Not Apis mellifera. Not honey bees. Same size, same general colouring, similar behaviour, not the same bee.
Despite the initial jubilation about possible feral honey bee colonies in the caravan walls, there were always nagging doubts concerning correct identification. There were a number of tell-tale signs.
The most unsettling was the observation that these bees did not carry pollen in ‘baskets’ on their hind legs, but dusted on the underside of their abdomens. Then there was the odd shape of the mouth, where some returning bees seemed to be carrying something in their mandibles.
A few other indicators also did not feel right. Although there was an abundance of bees returning to several of the vents in the caravan panels, there was never any ‘hive’ behaviour, such as ‘flight orientation’ swarms around the middle of the day, as one observes with honey bees, or a buzzing ‘roar’ when the wall of the caravan was tapped. Or even enough foraging activity to sustain a significant colony.
So the camera came out in order to study them more closely. The conclusion was that these are red mason bees, Osmia bicornis (previously Osmia rufa).
The ‘scopa’, or pollen-collecting apparatus on the underside of the abdomen of the females is a pale colour, and a distinguishing feature of these bees.
The female bees are the only ones in the UK that have two ‘horns’ protruding from their face. It is another distinguishing feature, used in the construction of their mud nests.
A further distinguishing feature on the males is white hair on the face.
These are solitary bees, although gregarious, very gentle and safe around children. They are excellent pollinators and easily encouraged to stay in ‘bee hotels‘.
They are very common throughout England, although not so common this far north or in Scotland. A sighting has been reported to BWARS (Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society).
So, no chance of these moving into one of the vacant top bar hives after all!