RHS Hampton Court highlights

I made a beeline for Gold medal winner Buglife’s B-Lines Garden to get some ideas for creating a small, urban bee paradise, including the attractive wooden bee towers. I also loved some of the tiny spaces designed by newly qualified garden designers, like Brian Bloodglut (pictured with me above) to demonstrate the scope of the Asteraceae family of flowering plants, including his Brian &the Blooms For the Birds garden. It’s amazing how many different Asteraceae he has crammed into such a tiny space. And the Flower Power Field below (right) was cool too, The Pollen Station in the Money Saving Garden was a reminder how important it is to vote for Nature in a General Election, which was the day after my visit.

I wasn’t the only one who loved the Making Sense Garden, above left. It won the People’s Choice Award for best Get Started Gardens.

Discovered a new flower in the Buglife garden – an African thistle (Berkheya purpurea) and I love the way that Kent Wildflower Seeds plant wildflowers, like Bird’s-foot trefoil and Clover, in pots we you would an ornamental plant.

Due to the dismal drizzle and cold, few bees were foraging on the lovely flower displays. However I did come across a lovely metal sculpture of a bumblebee, and some fun bees created by Manor Park primary school along with barrels filled with bee-friendly plants.

For all the information about the show winners, trends and plants here

Wool carder bee nesting in a park bench

Dr Konstantinos Tsiolis is searching for signs of Wool Carder bees (Anthidium manicatum) nesting in this park bench in Christchurch Greyfriars Garden, in the City of London, near to St Paul’s Cathedral.

The hunt was carried out in June 2024 during a pollinator survey for Pollinating London Together. Konstantinos had mentioned to me that he’d found the bees nesting there in 2022, so I suggested we see if they are still using it.

Wool carder bees like to nest in cavities in wood, so it makes sense that in an urban environment they would look for an existing hole in manmade wooden structures like a park bench. Once they’ve found a suitable dark, dry cavity with enough space to lay a few dozen eggs, they need to collect fibres from specific plants to cram into the nest on which to lay their eggs. Their favourite is the soft fibres from the leaves of the Lamb’s ear plant. Below we can see the opening of the rectangular hole under the arm of the bench has been plugged with what appears to be Lamb’s ear fibres.

We didn’t actually see any bees coming and going from the bench, so we’re not sure if this is an active nest or an old one. The Wool carder bees had only started to fly when we found this nest, so we will have another look in July to see if there is any action.

Above (left) is a Wool carder bee on the Lamb’s ear flowers, and on the right is a wonderful close up photo of a Wool carder bee where it’s yellow stich-like markings are clearly visible.

You can try to help Wool carder bees, by drilling 12mm diameter holes into a wooden log and placing them near to the Lamb’s ear plant.

July bees

Bee spotting gets a bit trickier this month, with lots of diminutive solitary bees flying this month including our tichiest UK bee, the Small scissor bee  measuring around 4.5mm and the not much larger Common-yellow face bee.  Both these tiny black bees, don’t conform to most people’s image of a bee. Luckily, larger Patchwork leafcutter bees and chunky Wool carder bees are fluffier and much easier to spot. And if you’re in the south of England, look out for the very nippy, 8mm Four-banded flower bee. If you have a bee hotel installed and see a bee with a long, pointed black-and-white tail hanging out around it, it’s likely to be a Large sharp-tail bee – the cuckoo of both leafcutters and flower bees at this time of year.

Tips for IDing July bumblebees:

  • The Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) is usually one of the most ubiquitous bees in my garden and many others. With her all-in-one fluffy brown coat, she’s also one of the cutest and easiest to identify foraging on a huge variety of common garden flowers with her medium-length proboscis (tongue). However, this spring/summer she has been notable by her absence, and it’s not just me who has observed this. They like to nest above ground in undisturbed areas of long grass and to line their nest with moss. Maybe the very wet spring this year made it difficult to rear their colony successfully, Hopefully I’m wrong and she is just making a later appearance and will be foraging from now until October.

You will also continue to see workers of some of our commonest bumblebee flying this month including Buff-tailed bumblebees and their cuckoo the Vestal cuckoo bee; Tree bumblebees and Garden bumblebees. Red-tailed bumblebees are also foraging, but I’ve not seen one yet this year! Here’s a guide the six most common bumblebee cuckoos. 

How to ID July solitary bees:

  • Large sharp-tail bee (Coelioxys conoidea) is a very distinctive bee with its very pointed wasp-like abdomen and black and white colouring. The best way to spot them is around bee hotels as they are cuckoo bees of leafcutter bees who may be nesting there. They use the pointed abdomen to make a slit in the partition of the host’s cell and place their egg inside. Their larvae have long curved jaws to kill the host’s egg or its larvae. Then they gobble up all the pollen in the host’s nest and develop into adult bees to emerge next summer. Don’t try and kill them to protect the host. This is nature and the appearance of a cuckoo bee is a sign of a healthy host population. They can also take over summer flower bee nests. TOP TIP FOR CUCKOO BEES: They never collect pollen.
  • The Four-banded flower bee (Anthophora quadrimaculata) is much smaller than the earlier flying Hairy-footed flower bee. They display the same darting movement and high pitched buzz, but being just 7-8mm are much more difficult to spot as they zip around. The males have big, green eyes – like the similar-sized Green-eyed flower bee (Anthophora bimaculata) – and they both noisily patrol patches of flowers and are polylectic – feeding on many garden flowers including catmints and lavender, and wild flowers like Black Horehound and dead-nettles. Both species seem to be confined to the South of England.
  • Patchwork leafcutter bee (Megachile centuncularis) is one of our most common leafcutter bees. They get their name, like many solitary bees, from how they construct their nests. The leafcutters cut pieces of leaf from plants, including roses and lilac, to line their nests. A bit smaller than a honeybee, leafcutters are brownish grey and the easiest way to identify them is that they collect pollen on the underside of their tummy in orange-coloured pollen brushes. As they have a habit of lifting up their abdomen in the air while feeding on flowers, this orange underside is clearly visible. They will nest in bee hotels alongside red mason bees, plugging the entrance of the tubes with leaf. Look out for a female flying with a piece of leaf as big as herself clasped between her legs. Like this fantastic footage captured by Devon-based field naturalist, John Walter.
  • The Wool carder bee (Anthidium manicatum) is easy to see with its yellow spots along the side of its chunky body. if you have a patch of Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantina), you may have seen the females visiting already to collect the soft downy material from the underside of the leaves to line their nests. They roll the hairs into a ball as big as themselves to carry home to their nest in a ready-made cavity (maybe your bee hotel). Here she makes a hole in the middle of the ball, where she places the pollen and lays her egg on top. Unusually for bees, the males are larger. They aggressively defend their patch of purple flowers by attacking intruders in mid-air, armed with spikes under their abdomen. I’ve also seen females using their long tongues to feed on foxgloves in my garden and Black horehound along the canal.
  • NOTE: Carder means to ‘tease out fibres’. Despite having a similar English name to the social bumblebee called a Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum), a Wool Carder Bee is not a bumblebee, it is a solitary bee nesting alone.
  • Common yellow-faced bee (Hylaeus communis) is one of a dozen small, (5mm) bees which are predominately black, but this species has yellow spots (the females), or triangles like a yellow mask (the males) on their face. The common variety is the one you are most likely to see in your garden because it’s not fussy about where it nests – in a variety of small cavities including manmade bee hotels if the dimensions of the tube are small enough – and it feeds on many widespread flowers. Unusually for a bee, it carries pollen back to its nest in a special stomach, called a crop, rather than on its body. If you have an observation bee box, with removal panels – so you can see what is happening in the cells the bees are creating – you will see this bee creating a waterproof cellophane-like ‘plastic bag’ around each egg and filling the bag with nectar and pollen.
  • Small scissor bee (Chelostoma campanularum) is the smallest bee in Britain. Measuring around 4.5mm, they can easily be mistaken for a tiny, black fly or ant by the lay person, or a black furrow bee. The clue to which bee you are looking at is in their Latin name – campanula is the Latin for bellflowers or harebells. They frequent these flowers, and males can be found sheltering in the middle during dull weather and/or at night. Another cavity nester, they use tiny pre-existing holes in dead wood including fence posts and plug the holes with small particles like sand grains and pebbles.  Like many solitary bees, they often nest next door to each other. ID tip: Another bee you may find sleeping in your bellflowers is the slightly bigger, browner and fluffier, Gold-tailed Melitta bee (Melitta haemorrhoidalis).

Bee mimics: There are some interesting flying insects this month trying to look like bees to deter predators, and confusing some of us bee spotters. But look out for the giveaway signs – big eyes, spindly legs and the lack of pollen on their back legs, or under their abdomen.

  • Narcissus fly (Merodon equestris) – these fluffy hoverflies could easily be mistaken for a Common carder bee, expect for the big eyes, spindly legs and lack of pollen. It gets it name because it lays its eggs on daffodil bulbs. The larvae feed on the bulb during winter and in spring pupate in to the soil emerging in the spring. But they are still around.
  • Bee wolf (Philanthus triangulum) – this is a large, solitary wasp that nests in sandy soil and preys on honeybees, paralysing them with a sting and carrying them back to their burrow. Up to six paralysed honey bees are placed in each brood chamber, then a single egg is laid on one of the bees and the chamber is sealed with sand. After hatching, the larva feeds on the cache of honey bees before spinning a cocoon to hibernate through winter, ready to emerge in spring.

