How to ID and help bees in April

Urban Bees has teamed up with amazing insect photographer, Penny Metal, to create a month-by-month visual guide to help spot the most common wild bees in our parks and gardens. (Honeybees are managed, so not included on this list.)

In April you are likely to see at least four species of bumblebee: buff-tailed, white-tailed, early and tree bumblebees.

How to ID them:

  • The large buff-tailed (Bombus terrestris) and white-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum) are our most common bumblebees. They look so similar (up to 16mm long) with their yellow stripes on black bodies. There is no easy way to tell them apart, but the buff-tailed stripes are a slightly more gold colour than the white-tailed and they have a narrow line of buff-coloured fur at the top of their tail.
  • The early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) is smaller (up to 14mm) and prettier with her fluffy yellow collar and orangey bottom.
  • 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 will have nested (most underground in old rodent holes, under paving slabs, garden sheds, or even in compost bins) 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
  3. Plant dead-nettles, clover, forget- me-nots, and rosemary from garden centres 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 bees, red mason bees, tawny mining bees, ashy mining bees 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) and wallflowers 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, her foxy-coloured coat against the green lawn she likes to burrow through leaving tiny volcano-looking mounds of soil in her wake.
  • 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. But don’t worry, solitary bees don’t sting and are short-lived (around 2 months)!
  • Gooden’s nomad bee (Nomada goodenianna). The wasp-like markings on this hairless bee give it away as 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 spot than the small, brown mining bees which are her host (the grey-patched, buffish and chocolate mining bees). But 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. Don’t worry about the nomad bees. If their host is healthy, they will be too.
  2. Leave old mortar untouched as hairy-footed flower bees may be nesting here.
  3. Install bee-hotels in a warm location at least a metre off the ground, 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 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.

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If you’d like more information on the life cycle of bees and how to help them, click here for bumblebees, here for solitary bees, and here for honey bees.

You can follow Urban Bees on Twitter @BeesintheCity and on Instagram alison_urbanbees

An easy month-by-month guide to help you spot bees

Urban Bees has teamed up with amazing insect photographer, Penny Metal, to create a month-by-month visual guide to help spot the most common bees in our parks and gardens.

By focusing on the most common bees foraging during each month, we hope to make it easier to ID them. (Bees fly on warm, dry, still days, so are unlikely to be seen when it’s cold, wet and windy.) We have picked the bees with the widest distribution across the UK, but some you may not spot until later in the month the further north you go, or not at all.

In March you could see four species of bumblebee:

  • The large buff-tailed (Bombus terrestris) and white-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum) are our most common bumblebee. They look so similar with their yellow stripes on black bodies. The large, 16mm queens are the ones flying this month. How can you tell them apart, especially as the buff coloured bottom soon fades? There is no easy way, but the buff-tailed stripes are a slightly more gold colour and a little less defined than the white-tailed.
  • The early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) queen is smaller (14mm) and prettier with her fluffy yellow collar and orangey bottom.
  • The tree bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) queen (14mm) has an intense ginger thorax and a white tail. Unlike other bumblebees, she lives high up in holes in trees and walls, even colonising bird boxes when the chicks have fledged.

The queen bumblebees have just found a place to nest (most underground in old rodent holes) and lay their eggs, and are out collecting nectar and pollen to take home to their developing colony of workers.

Three solitary bees:

  • Hairy-footed flower bees (Anthophora plumipes) are often mistaken for bumblebees because of their round, fluffy appearance, but they live alone (not in colonies). The brown, male hairy-footed flower bees emerge a few weeks before the females. They visit pulmonaria and other flowers with bell-shaped flowers sucking up the nectar with their long, straw-like tongues (proboscis) to build up their energy for mating when the females appear.
  • Male red mason bees usually emerge toward the end of the month to feed on blossoming fruit trees and shrubs. (But if it’s unseasonably warm and the trees flower early they too will appear.) If you have a bee hotel you may see these cavity nesting bees checking out of the mud-plugged tubes. They are a little smaller (12mm) than a honey bee (14mm), more gingery and have a rounder bottom.
  • Gwynne’s mining bee (Andrena bicolor) is a bit harder to spot, being 6-8mm, but look down and you may see them burrowing through soil on south-facing banks. Although solitary, they nest next door to each other underground in aggregations, so hundreds could emerge at the same time. But don’t worry, solitary bees don’t sting! The female has a reddish-brown pile on the top of her thorax and hairy pollen brushes on her back legs .

The honey bee (Apis mellifera) workers (14mm) leave the hive when its 13c. Shaped like a wasp, they have black and amber stripes. Look up and you will see them high up on fruit trees, pussy willows and hazel and alder collecting nectar and pollen to take home to feed their queen and thousands of hungry larvae that will develop into workers and drones.

Many people confuse the bee-fly (Bombylius major) for a bee (which is why we’ve included it). Not surprising, because it’s a great mimic – round and fluffy like a small bumblebee. It’s very visible in the spring, hovering around green alkanet. The easiest way to tell it apart from a bee is it’s long, spindly legs, hovering action, and two wings (bees have four wings) which stick out at a 45c angle.

If you’d like more information on the life cycle of bees and how to help them, click here for bumblebees, here for solitary bees, and here for honey bees.

