The colorful papier-mache cocoons provide a safe haven for bringing baby bees into the world.
Back in 2009, in a coincidence that was clearly instigated by flower fairies, two separate teams of scientists stumbled upon the exquisite handiwork of Osmia avosetta bees. The discoveries were a single day apart; one team in Turkey, the other in Iran.
And why am I writing about this now, more than a decade later? Because what they discovered are some of the prettiest things I've ever seen: Wee little nests intricately crafted from flower petals, each one taking a day or two to build to offer a safe haven for a single bee egg.
"It's not common for bees to use parts of plants for nests," said Dr. Jerome Rozen of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), a member of the team in Turkey. "There's a demand for biologists to know bees nowadays," he added. "They are the foremost animal pollinators of plants, and tremendously important for maintaining ecosystems — not only crops but also for conservation."
To perform this beautiful tasks, mother bees bite off the petal from the flower and flies it back, one by one, to the site. She starts the nest in a small burrow, layering petals in a surprisingly orderly fashion. As described in the research, which was published in the AMNH publication, American Museum Novitates:
...the petals were all shaped like the upper part of a heart and were arranged in the same manner: their tips pointed downward and the cut side pointed upward and they overlap like scales scales in both the inner and the outer petal linings.
After the first layer is made, a thin coating of mud, possibly moistened with nectar, is laid on before a second lining of petals is made. A deposit of provisions is made – "a sticky mixture of yelloworange pollen, homogeneously combined with nectar" – and the egg is deposited. Then mom seals up the pretty little package. After a few days, the egg hatches into a larva, eats the care package left by mother bee, then spins itself a cocoon inside of its flowery home until it is ready to emerge.
We should all be so lucky as to have petalled walls surrounding us, but aside from their beauty, which the bee is probably unaware of, they obviously serve a purpose. The researchers explain that the floral shell includes trapped air that would allow it to float were the area flooded. As well, the moisture of the petals would help maintain the water content of the nest and provisions. Meanwhile, the rigidity of the nest would protect its inhabitant from predators and parasites. The study notes:
Although the patchwork of colors on the outer surface of a cell or even the strong colors is a striking phenomenon to the human eye, color of the cell surface is obviously not important to the female bee or her nest. We think the survival value of constructing this elaborate cell lining of petals and soil is the texture, water content, and water repellent– and humidity-retaining nature of petals.
Which all sounds perfectly reasonable, and undeniably beautiful ... and still provides all kinds of wonder nearly 10 years later.
To see the complete description of this fascinating bee and her crafty ways, and many more images, you can download the PDF here.