Not the Chelsea Flower Show

Less than two miles from the Chelsea Flower Show, I am cultivating a very different kind of ‘garden’. It’s a patch of land on a luxury housing development that was so densely planted with evergreen ornamental shrubs, and overrun with brambles and buddleia that no light could get in until the developers, St George, gave us the go ahead last July to turn it into a bee haven.

I know bees love brambles and buddleia, but to boost biodiversity we had to clear much of it to give other wild flowers a chance to flourish and to provide nesting sites for solitary bees.

I wrote a blog at the start of this project on Chelsea Creek.

So how is it looking 9 months on?

We had no idea what may grow, so I was pleased to find a pretty, yellow daisy has sprung up all over the sunny part of site. It turns out to be Oxford Ragwort, (Senecio squalidus), introduced from Sicily, which is known to colonise disturbed soil along railway lines. And our site backs onto the Overground. It is harmless, unlike Common Ragworth (Senecio jacobaea), which is thought to be harmful to livestock. (Not that they are any horses here!) I didn’t see any bees or other pollinators on it, but according to Buglife, it is a good nectar source for insects.

There are a few patches of dandelions –  excellent food for many small mining and furrow bees – lots of the delicate, pink Herb-robert (Geranium robertianum) – a foodplant and nectar-source for many invertebrates including bees, hoverflies and the barred carpet moth – and stinging nettles that caterpillars of the small tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies use as foodplants. I saw some ladybirds, which feast on aphids that shelter among the nettles.

Lots of grass has grown and unfortunately Goosegrass (Galium Aparine), also known as Sticky Grass or Sticky Willy is taking over.  My research found that although its tiny flowers have been observed being visited by a wide range of insects, including various flies, small wasps, Lepidoptera, ants, bees (both short- and long-tongued) and beetles, it has also been noted that insects visit flowers only “sparingly.” Additionally, self-pollination is common due to the minute structure of the flower—“when the stigmas mature… they always touch the anthers.”

One area I’ve manged to keep clear of it, is where I planted dwarf comfrey and balm-leaved deadnettle in July. And I’m delighted to report that these patches of flowers are doing well, flowering and attracting hairy-footed flower bees and common carder bees which I was very excited to observe.

The Lambs’ Ear (above right) is also thriving in a sunnier part, so I hope to see Wool carder bees in July when they collect the hairs on the underside of the velvety leaves.

Other plants, including Rosebay willowherb, Greater Knapweed and Big betony seem to have been swallowed up by the grasses, or strangled by the sticky willy, and neither Hollyhocks, nor Vipers bugloss have yet emerged from the seeds I sowed.

We left some of the Mexican orange blossom (Choisya) shrubs, the hawthorn and holly trees, which all adorned with white flowers. I hope to see a lovely little hawthorn mining bee (Andrena chrysosceles), on it, or the dandelions, one day.

As yet, no bees appear to have checked into the bee hotels, wooden logs with holes drilled different diameters, or the sand tower block that we’ve created for them, but it’s early days.

So what next?

I planted four Common Bugloss (Anchusa officinalis), which I bought from Bee Happy Plants. It’s website says “Research points to the concentration of sugars in its nectar (61%) as being considerably higher than another member of this family also popular with bees (Symphytum officinale). Similar, though much hardier, than its annual cousin Borage. This is an ideal subject to allow to self-seed in your wild garden (each plant producing many hundreds of seeds).” It adds: “Not to be confused with its cousin Green Alkanet (Pentaglottis sempervirens) which is a well-known weed, and has perhaps also given Anchusa officinalis a ‘weed’ label by some.”

But the bees adore Green Alkanet, so it gave me great pleasure to plant two seedlings transplanted from my garden.

The Guelder rose (Viburnum opulus) it about to flower and hopefully the Bastard Balm (Melittis melissophyllum). I will return in May to clear the Sticky Willy, to observe the bees and other pollinators visiting our rewilding project, see if any have taken up residence, and observe what else is emerging through the grass…

Disclaimer: I’ve used one of Penny Metal’s photos of a Male hairy-footed flower bee on Comfrey (above) as it is so much better than my blurry pics

April Bees 2022

Pictured above are three bumblebee species around this month: white-tailed, early and tree bumblebees. (In addition you may also see common carder bees, garden bumblebees and the ubiquitous buff-tailed bumblebees which has been flying all year in some southern parts of the UK).

How to ID them:

  • The large, White-tailed bumblebe(Bombus lucorum) looks very similar to our most common buff-tailed bumblebee workers, which also have white tails. The easiest way to tell these two 16mm species apart, is that the stripes on the buff-tailed bumblebees are a gold colour while the white-tailed bumblebees’ stripes are more yellow.
  • The Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) is smaller (up to 14mm) and prettier with her fluffy yellow collar and her noticeable orangey bottom. As her English name suggests, this is a spring specialist. The queens started to appear last month, followed by the female workers, and this month you may see both males and females. You can tell them apart because the males have much more yellow facial hair, like the one above.
  • The Tree bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) has a conspicuous ginger thorax, black abdomen and a white tail. Unlike other bumblebees, they live high up, often colonising bird boxes when the chicks have fledged.

Queen bumblebees may have nested (most underground in old rodent holes, under paving slabs, garden sheds, or even in compost bins) by now laid their eggs, and may have produced worker bees who are out collecting nectar and pollen to take home to their queen and her developing colony.

How to help them:

  1. Leave a patch of the garden wild for nesting sites and don’t disturb a nesting site if you find one (it will only last until the end of the summer).
  2. Put up a blue tit box for the tree bumblebee to nest in after the chicks have fledged.
  3. Plant dead-nettles, clover, forget- me-nots, and rosemary to provide food this month for the short-tongued bumblebees.
  4. Sow seeds inside now to create more flowers later in the summer. Sweet peas, sunflowers, cosmos and Anise hyssop are some of the easiest to grow. Try growing on a heated mat until the seeds germinate.
  5. Don’t mow the lawn (let clovers flower) and ditch the weed killers and pesticides.

These are the five most common solitary bee species this month: Hairy-footed flower bee, red mason bee, tawny mining bee, ashy mining bee, buffish mining bee and Gooden’s nomad.

How to ID them:

  • Hairy-footed flower bees (Anthophora plumipes) are often mistaken for bumblebees because of their round, fluffy appearance, but they live alone (not in colonies). At this time of year gangs of brown-coloured males are clearly visible chasing the more striking black females among the lungwort (pulmonaria), wallflowers and alkanet with their long, straw-like tongues (proboscis) outstretched. It is mating season.
  • Red mason bees will be checking out of bee hotels by chewing through the mud-plugged tubes. They are a little smaller (12mm) than a honey bee (14mm), more gingery and have a rounder bottom. The males appear a couple of weeks before the females and congregate around the bee hotels waiting to pounce when the females emerge.
  • The Tawny mining bee (Andrena fulva ) is easy to spot as she burrows up through lawns, her foxy-coloured coat strikingly visible against the green grass. And she leaves a tiny volcano-looking mound of soil in her wake. Like all mining bees, many will emerge from the same burrow or next door burrows, so the tawny mining bee can make a bit of a mess on the lawn.
  • The Ashy mining bee (Andrena cineraria) is a smallish black and grey stripped bee (around 10mm) which nests in bare ground, footpaths and tracks. Although solitary, they nest next door to each other in dense aggregations, so hundreds can emerge at the same time often from bare earth or slopes but occasionally lawns too. But don’t worry, solitary bees don’t sting and are short-lived (around 2 months)!
  • The Buffish mining bee (Andrena nigroaenea) is around 10mm with a dense brown pile on the top of its thorax (just below it’s head). Look at the flowers on blossoming trees and shrubs such as fruit trees, willows, and blackthorn, and wildflowers like dandelions, hawk’s-beards, buttercups and spurges. If you see a bee that at first you may think is a honeybee, take a closer look. If it is a smaller. slimmer and browner, chances are it’s one of the many brown mining bees out at this time, of which the buffish is one of the most common, along with Gwynne’s (Andrena bicolor) and the Short-fringed (Andrena dorsata). Don’t worry if you can’t ID them, the fact that you are looking closely is good.
  • Gooden’s nomad bee (Nomada goodenianna) looks more like a common wasp, than a bee but it’s a cleptoparasite, or cuckoo bee. There are 34 Nomada species in the UK (850 worldwide), and this is one of the most common. She is much easier to ID than the small, brown mining bees which are her host. So if you see her, you know that the mining bees in the underground nest are either grey-patched (Andrena nitida) or buffish (Andrena nigroaenea). So lots of Gooden’s nomad bees, means the host bees, whose home they break into and lay their eggs, are alive and healthy. (Worldwide, a quarter of the 20,000 recorded bee species are cuckoos).

TIP How do you to tell a Gooden’s and a wasp apart? Gooden’s are usually flying low looking for the nest of a mining bee or even walking around on the ground. And they won’t bother you. So if a wasp-looking insect is buzzing around your food or drink, chances are it’s a wasp.

How to help solitary bees:

  1. Plant lungwort, wallflowers, comfrey and flowering currants for long-tongued hairy footed flower bees. Flowering fruit trees, willows, spurges, alkanet and forget-me-nots for red mason bees, and mining bees.
  2. Leave old mortar untouched as hairy-footed flower bees may be nesting here. Or make some cob bricks that they can nest in instead.
  3. Install bee-hotels in a warm location at least a metre off the ground, ideally facing south, where red mason bees can check-in and lay their eggs. We like to use these type of bee hotels with the cardboard tubes. You can take the cocoons out of in the winter and clean them.
  4. Leave a patch of bare earth for mining bees to burrow and where red mason bees can collect soil to plug their nests.
  5. Let dandelions and alkanet grow – they are important early bee food.

For information on the honey bee (Apis mellifera) and the bee-fly (Bombylius major) see Bees to See in March blog here.

Gardening for bees in March

From L-R clockwise: Hairy-footed flower bees on Comfrey; wallflowers in rooftop planters; primroses for short-tongued bees; lungworth (pulmonaria) for long-tongued bees

Gardening for bumblebees:

  1. Leave a patch of the garden wild for nesting sites and don’t disturb a nesting site if you find one in a compost bin, under a shed, or even in a watering can (it will only last until the end of the summer).
  2. Put up a box for blue tits. After the chicks have fledged, the box may be inhabited by tree bumblebees. The colony will vacant at the end of summer, so the blue tits can use it again next spring.
  3. Plant dead-nettles, primroses, forget- me-nots, and rosemary to provide food this month for short-tongued bumblebees.
  4. Leave ‘weeds’ like dandelions and alkanet to grow. They provide much-needed pollen and nectar in early spring. And you’ll see lots of different bees coming to feed on a clump of alkanet.
  5. Sow seeds inside now to create more flowers later in the summer. Sweet peas, sunflowers, cosmos and Anise hyssop are some of the easiest to grow in pots. Try growing on a heated mat until the seeds germinate. I’m also going to try chives, viper’s bugloss and cornflowers outside.
  6. Don’t mow the lawn to let clovers flower.
  7. Ditch the weed killers, like Round-up, and any pesticides and bug sprays you may be using on your roses, or any other plants.