You can follow Urban Bees on Twitter @BeesintheCity and on Instagram alison_urbanbees

February; a month of two halves

Snow at the start of the month melted to reveal crocuses beneath, and glorious warm, sunny days at the end saw early-flowering fruit trees erupt in blossom.

Honeybees were locked down in their snow-topped hives early on. One big family, eating honey to stay alive and shivering close together to keep their home a toasty 35 C. Bumblebee queens were for the most part staying in small holes beneath ground keeping warm, or yet to wake-up from their winter inertia. Once the crocuses and snowdrops appeared and the temperature rose, buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) queens were spotted supping on nectar.

With the unseasonably warm end to month, some cherry and plum trees blossomed early leading to sightings of bees usually not yet out. The tree-bumblebee, (Bombus hypnorum) the brown, male hairy-footed flower bee, (Anthophora plumipes) the early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) and even the male red mason bee (Osmia bicornus) were all spotted as they emerged to take advantage of the early banquet of nectar and pollen.

Early bee food

Eye-catching catkins seem to be everywhere now, red ones dripping from Red Alder trees, and more common golden pendants hanging off Hazels and Alders in parks and gardens. They stand out against the brown branches and remind us that spring is on the way, and with it the emergence of early flying bee species. Although these trees are wind pollinated, the catkins are made up of pollen grains full of protein which bees desperately need to feed their young at the beginning of the season. So before long we should see bees on the catkins.

I’ve already spotted buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) queens in among the undergrowth of bushes and hellebores hunting for a good place to nest and lay their eggs. They are mainly feeding at this time of year on the bright yellow Mahonia aquifolium, white Winter honeysuckle and a whole variety of coloured and pale cream hellebores.

Not everyone has space for a tree in their garden or backyard, but try and find somewhere to plant these early flowering forage plants for bees. The Mahonia and hellebores even do well in shady spots.

Bees before Christmas

On a mild day in December you are likely to see bees on the bright yellow flowers of Mahonia aquifolium. On the left is a honey bee, out foraging for nectar. She spends most of the winter huddled in the hive with the rest of the colony keeping warm and feeding off the honey they made during the summer. But, like squirrels, they don’t hibernate and the worker bees will fly on warmer days in search of a sugary, energy drink.

I spotted a number of buff-tailed bumblebees on the same winter-flowering shrubs (pictured middle). Can you see the large blobs of orange pollen? She has scraped the pollen grains onto her back legs and into her pollen baskets to take home to her nest. Most bumblebee colonies die off during the winter. Only the queen survives and finds herself a warm, dry hole where she lives through the cold weather in a dormant state and emerges in the spring to start a new family. But it’s not uncommon now in the south of England, with our increasing mild winters, for buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) queens to be laying eggs all year, and workers to be out collecting pollen to feed the young.

The Red Mason Bees (Osmia bicornis) that checked into the bee hotels under the eaves of our garden shed in May, aren’t around anymore. Like most insects, these solitary bees only live for a few months in the spring or summer. But their offspring are overwintering in a cocoon they have made (like a chrysalis). The cocoons are in the bee hotel tubes sealed with mud (pictured right). We’ve put these tubes in the shed to keep them dry until spring arrives.

The best way to help bees in winter

  1. Plant trees, shrubs and flowers that will provide nectar and pollen at this time of year such as winter-flowering cherry, Mahonia and Viburnum tinus.
  2. Plant bulbs such as crocus and alliums that will feed bees next spring and summer.
  3. Don’t sweep away piles of old leaves. Bumblebee queens may be laying dormant here.
  4. If you have a bee hotel, bring it in somewhere cold and dry, such as a garden shed, to prevent the cocoons getting damp and mouldy.
  5. If you see a bee on the ground, unable to fly give it a sugar water drink on the tip of your finger. It will suck up this energy drink with it’s straw-like ‘tongue’ , called a proboscis, and then can hopefully power up its muscles to fly away home.

Bee-friendly makeover

City office, managed by Savills – providing forage from spring to autumn

One of the joys of summer 2020 has been tending to the bee-friendly planters we installed last year on One Carter Lane, an office building managed by Savills, which is stone’s throw from St Paul’s. The idea was to create year-round bee forage in the deep, narrow planters that had previously been filled with non-flowering evergreen shrubs. We emptied the planters, filled them with new top soil and lecca and planted crocus bulbs, wallflowers and rosemary for the spring; a crab apple for early summer blossom; nepetas, calamint, Geranium rozanne and achilleas for mid summer: and salvia, sedum, echinacea and hebes for late summer. The conditions were dry and exposed and very sunny, so we had t chose the right bee-friendly flowers for the location and the seasons.

And the bees have come. There are hives on the roof, so some honeybees have been on the geraniums, nepeta and the blossom, but we’ve also had wild bees visiting, including the solitary hairy-footed flower bee (below), the buff-tailed bumblebee and the common carder bee (bottom photo). Most of the bees I’ve failed to photograph, but I did capture a couple here.

Hairy-footed flower bee flying to the Nepeta with her long tongue (proboscis) extended

Here’s a common carder bee also feeding on the Nepeta in mid summer. Her long tongue allows her to get right to the base of the flower to sup up it’s sugary drink.

The planters are still providing a colourful display of flowers right through September – and late pollen and nectar for the bees.

