I’ve been trying to get around to all those gardening tasks that lurk, making you feel guilty. Re-potting plants, clearing pots of dead plants, sweeping up the debris produced by the above. I’ve not had much luck (skill!) at growing basil in the past, though I have since learnt that it is almost certainly that I tend to over water it. Armed with my new knowledge, and having managed to protect a surprising number of seedlings from snail attack, I had high hopes of a good harvest this year. Plenty of basil to go with the plentiful tomatoes, and enough over for pesto. So I have been very disappointed to see my purple basil just sit there, in pots, not growing. At all. For weeks. Then I noticed roots coming out of the bottom of the pots, so I thought perhaps a new home would help. When I knocked the first plant out of its pot I was greeted by this:

Strange Packages

Those of you knowledgeable about wildlife will already know what I had found. Me, I was confused. How had leaves become buried in my basil pots? I was even more confused when I started pulling them out.

Eight Packages One Plant

Eight little packages. Some were falling apart, others still displayed the perfect shape of a hand rolled cigar, though somewhat smaller.

Perfect Lids

As it that wasn’t enough, they had perfectly cut lids sealing the contents. There is no way I could create something so neat and perfect.


A close look at the insides of the ones that had started falling apart revealed what looked at first glance just like one of those horrid tiny slugs that wreak such havoc. I confess to entertaining the idea, just for a millisecond, that slugs had hitherto unsuspected dexterity, though using what, I didn’t know… OK, so clearly larvae of some sort – but of what? And what should I do with what I had found?

I googled something like “small leaf packages buried in compost” and quickly came to the conclusion that I had found the nests of leafcutter bees. I’d seen them flying around the garden, carrying small bits of leaf – and I’d certainly seen the pieces cut out from leaves. I found a website with good pictures, and of course was immediately overcome by guilt. The female leafcutter builds up to ten of these little immaculate tube nests in hollow places, sometimes in the ground, sometimes dead plant stalks, in this case, evidently my basil pots. Each one takes her between 6 and 8 hours to complete, each with a supply of nectar and pollen, and of course an egg. Then she dies. The contents of my basil pot represent the life’s work of one of these hard-working little pollinators. My guilt wasn’t helped much by the appearance of a leafcutter – without leaf – on the table that still held the unburied nests.

Leafcutter Bee

TNG found my paroxysms of guilt highly amusing, but I buried the little packages – the ones that were still sealed anyway – in a pot of compost in a corner of the garden that won’t be disturbed. Perhaps some of them will make it, and at least I’ve learnt something new.

53 thoughts on “Guilt and Admiration

  1. Hi Janet,

    How amazing, I’ve never seen this in any of my pots but I have seen bees cutting the leaves and taking them away so hopefully the same is happening somewhere nearby!
    I must admit as soon as I saw the little leaf parcels I did guess they were leaf cutter Bees and I would’ve done exactly the same; potted them in the hope they survive and hatch.

    1. Incredible little pieces of engineering, aren’t they! For all my guilt at disturbing them, I am rather thrilled to have seen them. I just hope some of them survive to emerge next year…

      1. I had a quick check on the net and have discovered the Bees with strange yellow bits on the underside of their abdomen are leaf cutter Bees! Very pleased actually, because I see them a lot and they seem to love the Cosmos.

        Hopefully they’re making a similar little nest somewhere in the garden :)

        I would’ve thought yours would survive, after all they have all they need and I don’t see why disturbing them would cause too many problems.

        1. Apparently their furry yellow stomachs are where they collect the pollen, rather than using their legs like other bees – aren’t we getting educated! I’m sure you must have loads of little nest clusters, hopefully not anywhere that you need to dig over. I’m a little worried about my Dahlia border – partly because the Dahlias are being very tardy this year but also because I have seen lots of little bees apparently burrowing, whether leafcutter or some other sort of solitary bee. I don’t want to disturb them when I dig the Dahlia tubers out. This green gardening lark can be a right pain!

          1. Oh dear, hopefully your Bees will be ok. As far as I’m aware most solitary bees only the queen survives, so like with bumbles they make a little nest somewhere and build up a small colony with some daughters but their numbers never get huge like swarmers such as honey bees. The dsughters eventually kill mum as she stops surpressing their hormones ready for them to go off and start up their own little colony the following year…
            But I could be talking rubbish here!
            Perhaps try pulling only at the Dahlias once you need to remove them? Cause minimal disturbance and all that.
            I’m loving going out in the garden at the moment with the sheer volume of insects buzzing and fluttering around. It’s amazing; I’ve attempted some videos on my phone today but they never come out too well. The Aster is buzzing with flutters and so many Bees and Hoverflies it’s unreal.

  2. How fantastic, isn’t it amazing what goes on around us! I love that you buried the packages again, well done you :-)

    1. Hi Alison, I had to give them a chance having turfed them out of home. I do feel privileged to have come across them though, amazing work.

