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Country diary: observing the painstaking work of a leafcutter bee

Chingford, London: A leafcutter’s work is energy-intensive, and for days I am transfixed by their efforts

Apple, pear, plum, fig and vine all shunned, her looping flight takes her back to the hawthorn. She lands, embracing the leaf, testing its texture with six gold-fringed legs. With caliper precision, her mandibles measure its width. Rotating forward about her own body’s axis, her jaws shear an arc, a bee’s length, through the surface. Seconds later, wings folded, she allows gravity to tear her free. As she drops, clasping a half-moon disc of green, her flight muscles burst into action and with a buzz of effort she rises on smoky latticed wings and turns for home.

After 20 years, Willughby’s leafcutter bees, Megachile willughbiella, have returned to our garden near Epping Forest. All July I’ve watched, fascinated, as they set about stocking a bee hotel’s bamboo cavities, the cut leaves rolled like cigars to form egg chambers inside. Pollinators, like leafcutters, are often not only short of flowers. Fewer than 2% of holes in woodlands may be suitable; standing deadwood, essential for the larvae of many pollinators, can be scarce.

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