KPMG bee hives

KPMG is our longest corporate partner. We have had hives on their office in Canary Wharf since 2015. During the summer, each week a small group of staff are usually invited to ‘meet the bees’ session in their lunch hour. They are each given a bee suit to wear and Brian shows them the workings of a hive.

More than 200 staff have met the bees and there will be a long waiting list when things get back to ‘normal’. Many more have attended workshops and talks we have given over the years about the role of bees in pollinating our food, the ecosystem services they provide and the threats they face from intensive agriculture and urban development. Our message is that business needs to work with nature to help bees, humankind and the planet.

KPMG sponsored Plants for Bees and Trees for Bees leaflets and packets of wild seeds to give away to their employees and clients.

Staff have also helped with the honey harvest each year from the hives. And jars of the delicious honey are sold with proceeds going to the company charity.

Through our relationship with KPMG, we have advised Canary Wharf Management on how to improve planting and nesting sites in the Wharf for bees. They were receptive to planting more holly bushes, which are good for security, but also provide nectar and pollen in May when their small, white flowers appear. Their leaves are also an important food source for the caterpillar of the Holly Blue butterfly.

And CWM introduced us to Willerby Landscapes who managed a large green roof on the Wharf where some of the plants was struggling with the extremely exposed conditions. We suggested some tougher plants that are good for bees.

Bees and lockdown

It’s been a challenging spring for all of us, but a fantastic one for the bees. They’ve been able to take advantage of the lengthening days, blossoming trees, and warmer than average temperatures to get out and collect food.

Spring is always a crucial time for bees. Honeybees emerge from the hive after winter and need to forage for nectar and pollen to take back to the hive to feed the young. The queen bee is busying laying eggs and these hatch into hungry larvae. Queen bumblebees also emerge from their temporary winter residencies to find a new home where they will lay stores of food and rear a new colony. And a new generation of solitary bees are born. One of the most common in urban gardens, the Red mason bees (Osmia bicornis), usually appear from the bee hotels we’ve erected on the south-facing side of our garden shed at the end of April, or early May. But this year, there was frenzied activity around the entrance of the hotels weeks earlier. The male bees, which check-out first, were buzzing expectantly around the hotels waiting for the females to be born so they could pounce on them and mate. She then finds clean, vacant ‘rooms’ in a hotel and spends the next 6 weeks filling them with eggs and pollen she collects from nearby flowers, often a blossoming apple tree.

Other than a few rainy, blustery days, it’s been perfect for bee spotting. And with lockdown, there has never been a better time to observe the natural world right under our noses. While we have had to adapt to a ‘new normal’, nature has been continuing apace. And many of us have been able to take some comfort in trees coming into leaf, bees buzzing and the joyful sound of bird song, often shut out in cities by the noise of road traffic and planes.

Planting Comfrey in a new flower bed near to the house means that we have attracted many more Hairy-footed flower bees (Anthophora plumipes) to the garden this spring. So we’ve had the pleasure of watching the females with their furry black bodies and outstretched proboscis (straw like tongue) darting between the purple bell-flowers sucking up the nectar, with pollen on their back legs. They really are the most adorable bee, and so distinctive; perfect for any beginner bee-spotter to identify. Just plant the Comfrey and they will come.

The other flowers that are attracting most bees in the garden just now are all considered weeds – Alkanet, Forget-me-nots, and White dead nettles. Will the Alliums and honeysuckle lure them away , when they are in full bloom (any day now)?

Over the next few weeks, the role of the beekeeper is vital to ensure the honeybee colonies are strong and healthy. They will visit hives weekly to inspect the colonies. The bees may need feeding if the weather turns bad, or extra storage space if the weather is fine to store the nectar they are collecting to turn into honey – their winter food. Beekeepers may also need to undertake swarm management to prevent bees swarming in the city environment. For this reason, beekeepers are allowed to undertake this crucial work during lockdown.

For the rest of us, we can take enjoyment in observing different bees in our gardens or in the parks and streets where we are taking our daily exercise. For help with ID, try the fantastic Field Studies Council ID chart , the great photos in Penny Metal’s book, Insectinside or Steven Falk’s comprehensive, Field Guide the the Bees of Britain.

Happy bee spotting!

Urban Bees in 2019

The year kicked off with Urban Bees collaborating with artist Mike Bianco to bring his Hivecubator to the Science Gallery in London. The sculpture project is designed to harness the heat created by bees in a hive to grow human tissue culture in a dish. Urban Bees supplied the bees and ensured they weren’t harmed and could get in and out of the gallery through a tube at the back of he structure that led to the outdoors. The survival of the human cells is determined by the health of the bee colony highlighting a fragile collaboration between humans and bees that has existed for thousands of years.

In May, our latest bee book was published. The Good Bee: A celebration of bees and how to save them. We hope the beautiful design and illustrations, easy to read format and fascinating facts will introduce many new readers to the wonders of solitary bees and encourage more people to look our for them. “Enthralling and enlightening,” was how one reviewer described it. We so enjoyed being able to research these amazing bees and share our knowledge. Thanks to publisher, Michael O’Mara for giving us his opportunity. By the end of the year, The Good Bee was a bestseller on Amazon.

The summer brought Urban Bees new contracts, including one with Savills where we transformed a sad looking roof space into a year-round bee-friendly haven by filling a dozen planters with a variety of bulbs, perennials, shrubs and herbs. It didn’t take long for carder bees and buff-tailed bumblebees to find this new source of food in the city of London.