Gardening for solitary bees:

  1. Plant lungwort, wallflowers, early-flowering comfrey and flowering currants (Ribes) for long-tongued hairy footed flower bees. Red mason bees and mining bees, with shorter tongues prefer flowering fruit trees, willows, spurges, alkanet and forget-me-nots, and mining bees.
  2. Leave old mortar untouched as hairy-footed flower bees may be nesting here.
  3. Make cob bricks with holes in that hairy-footed flower bees could nest in instead.
  4. Install bee-hotels in a warm location at least a metre off the ground, where red mason bees (Osmia bicornis) can check-in and lay their eggs. We like to use these type of bee hotels with the cardboard tubes. You can take the cocoons out of in the winter and clean them. Leafcutter bees may use the hotels during the summer.
  5. Install a bee observation box which many different solitary bees may nest in over the season, including large-headed resin bees (Heriades truncorum) , common yellow-faced bees (Hyleaus communis), and blue mason bee (Osmia caerulescens) . The box comes with a removal panel which allows you to observe the life cycle of the bees.
  6. Leave a patch of bare earth for mining bees to burrow and nest, and where red mason bees can collect soil to plug their nests.
  7. Leave a pile of tiny pieces of grit that resin bees may use to plug their nests.

Bees to See in March

Here are tips for identifying the different species bees you will hopefully see in March in your garden, patio pots or window boxes if they are planted and maintained for bees.

Harbinger of spring

Tips for IDing February bees:

Bee spotting continues to be a rare pursuit in the cold. But by the end of the month, the buff-tailed bumblebees and honeybees may be joined by by the male hairy-footed flower bee whose arrival heralds the stirrings of spring. Although he’s a solitary bee, he is often mistaken for a bumblebee because of his cute, fluffy appearance.

How to ID buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris):

These plump, golden-striped bumblebees with a thick winter coat are the ones you’re most likely to see foraging now, especially if you live in a city in the south of England. This winter activity was first recognised in the late 1990s when buff-tailed bumblebee workers where observed in various sites. It’s believed that some summer queens set up nests in October (instead of hibernating until spring) and produced workers in November to take advantage of milder winters and the abundance of food provided by winter-flowering heathers, honeysuckles, and especially mahonia, a prickly shrub, widely planted in car parks and public green spaces, that produces copious amounts of nectar and pollen at this time of year. Although called buff-tailed bumblebees, in reality only the queen has a clearly buff coloured bottom, the workers and males have whiter bottoms. It is the workers of the winter colony you will most likely see foraging and collecting blobs of mahonia’s orange pollen in the baskets on their hind legs. If you live further north where buff-tailed bumblebee colonies die in winter, leaving only the queen to hibernate, it is this large (up to 16mm) queen who you may see venturing out to forage close to the ground on snowdrops and winter aconites and search for a suitable nesting site, perhaps a used rodent hole.

How to ID honey bees (Apis millefera):

Managed honeybee colonies stay alive at this time of year by keeping warm in their hive and eating their honey which they spend all summer making and storing for their winter food. On milder, sunny days or even cold, bright days when the sun has warmed up the hive, some worker bees will leave the colony to forage for winter-flowering shrubs nearby, or just to go to the toilet (they don’t do this in the hive). They are so much slimmer and smoother than bumblebees that there is little chance of confusing the two.

How to ID the male solitary hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes):

Solitary bees nest alone, not in large colonies with a queen, workers and drones like bumblebees and honeybees. Despite their solitary solitary bees often live next door to each other in large aggregations and hang out in big groups looking as if they are playing with their mates. This is especially the case for male hairy-footed flower bees. Their distinctive hovering and darting flight and loud buzz loud makes them easy to spot. You will often see a few of them chasing each other in a patch of flowers from late February to April. But far from being friends, they are arch rivals patrolling a patch of flowers they want all to themselves where they can woo the females and mate.

The 14mm brown-coloured males come out a few weeks ahead of the slightly bigger velvety-black females. Their thick coats enable them to withstand the cold, but the males need to build up their energy by drinking lots of nectar from early-flowering tubular-shaped flowers. So the another way to spot them, is to observe them feeding on their favourite lungwort, dead-nettles and early flowering comfrey flowers with their long tongues outstretched ready to reach deep into the base of each flower for a nectar hit.

If you can find their nesting site, which are often in the mortar in between bricks in old walls that need repointing, or old cob walls, or even in crumbling fireplace walls, then you will see and hear the males darting noisily around, and in and out the holes hoping for a female to emerge. As old walls get repointed, or replaced by newer buildings, hairy-footed flower bees lose their nest sites. You could try to make cob bricks where they may nest instead (see below).

As for their delightful name, hairy-footed flower bees do indeed have hind legs that are covered with feathery hairs right down to their tiny feet.

How to help bees in February:

  1. Plant a tree now, or sponsor a street tree. Next month it will be too late to plant a tree in the ground as they will no longer be dormant. Some trees are better for bees than others, because they produce more nectar and pollen, or they supply it early in the spring, or in late autumn when little else is flowering. What we really need are trees that blossom sequentially producing a bee banquet throughout the year. Check our trees for bees guide. If you plant a Himalayan cherry (Prunus rufa) or a Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrula) you’ll not only have great blossom for bees in spring (as long as you plant single flowered varieties, not double-headed ones), but also fantastic rich coppery, peeling bark in the winter.
  2. Underplant your tree with rich-coloured hellebores whose large, bowl-shaped flowers are blooming now and Elephant’s ears (Bergenia) whose tall spikes will be visited by bees from next month.
  3. Lungwort (Pulmonaria), White dead-nettles (Lamium album) and Iberian comfrey (Symphytum ibericum), which can flower as early as March, will attract hairy-footed flower bees to your garden. Plant in large clumps in sun, or semi-shade.
  4. Plant bulbs ‘in the green’ if you forgot to plant bee-friendly bulbs in the autumn. ‘In the green’ means planting them while the bulbs are in growth, rather than dormant. Snowdrops and winter aconites will feed bees now and crocuses and grape hyacinths next month. English bluebells and small, yellow wild tulips (Tulipa sylvestris) will flower in April along with wild garlic and fritillaries.
  5. Plant early spring-flowering shrubs, such as Winter Daphne  (Daphne odora) or Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’ or Heathers (Erica carnea), which are perfect for a rockery or small flower bed with acidic, ericaceous soil. Winter flowering specimens, include white ‘Winter Snow’ (Erica carnea f. alba ), or ‘Winter rubin’ (Erica carnea ‘Winter Rubin’) for a splattering of pink. Although Rosemary usually flowers from April, with milder winters I’ve seen it flowering as early as January right through until summer. It’s also one of the most drought-tolerant plants I’ve come across and highly attractive to many different species of bee – mason, bumble, mining, and honey bees – so I’d recommend it to any bee-friendly gardener.
  6. As it gets nearer to spring there is the temptation to tidy up the garden so it will look neat when the crocuses and daffodils appear next month, but leave your garden unkept for as long as possible so as not to disturb bumblebee queens who could still be hibernating in piles of old leaves, long grasses or under a shed.
  7. It’s not too late to undertake bee hotel winter maintenance. Follow our simple step by step guide to care for these solitary bees over winter. Watch out for other insects hibernating in any empty tubes. I found queen wasps and spiders!
  8. You could try to build bricks of cob for hairy-footed flower bees to nest in. Cob is an ancient material used for building walls and houses. It uses a mixture of clay, sand, cricket pitch loam, straw and water. There is a great video here by Devon-based naturalist, John Walter, on how to make cob bricks. They seem to need dry, warm weather to dry, or I suppose you could bring them inside at this time of year. I’m going in search of cricket pitch loam!
  9. Submit sightings to BWARS of buff-tailed bumblebees in the north of the UK. (Although it says it is for winter 2019/20, they are taking records for 2022 sightings).
  10. Submit hairy-footed flower bee sightings to BWARS so it can update its distribution atlas.

Rescue a lifeless looking bee:

Offer a lethargic or exhausted looking buff-tailed bumblebee an emergency energy drink of sugary water. At this time of year they can get cold and tired very quickly after leaving the nest if they don’t quickly find nectar from a flower. A mixture of two tablespoons of white sugar to one tablespoon of water should revive them, but it may take them a while to find enough energy to suck up the liquid from the spoon or saucer you provide. Be patient. An alternative is to pick her up and take her to a flowering bush, such as Mahonia, full of nectar-rich flowers if there is one nearby. But remember, bumblebees can sting if they feel threatened so pick her up on a leaf, or in a container. Never feed a bee honey. Bacterial spores of a disease that affects bee larvae can be found in honey and this brood disease is highly contagious.

You can try the same remedy for a lifeless honeybee, but they may be more inclined to sting. Again DON’T FEED THEM HONEY.

For information on IDing and helping bees at other times of the year see my Bees to See in November blog here  Bees to See in October blog hereBees to See in September blog here, Bees to See in August blog here,  Bees to See in July blog hereBees to See in June blog here,  Bees to See in May blog here and Bees to See in April blog hereBees to See in March blog here.

Interview with William Ball, Portfolio General Manager, BNP Paribas Real Estate on making Belgrave House bee-friendly

When William Ball, Portfolio General Manager at BNP Paribas Real Estate, was first approached by his client Grosvenor Group about installing a roof garden on its Belgrave House property in Victoria, six years ago he was concerned over the practicality of managing such a project with limited knowledge.

“The roof isn’t accessible and I thought the tenants would not be able to see the benefits to the property of investing in it,” he explains.

Benefits outweigh costs

Fast forward to today and William says the tenants and Grosvenor now fully support the biodiversity project on the Buckingham Palace Road office block.

 “The benefits outweigh the costs one hundred fold. And it’s the right thing to do for the environment. The roof garden and the bees are one element of promoting environmental best practice. It’s one of the reasons Belgrave House has retained its BREEAM excellence rating and its ISO14001 year after year.”

William has more than 35 years’ experience in the property and facilities management industry. In 2018, he was awarded the national BNP Paribas CSR Award and in 2019, his team won the Professional Facilities Management Award for CSR.

Introducing bee hives

The same year, he contacted Urban Bees Ltd to install and maintain bee hives on Belgrave House. Grosvenor, whose own staff Urban Bees had trained as beekeepers a few years earlier, paid the initial start-up costs.

He proudly hands me a jar of 2021 Belgrave House honey with a pretty label designed by the receptionists. The bees are a great way to bring together his 21-strong team of security staff, cleaners, receptionists and engineers, he says.

“We all take great pride in the bees”.