How to help bees in July:

  1. Plant different flowers for different bees Lots of bee-friendly flowers are blooming this month including salvias, knapweeds (Centaurea nigra)  and lavenders. However some lavenders are better than others for attracting bees. Lavadula x intermedia ‘Gros Bleu’ performed best in trials at Sussex University, whereas Lavendula angustifolia is less attractive. Lavenders are good for short-tongued bees, as are herbs including Marjoram (Origanum), Anise hyssop, thyme and borage. For long-tongued bees plant Bergamot, (bee balm), Viper’s bugloss, Lamb’s Ear, salvias and shrubs like buddleia, also loved by butterflies, hence it’s common name, the butterfly bush. Many of these plants grow well in pots and planters on a sheltered patio or roof terrace in well-drained soil and they are fairly drought-tolerant. This month, I’ve already seen tiny Yellow-faced bees (Hylaeus) foraging on Fennell and Hebes, and lots of bee species on flowering thyme.
  2. If you only have a window box, Scabious japonica, dwarf harebells (campanula carpatica), dwarf lavenders, Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus) and creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum) will look good now and feed the bees if you keep watering regularly. You could also add some trailing nasturtium and Bird’s-foot trefoil.
  3. Continue to let part of the the lawn grow long (after No Mow May) for dandelions and clovers.
  4. Ditch the weed killers and pesticides. That includes spraying your roses – remember the leafcutter bees collect pieces of leaf to make their nests.
  5. It’s your last chance to put up bee hotels for leafcutter bees. We have created flat-pack bee hotels that can be easily assembled and come with instructions about where to put them and how to attract bees to nest in them by planting their favourite flowers. If you want to see what is happening inside a bee hotel, you could invest in an observation box with a Perspex viewing window such as this one from Bee Equipment that we have just installed on a few sites. But remember, unless you have the forage they need to feed their young nearby, they won’t nest in them.
  6. Drill holes in blocks of wood – 10mm, 8mm, 6mm and 4mm diameters and up to 30 cm deep – and screw them to a sturdy support. Drill holes in existing structures such as fence posts, or dead trees. See if small scissor bees or yellow-faced bees take up residence.
  7. Create a sand bank against a south facing wall for mining bees that like to burrow into sand. The sand has to hold together, so try mixing builders sand with some clay soil or loam.
  8. Provide a source of water for thirsty honeybees. 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!
  9. Buy a Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland if you are serious about IDing lots more bees.
  10. Start growing seeds, such as forget-me-nots, that will flowe

Summer bees 2024

This month, we have to say goodbye to some of my favourite spring-flying solitary bees, like the Hairy-footed flower bees and the Red mason bees, as their short life-cycles come to end. But we can say hello to some summer beauties, like the wool carder bee and the leafcutter bees. You’ll hopefully see three more bumblebee species too and a cuckoo bumblebee, (There will also be plenty of buff-tailed and white-tailed bumblebee workers foraging, and smaller, brown common carder bees, but we haven’t included them in the June guide as we wanted to introduce you to some new faces). There are four new solitary bees to try to identify this month: a lovely mason bee, a small, zippy flower bee with huge green eyes, and we’ll see for the first time this year, leafcutter bees. And see if you can spot the difference between a bumblebee and a hoverfly that mimics a bumblebee.

Tips for IDing June bumblebees:

  • Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) – if you see a small bumblebee (9 -13mm) with a faint red bottom and yellow stripes, it’s an early bumblebee. The male (pictured above) is particularly striking with his bright-yellow fluffy facial hairs and a stripe on his body too. This month, new queens may be emerging, along with workers and the males. Look out for them on cotoneasters, brambles, Raspberry and garden crane’s-bill (hardy geraniums). They can also nectar rob from longer, tubular flowers. They have small colonies of up to 100 bees and generally nest underground in old rodent burrows like many bumblebee species, but they can also inhabit bird boxes (like Tree bumblebees (Bombus hypnourm) and nest in roof spaces and holes in trees, although I have yet to hear reports of this.
  • Garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) – sit by a patch of flowering foxgloves or honeysuckle and you will hopefully see this long-tongue bumblebee coming in and out of the flowers. Unfortunately they are becoming less widespread than many other large bumblebees with white tails who have shorter tongues but nectar rob by making a hole in the base of the flower. The way to tell the garden bumblebee apart from buff-tailed and white-tailed bumblebees is by looking at the two golden bands at the front and back of the thorax which I think makes the bee look as if it’s wearing a black skull cap. It has a third band on the abdomen. It also has a longer ‘horsey’ face than other bumblebees, and will be going into the flower rather than sucking up the nectar from the side.
  • Red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) –unmissable with jet black bodies and fiery red tails, but records show that they too are becoming less widespread. I have read that they favour yellow flowers, so I am planting lots of Birds-foot trefoil for them, but so far no luck in my London garden. I have seen them on a rooftop on a sedum’s tiny yellow flowers and collecting pollen from the pink-petaled seaside daisy (Erigeron glaucus). I’d also suggest looking up at Laburnum trees drooping under the weight of yellow, pea-like flowers. In the photo above she is putting up a leg as a warning signal that she feels threatened and to keep away. But these are gentle bees.
  • Vestal cuckoo bee (Bombus vestalis) – also called the Southern cuckoo bee because it is in this part of England where you are most likely to see the huge females (18mm) seeking to invade the underground nest of Buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) and lay their eggs. At this time of year only small buff-tailed workers are foraging. So if you see a huge bee that looks like a big Buff-tailed bumblebee queen, it’s more likely to be its cuckoo. Other ID tips: she has a longer white tail with yellow hairs at the base, and there are NO pollen baskets on her hind legs. (She is a female and not a queen because she doesn’t have worker bees. Her eggs hatch into females and males that are fed by the buff-tailed bumblebees worker bees who become her slaves after she takes over their mother’s nest.)  NOTE: There are 6 Cuckoo bumblebee species in the UK. This is the most common one because its host is the most common bumblebee.

How to ID June solitary bees:

  • Green-eyed flower bee (Anthophora bimaculata) – these gorgeous fluffy bees with their stunning big green eyes are around half the size (8mm) of the more common Hairy-footed flower bees (Anthophora plumipes). Their diminutive size, along with their rapid darting movement between flowers, makes them much more difficult to spot and they are largely confined to southern England, especially coastal areas and heathland where they nest in large, noisy aggregations in sandy cliff tops and the edge of costal pathways. They feed on Vipers bugloss, Black horehound, brambles, Thyme and mints including garden catmints. Listen out for the high-pitched buzz as they feed, often in groups. They fly until September, so one to watch out for if you’re holidaying on the South cost this summer.  
  • The Orange-vented mason bee (Osmia leaiana) – has a fluffy orange pollen brush under her abdomen which she uses to collect pollen from a variety of flowers including Green Alkanet, Crane’s-bill (hardy geraniums), brambles and knapweeds. You may see her nesting in a bee hotel, or a bee observation box. Here is a video of her packing her nest with pollen (we mistakenly called her a Blue mason bee because they fly at similar times of the year and both use masticated leaf to plug the tubes of their nest).
  • Patchwork leafcutters (Megachile cenuncularis) are one of the most common leafcutter bees found in gardens. They get their name, like many solitary bees, from how they construct their nests. They cut pieces of leaf from many plants including rose and lilac bushes, honeysuckles, willowherbs, Amelanchier trees, birches and Horse chestnut to make their nests, leaving the leaves looking as if they has been attacked by a hole punch. This leafcutter bee is a little smaller (9-10mm) than a honeybee and a brownish grey colour. But the easier way to tell her apart from a honeybee is from the orange pollen brush on the whole underside of her tummy, (similar to the Orange-vented mason bee), which she has a habit of lifting up in the air while feeding on flowers. Favourites include thistles, knapweeds, burdock, Common Fleabane, Bird’s-foot trefoil, St John’s-wort and brambles.  They nest in bee hotels if Red mason bees have left any tubes unoccupied. They plug the entrance with pieces of leaf later in the summer when they have laid all their eggs in a tube. If you’re very lucky, you may see a female flying with a piece of leaf as big as herself clasped between her legs. They can also nest in dead wood, cavities in walls and even occasionally in soil. TOP TIP: How to tell a Orange-vented mason bee from a leafcutter – with difficultly, but the mason bee is a fraction smaller (8mm), but has a bigger head and narrower body and uses chewed up leaf to construct her nest, rather than discs of leaves.
  • The Wool Carder Bee (Anthidium manicatum) is an easy bee to spot and therefore has to be one of my favourites, with their yellow spots along the side of their chunky bodies that looks like stiching. And if you plant Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantina), you are guaranteed to see them collecting the soft downy material from the underside of the leaves to line and plug their nests. Carder means to ‘tease out fibres’, and the female rolls the hairs into a ball as big as herself to carry home to her nest which is in a ready-made hole in dead wood, cavities in wall and man-made objects. I’ve yet to see one. You may also see the larger male bees aggressively defending their patch of purple flowers for mating by attacking intruders mid air. They are armed with spikes under their abdomen that can kill their foes. As well as Lamb’s ear, they can often be seen feeding or mating around Black horehound, Purple toadflax and vetches. NOTE: Despite having a similar English name to the Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum), they are very different. The latter is a social bumblebee.
  • Bumblebee hoverfly (Merodon equestris) – some hoverflies are excellent bumblebee mimics with their fluffy coats and round bodies. TOP TIP: The way to tell them apart from real bumblebees is the eyes (flies have bigger eyes), the legs (flies have spindly legs and they don’t collect pollen on their back legs), and they tend to stay still on a flower or leaf for longer than a bee with their wings out, rather than tucked behind them.