Meanwhile those nice people at Lush made a Bee Movie of the work we’ve been doing transforming their roof into a bed and breakfast for bees, with food and habitat for solitary bees. And the Sunday Telegraph paid a visit to the Lush roof and wrote a lovely article showing readers how to help solitary bees. Radio 4 Today presenter and bee lover, Martha Kearney, dropped in to our back garden to record an item on helping solitary bees in the inner-city.

But it will take more than making towns and cities bee-friendly to save nature’s master pollinators. Transforming farming is essential. So we were delighted to be invited to give a talk at the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development on the importance of pollinators to farming. In addition Urban Bees ‘meet the bee’ sessions at clients KPMG and Coutts Bank may be helping to influence the leaders of tomorrow.

It was another good year for Regents Park honey, although it got off to a slow start. After the harvest, we hosted a cheese and honey tasting event for one of our most loyal clients, La Fromagerie. After visiting the hives and learning how the bees make honey, the participants came to our storeroom where tables were laid with delicious cheeses and honeys that complemented each other. It was a memorable event and one we hope to repeat.

As 2019 draws to a close we look forward to working with new and existing clients in the coming year and to contribute in our own very small way to help pollinators and people on the planet.

Lush HQ rooftop, Soho

Transforming a rooftop into a bed & breakfast for bees

Watch the Lush video here

On a freezing cold day in February, 2018, Urban Bees installed more than 20 hexagonal wooden planters on the London HQ of cosmetics company, Lush, in Soho.

Winter-flowering Mahonia, heathers and hellebores provided immediate bee food, and we also planted lots of perennials and shrubs that would flower in spring and summer, along with a Malus Evereste (Crab Apple) tree.  

By late spring, the tree was in full blossom. We attached bee hotels to it to provide tubes for cavity-nesting solitary bees like Red Mason bees (Osmia bicornis) to lay their eggs in. By the end of summer tubes were sealed with mud, proof that the bees had checked-in to the hotels and laid their eggs.  

We chose hardy, bee-friendly plants that can cope with exposed, dry conditions but an outside tap was fitted with an expandable hose so that staff were able to water every day throughout the summer heatwave which lasted from June right through to August.

We added a few hanging baskets and a bee pond (a shallow tray of water full of stones that the bees can stand on when having a drink).

The trick is trying to get a range of different bee-friendly plants flowering throughout the year. And where there is bee food, there are bees. We saw honeybees, bumblebees and a variety of solitary bees.

Staff used the terrace a lot during the summer as somewhere to hang out and have lunch (when it wasn’t so hot). They loved seeing and hearing the bees buzzing around. The bees didn’t come too close. They made a bee-line for the flowers.

In the autumn, we planted hundreds of crocus bulbs to provide much-needed spring pollen and nectar for early flying bumblebees.

In May 2019, a journalist from the Sunday Telegraph paid a visit to the transformed Lush roof and wrote a lovely article showing readers how to help solitary bees.

The Good Bee Bee Blog Tour

Our book has just finished a national blog tour, which is when bloggers who have requested a review copy of the book post a review of it on their websites for all their followers to read. It’s been very exciting and the response has been fantastic. We thought we’d share some snippets with you:

“Enthralling and enlightening, The Good Bee, will bring you right up to date on the peril our pollinators are in and give you the tools to help them”, Emma Cooper, The Unconventional Gardener

“This beautifully written, illustrated and presented hardcover book will be a pleasure not only to read, but to give to a friend or loved one.  Even if they are not curious about bees now, they may be surprised.  It could be the beginning of a new-found fascination – and love!  In short, it’s a wonderful book, and I heartily recommended it.” Amanda at Buzz About Bees

Alison and Brian’s book The Good Bee is one of the best wildlife books I’ve read for a while – packed with information, beautiful to look at and the perfect gift for any nature lover. Check it out for fascinating facts on the social life of bees, their ingenious communication systems, links with humans, favourite flowers and more!” Lucy, Quest for Nectar

“To be honest, I had no idea there were so many types of bee…. An enjoyable and entertaining read… Recommended.” Richard Carter, The Friends of Charles Darwin

“I was quite impressed with the amount of detailed information packed into this little book … it goes into fascinating detail about the life histories of solitary bees and bumblebees. Yet it manages not to be overwhelming and reads more like a bee-focused episode of the BBC’s quiz show QI, with less of the scientific jargon and more of the wow-factor.” Elliot, Wildlife and Words

“In this charming little book, Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum, take us on a journey in the world of the bee. Most importantly there are details on what you can do to help them. It is a timely book, as it is slowly dawning on people that we need to look after the whole ecosystem because of the interconnected links between things. “Halfman, Halfbook

“The Good Bee is an excellent place to start if you know absolutely nothing about bees, or even if you know a little bit (that’s me!) and would like to know where to go next in your bee-journey. It’s very enjoyable journey – A WAGGLEDANCE OF WORDS, showing us the ways of these amazing creatures, and how we can help them in their hour of need.” Fi, Make Walk Read

“Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum have written the most wonderful book on the subject of bees. With superb illustrations from James Nunn we embark on a journey into the private life of the bee,” John, The Last Word Book Review

YOU CAN ORDER A COPY OF THE GOOD BEE HERE

The Good Bee: A Celebration of Bees and How to Save Them

Our new book is out today, with beautiful illustrations of some of the amazing bee species we spent the winter researching and writing about, from the world’s largest bumblebee, the giant golden bumblebee (Bombus dahlbombii) in Patagonia – dubbed the flying mouse –  to the most northerly bumblebee (Bombus polaris) which sunbathes in Arctic poppies.

