Bees Build Gorgeous Underground Flower-Petal Nests

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Human architects could learn a thing or two from the unique bee species, Osmia avosetta.

With a flair for the colorful, O. avosetta makes a "petal sandwich" out of two layers flower petals inside a small burrow it digs in the ground, cementing them together with clay or mud. Then it caps the chamber with a mud plug, which seals the humidity inside while letting the outside harden. It's the perfect environment for the egg, said Jerome Rozen, curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History.

"They've found a way of protecting this immature stage by creating an environment with fairly high humidity," Rozen said. "The humidity is high because the chamber is constructed with two layers of petals with mud in between, which means the food will not dry out when the larvae feeds. Meanwhile the outside becomes very hard like a nut. This makes it very comfortable and very safe because nothing's going to come down and crush them. Anything that wants to eat them from above is going to have a hard time."

Although O. avosetta was known to science, no one had ever had a

chance to study its behaviors. Bees don't advertise their nests, Rozen

said, and this species is only active for about two months out of the year.

But in a lucky coincidence, two teams in two different countries discovered the nest-building habits on the same day. Rozen was working with a team of entomologists in Turkey last May, while another team was studying the bees in Iran. The groups collaborated on a recent paper published in American Museum Novitates.

When it comes to bees, most people think about jars of honey in the supermarket or picture swarming nests hanging from trees. But those are social bees, Rozen said; they live in big colonies with elaborate hierarchical structures. They're the ones who suffer from Colony Collapse Disorder.

It turns out that the vast majority of the world's 20,000 bee species are solitary creatures, like the O. avosetta, where one female builds just a few nests for her eggs. Rozen said it's incredibly important to understand bees because they're responsible for the success of so many human crops.

"They are the foremost animal pollinators of terrestrial plants," he said. "They are tremendously important to the terrestrial ecosystem."

Images: J.G. Rozen

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