  3. How brilliant Janet.

    Must admit to finding basil difficult to grow but no bonuses of leaf cutter bee nests!

    Lucky that mum didn’t hunt you down and exact retribution!

    1. My thoughts exactly Sue – though an Aunt or Uncle might be waiting to wreak revenge on me for wrecking Mum’s life’s work… I now have basil in the greenhouse, in the plant house and on a windowsill upstairs, in the hope that at least some of it will bush out in decent sized plants. I think I need to talk to Fay (OrkneyFlowers) who gets huge harvests from indoor grown supermarket originated plants.

  4. Like Liz, I have seen the bees damage plants for the leaves, but I never saw what they did with them. This was a really interesting find and post. I bet the little bee larvae are really happy to be encased in fragrant basil, no to mention you putting them back i compost.

    1. It makes me wonder what else is going on in our gardens that we are unaware of Donna – I hope the larvae don’t miss the basil too much, and that the basil will reward my attention by actually growing away.

  5. How wonderful. I’ve seen the bees and the very neat cut that they make in the leaves.But never some across these Isn’t it amazing that they can turn them into such neat little packages. I’m so glad you buried them again.

    1. Incredible, isn’t it? I couldn’t believe how neat the little lids are.

  6. What a treasure you’ve discovered! Amazing what is going on around us without our knowledge. This is a fascinating post Janet. As my daughter says, ‘send them love’ and they will make it ;)

    1. Hi Cat, the hard thing is going to be not checking up on them periodically! I shall just have to watch out for them emerging next Spring. Amazing little critters.

  7. Thanks to you, I have also learned something new! I think I would rather have a nest of Leaf-cutter bees (which must be pretty rare) than a Basil plant (which is relatively common).

    1. Hi Mark, you could have a point – can’t buy leafcutter bee nests in Tesco, at least, not yet… Though I have to say that basil is kind of a rarity in this garden too! Hopefully this will be the Year of the Basil as well as the Year of the Leafcutter Bees.

  8. Wow. I was right with you, staring at my computer screen, baffled! Glad you were able to learn something new and pass it along! And since I’m already leaving a comment, just wanted to say that your pond bed is really stunning. I love all your combinations and bright displays of color. I need to work on that in my garden for the next year.

    1. Thanks Hanni, all the colour certainly makes all the planning and dreaming last year feel worthwhile. Of course, now when I think about digging up a plant and moving it I will be wondering if I am about to disturb leafcutter bee nests…

  9. What a find! The leaf cutter would have saved flying time using the Basil leaves but maybe pesto papooses are not strong enough. Look forward to news of their emergence next year. By the way, have you marked the pot as reminder in case Spring enthusiasm sees you clearing out the compost?

    1. Basil leaves seemed curiously intact, so I think they go for stronger stuff – my dahlia and rose leaves seem to be prime targets. Though I am sure the larvae would enjoy the basil aroma… The pot is carefully buried in a bit of border where it can remain undisturbed but where it is obvious enough that no one will tread on it and crush it. Mind you, that kind of Spring enthusiasm is pretty rare ;-)

  10. Like you Janet, l have learnt something new. Thank you. The wonders of Nature never cease to amaze me. Can’t wait for a pub quiz to throw that one up!

    1. Hi Trevor, I shall expect a share of the prize if your new-found wisdom tips the balance in your favour…

  11. I guess we’ve all learned something new–never heard of them before. What an interesting habit and niche! Thanks for sharing the info!

    1. A pleasure, I was so thrilled to discover them I had to post about it. I think it is one of those phenomena that is normally hidden from us so we don’t realise it is happening, but is actually really common. Not that I can see something so extraordinarily intricate as those nests as common. There again, wasps nests are extraordinary too.

    1. Hi b-a-g, thanks for the link to that post. Good heavens, what an extraordinary rant! Sorry, but I am fine about having holes in leaves of my plants, it doesn’t harm the plants, just the aesthetics, and even before I knew about the nests I was happy to have leafcutters in the garden because they are such excellent pollinators. Given the stresses on pollinators in this country at the moment, and their consequent rapid decline, I will happily sacrifice pristine leaves to giving some of them a happy home. It had hosetly never occured to me that some people would take such offence at a little leaf damage that they would use chemical pest control. I guess there are lots of different kinds of gardeners. M up at the allotment thinks I am hilarious for refusing to spary my cabbages to get rid of the cabbage white…

    1. Thanks Elaine, hopefully both will flourish now that they have been separated!

  12. Hi Janet, I’ve had leaf cutter bees burrowing into pots of cacti in the past – nice and dry, I suppose. Made me feel bad when I did water them but the bees didn’t seem to mind. I’ve never seen the ‘underground bit’ before – amazing. How perfect.