How to help bees in June:

  1. Planting different flowers for different bees is particularly important this month when there can often be what’s called a June gap In the UK – a lull in nectar and pollen supplies as the horse chestnut trees finish flowering and trees, such as the limes, have yet to begin while spring flowers fade before summer ones burst into bloom. Try cotoneaster and thistles for short-tongued bees, and foxgloves, honeysuckle, comfrey and catmint for longer-tongued bees like the Green-eyed flower bee. Research by bee-friendly plant supplier, Rosybee found that in June the yellow flowers of  Dyer’s chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria) were the best for all types of solitary bees, followed by purple Geranium rozanne ( a favourite in my small garden because it flowers until October). Viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare) was best for bumblebees, as it produces nectar all day long, followed by catmint (Nepta racemosa – another long flowerer) and a white lavender (Lavandula x intermedia ‘Edelweiss’). Don’t forget Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantina) for the wool carder bees.
  2. If you only have a window box, try growing scabious japonica, dwarf harebells (Campanula carpatica), dwarf lavenders, Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus), seaside daisy (Erigeron glaucus), and creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum) which flower from June onwards. Water regularly.
  3. Don’t pull up weeds like Alkanet, which feed many types of bees, and continue not to mow part of the lawn (after No Mow May comes Let if Bloom June ) to let  clovers and knapweeds grow.
  4. It’s not too late to install blue tit boxes – not for birds but for Tree bumblebees (Bombus hypnorum) and possibly Early bumblebees to nest in. They will vacate at the end of the summer, so you may get blue tits nesting next spring.
  5. Put up bee hotels. It may be too late for Red mason bees, but Orange-vented mason bees, Blue mason bees and leafcutter bees may check-in and lay their eggs this summer. We have created flat-pack bee hotels that can be easily assembled and come with instructions about where to put them and how to attract bees to nest in them by planting their favourite flowers. If you want to see what is happening inside a bee hotel, you could invest in an observation box with a Perspex viewing window such as this one from Bee Equipment that we have just installed on a few sites.
  6. Create your own nests for cavity-nesting solitary bees, by drilling holes in blocks of wood – 10mm, 8mm, 6mm and 4mm diameters and up to 30 cm deep – and screw them to a sturdy support. Drill holes in existing structures such as fence posts, or dead trees. See which bees take up residence over the summer.
  7. Continue to leave bare earth for mining bees to burrow into.
  8. Provide a source of water for thirsty honeybees. 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!
  9. Ditch the weed killers and pesticides – that includes all bugsprays for your roses!
  10. Buy a Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland if you are serious about IDing lots more bees.

Where have the solitary spring bees gone? The Hairy-footed flower bees (Anthophora plumipes) are disappearing, along with Red mason bees (Osmia bicornis) and early mining bees.  This is because solitary bees only live for a few weeks. And the spring flying solitary bees that came out in April or before have now reproduced and provisioned their nests with pollen, so their life cycle has come to an end.  In their short life they mate and then the female makes, or finds and adapts a nest in which to lay her eggs. She forages for pollen to leave in the nest for the hungry larvae which will hatch from her eggs and gobble up all the pollen. But she will never see her offspring. When she has laid all her eggs and provisioned them with pollen, she will plug up the entrance to the nest, and exhausted from all her activities she will die on the wing. But in her short life she has done an extremely important job – pollinated many flowers, shrubs and trees whose fruits, seeds and nuts are food for birds and other species. One the larvae have eaten all the pollen, they spin a cocoon, pupate and transform into adult bees through metamorphosis. They overwinter in the cocoon and will emerge next spring to start the life cycle again. The males of all solitary bee species emerge first to build up their strength for mating. In the case of the Red mason bees, they break though the mud at the end of the tubes in the bee hotels.

Year-long partnership with Reddie & Grose 

Urban Bees was invited by patent law firm, Reddie & Grose, to run bee-related events for employees in its London, Cambridge and Munich offices during 2023.

Events included:

  • introducing staff to our 270 bee species in the UK, why they are so important, threats facing them and how to help them. (Slide show and talk – the Munich office zoomed in)
  • showing staff simple steps they can take to help bees by planting flowers for bees at home even if they only have a window box – the key is to have something flowering sequentially from early spring to late autumn (slide show and talk – in London and Cambridge and Munich zoomed in)
  • assembling a flat-pack bee hotel to create a nesting site for Red mason bees to check into and learning more about the bees that will use it, their life cycle, and where to locate your hotel and how to attract the bees (workshops in London and Cambridge).

Urban bees also:

  • highlighted a bee of the month for the Reddie & Grose social media feeds
  • did a Reddie & Grose podcast about bees, their importance for ecosystems, business and us.
  • introduced employees to a citizen science volunteering project to help bees – the Bumblebee Conservation Trust BeeWalk monitoring scheme

Aims of the partnership were to:

  • educate Reddie & Grose employees about the amazing bees on our doorstep, why they are so important to healthy ecosystems, mitigating climate change, business and us, and simple steps we can take to help them.
  • try to involve other tenants in the Whitechapel office in London to learn about bees, and to give their staff a chance to help bees at home.
  • try to make the Whitechapel office more bee-friendly by improving the planting and installing bee hotels through involving the sustainability manager and the facilities manager at Derwent London.

Weil bees in the City

‘You don’t need a hive on your office roof to help bees’

When Weil law firm approached Urban Bees seven years ago to find out how it could best help bees, we recommended that its south-facing terrace eight floors above Fetter Lane could provide an oasis for solitary bees, which are important, but often forgotten pollinators.

Urban Bees worked closely with the Weil gardener, Matt Bell, advising on flowers, shrubs and herbs to provide these wild bees with nutritious pollen and nectar from early spring to late summer. Then we installed bee hotels, thanks to the support of Margaret Lloyd, Weil Facilities Services Director, to provide safe nesting sites for solitary Red mason bees. These docile wild bees check into the hollow tubes contained in the cylinders and lay their eggs in early spring. See video here

Since then staff have taken part in Urban Bees’ bee safaris on the terrace where they have identified different bee species on the flowers, learned how they can help bees at home and have made ‘bee hotels’ to put up in their own garden.

And every summer, 30 pupils from Friars Primary School in Southwark – where Weil staff volunteer – visit the office to go on a bee safari with Urban Bees’ Alison Benjamin (pictured below) and a bee spotter guide. Alison also shows them how to make bee hotels to take home. Thanks to Sue Cook, Pro Bono & Corporate Responsibility Assistant, and Sarah Chase, Director of Research Services, for their help organising the school visit.

In 2022, Urban Bees added a bee observation box with removable panels (pictured below) to allow pupils and staff to be able to see the life cycle of the Red mason bees from egg, to larvae eating pollen, spinning a cocoon to pupate and become an adult bee the following spring.

“Urban Bees’ entertaining and practical lunchtime sessions about how to help bees have proved extremely popular with our employees at all levels of the firm. It’s been a fantastic way to engage employees in sustainability issues. Employees appreciate why Weil has transformed its roof terrace to provide food and lodging for wild bees. And pupils from one of our partner primary schools have come into the office to make bee hotels, gone on a rooftop bee safari with Alison Benjamin at Urban Bees and witnessed the life cycle of the bees. It’s an experience they say they’ll never forget!” Robert Powell, Head of Pro Bono & CSR

In 2023, pollinator surveys on the Weil terrace over the summer recorded seven different species of bee;

  • Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) on thyme
  • Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) on St John’s wort (Hypericom)
  • 2 x Yellow-face bees (Hylaeus) – a male (pictured below middle) and female Common yellow-face (Hylaeus communis) flying around the fennel
  • 2 x furrow bees (pictured below left) – (Lasioglossum smeathmanellum) on hebe
  • Male leafcutter bee (Megachile centuncularis) on hebe.
  • Buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) on Jasmin and fennel
  • Honeybees on Buddleia, Jasmin and thyme.

The terrace scored an impressive 17/20 for providing habitat for pollinators. Surveyors commented:

“A very good diversity and abundance of plants for forage and lifecycle stages.”

 “There are three small bee hotels at the site which are mostly occupied.”

Dr. Konstantinos Tsiolis, leader of the Pollinating London Together surveys, (pictured above) hopes the Weil terrace could be an example for other City companies to follow.

 “It just goes to show how a small terrace in the City 8 storeys up that is used for entertaining clients in the summer can also be a haven for many species of wild bees by planting a diverse range of bee-friendly plants that are attractive to people and bees throughout the year”, he says.

More on the Pollinating Together 2023 Habitats Survey here.

In 2024, PLT will conduct more surveys, Urban Bees will run more workshops for pupils and hopefully staff too, and continue to provide a haven for bees in the City without honeybee hives.

King’s College London – improving nesting sites for bees

Urban Bees was asked by King’s College London to come up with recommendations for improving biodiversity across its campuses. After visiting each campus, we suggested places where bee hotels and bee observation boxes could be installed for cavity-nesting wild solitary bees.

In early May 2024, we installed some 20 bee hotels across campus gardens, the grounds of residential apartments and at the back of a sports ground. And six bee observation boxes for education purposes.

What is a bee hotel?

It’s a wooden nesting box for cavity-nesting solitary bees designed to keep the rain out, which is packed with about 20 x 15cm long bamboo tubes 6mm – 8mm diameter wide. It is positioned at least a metre off the ground in a warm spot.

What is bee observation box?

It is a larger wooden nesting box designed to enable you to see the nesting habits of some wild, solitary bees through a Perspex cover. Its removable ‘window’ panels allows you to observe the action without moving the inner two-sided, slide-out wood cartridge which has channels to create ‘tunnels’.

Which bees could I see?

The most likely inhabitants are Red Mason Bee, (Osmia bicornis) which build their nests from late April to the end of June. Later in summer, Willughby’s Leafcutter Bee, (Megachile willughbiella), or the Patchwork Leafcutter Bee, (Megachile centuncularis) may nest. These bees are excellent pollinators and docile. They don’t sting. They nest alone, but often next door to each other, so one bee may check in to three tubes and lay 10 eggs in each, and other few bee do the same.

What might I observe?

Mason bees build mud walls along their particular ‘tunnel’, creating cells in which larvae develop.

Mated females will load up the hairs on their abdomen with as much pollen as they can – often seeming bright yellow in the process. They crawl to the end of their chosen tunnel and create a neat ball of pollen, on which they will lay their egg (see photo above). Then they will fly backwards and forwards holding mud balls and ‘brick up’ that cell.

They will continue this exhausting work, filling each cell and building a mud wall between each until the tunnel is full of perhaps nine or ten cells (see photo above) The eggs containing males are laid right at the front of the tunnel and females at the back.

