A suggestion was made to the Community Rail Partnership Coordinator for the Mayflower Line that this line could strive to become a Bee Guardian, or at least a Bee Friendly, line.  The suggestion was well received and work to provide nest sites for solitary bees at stations on the Mayflower Line was started.  It was agreed that it was not practical, or even appropriate, to install a nester at Harwich International Port.


There are over 200 types of solitary bee in the UK, of these the two species that were identified for encouragement in this project were Red Mason and Leaf Cutter bees.  Red Mason bees generally fly from early April through to late June and Leaf Cutters fly from early June to mid August.  Full life cycle details of these two species of bee can be found on the internet.

Several designs of nester for Red Mason and Leaf Cutter bees are available, they vary considerably in cost and complexity.  For this particular project, with the nesters to be installed in publicly accessible places, not many of the available designs were appropriate.  Some designs were either too vulnerable or too expensive, or both.   The particular design chosen for this project was cheap and simple to make, the nesters are made of short logs about 8 cm diameter with a series of 8mm holes drilled into their front surface.  Thus it was that a nester was installed at each of Manningtree, Mistley, Wrabness, Dovercourt and Harwich Town stations in mid April 2014.  The siting of the nesters was not always optimum from the perspective of the bees because the site was selected so that no damage was done to station structures and also took into account exposure to vandalism.  Optimum siting would be facing south, in full sun with no shadows, no obstructions to the front and about one metre above ground.  A second nester was installed at Harwich Town station in mid June as a major new garden at the station was completed.

At the time the nesters were installed there was no information about the presence, or absence, of Red Mason or Leaf Cutter bees in the vicinity of any of the stations.  Therefore in this first year of the project the nesters that were installed were acting as benign ‘traps’ to determine if the bees were about.  What was really encouraging was that as the first of the two nesters was being installed at Harwich Town station a Red Mason bee was seen flying in typical mode prospecting for suitable nest cavities.

At the time of writing it is mid September 2014, the flying season is over, so how did we do?  The first thing to report is that of the six nesters installed three were subjected to vandalism and/or theft.  The nester at Mistley had to be replaced to a new location that was far from optimum for the bees.  At Dovercourt and Harwich Town stations there was clear evidence of vandalism but this was not fatal to the nesters.

On a more positive note I can also report that three of the six nesters installed, at Dovercourt and both at Harwich Town, show clear evidence of nesting activity. One nester, at Harwich Town, appears to have been colonised by Red Mason bees.  Normally such a nest would be capped off with mud, in this instance the grain size and structure of the capping indicates that there was not enough water available to make good mud, the cappings on two of the cavities in the nester have collapsed.  The nester at Dovercourt and the second nester at Harwich Town have each been colonised by Leaf Cutter bees.

What do our results tell us?  Before going into any analysis it is important to remember one thing in particular.  Solitary bees, unlike birds, bumblebees and honeybees only fly relatively short distances. This means that no matter how attractive as a nest site our nesters are they will not attract solitary bees from far off.  For the nesters to have been used it tells us that there are already populations nearby.  By providing suitable nesters we have made it more likely that the existing populations will prosper – this may not sound much but in fact it is very important.  It is to be hoped that next year, when the bees emerge from the nesters used this year, the flying population will be slightly larger than last year and there may be some slight expansion of the territory covered.  This of course can only occur into suitable habitat.

Overall the project so far is a success in that the number of nest sites at the stations along the Mayflower Line has been increased. A clear bonus is that some of the nesters were actually used for their intended purpose.  The fact that some of the nesters were not used as intended should not be seen as a negative, it is a reflection of existing local populations of solitary bees.  Should the project continue in future years?  Most definitely, YES.

Thanks are due to Abellio Greater Anglia for allowing access to railway property for the nest sites and to Essex & South Suffolk Community Rail Partnership and of course to all of the individuals who have assisted with this project

© Dr T.C.Rogers

September 2014