Nearer to home, we learned about the solitary bees living in our garden, including the delightfully named hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes). The furry black females are easy to spot in February and March darting among the lungwort and comfrey with their tongue sticking out in search of food. In April, red mason bees (Osmia bicornis) emerge from our bee hotels perfectly timed with the blossoming of the apple tree. Leafcutter bees (Megachile centuncularis) follow later in the summer flying through the air with a rose leaf clasped between their legs like a witch on a broom.

And we discovered a whole world of tiny black solitary bees, from the small scissor bees (Chelostoma campanularum) on our campanulas to the resin bees (Heriades truncorum)  nesting in holes drilled into wood and the furrow bees (Lasioglossum calceatum) on our Geranium rozanne (the best flower for solitary bees, research shows).

We wanted to share our infectious fascination and awe for bees by highlighting their vital role as a lynchpin in the working of our planet and their relationship with us throughout history.  We hope in doing so that people fall in love with nature’s wizards. But their existence is increasingly threatened.  So the book also sets out simple steps we can all take to help bees,  and explains how we need to make our countryside and our cities havens for bees to help not just their survival, but ours too.

Urban Bees in 2018

It’s been another exciting year for Urban Bees. Here’s our highlights:

Lush’s bee-friendly roof terrace

On a freezing day in February Urban Bees started to create a bee-friendly roof terrace for Lush cosmetics’ head office in Soho. Not ideal gardening conditions, but we installed more than 20 hexagonal wooden planters lugged up all the soil and planted a Malus Evereste (Crab Apple) tree, some shrubs including Mahonia, winter-flowering heathers and some beautiful Hellebores. We’ve never gardened in skiing gloves before…but there’s always a first time for everything. And Lush were very keen to get the garden established for spring/summer 2018.  Despite the Beast from the East Arctic conditions, by Marsh bumblebees had already been spotted on milder days out the heathers collecting early pollen. Yippee!

By late spring the terrace is starting to flower with sky blue Mytosis (Forget-me-nots), stunning white Allium Cowanii and the Malus Evereste (Crab Apple) in full blossom being pollinated by honeybees. We attached bee hotels to the crab apple tree to provide tubes for cavity-nesting solitary bees like Red Mason bees (Osmia bicornis) to lay their eggs in. By the end of summer tubes were sealed with mud, proof that they had been used.

We chose hardy plants that can cope with exposed, dry conditions but luckily an outside tap was finally fitted to which we attached an expandable hose. This meant staff were able to water every day throughout the heatwave which lasted from June right through to August.

We added a few hanging baskets (containing RosyBee’s wonderful selection of bee-friendly flowers for pots), plus some trailing mini Strawberries, a bee pond (a shallow tray of water full of stones that the bees can stand on when having a drink) and summer perennials. The trick is trying to get a range of different bee-friendly plants flowering throughout the year, which we more or less managed. And where there is bee food, there are bees. We saw honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees.

Staff used the terrace a lot during the summer as somewhere to hang out and have lunch (when it wasn’t so hot). They loved seeing and hearing the bees buzzing around. Next year we hope to talk to them about the bees and maybe get an ID project going.

We ended the year planted hundreds of crocus bulbs that will provide much-needed early pollen and nectar for early flying bumblebees in spring 2019. Can’t wait to see them all. During the year, Lush were filming the roof’s transformation from a bee desert to a bee restaurant, so hopefully it will be ready to view soon.

Solitary bees at RHS Chelsea Flower Show

We teamed up with River for Flowers to create a solitary bee garden in the education zone of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2018. It was a fantastic opportunity to educate the public about how to create wildflower meadows and living walls for solitary bees and create nesting sites in a small urban space. We had a special bee box created by Nuturing Nature which allows visitors to see the stages of a solitary bees; development in the nest. We produced tote bags, postcards and leaflets to give away. Our brilliant garden designers, Kerrie McKinnon and Gabrielle Shay, won a much deserved silver medal and we had lots of visitors including Joanna Lumley, the BBC’s Martha Kearney, the gardening writer Alys Fowler and bee campaigner Samantha Roddick. Thanks to River of Flower’s Kathryn Lwin for her vision, project management and sheer brilliance to make it all happen. The living wall was installed on the Middlesex University Campus and planters went to brighten up a Royal Free hospital terrace.

Honeybees

We continued to work with clients including KMPG, Canada House and Amazon. And following the success of the hives on the Skyline garden at Coutts we began fortnightly  ‘meet the bee’ sessions for staff during the summer.

In 2019, we will be working with a number of new companies and raising awareness about the importance of making our cities better for all types of bees.

Regents Park Honey

We had a bumper crop of honey this year from our apiaries in Regents Park following an extremely long, dry, hot summer which allowed the bees to get out and forage for longer than usual. In addition to the abundance of nectar the bees traditionally collect from the park’s lime trees in June, we think this year the avenues of tulip trees were also in full flower, adding to the nectar flow and giving the honey a delicious deeper flavour than previous years.