Then they will plug the front of the tunnel with mud, so you can see that it is being used.

Life cycle Over the next few months the larvae will hatch and slowly eat the pollen: by September each will form a brown cocoon. This is how they will overwinter.

In March or April, depending on temperatures, males will hatch first. It’s amazing to watch the bees bite their way out through the hard mud walls, the outermost bees first (see photo above).

The males go to collect nectar from nearby flowers to build up their energy for mating and hang around the box waiting for the females to emerge.

Leafcutter bees have a similar approach, but use pieces of leaf instead of mud.  Females will find tough leaves – roses are favourites – and bite away a neat circle of the leaf.

They then fly backwards and forwards carrying the leaf discs in their front legs (see photo above) and stuff each one – with some effort – down the tunnel. Using their saliva, they overlap and stick the discs together, making a cylinder about the size and shape of a cigarette butt.

Into this they create a pollen ball, lay an egg on it, then seal the ‘butt’ with another few layers of leaf discs. This process repeats until the tunnel is full of egg-filled cylinders, then the front is plugged with layers of chewed leaves.

The following year, new bees will chew their way out of their containers and the cycle will start again.

We have designed our own Urban Bees flat-pack Bee Hotels.

Our bee observation boxes are supplied by Bee Equipment. More information here.

Mining bees

Of the 250 wild solitary bee species in the UK, many nest in tunnels in the ground and are mining bees. While we were doing the install at Great Dover Street Apartments we noticed a small hole in the soil below our feet and a bee flying low around it. On closer inspection we discovered that it was a Grey-patched mining bee (Andrena nitida) making her nest in the lose, bare soil. It reminded us that it’s important to have bare patches of soil where mining bees can burrow into the ground and lay their eggs.

We didn’t get any good photos, but here is one of the Grey-patched mining bee by Penny Metal.

Feeding the bees

Wild bees need nesting sites and nectar and pollen-rich flowers.

Now we are going to be working with the gardeners across all the campuses and residential settings to greatly improve the forage for solitary bees throughout the year. Without the nectar and pollen-rich flowers in early spring to late summer, the solitary bees won’t forage and they won’t use the nesting sites.

We are also embarking on a series of educational event to introduce students and staff to the bees and how to help them. The first one is a walkabout on Guy’s campus on 28 May. Details are here

Rooftop mix and match – rewilding and planting

Eight months after we planted lots of new flowers (in response to the drought in 2022) on the roof 8 storeys up on Bread Street in the City, many are thriving, and have been joined by some blow ins – flowers that have arrived another way. Birds have deposited the seeds, or they’ve been blown in -like the yellow, dandelion-like flower above and the patch of Red dead-nettle below (middle), which is important food for long-tongued bees in spring, like Hairy-footed flower bees and Common carder bees. The red campion is back, despite removing most of it as it was taking over, and I want to have a diversity of flowering plants throughout the year to feed bees, not a dominant few.

I realise that I can’t just let the roof do it’s own thing, or else the sunnier planter would have been covered with nothing but Red hot poker (kniphofia). It absolutely loves it up there – in the heat, the wind, the cold, the rain. It is the hardiest plant I’ve ever come across.

It will be interesting to see if we see more bees visiting this summer than last year when there was much less diversity of flowering plants. In summer 2023, the survey of pollinators on the roof by Pollinating London Together found a furrow bee on Willowherb (Epilobium) – another blow in – as well as less interesting honeybees and Buff-tailed bumblebees.

PL’s  Greenspace Habitat Survey 2023 scored the roof 14/20. It scored 80% on diversity of flowers for pollinators. I’m hoping for 100% this year. But only scored 3/8 for number of pollinator species found on the days of the survey. I would argue that one day was too hot for most pollinators, and another was too windy. But they are the extremes that pollinators face on a rooftop in the City of London during the summer.

The first 2024 PLT survey is scheduled for 23 May, so let’s see how the roof fares compares to last year. I think it will be much more attractive to bees if the conditions are good.

Bees to See in May

This month, hopefully you will see at least one new bumblebee speciesa new mason bee, four types of mining bee, the now familiar Hairy-footed flower bee, and two ‘cuckoo’ bees – the Mourning bee and the Vestal cuckoo bee. (All photos credit: Penny Metal)

You will continue to see some of the bumblebees you first spotted in March and April, but instead of queens you will now probably be seeing the smaller worker bees foraging on flowering trees and plants.  

How to ID May bumblebees:

  • Tree bumblebees (Bombus hypnorum) with their ginger thorax, black body and white tail could be the new occupants of your blue tit box if the chicks have fledged. Be prepared for noisy buzzing outside their new home as gangs of males compete to mate with virgin queens. (As you can see from the photo, the male on top is much smaller than the queen.) Tree bumblebee colonies vacant a bird box at the end of the summer, so it will be empty for the blue tit family next spring. I still find it hard to tell Common carder bees (Bombus pascuorum) and Tree bumblebees apart when they are flying, despite the latter having a darker body and a white tail.

Top ID tip to tell a Common carder bee from a Tree bumblebee – both sport a bright ginger pile at this time of year (later in the year, the former fades and the later goes a bit bald), so the best way to tell them apart now is to focus on getting a look at their bottom. The Tree bumblebee has a tiny white bottom and a darker body (abdomen). The Common carder bee is brown all over. Good luck!

Bumblebee cuckoo bee

  •  Vestal cuckoo bee (Bombus vestalis) – also known as Southern cuckoo bee because she used to be more common in the south of England – looks very similar to a Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris). That’s because it resembles the bee whose nest it takes over. Like the cuckoo bird (hence the name), it lays its eggs in the nest made by the host. But the cuckoo bee will actually kill the host queen and her eggs and dupe the worker bees into raising her young. Cuckoo bees are either male of fertile females. They do not have queens or worker bees..
  • There are six cuckoo bumblebees in the UK. Because Buff-tailed bumblebees are so common, so too is the Vestal cuckoo bee. Their presence means the host population is healthy.

Top tip for telling a Vestal cuckoo bee from a Buff-tailed bumblebee – The easiest way to tell these two large bumblebees apart is that the cuckoo has a longer white tail and above the tail is a pale yellow band. It’s a paler yellow than the dirty gold on the bee’s thorax and paler than the Buff-tailed bumblebee’s golden bands. The Vestal cuckoo female is a similar size to a Buff-tailed bumblebee queen but much bigger than Buff-tailed workers. Its wing may seem a bit darker and it never carries pollen (as the host workers will feed its young). This is true for all cuckoo bumblebees.

How to help bumblebees in May:

  1. Leave a patch of the garden wild for nesting sites and don’t disturb a nesting site if you find one for example in a compost bin or under a garden shed (it will only last until the end of the summer). Leave some permanent long grass in which Common carder bees may nest.
  2. It’s not too late to put up a blue tit box for the tree bumblebee to nest in. Again, they will leave at the end of the summer and birds can use it next spring.
  3. Buy and plant alliums, catmint and cotoneaster from garden centres to provide food this month for short-tongued bumblebees. Foxgloves, honeysuckles and thistles for the long tongued bumblebees.
  4. It’s not too late to grow from seed annuals that provide late summer bee forage such as sunflowers, cosmos and Anise hyssop.
  5. Don’t mow the lawn (let clovers and dandelions flower). See the Plantlife No Mow May campaign.
  6. Ditch the weed killers and pesticides.
  7. Scatter wildflower seeds or seed balls in pots or on bare earth. The annuals will flower later in the summer and perennials next year.

How to ID May solitary bees:

  • Grey-patched mining bee (Andrena nitida) is one of the commonest mining bees in southern Britain, extending up to Lancashire and Yorkshire. She has a brighter red, fluffy pile on her thorax than the short-fringed mining bee, and grey patches on her black abdomen. They can be found foraging on spring blossoming shrubs and trees and dandelions and in scattered nests in flat or sloping turf and lawns.

Top tip for finding a Grey-patched mining bee – find it’s more striking waspish-looking Nomad bee, (another name for a cuckoo), Flavous nomad bee (Nomada flava).  You can see them on the ground searching out a Grey-patched mining bees’ nest to take over, and then you may spot the host bee herself.

  • The short-fringed mining bee (Andrena dorsata) is widespread in southern England. Sporting a reddish-brown fluffy pile on her thorax, a smooth black body with thin stripes, and a hairy dorsal fringe on the top of her back leg, the female should hopefully be easier to identify on dandelions and daisies than some of the other small, brown mining bees also around at this time of year.
  • Hairy-footed flower bees (Anthophora plumipes) have been flying for a couple of months now so you are probably becoming accustomed to seeing them darting noisily around patches of comfrey and wallflowers with their tongues outstretched. Many of the black females will have mated and are now busy collecting pollen on their hairy hind legs for their young.
  • Ashy mining bees (Andrena cineraria) A distinctive black and grey stripped bee (around 11-14mm), 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)!
  • The Mourning bee (Melecta albifrons) is another black and grey bee. Her coat is a fluffy grey/black colour, edged with lateral white spots. Despite her cute appearance, these are the Hairy-footed flower bees’ cuckoo. The female lays her eggs in the already made nest and when her larvae hatch they steal the pollen collected by the Hairy-footed flower bee for her own babies.  A quarter of the 20,000 plus bee species on the planet are cuckoos.

Top tip for telling a Mourning bee from an Ashy mining bee – the former is rounder and fluffier, like its host bee, and also has lateral whitish spots down its body. The Ashy mining bee has a longer, smoother black body and is often found near to the ground.