William believes the bees have contributed to a string of environmental awards, including five Green Apples, three of them gold. They adorn his basement office, along with trophies and photos of him and his team collecting them.

Honeybees will easily fly a mile or two in search of an abundant food source. And William, who is the property site representative for the hives, has tracked the Belgrave House bees to the Queen’s gardens at the end of the road. But he wanted to create a bee-friendly garden on the roof for wild bumblebees and solitary bees.

Steps to creating a bee-friendly garden

William called on the expertise and goodwill of colleagues to help achieve his vision. The building consultancy surveyor advised that the roof was strong enough to hold a few planters filled with wet soil and flowers and shrubs, his engineers agreed to make planters out of wooden planks that William sourced, and the Grosvenor gardeners ordered extra lavender and other bee-friendly plants recommended by Urban Bees from its Plants for Bees list.

There are now four planters, one full of lavender and others planted with a mixture of perennial summer-flowering alliums, foxgloves and harebells (pictured above), as well as early-flowering hellebores and late-flowering echinacea.

Observation nesting box for solitary bees

Wind can be a problem for bees eight storeys up. “You could see the honeybees were really struggling getting to and from the hives,” recalls William. So, his engineers put up trellis against which 2ft high Ceanothus ‘Skylark’ bushes (pictured below) act as a windbreak. And their electric blue flowers are buzzing with all types of bees in late spring. Urban Bees added an observation bee box (pictured below right) for solitary bees to nest in.

Bee visitors

William spends many a summer lunch hour inspecting the small, 12 square metre, bee oasis, breathing in the flowers’ perfume and spotting different bees. He’s photographed many wild bee visitors including bumblebees with white tails (below left) and red tails (below middle), as well as some honeybees (below right).

Education

Each June on World Ocean’s Day, his team has a stand in the reception of Belgrave House to raise awareness about environmental issues. They work with a school in the Philippines to tackle the huge problem of plastic ocean pollution.

“We have honey and leaflets about our rooftop bees on the stand as the bees can really engage people in the bigger picture.”

Staff who want to know more are given a copy of The Good Bee, by Urban Bees founders, Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum, showcasing the world’s 20,000 solitary and social bees and how we can help them. 

“’We never knew there were so many bees’, is most people’s response.”

A webcam of the Belgrave House bee hives keeps staff up to date on the honeybees. In 2022, William plans to have a screen in reception live streaming the three hives. And he hopes to introduce a small water feature on the roof for bees to drink from and other wildlife to visit.

William’s advice to other facilities managers

For parts of London not able to sustain honeybee hives because there isn’t a plentiful supply of forage. (Afterall, not everyone has Buckingham Palace gardens on their doorstep), William’s advice for facilities managers is to look at their ESG strategy.

“Do a biodiversity plan for your property. Look at the bigger picture. Make sure you have a well thought our process and escalate it. Start small and grow as the tenants come on board. The cost is a miniscule part of their service charge. Start with plants and see what bees come without installing honeybees. Work with people like Urban Bees, who know which are the best bee plants in these windy, exposed conditions to ensure there’s food year-round for all different kinds of bees. Food is essential, along with creating places for wild bees to nest.”

“You do have greater output [jars of honey] with honeybees so there can be greater interest and support from tenants. But honeybees aren’t integral to having a roof garden on an office.”

All photos taken by William Ball.
  • For more information about how Urban Bees can work with your company, contact Alison Benjamin at Urban Bees alison@urbanbees.co.uk 0788 4054150

Catkins for bees

Hazel tree dripping in golden male catkins in January/February; Pussy willow catkins turning yellow when ripe with pollen in March. Photo credits: Yoksel Zok and Alexander Lowe, Unsplash

Hazel trees‘ (Corylus avellana) dangling male catkins bear pollen, which is transported to tiny, red, bud-like female flower on another hazel tree by the wind. But some of the pollen is collected by early flying bees in need of a rich source of protein to feed their developing brood. However, the pollen’s not easy for them to collect and they can only gather it in small loads. This is because the pollen of wind-pollinated hazel is not sticky and each grain repels against another.

The same is true for other wind pollinated trees that produce pendulous male catkins early in the year, including Alder (Alnus glutinosa) , Aspen (Populus tremula)Black Poplar (Poplus nigra), White Poplar (Poplus alba) and later in the spring, Silver Birch and White Willow (Salix alba). Most of these trees are too big for an average garden and better for parks, streets and along river banks.

Goat Willow (Salix caprea) has silver, furry male catkins the look like a cat’s paws, hence it’s commonly known as pussy willow. Goat willow is dioecious, meaning male and female flowers grow on separate trees. In March, the male grey catkins become yellow when ripe with pollen and are immensely popular with bees. If you want to grow one in a small garden, try Salix caprea ‘Kilmarnock’, or ‘Kilmarnock willow’ a small, compact variety that reaches around 2m high and spreads up to 1.5m. It forms a weeping ‘umbrella’ of branches which are smothered in fuzzy silver catkins from late winter to early spring on bare twigs. Rounded mid-green leaves appear after the catkins.

Garrys elliptica (also known as the Silk tassel bush) is a small tree, or evergreen bush, native to north America, that from December to February is covered in a profusion of long attractive grey-green catkins, or tassels, which can be up to an incredible 35cm long. Again, it’s wind pollinated but will be visited by hungry winter-flying bees.

Bees in January

Tips for IDing January bumblebees:

Bee spotting is a rare pursuit this month as as only two bee species fly at this time of year when it’s cold, dark and there’s little food around. The two species are buff-tailed bumblebees and honeybees, and in some areas it will only be the latter. On the plus side, it’s harder to get the ID wrong!

  • Buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) – these fluffy, plump golden-striped bumblebees are the ones you’re most likely to see foraging between now and February, especially if you live in a city in the south of England. This winter activity was first recognised in the late 1990s when buff-tailed bumblebee workers where observed in various sites. It’s believed that some summer queens set up nests in October (instead of hibernating until spring) and produced workers in November to take advantage of milder winters and the abundance of food provided by winter-flowering heathers, honeysuckles and especially widely-planted Mahonia, a tough shrub whose bright yellow flowers cheer up many an amenity shrubbery, car park, and city garden and park at this time of year and produce copious amounts of nectar and pollen. Although called buff-tailed bumblebees, in reality only the queen has a clearly buff coloured bottom, the workers and males have whiter bottoms. It is the workers you will most likely see foraging and collecting blobs of Mahonia’s orange pollen in the pollen baskets on their hind legs.

How to ID honey bees:

Western honey bees (Apis millefera) – the managed honeybee colony stays alive at this time of year by keeping warm in their hive and eating their honey which they spend all summer making and storing for their winter food. But on milder, sunny days or even cold, bright days when the sun has warmed up the hive, some worker bees will leave the colony to forage for winter-flowering shrubs nearby, or just to go to the toilet (they don’t do this in the hive). They are so much slimmer and smoother than bumblebees that there is no chance of confusing the two.

How to help bees in January:

  1. Plant a tree between now and February to feed bees in the future, or sponsor a street tree. Some trees are better for bees than others, because they produce more nectar and pollen, or they supply it early in the spring, or in late autumn when little else is flowering. What we really need are trees that blossom sequentially producing a bee banquet throughout the year. Check our trees for bees guide. If you plant a Himalayan cherry (Prunus rufa) or a Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrula) you’ll not only have great blossom for bees in spring (as long as you plant single flowered varieties, not double-headed ones), but also fantastic rich coppery, peeling bark in the winter.
  2. Underplant your tree with Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) whose large, bowl-shaped flowers are borne in loose clusters in late winter and spring, and Elephant’s ears (Bergenia), Lungwort (Pulmonaria) to attract early flying bees next spring.
  3. It’s still not too late to plant some bulbs. Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ can still be a bee magnet in May/June if planted this month. Grape hyacinths (Muscari) should still flower in March and some tulips will also do well planted this late (although I’ve not found a tulip that attracts bees). I’m going to try planting some wild tulips (Tulipa sylvestris) ‘in the green’ next month, which means planting them while the bulbs are in growth, rather than dormant. It’s a good way to plant bulbs in February/March if you didn’t get round to it in the autumn.
  4. Plant winter or early spring-flowering shrubs, such as Winter Daphne  (Daphne odora) or Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’ or Heathers (Erica carnea), which are perfect for a rockery or small flower bed with acidic, ericaceous soil. Winter flowering specimens, include white ‘Winter Snow’ (Erica carnea f. alba ), or ‘Winter rubin’ (Erica carnea ‘Winter Rubin’) for a splattering of pink.
  5. Leave your garden unkept so as not to disturb bumblebee queens who may be hibernating in piles of old leaves, long grasses or under a shed.
  6. It’s not too late to undertake bee hotel winter maintenance. Follow our simple step by step guide to care for these solitary bees over winter. Watch out for other insects hibernating in any empty tubes. I found queen wasps and spiders!

Rescue a lifeless looking bee:

Offer a lethargic or exhausted looking buff-tailed bumblebee an emergency energy drink of sugary water. At this time of year they can get cold and tired very quickly after leaving the nest if they don’t quickly find nectar from a flower. A mixture of two tablespoons of white sugar to one tablespoon of water should revive them, but it may take them a while to find enough energy to suck up the liquid from the spoon or saucer you provide. Be patient. An alternative is to pick her up and take her to a flowering bush, such as Mahonia, full of nectar-rich flowers if there is one nearby. But remember, bumblebees can sting if they feel threatened so pick her up on a leaf, or in a container. Never feed a bee honey. Bacterial spores of a disease that affects bee larvae can be found in honey and this brood disease is highly contagious.

You can try the same remedy for a lifeless honeybee, but they may be more inclined to sting. Again DON’T FEED THEM HONEY.

For information on IDing and helping bees at other times of the year see my Bees to See in November blog here  Bees to See in October blog hereBees to See in September blog here, Bees to See in August blog here,  Bees to See in July blog hereBees to See in June blog here,  Bees to See in May blog here and Bees to See in April blog hereBees to See in March blog here.

Shrubs for bees

Honey bee on Mahonia; Buff-tailed bumblebee queen on winter-flowering heather (Photos: Alison Benjamin unless credited)

Many of us don’t have space to plant a tree, but what about planting a few shrubs instead? Researchers at Bristol University has found that one flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) with 3,000 flowers provides as much nectar as 16,000 primrose (Primula vulgaris) flowers or 69,000 snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) and that shrubs like mahonia, berberis, pieris, ceanothus, and pyracantha can be similarly nectar rich. 

I’ve been doing my own research to put together a list of easy-to-grow shrubs that if planted sequentially would provide year-round food for bees.

As it’s December, my bee-friendly shrub suggestions start from now. Even though many will grow well in shady spots, do remember that bees prefer to forage in warm, sunny areas. As always this is not a definitive list, but designed for people who want to maximise the limited space in their garden or pots to feed bees all year.

