Busy Bees Use Flower Petals For Nest Wallpaper

When we think of bee nests, we often think of a giant hive, buzzing with social activity, worker bees and honey. But scientists recently discovered a rare, solitary type of bee that makes tiny nests by plastering together flower petals.

This nest of a rare bee is made of flower petals and holds a single egg.

The O. avoseta bee builds a tiny nest about a half-inch long using petals from the flower Onobrychis viciifolia. Each nest usually houses a single egg. Jerome Rozen/American Museum of Natural History hide caption

itoggle caption Jerome Rozen/American Museum of Natural History

Each nest is a multicolored, textured little cocoon — a papier-mache husk surrounding a single egg, protecting it while it develops into an adult bee.

"It's not common for bees to use parts of plants for nests," says Dr. Jerome Rozen of the American Museum of Natural History of the unexpected find. His team stumbled across the nests of the Osmia (Ozbekosima) avoseta bee in Turkey. Oddly enough, another team discovered the same bee and flowery nests in Iran on the same day. The two teams published their research together in the American Museum Novitates.

Multiple flower-lined nests of the O. avoseta bee are nestled in the ground.

One mother bee may make around 10 nests, often nestling the single-cell berths near each other. Jerome Rozen/American Museum of Natural History hide caption

itoggle caption Jerome Rozen/American Museum of Natural History

These Thumbelina-like nests are a fascinating natural work of art, but they're also key to understanding more about how the roughly 20,000 species of bees live.

"There's a demand for biologists to know bees nowadays," Rosen says. "They are the foremost animal pollinators of plants, and tremendously important for maintaining ecosystems — not only crops but also for conservation."

To learn more, the scientists watched the busy mama bees. Building a nest takes a day or two, and the female might create about 10 nests in total, often right next to each other. To begin construction, she bites the petals off of flowers and flies each petal — one by one — back to the nest, a peanut-sized burrow in the ground.

The bee chews off a flower petal with its mandibles.

A bee closely related to O. avoseta bites off a flower petal with its mandibles. Jerome Rozen/American Museum of Natural History hide caption

itoggle caption Jerome Rozen/American Museum of Natural History

She then shapes the multi-colored petals into a cocoon-like structure, laying one petal on top of the other and occasionally using some nectar as glue. When the outer petal casing is complete, she reinforces the inside with a paper-thin layer of mud, and then another layer of petals, so both the outside and inside are wallpapered — a potpourri of purple, pink and yellow.

Peeling back the outer layer of flower petals reveals a paper-thin mud layer.

Peeling back the outer layer of flower petals reveals the paper-thin mud layer. Jerome Rozen/American Museum of Natural History hide caption

itoggle caption Jerome Rozen/American Museum of Natural History

These meticulous shells are just over a half-inch long and usually will house just one tiny egg. To prepare for her offspring, the mother collects pollen and nectar, which she carries back to the burrow in a nifty part of the digestive tract called the crop. She deposits this gooey blob of nutritional goodness in the bottom of the flower-petal nest. Then, she lays the egg, right on top of the gelatinous blob.

A closeup of an egg, laid on top of nutrients.

The mother bee lays a single egg in the flowery bower, right on top of a nutritious deposit of nectar and pollen. Jerome Rozen/American Museum of Natural History hide caption

itoggle caption Jerome Rozen/American Museum of Natural History

At this point, it's time to seal in the egg. The mother bee neatly folds in the inner layer of petals, smears a paper-thin mud layer and then folds the outer petals. The casing is nearly airtight, which helps protect the vulnerable egg (and later larva, then pupa) from flooding or excessive dryness or hoofed animals.

In only three to four days, the egg hatches into a larva. When it finishes feasting on the nectar, the larva spins a cocoon (still inside the shell, which has hardened into a protective casing by this point) and then hangs out. Rosen says he isn't sure whether it spends the winter as a larva or as an adult. But at some point the creature's tissue begins to restructure itself, and it transforms into an adult. Come springtime, the adult bee emerges from its flowery bower.

Then, the cycle starts all over again.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.