  • Common mini-miner (Andrena minutula). If you see a tiny mining bee (4-5mm) at this time of year, chances are it will be this mini-miner bee because as its name suggests it’s the most common of the 10 species of mini-miners in the UK. They have a hairy fringe along the thorax and markings on their head if you can get that close. They are most visible on dandelion type flowers and sallow (willows). They nest in loose soil in large groups.
  • Blue mason bee (Osmia caerulescens) – bit smaller than the more common Red mason bees, the males, which are flying now, have a fluffy brown pile of hair over a dark metallic-coloured body. The females look blueish-black with a box-shaped head. They will nest in manmade bee hotels, but construct the cells and plug the tubes with chewed pieces of leaf. You may see them on a variety of flowers in an urban garden. The females come out a week or so after the males and they are around until July.

How to help solitary bees in May:

  1. Plant wallflowers and comfrey 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. For more plants, shrubs and trees that are good for different types of bees, see our Plants for Bees and Trees for Bees guides and blog about Shrubs for Bees.
  3. Leave old mortar untouched as Hairy-footed flower bees and Red mason bees may be nesting here.
  4. It’s not too late to make cob bricks with holes in that Hairy-footed flower bees may nest in. See how to make them with clay soil, builders’ sand, straw and water in this wonderful video by ecologist John Walters.
  5. It’s not too late to 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 flat-pack bee hotels we have made, filled with either cardboard tubes or bamboo tubes that are 150mm long and around 5mm in diameter.
  6. Leave a patch of bare earth for mining bees to burrow and where Red mason bees can collect soil to make partition walls between birthing chambers and to plug their nests.
  7. Don’t mow the lawn to let dandelions and clovers grow. Small, brown mining bees are easiest to see on bright yellow dandelions. I now let dandelions grow in my herbaceous perennial flower borders to spot these bees.
  8. Ditch the weed killers and pesticides.

April 2024 Bees

Pictured above are two bumblebee species you’re likely to see this month: Early and Red-tailed bumblebees. (In addition you may also see buff-tailed bumblebees which have been flying all year in some southern parts of the UK, Common carder bees (Bombus pascuorum) and Tree bumblebees, which are all starting to emerge).

How to ID them:

  • The Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) is smaller than other bumblebee species (up to 13mm) 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 female workers. You can tell them apart because the males have much more yellow facial hair, like the one above.
  • The huge, 22mm Red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) queens are one of our biggest bumblebees and without doubt one of the most striking with here black body and fiery red bottom. Although widespread, I’ve not seen one for a long time. The books say she is partial to blossom of sallow (willow) and prunus (cherries and plum) trees. I find the smaller, yellow-faced males are easier to see later in the summer.

Queen bumblebees may have nested (most underground in old rodent holes, under paving slabs, garden sheds, or even in compost bins) by now and laid their eggs, and some, like the Early bumblebee, may even have produced worker bees who are out collecting nectar and pollen to take home to their queen and her developing colony. Now is a crucial month to help them collect sufficient pollen to feed the larvae in the nest that will develop into new workers. We can do help best by planting pollen-rich spring flowers.

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, rosemary, wallflowers and more to provide food this month for the short-tongued and long-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 and dandelions flower) and ditch the weed killers and pesticides.
  6. It’s still cold in the mornings or at night, or when the sun goes in, so bumblebees can get chilled and easily exhausted. The best way to help is to put them on a flower, or as a last resort a teaspoon of sugar, water solution. But they can rest for 45 minutes. So give them time. But please don’t feed them honey, it harbours bacteria that is bad for them.

These are the six most common solitary bee species this month: ,  Tawny mining bee, Buffish mining bee, Red mason bee, Orange-tailed mining bee (female pictured), Gooden’s nomad, Hawthorn mining bee, and Hairy-footed flower bees (female pictured),

How to ID them:

  • 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 in large aggregations.
  • The Buffish mining bee (Andrena nigroaenea) is around 10mm -13mm with a dense brown pile on the top of its thorax (just below it’s head) a bit like a mane. 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) mining bee. Don’t worry if you can’t ID them, the fact that you are looking closely is good. The latter two have two generations in one season, so if you don’t spot them in the spring, you may see the next lot in late summer instead.
  • Red mason bees are checking out of bee hotels now by chewing through the mud-plugged tubes. They are a little smaller (7-10mm) than a honey bee (9-10mm), 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 best way to tell a male from a female is that he has white whisker-like hair on his face and longer antennae and is a bit slimmer.
  • Orange-tailed mining bee (Andrena haemorrhoa) females have now emerged after the smaller, drabber males. The 11-13mm females should be easier to spot because of the neat brick-red pile on their thorax. They do have a tiny orange tip on their bottom. Try looking for them foraging on tree fruits, dandelions and spurge. They will fly until July so don’t give up if you don’t see them this month. Like all mining bees, they burrow into the ground to nest, and they collect pollen on their hairs on their hind legs.
  • 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 she is hovering around are either Grey-patched (Andrena nitida) or Buffish mining bees(Andrena nigroaenea). So if you see lots of Gooden’s nomad bees, it means that 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).
  • Hawthorn mining bee (Andrena chrysosceles) is another small (9-11mm), cute brown mining bee not easily distinguishable from many others! It has orangey coloured hind legs, a shiny blackish, striped abdomen and a brown, hairy thorax, Despite its common name, it feeds on a lot more than hawthorn blossom – dandelions, blackthorn, buttercups and spring-flowering shrubs.
  • 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.

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.

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 mining bees and Red mason 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 this month and next. We’ve made our own bee hotels that we fill with either cardboard tubes or bamboo. The cardboard tubes can be removed in the winter and put in a cool, dry shed to protect them from the elements and the bee hotel can be cleaned and new tubes installed.
  4. Leave a patch of loose, bare earth for mining bees to burrow and where Red mason bees can collect soil to plug their nests.
  5. Create a bank of sand or a mound of sand in a sunny spot for mining bees to nest in.
  6. Let dandelions and alkanet grow – they are very important early bee food. Research shows there is a hungry gap for bee in March-April, so these good sources of nectar and pollen are more vital than ever.

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

Early spring bees

If you’re new to bee spotting, now is the month when you can really begin. If you’ve been waiting all winter to get back to bee spotting, now’s the month to resume on dry, sunny days.

In March you could see three species of bumblebee:

  • The Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) queen is smaller (14mm) and prettier with her fluffy yellow collar and orangey bottom.
  • The Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) The queen bumblebees are collecting (cardering) bits of moss to line their nest which they make above ground in undisturbed areas at the bottom of gardens. They also need nectar to fuel their flight after a long period of hibernation. Their long tongue, means you are likely to see them foraging on dead-nettles at this time of year.

(You will also likely see big Buff-tailed bumblebees as they are our most common bee with their golden stripes and whitish tails)

Six solitary bee species:

  • 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 emerged a few weeks ago in some warmer parts of the country and bigger blacker females have also recently been spotted. But most of us will have to wait a bit longer to see both of them. They visit Pulmonaria (lungwort) and other flowers with bell-shaped flowers. The males suck up the nectar with their long, straw-like tongues (proboscis) to build up their energy for mating when the females appear. A male will often jealously guard a patch of flowers where he hopes to get lucky, and chase off other potential suitors. More than one male can often be seen in pursuit of a female.
  • Buffish mining bee (Adrena nigroaenea) is one of our most common garden mining bees widespread across England. Around the size of a honeybee but a bit stockier, this 10-11mm-long bee has a dense fluffy brown pile on the top of its thorax. It can be tricky to identify from other brown bees. It nests in footpaths, flowerbeds and lawns. Although solitary, these bees nest next door to each other in large groups. Like all solitary bees, the male appear a couple of weeks before the females.
  • Male Red mason bees (Osmia bicornis) can emerge towards the end of the month to feed on blossoming fruit trees and shrubs. (But if it’s unseasonably warm and the trees flower early females too will appear.) If you have a bee hotel you may see these cavity nesting bees checking out of the mud-plugged tubes. They eat their way out. And the male eggs are laid at the front of the tubes making it easier for them to emerge easier than the females. They are a little smaller (6 – 8mm) than a honey bee (9-10mm), more gingery and have a rounder bottom.
  • Male Orange-tailed mining bees (Andrena haemorrhoa) are a little smaller (8-11mm) and less robust than Buffish mining bees. The smaller males have buff on their face and a brown pile on the thorax and at tip of their tail. Their name derives from the larger females (which may not be out until April) which have an orange-tipped tail. They took up residence one summer in our Bee Observation Box, which I will put up next month.
  • Gwynne’s mining bee (Andrena bicolor) is a bit harder to spot, being 7-11mm, 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 males are much blacker and shinier. They seem to eat most spring flowers and as such are seen throughout England and Wales.
  • Common mini-miner (Andrena minutula). If you see a tiny mining bee (4-5mm) at this time of year, chances are it will be this mini-miner bee because as its name suggests it’s the most common of the 10 species of mini-miners in the UK. They have hair fringe along the thorax and marking on their head if you can get that close. They are most visible on dandelion type flowers and sallow (willows). They nest in loose soil in large groups.

Bee mimic of the month:

Many people confuse the Dark-edged bee-fly (Bombylius major) for a bee (which is why we’ve included it). Not surprising there is confusion, because it’s a great mimic – round and fluffy like a small bumblebee (14mm long). It’s very visible in the spring, hovering around green alkanet and wallflowers. The easiest way to tell it apart from a bee is its long, spindly legs, hovering action, and two wings (bees have four wings) which stick out at a 45c angle, and relatively big eyes.

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. (We’ve not included them in our Bees to See in March guide above as we wish to raise awareness about solitary bees and bumblebees).