December

Oregon Grape ‘Charity’ (Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ and M. x media ‘Winter Sun’) – produces cheery, bright yellow, lemon-scented flowers rich in nectar and pollen from now until March. Tough, with prickly, holly-like leaves, it does well in dry, shady spots making it a favourite of municipal planting.

Laurustinus (Viburnum tinus) – lovely flat heads of small, white flowers until April can brighten up shady spots.

Clematis ‘Jingle Bells’ (Clematis cirrhosa ‘Jingle Bells’)  –   large, nodding, scented cream-coloured flowers  are ideal for over a doorway. It needs a sunny, sheltered spot and possibly protection from harsh winter frosts.

January

Sweet Box (Sarcococca confus or Sarcococca hookeriana) – works well as an evergreen hedge. Its tiny white flowers carry a heavenly scent until March.

Winter-flowering honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) is a bushy, deciduous shrub with highly fragrant, cream flowers on bare stems until March.

Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflora) doesn’t have the fragrance of other jasmines, but its bright yellow flowers on bare arching branches are a welcome sight in winter.

Viburnum tinus; Witch Hazel (photo credit: Laura Ockel, Unsplash); honey bee on Winter Snow heather

February

Heathers (Erica carnea) – perfect for a rockery or small flower bed with acidic, ericaceous soil. Winter flowering specimens, include white ‘Winter Snow’ (Erica carnea f. alba ), or ‘Winter rubin (Erica carnea ‘Winter Rubin’) for a splattering of pink.

Winter Daphne  (Daphne odora) or Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’   – a slow-growing medium-sized, evergreen shrub with clusters of pinkish and white flowers and an intoxicating scent in winter and early spring.

Witch Hazel (Hamamelis) –fragrant, strange-looking ribbon-like flowers hang off bare twigs in early winter. There are many cultivars with slightly different coloured flowers ranging from sulphur yellow to coppery red.

Winter Jasmine (Jasminum nudiflora) – what it lacks in fragrance, it makes up for with small, yellow flowers on bare stems from January to March.

March

Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolium) – an early spring-flowering Mahonia which is more compact and less prickly than the winter-flowering varieties but with similar bright yellow bee-friendly flowers.

Japanese quince (Chaenomeles japonica)  l- arge, bold, often bright reddish-orange flowers cover its bare, thorny stems for weeks before the leaves appear in May. Non-thorny varieties are available.

Bastard senna ‘Citrina’ or Scorpian Vetch (Coronilla valentina subsp. glauca ‘Citrina’) – pretty pea-like, yellow flowers appear in early spring and are often followed by a second flush in later summer. A native of Southern Europe and Northern Africa, it will benefit from the protection of a sunny, south-facing wall.

Camellias – but only those with single-headed flowers with well exposed pollen-laden stamens, unlike the many double-headed cultivars. They need acidic, ericaceous soil.

Japanese quince (Photo: Yoksel Zok, Unsplash); Camellia (Photo: Annie Spratt, Unsplash); Rhododendron (Photo :Padre Moovi, Unsplash)

April

Honey spurge, or Canary spurge (Euphorbia mellifera) – small, honey-scented, bonze tinted flowers are borne on an exotic looking, architectural dome-like structure.

Flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) – clusters of pinkish/reddish tubular flowers are loved by long-tongued bumblebees and hairy-footed flower bees.

Burkwood viburnum (Viburnum × burkwoodii) – a later flowering evergreen viburnum with similar domed clusters of fragrant white flowers until May, that open from pink buds.

Darwin’s Barberry (Berberis darwinii) – an evergreen, with similar holly-like leaves to Mahonia,  but clusters of orange flowers which are a major source of nectar and pollen in early spring and again in the autumn.

Lilly of the Valley shrub (Pieris japonica) – its bell-shaped flowers are visited by long-tongued solitary bees, such as hairy-footed flower bees, and bumblebees. Requires acidic, ericaceous soil.

Rhododendron – its flowers contain low concentrations of poison for honeybees, but long and short-tongued bumblebees find the single-flowered varieties highly attractive for both nectar and pollen. Best in acidic soils. Compact varieties can be grown in pots filled with ericaceous compost.

May

Californian Lilac (Ceanothus) – a stunning evergreen small ‘tree’ smothered in clusters of electric blue flowers that buzz with bees all month in full sun.

Firethorn (Pyracantha) –the bunches of small white flowers on this spiny-branched shrub are visited by many solitary bee species, but it’s mostly grown for the profusion of showy, bright orange-red berries in autumn.

Japanese pittosporum (Pittosporum tobira) – profuse and intensely scented flowers open white and then turn yellow in April and May against the attractive large, glossy foliage of this drought-tolerant shrub.

Californian lilac (Photo: Charlotte Harrison, Unsplash); Fuchsia with bumblebee (Photo: David Clode, Unsplash); Beautyberry berries in autumn ( (Photo: Yamasa, Unsplash)

June

Cotoneasters are a great source of nectar and pollen during the ‘June gap’ – when there’s a dearth of bee food between spring flowers dying and summer perennials flowering.  Research at Cambridge Botanic Gardens found that the  clusters of small white or pink flowers of many Cotoneaster species can provide a succession of forage for short-tongued bumblebees and honeybees from May to August. Varieties include the low-growing red-berried C. horizontalis, which can be trained up walls, and  Franchet’s (C. Franchetii) which makes an evergreen pollution-tolerant hedge; and the graceful willow-leaved (C.  ‘Rothschildianus) which has yellow berries.

Senecio Sunshine (Brachyglottis ‘Sunshine’) – a compact, drought-tolerant, evergreen shrub from New Zealand that works well in coastal areas and has hairy, grey leaves and bright yellow, daisy-like flowers in June and July.

July

Beautyberry ‘Profusion (Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii ‘Profusion’) Prized for its clusters of violet, bead-like berries on bare branches in the autumn, which are much-loved by birds, and its striking foliage that changes colour during the seasons. This deciduous shrub also has small pink flowers in midsummer which attract the bees.

Daisy bush (Olearia × haastii) – an evergreen drought-tolerant shrub smothered in white, daisy-like flowers with big yellow centres in July and August. Its glaucous, glossy leaves make it suitable for coastal, windy gardens.

August

Hardy fuchsias – bushy, compact shrubs with a profusion of dainty two-tone pendent flowers that the RHS describe as dangling in pairs, “like mini ballerinas with tutus”, along the stems towards the tips.  They can last well into the autumn and bring a tropical touch to a garden if planted in a sheltered, sunny spot and watered.

Bluebeard or Blue Spiraea (Caryopteris × clandonensis) – clusters of slightly fluffy, blue flowers appear in August and September on long stems among pointed, aromatic, grey-green leaves. (Although I have to admit, I’ve not had much success with this drought-tolerant shrub.)

Bluebeard (Photo: Emily Simpson, Unsplash) Buddleia (Photo: Gavin Allanwood, Unsplash) Chaste Tree (Photo credit: Griffin Taylor, Unsplash)

September

Butterfly bush or buddleia (Buddleja davidii) – buy a small cultivar of this coloniser of railway sidings for bee and butterfly visitors from July to October. Dense spikes of honey-scented, brightly coloured flowers can be encouraged by regular deadheading.

Chaste Tree (Vitex agnus-castus) – cone-shaped clusters of violet-blue lavender-looking fragrant flowers appear from July to October – if planted in a sunny, sheltered garden – on this attractive, slender drought-resistant plant with finger-like leaves .

October

Japanese Aralia (Fatsia japonica) – an autumn-flowering tropical-looking, evergreen with huge, glossy, palmate leaves for shady corners. It produces showy panicles of spherical, creamy white flowers from September right through to November.

Oleaster or Silverberry (Elaeagnus × submacrophylla) – in autumn, very small, but well-scented, creamy-white flowers open until November on this shade, drought and wind-tolerant evergreen that can be grown as a hedge.

 Fastsia Japonica (Photo credit: The Blow Up, Unsplash); Strawberry tree with Buff-tailed bumblebee queen

November

Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) – an evergreen, Mediterranean shrubby tree, with bell-shaped white flowers late in the year which hang from its branches unusually at the same time as its jolly, round, red fruit dangle like baubles on a Christmas tree.

Sources: RHS, Graham Rice, Buzz About Bees.net, The Garden Buzz, Dave Goulson, Gardening for Bumblebees, Pollinating London Together, BBC Gardeners’ World magazine, Addicted to bees, Urban Bees plants for bees list, Crocus.co.uk

Thanks to Diana Weir for her suggestions and help compiling this list.

December bees

Tips for IDing December bumblebees:

Bee identification suddenly got very easy as there are only two bee species flying at this time of year: buff-tailed bumblebees and honeybees, and in some areas it will only be the latter.

  • Buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) – these fluffy, golden-striped bumblebees are the ones you’re most likely to see foraging between now and February, especially if you live in a city in the south of England. This winter activity was first recognised in the late 1990s when buff-tailed bumblebee workers (with the white tails) where observed in various sites. It’s believed that some summer queens set up nests in October (instead of hibernating until spring) and produced workers in November to take advantage of milder winters and the abundance of food provided by winter-flowering heathers, honeysuckles and especially widely-planted Mahonia, a tough shrub whose bright yellow flowers cheer up many an amenity shrubbery, car park, and city garden and park at this time of year and produce copious amounts of nectar and pollen. You’ll most likely see the white-tailed workers foraging on it and collecting blobs of its orange pollen in the baskets on their hind legs.

How to ID honey bees:

Western honey bees (Apis millefera) – the managed honeybee colony stays alive at this time of year by keeping warm in their hive and eating their honey which they spend all summer making and storing for their winter food. But on milder, sunny days or even cold, bright days when the sun has warmed up the hive, some worker bees will leave the colony to forage for winter-flowering shrubs near by, or just to go to the toilet (they don’t do this in the hive). That’s when you may see them. They are so much slimmer and smoother than bumblebees that there is no chance of confusing the two.

How to help bees in December:

  1. Plant a tree between now and February to feed bees in the future, or sponsor a street tree. Some trees are better for bees than others, because they produce more nectar and pollen, or they supply it early in the spring, or in late autumn when little else is flowering. What we really need are trees that blossom sequentially producing a bee banquet throughout the year. Check our trees for bees guide. If you plant a Himalayan cherry (Prunus rufa) or a Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrula) you’ll not only have great blossom for bees in spring (as long as you plant single flowered varieties, not double-headed ones), but also fantastic rich coppery, peeling bark in the winter.
  2. Underplant your tree with Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) whose large, bowl-shaped flowers are borne in loose clusters in late winter and spring, and Elephant’s ears (Bergenia), Lungwort (Pulmonaria) to attract early flying bees next spring.
  3. Leave your garden unkept so as not to disturb bumblebee queens who may be hibernating in piles of old leaves, long grasses or under a shed.
  4. It’s not too late to undertake bee hotel winter maintenance. Follow our simple step by step guide to care for these solitary bees over winter. Watch out for other insects hibernating in any empty tubes. I found queen wasps and spiders!
  5. Offer a lethargic or exhausted buff-tailed bumblebee an emergency energy drink of sugary water. At this time of year they can get cold and exhausted very quickly after leaving the nest if they don’t quickly find nectar from a flower. A mixture of two tablespoons of white sugar to one tablespoon of water should revive them, but it may take them a while to find enough energy to suck up the liquid from the spoon or saucer you provide. Be patient. An alternative is to pick her up and take her to a flowering bush, such as Mahonia, full of nectar-rich flowers if there is one nearby. But remember, bumblebees can sting if they feel threatened so pick her up on a leaf, or in a container. Never feed a bee honey. Bacterial spores of a disease that affects bee larvae can be found in honey and this brood disease is highly contagious.

