Rooftop Rewilding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

London Bee Tours 2022

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

Seeing bees in Regent’s Park

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

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

said one participant

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

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

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

Winter reading recommendations

Useful Bee ID guides

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

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

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

Gardening for bees

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

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

Introduction to bees

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

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

or equally

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

Nature books

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blossom-sequencing trees for bees

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

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

Early-flowering trees

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

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

Late-flowering trees

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

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

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

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

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

Tips for IDing November bumblebees:

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

How to ID November solitary bees:

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

How to ID honey bees:

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

How to help bees in November:

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

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

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

Bee hotel winter management

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fewer bee spotting opportunities

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

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

Tips for IDing October bumblebees:

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

How to ID October solitary bees:

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

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

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

How to help bees in October:

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

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

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

Is it a bee or a hoverfly?




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

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

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

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

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

Their English names are derived from their markings:

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

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

Large-headed resin bees

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

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

September surprises

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

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

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

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

Tips for IDing September bumblebees:

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

How to ID September solitary bees:

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

How to help bees in September

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

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

Transforming Chelsea Creek into a wild bee haven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September

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

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

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

October

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

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

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

We planted plug plants:

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

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

Pantaloon Bee – one to see on holiday

If you’re by sand dunes this summer on the south, or south west coast, or Wales look out for the Pantaloon bee (Dasypoda hirtipes). This fluffy solitary bee excavates her burrow using those oversized pollen brushes that make her look like she’s wearing pantaloons on her back legs.

How does she excavate her burrow? Well, here’s a fascinating video showing you.

She has also been spotted on sandy brownfield sites in towns and cities.

More information about the Pantaloon bee here.

How to ID and help bees in August

Small, black bees dominate the solitary bee world again this month, but they are joined by a medium-sized furry, striped plasterer bee and a parasitic blood bee with a red abdomen.  You may also notice that some of the bumblebees just got a lot larger again, like the size they were in the spring. That’s because a new generations of queen bumblebees are flying. Many will have mated with males from nearby nests and are looking for somewhere safe to hunker down for the next few months until next spring when they will create their own colony.

Tips for IDing August bumblebees:

  • Male white-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lucorum) are commonly seen in parks and gardens at this time of year resting on flowers before flying in search of a virgin bumblebee queen to mate with. You can tell the males apart from workers and queens because they have bright yellow hairs on their face. The males of all bumblebee species are smaller than the queens, but bigger than the workers.
  • Buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) are the most common bumblebee in the UK. In August, the huge queens are easy to spot as they drink nectar from flowering plants to build up their energy and strength for the winter ahead. They will either be mated and looking for a safe, small hole in the ground to sleep until spring, or in Southern England they are more likely to have mated and be looking for an underground nest now in order to rear a new colony of workers that will live through our mild winter, feeding on Mahonia and Hellebores.
  • Common carder bees (Bombus pascurorum) are one of my favourite bees because they are frequent visitors to the garden until October and are small and cute with their brown/gingery coat, but they are often overlooked for more showy, striped bumblebees.  As their English name suggests, they are widespread, and they tease out (‘carder’) pieces of moss and grass for nesting material. Unlike many bumblebee species, they nest on the ground, rather than below it, often under hedges, or garden sheds, or in tall open grassland.

You may also see red-tailed bumblebees, tree bumblebees and garden bumblebee this month. All the castes could be out – the large queens, and smaller workers and males. And a new generation of cuckoo bumblebees may also be flying, such as the Field cuckoo bee (Bombus campestris), which lays its eggs in carder bees’ nests. Here’s a full guide to cuckoos. ID tip: They have darker wings than nest-making bumblebees and no pollen baskets because their host’s worker bees collect the pollen to feed the cuckoo bees’ females and males.

How to ID August solitary bees:

  • Willughby’s leafcutter (Megachile willughbiella), the most common of the leafcutter bees, is still flying until the end of the month. They get their name, like many solitary bees, from how they construct their nests. If, like me, you’ve not yet seen a female flying home with a piece of leaf she’s cut from a rose or lilac bush clasped between her legs, then watch this fantastic footage from Devon-based field naturalist, John Walter. She lines her nest and plugs it with pieces of leaf. She can nest in a bee hotel, alongside red mason bees, but can also be found in in many other artificial cavities including gaps in window frames, holes in walls and even rubber hoses and folded garden parasols. Tip: A similar in size to a honeybee, leafcutters are brownish grey and collect pollen on the underside of their tummy, which they have a habit of lifting up in the air while feeding on flowers.
  • Davies’ plasterer bee (Colletes daviesanus) is a smallish 5-7mm bee with a furry thorax and a shiny abdomen with grey-white stripes. There are 500 known species of plasterers – also called Colletes bees –  worldwide, but only nine in Britain. This is the main one you’ll see in your garden on any daisy-like flower and nesting in weathered sandstone walls, soft mortar or in south-facing slopes of bare soil.  They are called plasterer bees because they plaster the cells of the nests with a cellophane-like resin substance they produce which is both waterproof and fungus-resistant.
  • Common yellow-faced bees (Hylaeus communis) are one of many small, (5mm) predominately black bees which frequents gardens from mid to late summer. This one has tiny yellow spots or a triangle on its face, and yellow on its legs. It nests in a variety of small cavities including hollow stems and manmade bee hotels if the dimensions of the tube are small enough. It too lines the cells of its nest with waterproof, anti-fungal resin applied with its tongue, which explains why yellow-faced bees are classified in the same family as Colletes.  You won’t see pollen on their hind legs or under their tummy, because, unusually for a bee, they carry pollen back to its nest in a special stomach, called a crop and regurgitate it to make a semi-liquid mixed with nectar to feed their brood (larvae).
  • Small scissor bees (Chelostoma campanularum) were easy to spot last month despite their diminutive size, because the 4.5mm-long males shelter in the middle of bellflowers (campanula in Latin) during dull weather and/or at night. Now the bellflowers have gone, look in hardy geraniums instead. Another cavity nester, they use pre-existing holes in dead wood including fence posts and plug the holes with small particles like sand grains and pebbles.  
  • Common furrow bees (Lasioglossum calceatum) – are another black bee that fails to conforms to most people’s image of a bee. It has a smooth elongated body, often with a metallic green or blue sheen. If you’ve not seen them yet, try looking in thistles, knapweeds and ragworts early in the morning as the males may be roosting there overnight. They excavate underground burrows in light soil in which to nest. Like many solitary bees, they like living next door to each other in large aggregations.
  • Blood bees (Sphecodes) can often be found where furrow bees are nestingas they invade their nests and those of mining bees.   There are several hundred species of these parasitic bees globally and around 17 in the British Isles. They range in size from 4mm to 8mm, but can be identified from other black, hairless bees by their red abdomen which looks as if it is full of blood. Telling one blood bee species from another can be very challenging, despite possessing some of the best descriptive common names such as swollen-thighed, bare-saddled and dull-headed. If you see one on heathland or coastal dunes, chances are it could be the Sandpit blood bee. They are actually cleptoparasites, which means the female enters a host’s nest, opens up a cell and destroys the egg, or larvae, in it and replaces it with her own egg before resealing it. Females are usually found around the nests of the host, while males are often hanging out on a variety of daisy-like flowers and umbellifers. Tip: Don’t kill these bees to save the furrow and mining bees. Nature works in mysterious ways and we must respect that.

How to help bees in August:

  1. Plant different flowers for different bees. Hollyhocks, sunflowers, globe thistles are cardoons are all magnets at this time of year for short-tongued bees, along with open-faced dahlias. For the long-tongued bumblebees, black horehound, salvias and buddleia are still flowering, and hemp agrimony is good if you have damp growing conditions. Geranium rozanne and Calamint are still going strong, and Common sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) is starting to produce coppery blooms which are a top attraction for solitary bees according to Rosybee nursery’s fantastically helpful research . Marjoram (Origanum), Anise hyssop, thyme and Bergamot, are all later-flowering herbs that do well in pots in a sunny position.
  2. If you only have a window box, Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus), creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum) and trailing nasturtium and bird’s-foot trefoil are still flowering. Add sedum for late flowers and annuals such as cosmos and snap dragons.
  3. If you let your lawn grow into a wildflower meadow this year, now is a good time to do what’s called the ‘haycut’. Cut to 4cm with a mower, or better still use a scythe or shears. Leave the cuttings for a few days to let seeds drop to the surface of the soil, then rake the cuttings up to reduce soil fertility and encourage more wildflowers next year.
  4. Gather seeds from plants such as poppies, love-in-a-mist, bellflowers and foxgloves. 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 and hope for the best.
  5. Leave parts of the garden undisturbed, as ground nesting bumblebee queens may be looking for a snug place to spend the winter.
  6. Ditch the weed killers and pesticides. 
  7.  You can put up bee hotels now, but you probably won’t get any visitors until next spring. You can make a bee hotel. We recommend buying ones that you can clean out in the winter and store the bee cocoons safely in a cold, dry, dark place. We have successfully installed these bee hotels under the south-facing eaves of our garden shed. 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 award-winning one from Nurturing Nature.
  8. It’s still not too late to 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. Small scissor bees or yellow-faced bees may take up residence.
  9. Create a bank of sand mixed with some clay soil against a south facing wall for mining bees which like to burrow into sand. 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.
  10. Provide a source of water for thirsty bees. This can be a shallow bowl or saucer with stones or pebbles in that the bees can stand on while they are drinking. Bees can’t swim!