How to help bees this month:

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 (Bombus hypnorum). The colony will vacant at the end of summer, so the blue tits can use it again next spring.
  3. Plant primroses, Forget- me-nots, Rosemary and heathers to provide food this month for short-tongued bumblebees.
  4. Longer-tongued bumblebees like Common carder bees prefer dead-nettles and wallflowers.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 next month.
  7. Instead of seeds, you can buy bee-friendly plug plants that are quicker to establish. My favourites are stocked by Rosybee.
  8. Don’t mow the lawn to let clovers flower.
  9. 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, dead-nettles, 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.
  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. When the weather is dry and warming up a bit, I 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’ve designed our own wooden bee hotels which we stuff with cardboard tubes.
  5. 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.
  6. If you see bees coming up through your lawn, just leave them. They are a harmless mining bees emerging in spring to pollinate your garden flora.
  7. Don’t mow the lawn to let the mining bees emerge and to nest, and to let dandelions flower.
  8. Ditch the weed killers, like Round-up, and any pesticides and bug sprays you may be using on your roses, or any other plants. Leafcutter bees depend on the leaves of rose bushes to construct their nests.

February bees

Tips for IDing February bees:

The arrival of the male Hairy-Footed Flower Bee by the end of the month is quite an event as he heralds the stirrings of spring. Although he’s a solitary bee, he is often mistaken for a bumblebee because of his cute, fluffy appearance. You may even glimpse a slightly larger and more ginger-coloured Tree bumblebee queen foraging around the same time. Before then, we need to content ourselves with sightings of huge Buff-tailed Bumblebee queens and smaller workers, and Honeybees.

You may be wondering what the Marmalade hoverfly is doing in a bee ID guide. Well, this common hoverfly is an excellent bee mimic and many novice bee spotters may confuse it for a bee. By putting its photo along the bees you may see this month, I hope it will be easier to tell them apart.

How to ID

Buff-tailed Bumblebees (Bombus terrestris):-workers and queens

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 in winter. 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 queens to hibernate, it is these larger (up to 24mm) queens who you may see venturing out to forage close to the ground on snowdrops and winter aconites and searching for a suitable nesting site, perhaps a used rodent hole, or a crack in a pavement.

Honeybees (Apis millefera):

Managed honeybee colonies stay alive at this time of year by keeping warm in their hive and eating the honey 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.

Tree Bumblebee (Bombus Hypnorum) – queen

The queens can measure up to 20mm and are early flyers usually in March, but sometimes in late February. She has the same markings as her smaller workers and males (which you’ll see later in the spring/summer) – tawny thoraxes, black abdomens and white tails. These bees are particularly drawn to downward hanging flowers. At this time of the year that’s likely to be early comfrey and also look out for her on winter heathers. As well as foraging, the queen will be on a mission to find a nest. As their name suggestions, holes in trees are traditional nesting sites, but house eaves , loft insulation, compost heaps and bird boxes provide alternatives, so look out for her investigating walls, fences or blue tit bird boxes. Tree bumblebees have only been in the UK since 2001. They were first recorded in Wiltshire. They are thought to have come over from mainland Europe and have successfully spread right across the UK.

Solitary Hairy-Footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes) – male

Solitary bees nest alone, not in large colonies with a queen, workers and drones like bumblebees and honeybees. Despite their solitary nature, 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 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 to woo and mate with the females.

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. Their favourites are lungwort (Pulmonaria) , dead-nettles (Lamium album) and early flowering comfrey (Symphytum iberian). So plant these, or find a patch, and you will see the male Hairy-footed flower bees 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).

What’s in a name? 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.

There are some 550 species of Flower Bees worldwide. The Genus Anthophora is made up of 2 Greek words – Anthos means flower and phora means to carry or bear, so flower bearing, which makes sense as they carry pollen and nectar from flowers. The species most common is the UK is plumipes – again 2 Green works. Pluma is feather or plume, and pes is foot. So feather-footed.

We will meet other Flower bees later in the year, but they are much smaller and zippier, so harder to spot.

There are a few other solitary bee males that emerge this month but they are much scarcer so I’ve not included them in the Bees to See in February ID guide. However, if you’d like to know more, they include Clark’s Mining Bee (Andrena clarkella) and the Small Sallow Mining Bee (Andrena praecox) and Large Sallow Mining Bee (Andrena apicata). For more information read my blog here.

Marmalade hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus) – They are often seen hovering around flowers and will often be mistaken for wasps or bees as they are a similar size to a honeybee worker or a common wasp. But if you look closely they are quite different. They have much larger eyes than bees and their abdomen is dark yellow and has black stripes across it, with thinner stripes, that resemble a moustache, below them. But I find the easiest way to tell them apart from a bee, is that this common hoverfly will stay still on a flower or a leaf for much, much longer than a bee with its wings held out wide (as in the photo above), whereas bees tend to tuck their wings back and they never stay still for that long, otherwise I’d have much fewer blurry photos of them!

What is the point of hoverflies? Adult Marmalade hoverflies help to transport pollen between plants as they feed on nectar. The larvae of this species help to control aphid populations. More details here

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 bees 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. If you forgot to plant bulbs in the autumn, plant now in pots. They will come out later, but it’s better than letting the bulb rot. I have some Sicilian honey garlic (Allium nectaracsardium) bulbs that I clear forgot about. They should flower in May-June, but if I plant them this month hopefully they will be feeding bees by July. We’ll see.
  5. Buy and plant bulbs ‘in the green’ You can buy bee-friendly bulbs now ‘in the green’, which means you plant them while the bulbs are in growth, rather than dormant (as they were in the autumn). Snowdrops, winter aconites and crocuses will feed bees now and grape hyacinths next month. English bluebells and small, yellow wild tulips (Tulipa sylvestris) will flower in April along with wild garlic and fritillaries.
  6. 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. See more shrubs here.
  7. 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.
  8. 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!
  9. You could try to build bricks of cob for the Hairy-Footed Flower Bee 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 to make them at this time of year. I’m going in search of cricket pitch loam! But the mistake I made last year was not protecting the cob bricks enough from the rain, so no Hairy-Footed Flower Bee nested in them. So I’m going to have to find an
  10. Submit sightings to iRecord of Buff-tailed bumblebees in the north of the UK.
  11. 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. 

Or invest in a Bee Revival kit which comes with a tiny refillable bottle attached to key ring containing an ambrosia® bee food syrup to feed a bee in an emergency.

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.

New Year bees

Bee spotting is a rare pursuit this month 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.
  • Queen – Although called Buff-tailed bumblebees, in reality only the queen has a clearly buff coloured bottom. Measuring up to a whopping 24mm in length, she is one of our largest bumblebees and hard to miss.
  • Workers have whiter bottoms. It is the workers (measuring around 13-18mm) you will most likely see foraging and collecting blobs of Mahonia’s orange pollen in the pollen baskets on their hind legs.

Submit sightings – If you see a bumblebee during the winter north of Birmingham, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust would like you to submit your sighting at iRecord here.

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, measuring around 14mm in length, 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 bees really need are trees that blossom sequentially producing a bee banquet throughout the year. Check our Urban Bees 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. A Vilmorini’s Rowan tree (Sorbus vilmorinii) is a small tree (4m high in 20 years) that is smothered in white bee-friendly flowers in early summer, red/purple leaves in autumn, and dusky pink berries in winter that are a favourite with Waxwing birds from Scandinavia.
  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. More flower suggestions here.
  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 only wild tulips (Tulipa sylvestris seem to attract bees). I will plant some of these ‘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!
  7. Install a bird box that’s suitable for small birds like blue tits, with a 25mm diameter entrance hole, as it may prove to be the perfect nesting sites for Tree bumblebees (Bombus hypernorum) when the chicks have fledged in late spring. The bees will vacant by autumn, leaving the box empty for birds to use next year.

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.This entry was posted in All blogs and tagged bees to see in Januarybumblebees on  by alisonEdit

HIGHLIGHTS OF 2023

  1. Year-long partnership with Reddie & Grose Patent law firm with offices in east London, Cambridge and Munich. Involved introducing staff to our 270 bee species, talks on how they can plant for bees at home and making bee hotels for Red mason bees to check into. We also highlighted a bee of the month for their social media feeds.
  2. Created a new bee garden on the 12th floor of Bartholomew Close in the City (pictured middle). We installed 4 wooden planters each around 2m x 2m and 30mm deep, fitted with a drip irrigation system, and filled one with spring flowering plants, another with mid summer plants, a third with later summer plants and the final one we sprinkled with seed bombs to create a wildflower meadow. It has thrived once we ensured the outdoor tap wasn’t switched off every Monday morning!
  3. Gave a bee talk to architects at Farringdon Design Week on the subject of ‘How architects and designer can save urban bees and pollinators’. It was hosted by KN International, a cool office furniture design company. And they gave me the t-shirt!
  • 4.Regent’s Park bee safaris in May, June, and August (July walk cancelled due to high winds). Advertised by Regent’s Park as a free activity, huge numbers of people signed up but usually less than 20 turned up on the day, expect for August when we had more than a full house (all pictured in the allotment, left). I was assisted by May Webber, community engagement officer, and than Nick Tew, biodiversity research officer, who helped with nets and glass tubes.
  • 5 Three-year contract with PWC to improve biodiversity at UK offices and engage staff in sustainability via bee-related activities, like bee safaris on the terraces at their Embankment office (middle photo) where I’d worked with gardener, Mat Bell, to make them more bee-friendly throughout the year .
  • 6 Found tiny Furrow bees and Yellow-face bees on 3 of my City rooftop bee gardens during surveys for Pollinating London Together, a charity set up to improve biodiversity in the Square Mile. I offered my roofs at Bread Street (9 floors) and Bartholomew Close (12 floors) and at Weil law firm (8 floors) for pollinator surveys this summer. Thanks to pollinator ecologist, Konstantinos Tsiolis (pictured right on Bread Street with a tiny Green furrow bee), who was equipped with nets, glass tubes, and eye glasses, he recorded tiny bees that I couldn’t see with the naked eye. It was so exciting to record them so high up. And it just shows that when you plant a diversity of bee-friendly flowers, you get a diversity of wild bees, even in the City. More information here. The results will feed into a PLT report out early next year.
  • 7 Produced 3 x bee information boards for the Post Building in central London to inform the public about the wild bees they may see when they visit the roof: Red mason bees (using the bee hotels installed above in the info boards), Leafcutter bees (who may also check into the bee hotels) and Hairy-footed flowers that will visit the wallflowers in early spring. We worked with Q&S Commercial Landscaping company on this project (and others throughout the year). Thanks to Ola Wiebe for design and Penny Metal for photos.
  • 8 Installed a small bee garden at the Hilton London Metropole – in 5 hexagonal wooden planters and 2 x rectangular planters for climbers. We planted it up on a terrace in late autumn, so it will be interesting to see how the spring bulbs and wallflowers look come March/April, and which wild bees they are feeding. My guess is Hairy-footed flower bees.
  • 9 Bee hotel workshops – Brian designed our very own wooden flat-pack bee hotel. He worked with a local ‘cutter outer’ to get the 5 piece flatpack . It can be easily assembled under instruction with wood glue by people like me who can’t put Ikea furniture together. The idea was to use the bee hotels in corporate workshops. Previously we’d been using plastic water bottles, which we didn’t feel comfortable doing. The hotels have proved a great success with children and adults alike at Weil, Reddie & Grose and KPMG. Looking forward to doing many more in 2024. We’ve also sold a few online.