We also teamed up with the RAC to run our first Regents Park bee experience in September.  Adapting our successful bee experience in King’s Cross, we introduced 20 members of the RAC to the different bees in the royal park and the flowers they feed on, got the visitors into bee suits and opened up a hive, and ended the tour with a honey tasting session in our storeroom. We hope to run more experiences in 2019.

KXBeetrail

The award-winning Honey Club King’s Cross Bee Trail App ran through the school summer holidays again. We were disappointed not to get any new partners on board. The King’s Cross development has hugely expanded since the App was launched four years ago, so now it covers just a small part of the site. We need new partners in 2019 with the technical expertise and know how to expand the App.

EU Pollinator Strategy

In March, we traveled to Brussels to impart some of our experience of raising awareness about bees in urban environments with policy makers, NGOs and academics across Europe as part of a consultation exercise to devise an EU-wide pollinator strategy. We met lots of interesting people doing some amazing projects. And an EU pollinator initiative was launched in June.

Special thanks to RosyBee for only growing and selling bee-friendly plug plants and researching which are the different bees’ favourites.  

Trees 4 Bees flowering early

 

Limes (Tilia europaea) , sweet chestnuts (Castanea sativa) and the glorious Indian Bean Tree (Catalpa bignonioides) all produce bounteous amounts of nectar during the summer for bees to turn into honey in our towns and cities. Mature lime trees, in particular, which have been planted in huge numbers in London parks and streets, with their tiny white flowers, are the main source of honey for the capital’s honeybees, producing a delicious light honey.

This summer, with the extreme heat and drought conditions the trees have all flowered much earlier than usual. The limes were out by mid June, if not earlier in some locations. Sweet chestnuts, to my surprise where not long behind, with their dramatic spindly, long white flowers blooming by the end of the month. And I nearly fell of my bike on the 26 June when the magnificent Indian Bee Tree that I pass on my way to work every day was in its full glory – displaying its enormous white blooms which usually don’t appear until early August!!! You don’t see many of them in London, but they usually stand out in late summer with their eye-catching display when other trees have long-finished flowering.

But not this year, coming out at a similar time as the others.  Is this because they are stressed by the lack of rain and need to flower quickly to produce seed? As the name of the Indian Bean Tree suggests, its seeds are contained in long bean pods which hang from the tree after it’s flowers have been pollinated.

Whatever the reason for the early show of flowers, it unfortunately means the Urban Bees Trees for Bees guide is hopelessly out this year with the month the trees are flowering. More concerning, it means that there won’t be any late summer forage for bees if the trees have all flowered by July.

EU Pollinators initiative

Urban Bees went to Brussels last month to take part in a consultation workshop on the EU’s proposed initiative for pollinators. With a reported dramatic decline in insects leading to warnings of ‘ecological Armageddon’ any initiative can’t come soon enough.

Our session – attended by NGOs, academics and policy makers – looked at how to best protect pollinators in urban areas. We introduced participants to our educational work in London, where we are raising awareness about the importance of improving forage and habitat for all bees and other pollinators through ‘meet the honeybee’ lunchtime classes, bee spotter sessions and our King’s Cross Bee App.

We suggested the best approach the EU could take would be to:

  • regulate that all new developments in cities must be pollinator-friendly with living roofs and parks and green spaces that are good for pollinators as well as for people
  • ban the sale and use of pesticides and weed killers.

Policy makers made it clear that the EU can’t legislate on city developments as this is up to individual member states. They also said the EU doesn’t ban things, which seemed odd as they are about to introduce a field ban neonicotinoids across the EU.

Ten years ago, when honeybees started to vanish in alarming numbers in the US mainly due to what was dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder, any pesticide ban was completely unthinkable. Pesticides were dismissed by most scientist and politicians as having little to do with the problem. Conveniently for the manufacturers no independent testing was done at that time, and the public was unaware of all of this.  But that soon changed.  The mobilisation of millions of concerned people across the globe, together with the potentially huge economic impact of bee losses on the food supply, led governments to invest in independent research and take the protection of bees – honeybees in particular – seriously.  A temporary ban on neonics followed in 2013 after plenty of research showing they were part of the problem and pressure on politicians from NGOs from Friends of the Earth to 38 Degrees, and their millions of members to ‘save the bees’.  Now it’s even clearer that they are a major problem for bees’ health a total field ban looks likely.

So the moral of the story is to exert pressure and don’t give up until the politicians start to listen.

Other good suggestions to come out of the workshop included introducing:

  • an EU award like the Blue Flag scheme for clean beaches for pollinator-friendly spaces
  • a kitemark like FairTrade for food manufacturers and their suppliers that support pollinators.

To have your say on the public consultation on the EU initiative for pollinators which ends on Thursday 5 April.

The Honey Club’s KX Bee Trail App

Urban Bees founded the Honey Club in King’s Cross, with youth charity, Global Generation, and brand agency, Wolff Olins, in order to bring young people and businesses together on the new development through bee-related events, from cooking with local honey to planting for bees.  

Out of this partnership grew the King’s Cross Bee Trail App, using new technology to introduce visitors and people who’d just moved to the area for work or to live to an exciting new part of London.

