Filmmaker Discovers Unique Bee Personalities in His Garden

He filmed a tent-making bee spend 5 hours building an intricate nest.

red mason bee
red mason bee.

Martin Dohrn / © Passion Planet

When the pandemic lockdown started in 2020, wildlife filmmaker Martin Dohrn found something interesting to do right in his own backyard. He adapted some of his camera equipment to focus on very tiny creatures and then began filming the bees in his small garden in Bristol, England.

During the spring and summer of 2020, Dohrn filmed more than 60 species of bees right outside his home. He watched massive bumblebees and minuscule scissor bees, that are just the size of a mosquito.

He watched bees laying eggs, attacking insects to protect their nests, and fighting one another over mates and territories. He filmed one industrious red-tailed mason bee constructing a nest using a shell and hundreds of sticks.

Dohrn’s film premieres today on PBS in “Nature: My Garden of a Thousand Bees.” He talked to Treehugger about his work.

Martin Dohrn filming a bumble bee hovering over a dandelion
Dohrn filming a bumble bee hovering over a dandelion.

Martin Dohrn / © Passion Planet

Treehugger: As a wildlife filmmaker, you’ve turned your lens to all sorts of magnificent (and massive) creatures. How do bees compare as subjects?

Martin Dohrn: There is a difference when filming any animal, between filming ‘what the species does,’ which is exciting and interesting, and what an individual animal does, which is an order of magnitude more interesting.

Most people would have imagined that in filming insects you could only film what the species does. But with this film, I discovered that you could film the lives of individuals in a way I really didn’t anticipate.

What prompted you to film the bees in your garden? Was it strictly because of being stuck at home during lockdown or had you been fascinated by them before?

I had been studying and photographing the wild bees in my garden for almost ten years—in my spare time. When I told my friends the stories of the things I had seen, they were always amazed and surprised. I realized that wild bees barely touched the consciousness of most of the public despite the central role they have in maintaining our natural world. 

When lockdown happened, I realized I would be stuck at home for quite a while, and the bee season was already just underway. The start of lockdown seemed like a good opportunity to see whether I could actually make a film about them. 

How did you have to adapt your equipment to film these tiny critters? It seems as if you are right next to them. Can you explain the setup?

I have been adapting lenses and cameras to film small things most of my career. But the bees are much faster than anything I had tried before, and so I had to refine a lot of things. I needed faster focus, slow motion all the time, and a long lens with a wide angle at the end which didn’t threaten the bees.

The moment where the bee builds a fortress-like nest with a shell and straw is particularly compelling. Can you describe how long the construction took and what it was like to watch?

The tent-making bee, as we called it (normally known as the red-tailed mason bee Osmia bicolor) takes about 5 hours, assuming continuous sunshine, to find a shell, fill it and make the tent. The weather this year was extremely variable, and it needed many attempts to get a perfect ‘tent.’

Red mason bee on forget-me-not. Credit: © Martin Dohrn
Red mason bee on a forget-me-not.

Martin Dohrn

What other exciting moments did you capture?

There is a story of dominance among the leafcutter bee species with a bit of a sad ending as one of the leafcutters was killed by another, larger species. There was more hilarious behaviour of male mason bees, and leafcutter bees, especially when the females draw their stings. 

There were fights over tunnels among the scissor bees. In fact, the scissor bees got a bad deal in the film, as their pollen collecting behaviour was also incredible.

There was a crab spider that was scared of bees, even the tiny ones, and then there were the ivy bees who didn’t even get in the film. They don’t even emerge until mid-September, and feed entirely on the flowers of ivy.

That catalogue of course is dwarfed by all the incredible things I saw but was unable to film!