10. Amazon bee garden finally fed bees (5 floors up, near the Barbican)- after an irrigation system was added in spring, and though it’s tiny, it feeds Common carder bees on knapweed, and Red mason bees are nesting in the bee hotels attached to that pole pictured at the back of the tallest wooden planter. It just shows what difference a regular water source makes to the health of the plants and the variety that can be grown. Even the lavender, rosemary and sedum all did better.

11. Lush rooftop garden (5 floor roof terrace in Soho) went from strength to strength. Such a pleasure to see it attracting Wool carder bees, pictured in the middle, on the clump of Stachy byzantina (Lamb’s Ear) I’d planted for them, and Small scissor bees (pictured above right) on the Campanula, as well as Common carder bee, Buff-tailed bumblebees, Furrow bees and nests and food for Red mason bees. In June I gave my annual talk for staff on the rooftop- and the bees arrived right on cue!

12. Bees to See in 2024 calendar is even more beautiful than this year’s. Stunning close up photos taken and selected by Penny Metal. Moreover, we’ve taken on board people’s feedback and have improved the calendar so it now includes:

  • measurements to aid identification
  • photos of some of the most common hoverflies and wasps that mimic bees to help people tell them apart

Buy a copy here.

Hopes for 2024

  1. To work with more companies to create more bee gardens
  2. To educate more people about the importance of wild bees and bee gardens in cities, through talks and writing articles
  3. Capitalise on publicity around the publication of the paperback of The Good Bee.
  4. Move companies away from having beehives to having bee hotels and bee gardens.

December bees – not such a rare sight

Buff-tailed bumblebee worker Honeybee with pollen on her back legs

Tips for IDing December bumblebees:

It’s not that you won’t see bees this month, but only two species fly in the winter. And only on mild, dry days, or when it’s bright and sunny (even sometimes when there is snow on the ground!)

Given there are only two winter fliers, bee identification is a lot less interesting than in spring and summer, but it is much easier. You are either observing a wild, Buff-tailed bumblebee or a managed honeybee, and in some parts of the UK it will only be the latter as the Buff-tailed bumblebees queens are hibernating, and not producing any workers.

  • Buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) – until fairly recently these fluffy, golden-striped bumblebees hibernated like all other 23 bumblebee species in the UK. But in the late 1990s, they where observed foraging in various sites over winter. It’s believed that some summer queens set up nests in October (instead of hibernating until spring) and produce 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. This tough shrub has bright yellow flowers that 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’re most likely see the workers foraging on it between now and February, especially if you live in a city in the south of England. They will collect blobs of its orange pollen in the baskets on their hind legs to take back to the nest to feed the brood.

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 the honey which they spend all summer making and storing to eat in the winter. 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 in your garden between now and February to feed bees in the future, or sponsor a street tree, or join a local tree planting group to plant trees in parks and community orchards. 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 bees really need are trees that blossom sequentially producing a bee banquet throughout the year. Check the Urban Bees’ 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. Plant a holly tree/bush – this will not only give you bright red berries to brighten up the garden at this time of year and feed birds, it will also produce small white flowers for bees in early summer. Note: Only female trees form fruit and they need to be planted near to a male for the bees to transfer the pollen from the male to the female to fertilise them. However the male holly could be in a neighbour’s garden. For a sure bet for berries, try self-fertile ‘J C van Tol’ which also attracts bees to its flowers.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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!
  6. 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. One way to ensure you are always prepared to revive a bee is by carrying a Bee Revival Kit with you at all times. It’s a vial filled with an ambrosia syrup that attaches to a key ring.
  7. An alternative is to pick a bee 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. 
  8. Never feed a bee honey. It sounds counterintuitive, but the bacterial spores of a disease that affects bee larvae can be found in honey and this brood disease is highly contagious.

How to help bees in late autumn

OK, so most bees don’t fly at this time of year, but there’s a chance you could still spot four species when it’s mild, sunny and dry. So get out in the garden, or your local park on a bright, autumnal day and head for any flowers and shrubs still in bloom. 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 by far 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 (up to 24mm) and distinctive buff coloured bottom. The workers are smaller (16mm) 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. 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) – if you see a 15mm fluffy brown bee on flowering salvias or Fuchsia at this time of year, chances are they will be the new queens 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 bees (Colletes hederae) – If you’ve not yet seen an ivy bee, there’s a small chance you may this month 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 with a fluffy ginger pile on top of its thorax (though it may be a duller brown by now) feeding on the last of the tiny, white ivy flowers. It’s the fluffy thorax that sets the 13mm ivy bee apart from honey bees 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 this month because they are still stocking up on nectar to take back to their hive before the winter. They may be foraging on the last ivy flowers and are around 10mm long with a slim, tapered gold and black stripy body. They can be easily confused with other stripy insects, such as ivy bees and or the less hairy hoverflies that are still flying.

How to help bees in November:

  1. Cosmos, Penstemon, Fuchsia, salvias, dahlias, tickseed, Comfrey and Geranium Rozanne are all still flowering for late-flying bees, along with Fatsia japonica, so try to have some in your garden or in pots or planters.
  2. Since most bee species don’t fly in the colder months, now’s the time to think ahead to next spring when many bees start emerging. Make you garden, roof terrace, patio or other outside space a smorgasbord of bee-friendly spring bulbs. 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. Here are the best spring bulbs for bees.
  3. 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.
  4. The Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) feeds bees in November and it’s nectar and pollen contains medicinal properties for bumblebees, so try to grow one in your garden or a even a large pot. If you’d like a spring or summer flowering tree instead, now is the perfect month to decide which tree you could add to your garden to provide bee food next year. If you order it now, you can plant a tree, while trees are dormant during late autumn or winter. Also, speak to your council tree officer about planting more bee-friendly trees in local streets and parks. Trees 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. Some bee-friendly trees grow very well in pots, including small fruit trees such as crab apples. My favourite to feed the Red mason bees is Malus sylvestris ‘Evereste’.
  5. If you live in a milder part of the UK, it’s worth planting winter-flowers shrubs, such as Mahonia, and perennials, such a Hellebores, to feed buff-tailed bumblebees who fly all year round. More information on flowers here and shrubs here.
  6. Have you ever thought of growing a wildlife-friendly hedge? Well this month is the time to get planning. Hawthorn, Blackthorn, Field Maple, Beech, Hornbeam, Purging buckthorn and Dog rose are some of plants that this RHS video suggests. It all really depends on what size garden you have, how prickly you want your hedge and how much you want it to flower for pollinators. We have a small Cotoneaster hedge in our small, urban front garden which mitigates pollutions as well as feeding bees in the summer. Even privet hedges are good for pollinators if they are allowed to flower. Bare-root hedges can be planted from late autumn into winter.
  7. 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.
  8. Seeds to grow under glass this month including wild cornflower, cowslip, poppies and Pink Hawk’s Beard (Crepis rubra) – a new hardy annual I’ve just come across which looks a bit like a pink dandelion . 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

Best spring bulbs for bees – get planting now

L-R: Common Snowdrops; Winter aconites; Crocus tommasinianus

Bees emerging in spring need nectar to give them the energy to fly and find a nest and pollen to take back to the nest for the developing brood (bumblebees and honeybees) or to provision the nest for when the eggs hatch (solitary bees).

Here I list the best 10 bulbs to provide nectar and pollen for bees in order of their flowering from January to late May. (Bulbs can be planted throughout autumn, and alliums even later). The most important ones to plant are those that provide food from January – April when there are few sources of food available. Many work best in shady conditions. If you have sunny areas, stick to Crocus, Muscari armeniacum and Alliums are you best bet.

The general rule for growing bulbs is to plant them at a depth 2-3 times the size of the bulb. If there is a pointed side, this should face upwards.

Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) – the common snowdrop is the first bulb to flower from January onwards. They can take a while to establish (and I’ve not had much luck with them in my snail/slug infested London garden), but once they have formed beautiful, natural white drifts in shady areas they will provide much needed early food for pollinators that are just waking up in spring.

Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) – another shade-loving spring flower, it’s golden yellow blooms provide an essential source of pollen for queen bumblebees emerging on mild, sunny days in February and March when there’s not much else around, and a cheery blanket of colour in the winter garden.

Crocus (Crocus tommasinianus) – there ae so many varieties of crocus, any with a bee-friendly label will provide much-needed nectar in spring, The reason I always plant this variety is that they are the early flowering Crocus that appear in February – March. They seem to do well in sunny conditions, but don’t seem to last long before they are crushed by wind or rain.

L-R: Grape hyacinth; Scilla siberica; Anemone blanda

Grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum) – not be confused with Hyacinths, a gaudy spring flower that comes in pinks and whites and blues. Bees will visit those Hyacinths, but if you want to feed Hairy-footed flower bees in March – April, one of the best ways is to plant the Mediterranean, sun-loving Grape hyacinth. To avoid confusion, just call in Muscari armeniacum. The 20cm high flowers are swathe of blue and a nectar feast for those zippy flower bees and other early flying long-tongued pollinators.