Users of the App followed a trail. At each stop they discovered fascinating facts about bees and how to help them. At some stops they became citizen scientists IDing and counting the bees they saw, the results of which were shared with Greenspace Information for Greater London. After completing a count, the App unlocked vouchers to use in participating cafes and restaurants.

In 2017, the App won a Defra Bees’ Needs Award  for raising awareness about bees and pollination.  

Thanks to everyone who made it happen, especially Nicole at Global Generation, Des Smith at Willbery Landscapes and Penny Metal, bee photographer extraordinaire.

Since then, Wolff Olins, Global Generation and Urban Bees have moved out of the King’s Cross development and the partnership disbanded.

Urban Bees in 2017

Here’s my brief look back at the year’s highlights for Urban Bees.

Airbnb Bee Tour

While the honey bees were still tucked up in their hives during winter, people were coming on the Airbnb bee tour of King’s Cross, getting to exploring London Wildlife Trust’s Camley Street Nature Park and the Skip Garden and to taste delicious honeys from across the capital.

Their numbers increased throughout the year, with more than 100 in total enjoying the tour from all over the globe, as far as Australia and China to much closer to home in London. Time Out even made a short film.  With an average 4.9 satisfaction rating (out of 5), everyone had a fantastic time and it was great for us to be able to spread the word about how to help all bees in urban environments across the world.

Bumblebees and solitary bees

With the arrival of spring we ensured the Savills planters on a roof at 111 Buckingham Palace Road were full of early flowering crocuses, wallflowers, primroses and heathers for any queen bumblebees venturing out on mild days in search of food.

We also looked out solitary bees, with managed bee hotels on the Savills roof and on the Weils roof terrace off Fleet Street. And we ran a DIY bee hotel workshop for pupils at Friars Primary School in Southwark where Weils’ staff volunteer. The 30 plus pupils also got to learn how to identify bees using our bee spotter guide on the terrace.

The Museum of London also hosted an Urban Bees bee hotel workshop as part of its sustainable cities festival.

Honeybees

We continued to work with clients such as Grosvenor estates and Canada House, where we introduced beekeeping to the new high commissioner’s husband. Other existing clients, included KPMG in Canary Wharf, where our weekly ‘meet the bee’ sessions for staff during the summer continue to be oversubscribed. For those who didn’t get a peek at the hives this year we ran some very popular lunch ‘n’ learn sessions about bees and forage and gave away wild flower seeds and Urban Bees leaflets on the best forage to plant for bees.

Among our exciting new clients were Coutts the bank who asked us to install and maintain a number of hives on its amazing Skyline garden above the Strand where executive chef, Peter Fiori has been growing exotic fruits and vegetables for a few years.  Now many of those plants will be pollinated by their own bees which are also producing exclusive honey for the bank’s executive restaurant.

We will be working with a number of new companies in 2018, raising awareness about the importance of making our cities more bee-friendly.

KXBeetrail

One of the most exciting events of the year, was recognition for The Honey Club King’s Cross Bee Trail App. Now in its third year, the App won a Defra Bees’ Needs Award for raising awareness about bees and pollination.  What was particularly gratifying about being nominated by our peers and winning the government award in 2017 was that it had been challenging to adapt and relaunch the App this year. The App designers, Wolff Olins,had moved from King’s Cross at the end of 2016 and so it was left to the remaining two members of the Honey Club (youth charity, Global Generation, and Urban Bees) to continue the work with little experience of designing and building Apps.  After many hiccups along the way, it was eventually launched just in time for the summer holidays and was loved by everyone who downloaded it and got to count bees, explored the area, and got money off at participating restaurants and cafes along the way. Thanks again to everyone who made it happen, especially Nicole at Global Generation, Des Smith at Willbery Landscapes and Penny Metal, bee photographer extraordinaire (all pictured above).

Other pollinators

Urban Bees was delighted to be able to support Penny’s amazing book, Insectinside – incredible photographs and wry observations of the hundreds of insect species in her local park.

Bees in winter

I’ve not known a whole month like January when woke up to a carpet of hard frost in the back garden every day and had to put on five layers, including leggings under my jeans and two pairs of socks to cycle the 20 mins to work in central London! The temperature has hovered around 5 C. So did the bees cope? Well actually this is better for them, than a mild winter when they’re out flying and using up their energy reserves. Honeybees huddle in their hive, keeping it nice and toasty by using their bodies and wings to create a shivering sensation that heats them and their home. (Rather like penguins on the ice). The cluster of some 10,000 worker bees and their queen will eat the honey left by the beekeeper. That’s fine if they’ve enough stores and it’s easy to get to it. Problems can occur if it’s a mild winter when they need to eat more honey to fuel their flights outside the hive looking for the very few plants that are flowering.

FEEDING HONEYBEES FONDANT

Given the mild December, many beekeepers (even the ones like us that left each hive a super of honey) were out by mid January putting some bakers’ fondant on the top of their hives for the bees to eat if they were hungry.

For bumblebees, the cold weather is also good. Only the queen is alive at this time of year and she’ll be tucked away in a nest – probably an old mouse hole, or a compost bin, or under a pile of untouched leaves – ready to come out when it gets warmer. As long as she’s not disturbed, she’ll be just fine.