.For information on IDing and helping bees at other times of the year see my Bees to See in November blog here  Bees to See in October blog hereBees to See in September blog here, Bees to See in August blog here,  Bees to See in July blog hereBees to See in June blog here,  Bees to See in May blog here and Bees to See in April blog hereBees to See in March blog here.

Rooftop Rewilding

Drought-resistant perennials planted in large, foot-high planters 8 storeys up on 1 Bread Street, EC4

This summer I’ve been rewilding office roofs in London to feed and house wild bumblebees, solitary bees and other pollinators. Two of the roofs overlook the City of London and aren’t accessible to people working in the offices.

Bee-friendly perennials replaced evergreen shrubs in planters on Carter Lane, EC4

One rooftop is in Soho and is frequently used by staff to hang out and have lunch.

Lush London studio rooftop 5 storeys high. Hexagonal planters with year-long bee-friendly flowers, W1

For a city law firm, we have worked with their gardener to improve the planting for bees and installed bee hotels where solitary red mason bees make their nests each spring.

Bee hotels installed on 8 storey roof terrace used for entertaining. Early-flowering rosemary and wallflowers, EC4

We’ve also rewilded window boxes and planted small trees for bees on rooftops.

Window box of Verbenas hung on roof terrace railings. Crab apple tree (Malus sylvestris ‘Evereste’) blossoming in a rooftop planter in the City

We judge the success by the bees and other pollinators visiting the flowers and nesting.

Top left clockwise: Common carder bee on Nepeta; Buff-tailed bumblebee on Nepeta; Red mason bees nesting in a bee hotel; Common furrow bee on Anthemis tinctoria; Hairy-footed flower bee on Nepeta.

Rooftop rewilding is part of a solution for companies wanting to mitigate climate change. We know the climate and nature are intertwined and we can’t solve one without improving the other. Rooftop rewilding is a local and tangible start by bringing more nature into cities and improving biodiversity. And it is a great way to engage employees and community groups through talks, workshops and ‘meet the bees’ sessions and to and enhance your company’s social value.

Bee spotting on roof terrace with Weil law firm; pupils from a local school supported by Weil take part in a bee hotel workshop.

Rewilded rooftops can provide nature-based solutions to flooding, heatwaves and pollution, as well as making cities more attractive to us as well as to pollinators. And corridors of rewilded rooftops would prevent pollinators being confined to small fragments of habitat and instead allow them to thrive by creating ‘bee-lines’ – a green super highway where each rooftop becomes a pit stop where they can refuel with nectar and pollen on the way to city parks and green spaces. (It has been estimated that up to 70% of wildlife species could go extinct if action is not taken to enable them to move through the landscape). 

If you would like Urban Bees to rewild your rooftop, or to work with your existing gardeners to improve planting for pollinators, we will happily pay a visit and provide a free consultation. No space is too small, from patios, to window boxes. Rewilding every grey pocket could help.

Contact: Alison Benjamin alison@urbanbees.co.uk 0788 4054150

London Bee Tours 2022

Clockwise from top left: Common carder bee; buff-tailed bumblebee; leafcutter bee; honey bee; Regent’s Park apiary; Regents Park Honey (Bee Photo credits: Penny Metal)

Seeing bees in Regent’s Park

Last summer, we ran a bee tour for the Friends’ of Regent’s Park. On a warm August morning around 20 friends turned up to discover the bumblebees and solitary bees foraging in the flower beds. Equipped with our Bees to See guide, they were surprised at how many bees were buzzing in the bushes. They quickly learned how to identify common carder bees, furrow bees and buff-tailed bumblebees.

“I walk through this park practically every day, admiring the colours and scents of the flowers, but I have never before noticed the bees. Now, I will always look out for them.”

said one participant

The group also visited the bee hotels that we installed in the Regent’s Park allotment garden where red mason bees laid their eggs earlier in the summer. Here, they heard about the honeybees living in the park’s secret apiary, how these bees make honey and sampled the delicious, raw produce just harvested from the hives.

The 3-hour tour was such as success, that we have decided to run a similar tour once a month during spring and summer for anyone interested in bees.

For dates and prices of our London Bee Tours and how to book for yourself, or as a gift for friends and family, please click here

Winter reading recommendations

Useful Bee ID guides

Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland, by Stephen Falk & Richard Lewington, (Bloomsbury) – this is the go to reference book that any bee spotter should have on their book shelf. It has more information than you’ll ever need to know about all our 250+ bee species, but it’s easy to dip in and out of and to find the photo, description and map for one bee and the family it belongs. And there is always something new to learn.

Insectinside: life in the bushes of a small Peckham Park, by Penny Metal – I know I’m biased because Penny is a friend and provides all the fabulous Bees to See photos, but her fantastic huge, close up photos show a variety of wild bees you’ll most likely to come across in all their splendour. The narrative is fun too. And as well as helping my bee ID skills, her book has awakened my curiosity in other invertebrates that share the garden. Check out Penny’s Flickr page too.

Bumblebees An Introduction, by Bumblebee Conservation Trust – is a simple guide to identifying and helping bumblebees with good photos, diagrams and tips. I also like their Pocket Guide to 8 Common Bumblebees, which I stick in my back pocket when doing a Bee Walk. They have ones for rare bumblebees and cuckoo bumblebees too.

Gardening for bees

There are so many glossy, coffee table, lifestyle bee-friendly gardening books. The one I like best because it’s about bees and their relationship with plants is:

Gardening for Bumblebees: A practical guide to creating a paradise for pollinators by Dave Goulson (Penguin) – He covers the more common solitary bees, as well as bumblebees. I have found the section on long-tongued and short-tongued bees particularly useful.

Introduction to bees

Most layman’s bees books are about honeybees and beekeeping. It’s only recently that bumblebees and solitary bees have got a look in. For a simple overview, I’d suggest our gift book:

The Good Bee; A Celebration of Bees and How to Save Them Alison Benjamin & Brian McCallum (Michael O’Mara) – It’s beautifully illustrated, a handy size, and an easy to read introduction for someone who doesn’t know there are so many different types of bees.

or equally

Plant Trees Sow Seeds Save the Bees Simple Ways to be Bee-Friendly, by Nicola Bradbear (Penguin) – a delightful, easy to read informative little paperback with useful tips for getting to know ‘stripeys’ and how to help them.

Nature books

Bees have been my gateway to a better understanding and appreciation of nature and biodiversity. As a result, many of my favourites reads are about more than bees:

The Stubborn Light of Things: A Nature Diary by Melissa Harrison (Faber) – a beautifully written collection of her Times nature diaries that closely observe the natural world around her over a six year period living in London and moving to Suffolk. You can dip in and dip out and always find a gem such as this from 21 October 2017: “If you live in a city and miss nature, the answer doesn’t have to be to move out: it’s to tune in.”

Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm by Isabella Tree (Picador) – an amazing 20 year account of what can be achieved if we work with nature, rather than against it. The return of nightingales, storks, bees, butterflies and dung beetles.

English Pastoral An Inheritance by James Rebanks (Allen Lane) – if there is one book you read this year, make it this one. Why? Because he takes you on his journey of discovery that the farming practices he and his father’s generation adopted are destroying the land. And the embrace of nature-friendly farming by this self-declared green sceptic shows what can, and must, be done and the role we can all play.

John Clare Selected Poems edited by Jonathan Bate (Faber) – I most admit I find most poetry difficult, but earlier this year, thanks to Professor Jeff Ollerton, I discovered John Clare’s Wild Bee poem and adored his descriptions of the different bees. So when I came across this collection of poetry I thought I’d give it a go. I’ve not read many yet, but if like me you’re a fan of russet hues you’ll love his ode To Autum:

…More sweet than summer in her loveliest hours, /Who in her blooming uniform of green/Delights with samely and continued joy/But give me autumn, where thy hand hath been/For there is wilderness, that can never cloy – /The russet hue of fields left bare and all/The tints of leaves and blossoms ere they fall…

Blossom-sequencing trees for bees

February: Pussy willow (credit: Roberto Sorin, Unsplash)

Thinking about planting a tree this winter for bees, or speaking to your council tree officer about planting more trees to feed bees? These are the best trees because they produce pollen, or nectar, or both, when little else is flowering.

Early-flowering trees

February: Hazel catkins (Credit: Yoksel, Unsplash); March: Cherry ‘Okame’; April: Crab Apple

  1. Pussy/goat willow (Salix caprea) – although its catkins are wind pollinated, the protein-rich pollen they contain are collected by buff-tailed bumblebees and honeybees on mild February days to feed new larvae.
  2. Hazel (Corylus avellana) – showy, yellow dangling male catkins brighten up any garden in February/March and, though wind pollinated, provide much-needed pollen for early flying bees.
  3. Cherry ‘Okame’ (Prunus incam Okame) – a profusion of pretty pink blossom earlier than any other cherry makes this a magnet for bees that are out in March.
  4. Crab apple (Malus sylvestris) – a reliable, small bee-friendly tree that I have successfully grown in pots and planters on rooftops. It has beautiful white blossom in April for bees, and small red apples in autumn for birds, or for us to make jelly or jam.
  5. Bees are well served by trees in May and June from the huge Horse Chestnut trees with their thousands of white flowers borne on candelabras, to smaller Hawthorns, Rowans and Judas trees. They are followed by a variety of Lime trees (also known as Linden trees or Tilia), Acacia and Tulip trees. So try to plant a tree that flowers from mid July onwards instead.

Late-flowering trees

July: Dwarf chestnut tree (Credit: Wendy Cutler, WikiCommons); September: Seven son flower tree; October: Strawberry tree.