    1. Hi David, extraordinary sight, isn’t it. I figure they must be able to cope with some dampness if they nest in British gardens at all. I hope so, its raining today. It has me wondering if I should have located their new nest site in the greenhouse instead, don’t want them to drown in their little leaf duvets.

  13. Oh my goodness, what clever little beasties to make such neat little packages. Well if you’ve got these ones in your basil pot, I bet there are stacks more around your garden, so I hope you don’t feel too guilty about it! But hopefully some of the ones you re-buried will hatch too.

    Wow, I’m going to keep an eye out for these guys. Never heard of leafcutter bees. Thanks for posting this up!

    1. Hello Nancy, fascinating aren’t they! And I am hoping you are right, judging by the lacy leaves around the garden, there should be at least one or two other nest sites.

  14. Brilliant post Janet. I’ve never seen the beautifully crafted results of when the leaf cutter bee makes my roses look so lace-like! Although I know it doesn’t do any serious damage; so somewhere in my garden there must be some of these little packages. Basil isn’t easy to grow and the purple version is weaker than the green. It likes lots of warmth but not necessarily full sun combined with lots of water. Obviously it grows really well here; it is interesting that the plants in the greenhouse are much softer than those outside so the inside ones are nicer on the tomatoes. Christina

    1. “Beautifully crafted” sums it up perfectly Christina. Interesting that the purple basil is weaker, I grew it because I am a sucker for purple foliage, but since it turns out they have a strongly aniseed flavour they are now purely grown for pride, they won’t be going anywhere near my tomatoes, or not on my plate anyway! I am getting confused about water and basil – my “breakthrough” was reading that it likes to almost dry out between watering, which is what I have been trying. Still, looks as if I might have enough for the occasional salad, if not for oodles of home made pesto. There’s always next year…

  15. Oh Janet, I read this and thought wow and oops all at once, how remarkable.

    Never heard of these before but the photographs are beautiful!

    You poor thing, but well done on tucking the remaining chaps safe in a corner.

    1. Hi Fay, “wow and oops” covers it perfectly! Though on balance I am really glad to have come across them, so fascinating.

  16. Wow how fascinating. I have never seen leaf cutter bees. Thanks for sharing, glad you hopefully managed to save a few

    I have also been trying to get some of those boring jobs done and I cant grow Basil either!!

    1. Hi Helen, can’t tell you how happy it makes me that so many other people also have trouble with basil! The ironic thing is that I don’t even like the purple stuff, to aniseed for my tastebuds. Am wondering if I could persuade TNG that I need a night vision webcam for next Spring, just to keep an eye on the possibly emerging young bees…

  17. I have found cut-outs on one of my fuschia plants and been informed that it was a leaf-cutter bee, I didn’t realise that that is what they did with the pieces, amazing – I wonder where they have hidden all the roll-ups in my garden?

    1. Hi Elaine, hopefully they are snuggled in somewhere fairly safe and out of the way! Fascinating things, aren’t they.

  18. I’ve only just recently heard of leaf cutter bees. I wouldn’t have had a clue what that was in my pots. What an interesting find. Hopefully some of the little packages will still survive.

    1. I was entranced – and very puzzled, until I had a chance to google!

  19. sigh, the little jobs are the ones I’m useless at starting. I’ll happily tackle a massive job at the allotment yet the poor plants in the yard right in front of the kitchen window are woefully ignored. Thanks for the prompt though – my lovage plant is trying to escape out of the bottom of the pot so time to rehome it down at the plot.

    1. I’m the same. I happily lavish care and attention of new sowings and young seedlings, but once they make it out into the great outdoors, and are homed in what I laughingly call the plant nursery (for which read large collection of plants I’m not quite sure what to do with but want to keep), I lose interest. And repotting always takes longer than you think, and I have, oh, so many plants in need of more room…

  20. I’ve had a similar experience a few years ago, when I found absolutely loads of them when I scooped some compost from a bag left open for quite some time. I squeezed one of them and, yuck! And felt sorry afterwards that I inadvertently executed the poor bug. I placed the rest in a small pot of compost and left them to develop as usual.

    1. I must admit that my first reaction on seeing the inhabitant of one that I picked apart was “eughh”. At least you – like I – attempted restitution by a burial that hopefully led to life rather than more death!

  21. Learnt something new there, thanks Janet. I’ve seen the cut leaves around the garden but not any nests as yet. I’ll know what to look out for now!

    1. Happy to educate Damo ;-) I was like an excited kid when I found out what I had found, if you see what I mean… Too early on the weekend for me to make much sense…

  22. What elegant little packages these egg chambers are! I’d be right there along with you on the guilt if I’d done dug them up. 7 or 8 hours in the life of a bee is a tremendous investment.

    1. Hello James, I must admit I was quite shocked when I read how long it takes to make a single nest package – and how many they make. Who’d be a mother ;-)

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