her first leafcutter bee …

Newly single after ten years, I was uprooted from my home and garden and nearly lost my mind. My books in storage, my plants in pots, my soul buried in some patch of earth I no longer had access to. I tried being a sort of nomad gardener; I gardened in an allotment, the shared house I lived in for a while, the gardens of friends who let me stay with them for a few weeks at a time. But it wasn’t the same. You can’t form an attachment to temporary things, fall in love, be so careless with your heart. Well, you can, but it only causes you more pain. And I try to avoid pain, on the whole, these days. – Kate Bradbury

She sticks her bum in the air to tell the boys she has mated. Bright orange, it is, orange for Leave Me Alone. It’s not a bum, really, but a scopa on the underside of her abdomen, a patch of hairs or a ‘brush’, used to collect pollen. And with it held high, like Mary Poppins in full bustle, she flies, unmolested, from one flower to another, gathering food to feed her young. She visits drumstick alliums and sweet peas, ornamental thistles and perennial wallflower, she’s not fussy. She dives down into a thistle head and all you see is wiggling orange bum as she swims across its anthers. She takes deep drinks of nectar. She doesn’t rest, launches herself into the air again, now back to her nest where she regurgitates the nectar and brushes the pollen off her scopa. Mixes them together. She backs out of the nest and then backs into it, lays an egg.

Then she returns to the garden. She’s looking for something else now. She flies around a bit, lands on a rose leaf. She clasps the leaf between her legs and chews into it, working her way around it as a pair of scissors. She takes seconds to do this, cutting and rolling as she goes, the perfect elliptical disc. Heavy now, her wings have to work harder. She lifts off like a helicopter, brrrrrrrr, the disc of leaf rolled up between her legs, the weight of it pulling her down before she gains enough momentum to lift herself skyward again. She carries it to her nest and fumbles with it, unrolls it and pushes it in. She makes it wet with something like spit, wallpapers it to the sides. She pastes it into the corners. She’s locking her baby in. Locking her egg with its parcel of pollen mixed with nectar, into its little leafy hollow. She works in a circle, sealing the leaf to the wall so nothing can get in. She inspects her work thoroughly. And then she backs out again, chews a piece of leaf again, flies back again and begins building again. In front of the egg with its pollen and nectar, in front of the leafy hollow, she starts making another cell, another little nest for another little babe. The first section of cylinder is made from four leaves pasted together, like a closed daisy capped off two-thirds of the way along its petals, in which the first egg lies. Now she pastes four more leaves to the existing ones, lengthening the daisy.

Sometimes she ignores ‘Frances’ and takes a disc from an evening primrose leaf or even its bloom. The new nest cell is prettier than the last, yellow and green. She returns now to the drumstick alliums and the ornamental thistles, wiggles her abdomen to gather pollen, fills her belly with nectar. She flies back to the nest, deposits her load, flies again to the flowers for more. A few trips now.

Then, when the nest is ready, she backs in and lays her second egg. Flies out to get a leaf, seals her second baby in, pastes the second leaf cell down. She gathers more leaves and pretty pink petals, extends the cylinder further, makes the third section and lays the third egg. Cut leaves, gather pollen, lay egg, repeat. It takes all day and she’s barely started. It takes all day to lay three eggs. I wait until dusk before I sneak a peek in the bee hotel. It’s not nice to disturb them during the day and they can abandon the nest if they feel unsafe. I peel back the viewing panel and see her cylinder of leaves, beautifully arranged in a variety of colours. She’s resting in the newest one, pops her head out to see what’s going on. It’s just me, little leafcutter bee. I’m just seeing how you’re doing. She shrinks back into her cylinder and I gently close the door on her, return her to darkness.

There’s no way of knowing where she came from. A bee hotel in someone else’s garden or an undisturbed cavity in a wall or tree. Only red and blue mason bees nested with me until now, this leafcutter is a pioneer. I’m so happy. The rose, ‘Frances E. Lester’, is barely six months in the soil, the thistles and alliums their flowering first. Yet here she is, oblivious to the bareness and the smallness, the ungerminated grass seed, the expanse of stones. There’s pollen and nectar, the right type of rose leaf, a bee hotel to nest in. She’s here, only a few months after the garden was released from its prison of decking. My first leafcutter bee in this half-made mess. My heart swells with pride.

The Bumblebee Flies Anyway: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Muddy Hands by Kate Bradbury, Bloomsbury is out now, £9.99stg.

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