  1. The Indian horse chestnut tree (Aesculus indica) is a beauty and doesn’t suffer from the leaf miner or fungus that turns our conker trees’ leaves brown by mid summer. And it flowers after the Lime trees when the choice of blossoming trees greatly diminishes. But it does grow to 50ft so is only suitable for large gardens. A smaller option is the equally stunning Dwarf horse chestnut (Aesculus parviflora) which I’ve seen growing in large planters up to 8ft.
  2. If you already have a Common privet tree (Ligustrum vulgare), shrub or hedge, let it flower in July. Although it doesn’t smell pleasant to us, the scent attracts the bees to its nectar and pollen. The same goes for Oleaster (Elaeagnus × submacrophylla) which is often used for hedging. It you let it flower in October/November it can provide welcome food for bumblebees fattening up for winter.
  3. By August, there’s a real dearth of flowers on our trees and many popular garden flowers like lavenders and alliums have bloomed, so bees are getting hungry. Chinese privet (Ligustrum lucidum) is a handsome, small evergreen tree that has large panicles of white flowers providing much-needed food for late summer foraging bees.
  4. Seven son flower tree (Heptacodium miconioides) was the star of RHS Chelsea 2021 because it was the only tree in flower in September. It is a member of the honeysuckle family, with its clusters of heavenly scented white flowers, and can be grown as a multi-stemmed shrub or small tree. I predict that it will become widely planted throughout the UK, which will be a blessing for bees. I am going to try to find space for one.
  5. Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) If you plant this spreading , shrubby evergreen that grows in the wild all over the Mediterranean, you will be able to bee spot into November.

Not only will these trees feed bees, they will also bear fruits that birds can eat later in the year, and provide places for insects, including some bees to live, even when the tree has died. So they greatly promote biodiversity . And of course like all trees, they store carbon, mitigate flooding and pollution and reduce the temperature in towns and cities.

See our full Trees for Bees guide here. A remember, right tree, right place. Don’t plant a huge tree in a small garden.

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OK, so the bee spotting season is over. I know. But there’s a chance you could still get to see the odd one or two flying when it’s mild and sunny where there are flowers in bloom. So get out in the garden or your local park on a bright, autumnal day. And with so few bees to choose from at this time of year, it should make it easier to identify the ones you do see.

Tips for IDing November bumblebees:

  • Buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) – these fluffy, golden-striped bumblebees are the ones you’re most likely to see between now and March, especially if you live in a city in the south of the UK where the queens produce a third brood that lives through the winter, taking advantage of winter-flowering shrubs in parks and gardens. As a result, you’ll see queens, workers and males flying throughout the year. The queens are easily recognisable from their huge size (18mm) and distinctive buff coloured bottom. The workers are much smaller (13mm) and have a white tail. Both of these castes are female and what really sets them apart from the similarly marked 14mm males, is the brightly-coloured blobs of pollen they may be carrying on their hind legs to take back to the nest (see worker pictured above) . Further north, you may still see a queen buff-tailed bumblebee stocking up on nectar and looking for a dry, secure place to spend the winter, from which she will emerge in early spring.
  • Common carder bees (Bombus pascuorum) – you may see the odd one or two of these cute brown bees on anything that’s still flowering at this time of year . They will be the queens (15mm) having a final nectar feast before bedding down somewhere snug for the winter months such as a pile of old leaves, or under the garden shed.

How to ID November solitary bees:

  • Ivy mining bee (Colletes hederae) – If you’ve not yet seen an ivy mining bee, there’s a chance you may if ivy is still flowering where you live. But hurry, they are on their last legs. Once the adult female bees have laid all their eggs, and provisioned each one with pollen from the ivy flowers, their six to eight week life cycle is complete. To spot one, look for an insect on the tiny white flowers that has a fluffy ginger thorax, though it may be a duller brown by now. It’s the fluffy thorax that sets the 13mm ivy mining bee apart from honey bees (check the guide above) and hoverflies (See our Is it a bee or a hoverfly? guide.)

How to ID honey bees:

Western honey bees (Apis millefera) – we’ve included these managed bees again because they are still stocking up on nectar to take back to their hive before the winter. They may be on the last ivy flowers and are around 14mm with a slim, tapered gold and black stripey body. They can be easily confused with other stripey insects: the slightly smaller ivy mining bee and the less hairy hoverflies that are still flying.

How to help bees in November:

  1. Cosmos, Penstemon, Fuchsia, salvias, dahlias and Geranium Rozanne are all still flowering but most bees don’t fly in the colder months . So now is the time to make you garden, roof terrace, patio or other outside space bee-friendly for the spring when they will emerge. If you only do one thing, plant those crocus bulbs you’ve been meaning to get in the ground before it gets too hard. Plant them under trees, in lawns and hanging baskets, and pots, as well as flower beds. They will give the early flying bumblebee queens food to fuel their flight next spring.
  2. For bee-friendly November window boxes, Cosmos and Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus), are still blooming. And again, add lots of crocus bulbs for a colourful display in early spring that will feed the bees.
  3. If you’ve decided which tree you could add to your garden to provide bee food, now is the time you can order it and plant a tree, while trees are dormant during late autumn and winter. Also, speak to your council tree officer about planting more bee-friendly trees in local streets and parks. Tree can provide an abundant source of food at times of year when bees may be going hungry like early spring and late summer. For advice on which tree to plant see our Trees for Bees guide.
  4. Divide bee-friendly perennials that have become overcrowded. Find another place for them in the garden or give them away to friends and neighbours to make their gardens more bee-friendly.
  5. Seeds to grow under glass this month including wild cornflower and cowslip. Yellow rattle can be grown outdoors and is useful if you are trying to convert part of your lawn into a wild flower meadow as it supresses the grasses and will allow the wild flowers to grow.
  6. It’s tempting to give your garden a thorough tidy at this time of year after the autumn leaves have fallen. But it’s best to leave your garden a bit messy: piles of leaves and bits of old, rotting wood as queen bumblebees and other insects may find them perfect winter habitat.
  7. Clean out your bee hotels and bee boxes for solitary bees and store the bee cocoons in a dry, cool place over winter. Read here for more information.

There will be plenty more jobs we can do over the winter months to help bees thrive next spring. So, look out for future posts each month.

For information on IDing and helping bees earlier in the year see my  Bees to See in October blog here, Bees to See in September blog here, Bees to See in August blog here,  Bees to See in July blog hereBees to See in June blog here,  Bees to See in May blog here and Bees to See in April blog hereBees to See in March blog here.

Bee hotel winter management

If you have a bee hotel containing cardboard tubes or a wooden bee box with separate units and trays, then October is the perfect time to move out any occupants into a drier and safer place to spend the winter.

You can tell in there are occupants by the number of sealed tubes or entrance holes. Red mason bees, by far the most common bee hotel guests, plug the tubes/entrances with mud, blue mason bees and orange-vented mason bees use finely chewed leaf and leafcutter bees make their front door from pieces of leaves. As you can see from the photos above, we only have red mason bees nesting in our bee hotels.

Behind each plugged entrance there could be seven or eight cocoons from which adult bees should emerge next spring.

The cocoons started life as an egg laid by the female mason or leafcutter bee. When the egg hatched into a larvae a few months ago it gorged itself on all the pollen its mother had provisioned in the cell and then began to spin a silk cocoon and pupate into an adult bee.

We can help the bees on this journey. Gently tear the cardboard tubes and tease out the cocoons, or prise them out of the detachable wooden bee boxes. The cocoons look like small kidney beans covered in fuzz. This fuzzy stuff is specks of bee poo and could also be parasitic grubs. Dust it off with a soft brush and wipe with a damp cloth until the black cocoons are smooth and shiny (like the photo above)*. Then place the cocoons on some kitchen roll to absorb any excess water before storing them in a cardboard or plastic box with a lid. Put the box in a cold place like a garage or shed. Label the box just in case you forget what’s in it!

Red mason bee cocoons can also be popped into the fridge as they can be safely stored at around 3-4 C.

The next step is to thoroughly clean the bee hotel or nest box with a brush and hot, soapy water and bring it inside for winter. The bee boxes will have instructions for how to take them apart and clean.

Then order new cardboard tubes to put in your cleaned bee hotels ready for next spring.

At the beginning of March, I will explain how to take the cocoons out of storage, but for the next few months you can have peace of mind knowing that they will be safe and sound in their winter home…

* Thanks to Rosybee for the cocoon photo, I couldn’t find any of ours

Fewer bee spotting opportunities

It had to happen sooner or later, the end of the bee spotting season. But don’t despair, in between the rain showers, you’ve still got a few weeks to see the ivy mining bee and the furrow bee, three bumblebee species and honeybees. Yes we’ve included these managed bees again this month because there are lots around on dry, sunny days stocking up on nectar to take back to their hive before the winter. They will be on the ivy flowers too and can be easily confused with ivy mining bees, so check the photos above and the ID tips below. Both bees can also be confused with stripey hoverflies also visiting ivy bushes, so click on our Is it a bee or a hoverfly? guide.

My best advice to you this month is make the most of any bright autumnal days to get out and spot the last bees of 2021.

Tips for IDing October bumblebees:

  • Common carder bees (Bombus pascuorum) – no confusing this brown fluffy bee with the tree bumblebees this month, as the latter aren’t flying anymore. So, any round, hairy bees with a ginger thorax or a faded ginger/brown thorax is sure to be a common carder bee. Despite its English name, which derives from its behaviour of teasing out (carder is the old fashioned word for teasing out) bits of moss to cover its nest, it is a social bumblebee, hence its Latin Bombus tag. They can be most easily seen this month on Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’, Michaelmas daisies and salvia ‘hot lips’ in my garden. You’ll most likely still be seeing workers, new queens and males who all look very similar. The queens are the largest (15mm) and the workers the smallest (11mm).
  • Red-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lapidarius) – one of my main disappointments of bee spotting in 2021 is how few of these gorgeous velvety black bees with their firery red bottoms I’ve seen in my garden or local parks in east London. But some people have reported an abundance of them. Anyway, be on the look out in these last few weeks for the large queens (17mm) who will now be mated and will be feeding on nectar to build up their fat reserves to see them through their dormant state during winter.
  • Buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) – these white bottomed bumblebees with golden stripes are so successful that if you live in the south of the UK you are likely to see this species flying all year. This month, the huge queens (18mm) may be supping on ivy nectar alongside the other bees. In the south, they will be looking for a nest to produce a brood that lives throughout the winter. Further north, they are more likely stocking up on nectar before their dormant period and will appear early next spring to nest.

