Garden pollinators for PAW no. 1 – Patchwork leaf-cutter bee (Megachile centuncularis)

Megachile on lambs ear 2015-06-29 18.16.49

As promised, here’s the first of my posts for Pollinator Awareness Week and I’m going to start with one of my favourite groups of bees – the leaf-cutters of the genus Megachile.  The UK has only nine Megachile species recorded, several of which are quite frequently found in gardens.

In my urban garden in Northampton I’ve often encountered the Patchwork leaf-cutter (Megachile centuncularis) this summer.  As you can see from the link to Steve Falk’s excellent photographs and description of the species, it’s quite distinctive with a brush of orange hairs that extends right to the tip of the abdomen (see the first picture, though the colour of this can fade with age so it’s not always so apparent).  The brush is used for collecting pollen from flowers to take back to provision its nest, which is constructed from leaf segments lining a tubular cavity in old walls, wood or occasionally soil (hence “leaf-cutter” bees).  The leaf-cutters (as with 90% of bee species) are “solitary” in the sense that they don’t have a social structure with a communal nest, a queen, etc.  It’s the female bees that are solely responsible for nest building; the purpose of the males is simply to mate.

I’ve seen this species visiting my runner beans in the garden and, given their size, they probably pollinate that crop, though not as effectively as bumblebees which are much more abundant.

Megachile female 2 - close up July 2015P1020491

In the image above you can clearly see the pollen that’s been collected by this bee under its abdomen.

Megachile female - close up - July 2015 P1020489 copy

In my garden the Patchwork leaf-cutter is very fond of Lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina), but I’ve seen it collecting nectar and pollen on a wide range of other plants too.

20 thoughts on “Garden pollinators for PAW no. 1 – Patchwork leaf-cutter bee (Megachile centuncularis)

  1. Amy Parachnowitsch

    We’re getting a lot of traffic at our Lamb’s ear, I’m glad I added it to the garden. I think it is also clear that I’m raising a pollinator-aware child. My almost 6 year old was pointing out to me this weekend that the bees really loved to visit these flowers (and some others in the garden). Guess I don’t need to raise awareness at home!

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Yes, awareness can be raised by osmosis sometimes 🙂 Have you had Anthidium manicatum on the Lamb’s ear? That’s another favourite of mine and may be the subject of a post later this week if I can get a decent shot. The Lamb’s ear can be a little invasive though, seeds spread everywhere.

      1. Amy Parachnowitsch

        Mostly we’re seeing Bombus spp. but I’ll have to keep a look out. I haven’t seen the invasive tendencies of Lamb’s ear here in Sweden, maybe the cold keeps them in check? But now I’m happy I planted them in a strip between the garage and lane–lots of pavement to keep it in line here!

      2. bradlaugh fields visitor

        Any excess seeds gratefully received on my allotment! I’m aiming at making it as pollinator-attractive and wildlife-friendly as it can be.

        Like your comment Amy, only couldn’t see how to “like” it. It’s wonderful that at least some youngsters are learning to appreciate nature as much as computers.

        By good coincidence someone on the local Streetlife is asking about Leaf-cutter Bees:

  2. Murtagh's Meadow

    I think we only have about four Megachile species in Ireland. We get Megachile vesicolor in our garden. I’ve seen them collecting pollen from ragworth (which we allow to grow in our meadow area) so they end up having yellow bellies. They cut the leaves of a young lime tree, the beech hedge and alpine strawberries of all things. I love seeing these bees in the garden. It’s fascinating watching them carry bits of leave to their nesting sites!

  3. Steve Hawkins

    Looks like this is going to be a useful, and shareable resource, of wide interest, Jeff. First class. (y)

  4. Faye Clifton

    Hi Jeff, I’ve just come across you when looking at info regarding pollinators week and would really like to send you some information about our bee brick, a nesting site for solitary bees that can be used in construction. It has the backing of Buglife and it would be great to get your opinion.
    If poss could you drop me a line to Thanks Jeff,

  5. Vicky

    Hello Jeff – below is my post and reply on Strretlife… I hear from Sheri (and see from your blog) you’re very knowledgable about these bees… Any advice please?

    Streetlife >>>>>>>>
    Leaf cutter bees – rescue plan needed
    I knew I had resident bees in a planter, so I waited until just last weekend to dig out my planter… Thing is, although the summer batch have emerged and flown, I have discovered a whole bundle of inch long green cigars (let’s call them bee-pods). Hoping for the best I’ve tried not to rattle them too much, or expose to too much sun… and have replanted in a separate smaller terracotta pot in the same location. Any advice warmly welcome.

    Sheri Pa day ago
    Ooh, they sound interesting! Did you get any photos?
    Not sure I’ve any advice, other than try and re place them in as similar a situation as they were found.
    There’s some people at the Uni who are very knowledgeable about species of wild bees in Northampton, see Jeff Ollerton’s blog:

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Hi Vicky – you’ve done the right thing as long as the “cigars”, which are the nests of these leaf-cutter bees, have been placed at more or less the same orientation and depth as the bee originally constructed them. This will help the new bees emerge next spring. Also, place the pot in the same position as it was previously (even if that’s full sun) as the female bees choose their nest sites very carefully and will know whether or not it’s suitable. You mention that you’ve put them in a smaller pot.

      If possible put them back into one of the original size for the same reason, though it’s probably not critical. Hopefully you’ll see the new bees emerge next year, though it’s possible that all you may get is some of the small wasps that frequently parasitise these nests. But that’s nature, everything has to live 🙂

      Hope that’s been useful and good luck!


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  8. Klaus Lunau

    Thanks for the megachilid portrait. Studying pollen biology of bees I have become very sensitive to three different types of behaviour which are only diffusely described by “pollen collection”: pollen harvesting: which organ is used to get the pollen from the flower; pollen packing: grooming the pollen into the ventral scopa; pollen transport: organ used to transport pollen into the nest. I think that Megachile is special, because they can use the ventral brush for harvesting and transporting pollen.


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