As for the cavity-nesting solitary bees that lay their eggs in hollow stems, or our man-made bee hotels, their babies spend the winter in a cosy cocoon before they emerge in the spring as adult bees. Here there’s just one tube in this cylindrical bee hotel that contains eggs. It’s the one you can see that has been sealed with mud.

 

 

FEEDING BEES EARLY POLLEN AND NECTAR

We can’t feed wild bees during the winter, but what we can do is think about how to feed them when they start flying by planting early forage, like this Sweet Box (Sarcococca), which smells devine and was covered in honeybees foraging for pollen and nectar _ in preference to the Fondant – when the sun came out on Friday.

DIY Bee Hotel

Now’s the ideal time to make a bee hotel for solitary bees. Wooden bee hotels are easy to make if you’re good with a saw and nails (which I’m not). You can also buy them in garden centres. avis But it’s easy to make a more simple type of bee hotel with an old water bottle.

There are more than 200 different species of solitary bees. All are vital pollinators. Many are cavity nesting, so they need dark holes in which to lay their eggs in the spring onwards. They nest alone, but often next door to each. They rarely sting. Red mason bees (Osmia bicornis), blue mason bees (Osmia caerulescens) and Leafcutter bees (Megachile centuncularis) are the most common solitary bees you’ll be helping by putting up a bee hotel.

For our simple bee hotel, you’ll need String, or garden twine; a plastic drinks bottle; bamboo tubes between 4mm to 10mm, but mainly 7-8mm in diameter; a scalpel; a small hack saw if you’re going to cut the bamboo (You can buy it pre-cut here). It takes a long time to saw 50 pieces of bamboo!

How to make your solitary bee hotel Cut off the neck off the bottle with the scalpel so it measures about 16cm long. Make two small holes equal distance apart along the length of the plastic bottle. Thread the twine through allowing enough length to make a loop for hanging up. If you are cutting the bamboo, use a hack saw and cut to 15 cm. Avoid any nodules. Make sure the bamboo canes are hollow throughout including both ends.

Tightly pack your 15 cm tubes into the plastic bottle (you want them to be protected from the rain so ensure they’re not sticking out), so that they don’t fall out. You many need to push some smaller twigs or plant stems in between the tubes to wedge them in.

Where to locate your bee hotel A warm wall (south or south west facing), sheltered from the wind, 1 metre or more, off the ground. You don’t want the hotels to be shaded by overhanging trees or other vegetation, or to sway around. Suspend it with a slight tilt so the rain runs off the bottle and not into the open tubes. I’ve wedged this one into some trellis and attached the twine to a branch above.

 

We also use ready-made cylindrical bee hotels, which come with cardboard tubes lined with paper. Here, we have attached a number under the eaves of our south facing garden shed. We’ve also located them on corporate roof terraces alongside bee-friendly flowers.

When to put it up End of March or early April, then you will hopefully attract solitary bees that are newly emerged, have mated and are looking for somewhere to lay their eggs, like this one in the photo.

Bed and Breakfast Solitary bees are more likely to check-in to your hotel if there’s also food and drink. So ensure you grow some of the following plants in spring/early summer:

  • forget-me-not (Mysotis)
  • wallflowers (Erisymum)
  • green alkanet (Pentaglottis)
  • Pieris japonica
  • Culinary herbs including rosemary, thyme, oregano, horehound (Marrubium vulgare)
  • Cranesbill geraniums, such as Rozanne.
  • Bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) and St John’s Wort (Hypericum) and roses, for leafcutter bees which like to cut discs from their leaves of roses to make their nests.

You also need to leave some bare areas of soil, as red and blue mason bees will use this to make the nest, and a regularly topped up saucer/basin of water with stones in it that the bees can balance on while taking a drink. Bees can’t swim.

How do I know if my bee hotel is being used? When bees have laid their eggs in a tube, they will seal it with either mud or leaves. These tubes can be left out over winter and new bees should emerge the following spring. Looks like only one room in this bee hotel has been occupied so far.

Be patient. It may take some time for bees to know the bee hotel is there. The more bee-friendly flowers you grow the more likely you are to attract them.

Hopefully next spring you may see solitary bees emerging through the sealed mud like this little fellow.

2017 – Bee London

January is always a good time of year to look back at what Urban Bees has been doing over the last 12 months and to anticipate the coming spring.

So, looking back to 2016, there were three main themes to our work:

  • raising awareness about bees and forage through lunch ‘n’ learn workshops, talks with beekeeper friends at Kew Gardens in the amazing Hive installation, and expanding the King’s Cross Honey Club bee trail App (see the launch video here) which got lots of publicity as far a field as China
  • maintaining bee hives for a number of clients and running ‘meet the bee’ sessions for staff
  • maintaining solitary bee hotels and forage for bees and clients. And advising clients on bee forage throughout the year that’s suitable for their locations, from roof terraces to window boxes. This involves ongoing research for our Trees for Bees and Plants for Bees and other pollinators guides and trials of flowers, shrubs and trees that produce lots of nectar and pollen and are hardy, long-flowering, drought resistant and like exposed conditions.

Looking forward to this spring, we’re going to be working with more clients in 2017 to share our knowledge, advising:

  • companies how to take steps to become more bee-friendly
  • and improving London’s green infrastructure so the city provides more food and shelter for bees and other pollinators.

As we said in our 2014 Tedx talk,