Siberian squill (Scilla siberica) – these dainty bell-shaped blue flowers look like miniature bluebells but bloom much earlier in March – April. They will quickly seed and form large swaths of colour and food for bees in semi-shady, or sunny areas.

Wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa) or Winter windflower (Anemone blanda) – the former provide a blanket of 15cm tall white, daisy-like flowers from March – May under trees in woodlands. The latter will fare better in sunnier conditions and comes in whites, blues and pinks. If you have slugs/snails it may be best to try growing the latter in pots and window boxes.

L-R: Woodland tulip (Tulip sylvestris); Snake’s Head Fritillary ; Camassia

Wild Tulip/Woodland Tulip (Tulip sylvestris) – these short (30cm), yellow tulips that appear in March and like woodland conditions, are about the only tulip that feeds bees. The stunning ornamental varieties, in all their hues and finery, have been bred without nectar and pollen.

Snake’s Head Fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris) – another shade-loving spring flower. These appear a bit later, in April, when their lantern-like maroon, or white, flowers swaying in the wind in grassy areas.

Camassia – happiest in cool damp areas, these tall stemmed perennials with clusters of pretty, starry pale blue flowers will attract bees in May. But by May there are many blossoming trees, shrubs and other garden flowers that will feed bees, so don’t be surprised if you don’t see so many bee visitors. food.

Alliums – there are a huge variety to choose from depending on the colour (usually purple or white) and the size you are looking for, but all of them are showstoppers. Although they also bloom in May when there are plenty of other nectar and pollen sources, the stunning globe-shaped heads of these ornamental onions are often covered in short-tongued bees, especially honeybees.

Sicilian Honey Garlic (Allium siculum syn. Nectaroscordum) – an unusual looking ornamental onion, it’s pastel-coloured, bell-shaped flowers hang down in an umbrella shape from a tall stem. As it’s name suggests, this flower provides copious amounts of nectar, but again there are plenty of other sources from trees and shrubs by May into June.

NOTE: If you don’t like spring bulbs, or forget to plant the bulbs, grow early flowering perennials instead, such as hellebores, native primroses and lungwort. I try to do both.

October bees

There are still more than a handful of bee species flying this month, including the ivy bee. If you’ve still not seen one, get out on a warm, dry day and stand patiently by a buzzing ivy bush in the autumnal sunshine. This is where you’re likely to see them feeding on the tiny, white, pin cushion-like flowers for nectar and pollen, alongside slightly bigger honeybees (14mm) that they can easily be confused with. Just to make it harder, they will be joined by heaps of stripy hoverflies. The photos above and the ID tips below are designed to help you tell a ivy bee and honeybee apart. And our Is it a bee or a hoverfly? guide should help distinguish both from their hoverfly mimics.

Also observe bees on later flowering blooms, such as Salvias, Michaelmas daisies, Fuchsia, Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’, Cosmos and Penstemon. Some will be the longer-tongued Common carder bees whose ginger tufts will have probably faded to straw. Small workers and larger queens will be flying, along with Tree bumblebee queens, and ubiquitous Buff-tailed bumblebees. And tiny furrow bees may still be seen.

My best advice to you this month is the same as I give every October; make the most of any mild, bright autumnal days to get out and spot many of the last bees of 2023.

Tips for IDing October bumblebees:

  • Buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) – these bumblebees with dirty 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 find a nest.
  • Tree bumblebees (Bombus hypnorum) – I’ve really missed seeing these white-bottomed bees in London this summer. I’ve not spotted one, and other people too have noticed their absence. But further north you’ll likely to see them still flying well into October. They will be vacating any bird boxes the colony has occupied over the summer. The old queen will die, leaving new queens and males to mate, then the new queens will stock up on nectar – also on ivy flowers – before finding a cosy spot to spend the winter.
  • Common carder bees (Bombus pascuorum) – the workers will often sport a faded ginger/brown thorax that looks more straw-coloured at this time of year. They will often be seen foraging on Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’, Michaelmas daisies and Salvia ‘hot lips’ in my garden, alongside new, more vibrant looking queens and males stocking up on nectar before the winter. The queens are the largest (15mm) and the workers the smallest (11mm). 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 scientific Latin name Bombus.

How to ID October solitary bees:

Ivy 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 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 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 that may become a nesting site. This video 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 as they are so small and easy to miss. But I am getting better. My rule of thumb is that if it’s a small black, shiny 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 flowering ivy is by far 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, Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus), and Cyclamen.
  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. This month is all about planting spring bulbs to feed bees next year. 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. I’m also going to plant lots of Muscari Armeniacum (Grape hyacinth) bulbs this autumn. They flower in April and May and I hear that the Hairy footed-flower bees likes them, so we shall see.
  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.

Autumn bees

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 smaller common carder bee workers (many faded from the sun) are still out in force.

The star of the month has to be the ivy bee. Find a patch of flowering ivy (yes, mature ivy is smothered in tiny white flowers later this month) and observe. You’ll see lots o insects, including hover flies, wasps and honeybees, but if you’re patient you’re hopefully see Ivy bees too. This short-lived solitary bee emerges just before the ivy flowers and disappears shortly after. It was first recorded in the UK, just over 20 years ago.

We’ve included honeybees in our guide this month, despite the fact they are managed bees. There are two reasons:

1. You’ll see lots on flowers in your garden because 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 to tell them apart.

Tips for IDing September bumblebees:

  • Tree bumblebees (Bombus hypnorum) – if you’ve been bee spotting all summer, you may be quite adept at identifying tree bumblebees by now with their ginger thorax, black abdomen and white tails. Perhaps you’ve even had them nesting in a bird box in your garden. However, I’ve not seen one all year! They seem to have disappeared from London but are doing well further north. Is it too hot for it down here now? They usually have two generations each summer so if you see any flying this month they 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.
  • Buff-tailed bumblebee(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 place to overwinter.
  • Red-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lapidarius) – increasingly rare in London, but easily recognisable when you do get a glimpse. The males, (12mm) which are flying now are one of our prettiest bees with their yellow facial hair and red bottoms. The queens are much more dramatic, dressed in black with a fiery red butt. 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. Workers are a smaller version of the queen(12mm). The only plant I’ve seen them on this year is the yellow flowers of Bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) on the 11th floor of an office block in central London!

Other bumblebees you’re likely to see this month are 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 as they fade with age. They are the smallest bumblebees flying in September.

How to ID September solitary bees:

  • Large-headed resin bees (Heriades truncorum) – a small (5mm), black robust bee often seen at this time of year in the south of England on yellow composite flowers like sunflowers. The easiest way to distinguish it from other small, black bees is that it carries pollen on the underside of its abdomen (like a leafcutter). And it make its nest in a pre-existing cavity in wood. After she has laid her eggs in the cavity, she plugs it with tiny bits of grit and stone that she collects and then glues it all together with resin collected from nearby trees. You can help this bee by drilling holes into wooden logs and attaching them to a wall. See how to make a nest for this bee. Fascinating fact: She is found in Europe and the east coast of the United States and is thought to have possibly been introduced in the UK by Victorians in imported wood )
  • Ivy 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).
  • Pantaloon bee (Dasypoda hirtipes) – I always associate this sand-loving mining bee (9-11mm in length) with beaches because of the way she uses her large, rather comical oversized pollen brushes on her hind legs, known as ;pantaloons’ to dig a hole for nesting in coastal dunes. But she is just as happy on sandy brownfield sites in mainly southern England and Wales. Her nest can be distinguished from other burrowing bees by the large fan of sandy spoil she leaves to one of side of the hole. You can see how making her nest in this great video.
  • Common furrow bee (Lasioglossum calceatum) – these small solitary bees (9mm) with an elongated black shiny body have been flying since early spring. So there is no excuse for not recognising them in daisies and geranium flowers. The ones you will be seeing now are males and females that were born in July and can fly until October. They makes nests in the ground.
  • Green furrow bee (Lasioglossum morio) – another small (5mm), black solitary bee, but this one has a green metallic hue. But you can only really see this if you have a net to catch the bee and put it into a glass tube and then study it with an eye glass. I’m not confident catching bees in a net, but I was fortunate enough to go out a few times this summer with an ecologist who was. And I got to see some of these bees close up in a tube and could clearly see the green. They are widespread and we found them eight floors up on London rooftops foraging on hebes and a wildflower called Hoary willowherb (Epilobium parviflorum).
  • Fascinating fact: Both of these burrowing, furrow 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.

Another solitary bee you may still see this month is the tiny 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). They plaster their nests, but 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. (Thanks to Nurturing Nature and Api:Cultural for the info and footage).

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, fuchsia, Devil’s bit scabious, Coreopsis (Tickseed) Perovskia Blue Spire, commonly known as Russian sage, and wild marjoram (Origanum) 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, buddleia and hemp agrimony are still flowering.
  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. Boost your wildflower meadow . If you haven’t already done your summer cut, do it now, scarify the cut meadow to expose bare soil where seeds can grown, then add yellow rattle seeds to suppress grasses taking over next year. Finally, add perennial plug plants of wild flowers that will grow well in the soil and feed bees.
  7. Ditch the weed killers and pesticides. 
  8. Take semi-ripe cuttings if you are patient and want to propagate heathers, ivy, Mahonia, Escallonia, flowering-currents, verbena, penstemon and salvias. The cuttings should be ready to pot on next spring.
  9. Create a bank of sand mixed with some clay soil against a south facing wall, or a free-standing mound, for mining bees which like to burrow into sand. It needs 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.
  10. 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.
  11. Keep a look out for Asian hornets which are now in the south of the UK and could have a severe impact on our wild bee populations. Report any sightings using the Asian Hornet Watch App.

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.