How to ID October solitary bees:

Ivy mining bee (Colletes hederae) – If there is one thing you should do before the end of the bee spotting season, it’s to try and see an ivy mining bee. Why? Here are ten reasons why ivy mining bees are so special:

  1. They are the last solitary bee to emerge in the year.
  2. They were only described as a separate species in 1993 in Germany. According to bee expert, Ted Benton, the lateness of this discovery may in part be explained by their similarity to two other late-flying close relatives: Heather mining bees (Colletes succinctus) and Sea Aster bees (Colletes halophilus).
  3. They were first discovered in England just 20 years ago, in an ivy bush in Dorset in 2001.
  4. There is a real thrill when you see one for the first time, because it means you have learned to distinguish its features (gingery pile on its thorax and segmented shiny bands on its abdomen) from the honeybee which is a bit bigger.
  5. They only fly for around six weeks, when the ivy is flowering, so they seem more special than bees that fly all summer.
  6. If you see one north of Shropshire, Staffordshire, Norfolk or south Wales you can contribute to a mapping project to show their spread across Britain.
  7. They nest in huge aggregations of thousands of bees, making burrows in loose soil and sandy banks. It’s an amazing sight watching them emerge in late August/early September. I’ve never seen it, but I hope to create a sand bank somewhere next year that may become a nesting site. This video I shared last month gives a flavour.
  8. Their symbiotic relationship with ivy – emerging to feed on its nectar and pollen and pollinating it at the same time – really demonstrates the connection between bees and flowering plants. This relationship has evolved over 60 million years.
  9. Watching them at work helps to connect us with nature on our doorstep. We don’t need to visit the ‘countryside’, or to far flung places, to see nature in action.
  10. They are also called plasterer bees, because like all bees with the Latin name Colletes, they line the nests they create in their burrows with a cellophane-like waterproof and fungus-resistant substance that they secret. Isn’t that amazing!

Common furrow bee (Lasioglossum calceatum) – these small black elongated shiny bees have been flying all summer. I have to admit I’m still not confident about IDing them. I think it’s the fact they are small and black, whereas I still expect my bees to be more colourful and fluffy. But I am getting better. My rule of thumb is that if it’s a small black insect with a long body on a flower late in the summer or in autumn, chances are it will be this bee. I know the yellow legs in the photo above, should help, and there are some band markings on the body, but I find these hard to see when it’s only 5.5mm.

How to help bees in October:

  1. There are still a few things flowering in the garden this month: Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’, Michaelmas daisies and annual Cosmos grown from seed for short tongued or medium tongued bees; Penstemon, Fuchsia, Salvia ‘hot lips’ and other salvias for long-tongues bees. The shrubby blue Caryopteris x clandonensis (Bluebeard) and red Perscicaria are both visited by bees, and of course, Geranium Rozanne is still flowering. But Ivy is probably the most valuable nectar and pollen source at this time of year, so if you have any mature, flowering ivy don’t prune it until after it’s flowered.
  2. For bee-friendly October window boxes, try Cosmos and Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus), both will bloom until the first frosts.
  3. Think about which tree you could add to your garden to provide bee food, or speak to your council tree officer about planting more bee-friendly trees in streets and parks. It’s best to plant trees during the winter when they are dormant.
  4. If you only do one thing for bees this month, plant as many crocus bulbs as you can in window boxes, pots, hanging baskets, flower beds and lawns, as they will provide much-need early pollen and nectar for bumblebee queens when they start flying next spring.
  5. October is a good time to divide perennials that have become overcrowded. Find another place for them in the garden or give them away to friends and neighbours to make their gardens more bee-friendly.
  6. If planting conditions are still good this month (not too cold and wet), it’s not too late to plant wallflowers. There are also some seeds that can be grown under glass this month including wild cornflower and cowslip. Yellow rattle can be grown outdoors and is useful if you are trying to convert part of your lawn into a wild flower meadow as it supresses the grasses and will allow the wild flowers to grow.
  7. Leave parts of the garden untidy as queen bumblebees may have found a nook or cranny to spend the winter and don’t wish to be disturbed.
  8. Clean out your bee hotels and store the bee cocoons in a dry, cool place over winter. Read here for more information.

There will be plenty more jobs we can do over the winter months to help bees thrive next spring. So, look out for future posts each month.

For information on IDing and helping bees earlier in the year see my  Bees to See in September blog here, Bees to See in August blog here,  Bees to See in July blog hereBees to See in June blog here,  Bees to See in May blog here and Bees to See in April blog hereBees to See in March blog here.

Is it a bee or a hoverfly?




From top left clockwise (if you are looking at the images in landscape – 3 pics over 3 pics) : Batman hoverfly (Myathropa florea); Marmalade fly (Episyrphus balteatus) ; the footballer (Helophilus pendulus); Hornet mimic hoverfly (Volucella zonaria); common drone fly (Eristalis tenax); common-banded hoverfly (Syrphus ribesii). Photo Credit: Penny Metal

All these insects are harmless hoverflies mimicing a stinging insect to protect themselves. This characteristic is called Batesian mimicry after the British naturalist, Henry Bates, who wrote about this concept in 1861 while exploring the Amazon rainforest. Unfortunately this can make it difficult to tell bees and hoverflies apart.

Here are some simple rules to help us sort the hoverflies from the bees:

  1. Hoverflies hover near to flowers, unlike most bees which fly between the flowers (although in spring, the Hairy-footed flower bee displays a darting, hovering motion).
  2. Hoverflies have one pair of wings, and bees have two. However, it can be quite tricky to see the bees two pairs. When it comes to wings, I find that hoverflies usually rest on a flower or leaf with their wings out at 45 degrees, (like the Marmalade fly above), whereas bees have their wings tucked in nearer to their body.
  3. Hoverflies tend to stay still for much longer than a bee, so are easier to photograph.
  4. These common hoverflies range in size from the 9mm slim Marmalade fly to the more stocky 10-14mm Common-banded, Batman, Footballer and Common drone fly (which mimics a drone honeybee), and the large 20mm Volucella zonaria which, as its English name tells us, is a hornet mimic hoverfly.
  5. They are generally less fluffy and cute than bees. (Though there are some hairy hoverflies, called Narcissus flies, that fly from May to August and are excellent bumblebee mimics. They lay their eggs on narcissus plants (daffodils).
  6. They have much bigger eyes than bees.
  7. They are very common on ivy; so if it’s not an ivy bee, a honeybee, or a buff-tailed bumblebee, it will be one of these common hoverflies.
  8. These common hoverflies are still flying in November when most bee species aren’t.
  9. The hornet mimics fly between September and November.
  10. None of these hoverflies sting, even the hornet mimics.

The more you look, the easier it will become to distinguish hoverflies from bees. There are around 300 different species of hoverfly in the UK, but the ones above are those you may be confusing with bees because they are so widespread and easy to spot.

Their English names are derived from their markings:

  • The Batman hoverfly has a distinctive black Batman markings on its thorax.
  • The Marmalade fly has orange markings with thick and thin black bands across it.
  • The Footballer has vertical stripes on its thorax like some football club strips. But its Latin name Helophilus pendulus is much more interesting. It means ‘dangling marsh lover’ and it can be found in ponds, puddles and wet ditches as well as sunny areas of a garden.
  • The Hornet mimic hoverfly is a big, scary looking insect. As its name suggest its appearance is hornet-like. Although it’s harmless, if in doubt stay away.
  • The Common drone fly is stocky and brown like a male honeybee. However, it flies from March to November, whereas male honeybees are only around from May to September and are rarely seen on flowers. So if you think it’s a male honeybee, chances are it’s actually this hoverfly.
  • The Common banded hoverfly has a black body covered in yellow bands and is one of our most common species of hoverfly.

Are hoverflies important? Yes, they are important pollinators and their larvae eat lots and lots of aphids.

Large-headed resin bees

Large-headed resin bees (Heriades truncorum) make their nests in a pre-existing cavity in wood. You can create suitable nesting sites by drilling holes in blocks of wood like this one we saw at John Little’s house a few years ago. He runs the Grass Roof Company and has pioneered incorporating nest sites for solitary bees on roofs and walls. He uses his own home and gardens as a test bed.

After she has laid her eggs in the cavity, this robust. solitary bee plugs it with tiny bits of grit and stone she collects and then glues it all together with resin collected from nearby trees. Here’s the bee in action…it’s like fitting together pieces of a jigsaw, or making a mosaic – quite amazing!!! And the next generation of resin bees have to break through the ‘door’ when they emerge next year.

September surprises

You’d probably expect to see less bees flying as summer gives way to autumn, and it’s true that the leafcutters, wool carder bee and many mining bees have gone. But if you have late flowering blooms you may see plenty of bumblebee queens stocking up on nectar before searching for a cosy winter hideaway and common carder bee workers are still out in force. Wooden posts drilled with small holes, may be busy with large-headed resin bees plugging their nests with tiny pieces of grit and stone and gluing it together with tree resin. And if you’re near flowering ivy (yes, mature ivy is smothered in tiny white flowers later this month) don’t miss the Ivy mining bee. This short-lived solitary bee emerges just before the ivy flowers and disappears shortly after. And this month marks 20 years since the ivy bee was first recorded in the UK.

We decided to included honeybees in our guide this month for two reasons:

1. You’ll see lots on flowers in your garden because there aren’t many flowering trees in September, and it’s their last chance to collect nectar and turn it into their winter stores of honey

2. It’s easy to confuse ivy bees and honeybees when they are both on the ivy flowers. So carefully examine the photos above and ID notes below.

Tips for IDing September bumblebees:

  • Tree bumblebees (Bombus hypnorum) – if you’ve been bee spotting all summer, you should be quite adept at identifying tree bumblebees by now. But they can be confused with similar sized common carder bees as both have a gingery thorax. The tree bumblebee sometimes looks like it has a bald patch and it’s abdomen is blacker and it’s bottom (or tail) is always white. They usually have two generations each summer so the ones you see flying this month will be new queens, workers and males from the second 150-strong colony. The only difference in appearance between the queen, males and workers (known as the three castes) is their size. Queens are a larger 15mm, males 13mm and workers 11mm.
  • Common carder bees (Bombus pascuorum) seem even more common at this time of year. Queens that began producing worker bees in April are now producing new queens and males so they are flying too . The castes all have the same ginger pile on their thorax, but their fluffy bodies can vary in colour from light to dark brown. They are the smallest bumblebees flying in September.
  • Red-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lapidarius) – easily recognisable with their gorgeous red butt, but unfortunately this bee is a less frequent sight for many of us these days. In the south, queens can produce a second colony of up to 300 bees, so it’s this second generation there are now flying. The queen is one of our biggest bumblebees: measuring 17mm, she can look quite intimidating with her velvety black body and striking red tail. Workers are a smaller version of the queen(12mm), but males (12mm) have cute yellow facial hair and yellow bands on their bodies.
  • Buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) our most common bumblebee, has two generations in the summer and even a third which flies during the winter in the south of England. However at this time of year, I find them much less ubiquitous than common carder bees. This may be because only the huge mated queens (18mm) are flying stocking up on nectar and looking for a suitable nesting site to raise a new colony in the south, or further north, the queens are stocking up on nectar and looking for a suitable hole to overwinter.

How to ID September solitary bees:

  • Ivy mining bee (Colletes hederae) – one of the highlights of autumn is being able to spot an ivy mining bee. To the untrained eye, they can look deceptively like a honeybee, especially as they are both found on mass buzzing around nectar-rich ivy flowers in the south of England and Wales. However, look closely and you’ll see the ivy bee sports a quiff of orange hair on its thorax and its body has much more defined and shiny segmented bands in buff and brown alternate colours. Ivy bees are also a little smaller (10mm) than honeybees (14mm). Ivy bees are the last solitary bee to emerge in the UK. The males first, in late August, or early September, and females a couple of weeks later. They can gather nectar (and the females pollen) from a variety of late flowers before the ivy flowers, but the easiest way to see them is to inspect the tiny white ivy flowers. Ivy bees belongs to the Colletes family, which mine into the ground to make their nests – often next door to each other in very large numbers – and they line their nest with a cellophane-like waterproof and fungus-resistant substance, which is why Colletes are also called plasterer bees. If you have a south-facing slope with light soil you may see hundreds, even thousands, of these bees emerging from their individual nests. It is easy to forget that they are solitary bees. As you can see on this great video from the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. Fascinating fact – the ivy bee was only described as a separate species in 1993 and wasn’t discovered in the UK until 2001 in Dorset. Unlike the other newcomer, the tree bumblebee, ivy bees aren’t thought to have spread to the north of England. But if you see one beyond the Midlands, please report your sighting to BWARS (Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society).
  • Common yellow-faced bee (Hylaeus communis) – these small (5mm) predominately black bees with tiny yellow spots or a triangle on their face has been a familiar sight in gardens since mid summer (if you’ve been able to spot such a diminutive bee). The females have been known to nest in bee hotels/boxes if the hole dimension is small enough. They also plaster their nests and unlike other bees collect pollen in a special stomach, called a crop, and regurgitate it to make a semi-liquid mixed with pollen to feed the larvae. Fascinating fact: They have been observed blowing bubbles of nectar to evaporate the water. This is known as water homeostasis and it concentrates and thickens the nectar/pollen mixture making it tacky like honey. The bees eggs and larvae ‘stick’ to its surface, unlike many other solitary bee larvae which ‘sit’ on top of the more solid pollen mixture. Here is a video of the bubble blowing. (I’m yet to see any of this behaviour myself, so thanks to Nurturing Nature and Api:Cultural for the info and footage).
  • Large-headed resin bee (Heriades truncorum) – I have seen these industrious, small (5mm) solitary black bees with a strange wide head plugging their nests with tiny bits of grit in pre-existing holes in wood. It looks like they are making a mosiac from the grit which they stick together with resin they collect from trees. If you live in the south-east of England (where they are commonly found), and install wooden logs, or a post, drilled with holes a few milimetres wide, you may see them making mosiacs in your garden next summer. They have also been known to use bee hotels/boxes. If you live further north, take a look here at their fascinating behaviour. And with warmer summers across the UK, they could be coming to a green space near you especially where yellow ‘weeds’ such as ragwort, sow thistles and hawkweeds are left to grow.
  • Common furrow bee (Lasioglossum calceatum) – these small solitary bees with an elongated black shiny body have been flying since early spring. So there is no excuse for not recognising them (although I still have problems with ID). The ones you will be seeing now are males and females that were born in July and can fly until October. Fascinating fact: These burrowing bees can display primitively eusocial behaviour, which means the early flying females in warm climates are actually queen bees that in early summer produce workers. These worker bees will collect nectar and pollen for the new females and males that are born later in the summer.

How to help bees in September

  1. Plant flowers that bloom this month to provide important late sources of nectar and pollen. Sedum, Michaelmas daisy, dahlia, fushsia, Devil’s bit scabious, and wild marjoram are all good, and don’t forget Common sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), the solitary bees favourite, according to Rosybee nursery’s fantastically helpful research . A particular fav in our garden is Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ a slug-proof sunflower, and of course, the Geranium Rozanne is still going strong! For the long-tongued bumblebees, black horehound, salvias and buddleia are still flowering, and hemp agrimony is good in damp soil.
  2. The best late forage for short-tongued honeybees and ivy bees without a doubt is ivy. But ivy only flowers when it is mature and that can take 11 years! So if you have any sprawling ivy that needs a trim, please don’t cut it back until after it’s flowered this month.
  3. If you only have a window box, Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus), trailing nasturtium and bird’s-foot trefoil are still flowering. Add sedum and annuals such as cosmos and snap dragons. If you grow herbs in pots and window boxes, let the mint and oregano keep flowering.
  4. Gather seeds Store them in labelled paper bags in a cool, dry place for sowing or scattering next spring. Or, just scatter them around your garden now while the soil is still warm. Lightly rake the soil, scatter the seeds, cover them with fine soil and firm down.
  5. Leave parts of the garden undisturbed, as ground nesting bumblebee queens may be looking for a snug place to overwinter and don’t chop down old, dead stems that solitary bees may have laid eggs in.
  6. Ditch the weed killers and pesticides. 
  7. Take semi-ripe cuttings if you are patient and want to propagate heathers, ivy, Mahonia, Escallonia and flowering-currents. The cuttings should be ready to pot on next spring.
  8. Create a bank of sand mixed with some clay soil against a south facing wall for mining bees which like to burrow into sand. It only has to be about 400mm deep. Create steps in the sand as some bees like to nest vertically and others horizontally. The clay will help the bank to keeps its shape after the bees have tunnelled into it. If you’re lucky you may get ivy mining bees nesting in it this autumn next door to each other in large neighbourhoods.
  9. Drill holes in blocks of wood – 10mm, 8mm, 6mm and 4mm diameters and up to 30 cm deep (although some bees only need a depth of a few centimetres to nest in) – and screw them to a sturdy support. Drill holes in existing structures such as fence posts, or dead trees. Large-headed resin bees, scissor bees and yellow-faced bees may take up residence, but probably not until next year.
  10. Provide a source of water for thirsty bees. This can be a shallow bowl or saucer with stones or pebbles in that the bees can stand on while they are drinking. Bees can’t swim!

For information on IDing and helping bees earlier in the year see my Bees to See in August blog here,  Bees to See in July blog hereBees to See in June blog here,  Bees to See in May blog here and Bees to See in April blog hereBees to See in March blog here.

Transforming Chelsea Creek into a wild bee haven

In June we were contacted by St George’s, developers of the Chelsea Creek housing development in SW6. They wanted a bee hive located on a small site backing onto the Imperial Wharf Overground station.

We suggested that instead of a hive, we clear the site and turn it into a haven for wild bees and other pollinators and improve biodiversity.

We audited the 10m x 10m site to assess it’s current suitability. We used 7 measures:

  1. Shelter
  2. Thermoregulation (provide sunny spots where bees can warm up to fly) 
  3. Year-round nectar sources
  4. Year-round pollen sources
  5. Mating habitat
  6. Nest sites
  7. Nesting material for some bees.

The dense thicket of brambles, buddleia (over head height) and laurel bushes scored very low. We came up with a plan for how the site could meet all the above requirements.

St George’s gave us the go ahead and in July we began the clearance.

It was hard work, but after a couple of days we made headway and started piling up the green waste. I must admit I find it hard cutting down brambles and buddleia when they do provide such great bee food at certain times of the year, but there was plenty left on an adjacent site and it will soon grow back if we don’t keep it in check. And without letting more light into the site, other flowers that can provide forage in early spring and summer won’t stand a chance.

The next step was to introduce some overwintering sites for queen bumblebees and some nesting sites for solitary bees.

I piled up twigs for whatever insects may find them useful, while Brian started to construct log houses. The logs are drilled with different diameter holes from 3mm – 8mm for a variety of cavity-nesting bees. Resin bees, yellow-faced bees and scissor bees will use the smaller holes. We also installed seven bee hotels on a stand a metre off the ground placed in a sunny position. These are for mason bees and leafcutters to check into next spring and summer to lay their eggs. Brian made all the stands from recycled bits of wood, and the log house boxes are old recycled hives.

This is just the beginning. We will be creating nesting sites for bees that like to burrow into sand and those that prefer piles of bare earth. We’ll be providing aggregate that some solitary bees need to plug their nests and blue tit bird boxes that the Tree bumblebee may occupy after the chicks have fledged next year. And we’ll leave some upturned flower pots around for bumblebees that nest underground, like buff-tailed and white-tailed bumblebees, and some piles of grass and leaves undisturbed for carder bees.

And of course over the next few months we’ll be planting the best flowers for providing year-found forage and nesting materials.

It may not look much at the moment, but watch this space…

September

The client asked us to paint the bee hotel and log house structures in an eau de nil colour to go with the colour of the hordings around the development. They gave us the colour reference and we got a durable outside paint mixed up. In early September we painted…

We also also planted a few ‘wild flowers’ including:

  • Rosebay willowherb (Chamaenerion angustifolium) or Fireweed which can quickly colonise waste land, has nectar-rich purple spikes in summer and whose leaves leafcutter bees use as nesting material.
  • Dwarf comfrey (Symphystum ibericum), which provides early forage for the Hairy-footed flower bee, grows in shade and is a ‘weed’ surpresser.
  • Balm-leaved deadnettle (Lamium orvala ‘Album’), much loved by common carder bees and flowers much of the year in partial shade.

October

The only problem is that ‘nature’ has it’s own ideas and is running rampart across the site after all the rain and mild autumn. So when we returned to the site in October, the first thing we had to do was clear about 20 buddleia suckers and brambles. We want a site rich in biodiversity, in terms of plants and insects and birds, but because so much light is getting into the site since our clearance some of the ‘weeds’ are flourishing and threaten to take over and stop anything else growing.

We planted some more bee-friendly flowers and this time put stakes and string around them so when we return next time we can see if they have been swamped by other vegetation.

I’m loath to put landscaping material down to supress the so-called ‘weeds’ as some provide excellent bee food, such as dandelions. And nettles provide much-needed caterpillar food for butterflies in the spring.

We planted plug plants:

  • Big betony (Stachys hummelo) – a native perennial wildflowers with bright purple to red flowers that appear throughout the summer and into early autumn.
  • Lambs ear (Stachys byzantina) – the wool carder bees ‘carder’ the fluffy stuff from the underside of the leaves to line their nests. It likes drought. We don’t have a watering system, so a dry summer will be good for it, but winter may prove too cold and wet,
  • Winter savory (Satureja montana) – a dwarf shrubby herb that flowers in summer. Hope the soil doesn’t get too cold and wet for it to flourish.
  • Bastard balm (Melittis melissophyllum) – with a scientific name derived from the Greek for honeybees, I had to plant this to see which bees visit the pink carpet I hope it unfurls. The flower’s distinctive pink tongue acts as a landing guide to bees, directing them to the nectar deep inside. It prefers woodland, so I’ve tried to plant it in a shady spot. It’s not very common in the wild anymore.
  • Greater knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa) – a long-stalked hardy perennial, closely related to the thistle, attracts many species of butterfly, such as the Marbled White, Painted Lady and Green-veined White, as well as moths, bees and hoverflies when it flowers in summer. It prefers chalky grassland so may well struggle on London’s fertile clay soil.

And scattered Hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) seeds. An easy to grow tall late-flowering perennial that attracts bees in my garden so I hope some of the seeds take in the similar soil.