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

Bee spotting in July

Bee spotting just got a whole lot harder this month because three new solitary bee species are tiny – less than half the size of a 14mm honey bee. They are the small scissor bee, the diminutive common-yellow faced bee and the slightly bigger green-eyed flower bee. Luckily, the larger Willughby’s leafcutter bee and the Blue mason bee are still flying, along with the chunky Wool carder bee. I’m also excited about seeing the males of two species of bumblebee this month. They look even cuter than the workers and the queens!

Tips for IDing July bumblebees:

  • Male Red-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lapidaries) and White-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lucorum) are flying now because it is the time of year when the bumblebee colony is getting ready for mating. If you remember in early spring the queens emerged, foraged and looked for a nest. The first eggs they laid were worker females who were able to take over foraging duties when they became adult bees allowing the queen to focus on laying more eggs to strengthen the colony. Some of the eggs she has laid are males, who are now flying. Their sole job will be to mate with new virgin queens who will soon be emerging from the colony. The male red-tailed bumblebee is actually multi-coloured with fluffy yellow hairs on his face, two yellow bands on his black body and a red tail to boot making him surely one of our most attractive bees. The white-tailed bumblebee males also have endearingly bright yellow hairs on their face. Both are smaller than the queens.

You will also continue to see some of our commonest bumblebee flying this month: buff-tailed and white-tailed bumblebees, common carder bees, queen and worker red-tailed bumblebees, tree bumblebees and garden bumblebees. And cuckoo bumblebees, like the Vestal cuckoo bee we began seeing last month, are still around. Here’s a full guide to cuckoos. ID tip: They have longer tails than nest-making bumblebees and no pollen baskets.

How to ID July solitary bees:

  • 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 her nest in a ready-made hole. You may also see the larger male bees aggressively defending their patch of purple flowers by attacking intruders in mid-air, armed with spikes under their abdomen. I’ve also seen the 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.
  • Willughby’s leafcutter (Megachile willughbiella) is the most common of the 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. Similar in size to a honeybee, leafcutters are brownish grey and collect pollen on the underside of their tummy, which they have a habit of lifting up in the air while feeding on flowers. 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.
  • Common yellow-faced bee (Hylaeus communis) is one of a dozen small, (5mm) predominately black yellow-faced bees you may see this month with tiny yellow spots or a triangle on its 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.
  • Small scissor bee (Chelostoma campanularum) is one of the smallest bees in Britain. Measuring just 4.5mm, they can easily be mistaken for a tiny, black fly or ant by the lay person, or a black furrow bee by an entomologist. 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 pre-existing holes in dead wood including fence posts and plug the holes the 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).
  • Blue mason bees (Osmia caerulescens) are black, but on close inspection females have a blue sheen. They are bigger and slightly hairier than scissor, yellow-faced and furrow bees. Similar in size to a red mason bee, they have the same round bottom, hairs on their tummy to collect pollen and they will also nest in bee hotels, but are less frequent guests. They plug their tubes with chewed up leaf, instead of mud. You’re most likely to see these bees on catmint, crane’s bill (hardy geraniums), knapweeds and flowering herbs.
  • The Green-eyed flower bee (Anthophora bimaculata) is a real beauty. Much smaller than the earlier flying Hairy-footed flower bee, she displays the same darting movement and high pitched buzz, and the males (which also have the big, green eyes) noisily patrol patches of flowers. However, you may only get to see them if you live on the coast in southern England since they like to nest in sand. We’ve included them in our guide because insect photographer, Penny Metal, has seen one in her local park in south London. It’s in her fantastic book Insectinside: life in the bushes of a small Peckham park (featured on Springwatch). Penny’s sighting gives me hope that some of you in urban areas may get a glimpse of one this summer, especially as they are polylectic – feeding on many flowers including catmints, Viper’s bugloss, Black Horehound, brambles, willowherbs, and the dandelion-looking Cat’s-ear,  many of which grow along canals, in the wilder areas of parks and on urban wasteland, where there’s also often construction sand.
  • Common furrow bee (Lasioglossum calceatum) – there are more than 1,700 furrow bees worldwide making them the largest bee genus, despite the fact they don’t conform to most people’s image of a bee – black, with a smooth elongated body, often with a metallic green or blue sheen. Measuring around 7mm, the common variety are widespread in gardens across Britain and males may roost overnight in thistles, knapweeds and ragworts at this time of year. They furrow in light soil to make their nests in large aggregations.

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.
  2. If you only have a window box, try growing the flowers I suggested in June as they will still be flowering now: scabious japonica, dwarf harebells (campanula carpatica), dwarf lavenders, Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus) and creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum) and keep watering regularly. You could 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 blue mason bees and leafcutter bees. You can make a bee hotel. We recommend buying ones that you can clean out in the winter and store the bee cocoons safely in a cold, dry, dark place. We have successfully installed these bee hotels under the south-facing eaves of our garden shed. 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 award-winning one from Nurturing Nature.
  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. You may even attract the Green-eyed flower bee.
  8. Provide a source of water for thirsty bees. This can be a shallow bowl or saucer with stones or pebbles in that the bees can stand on while they are drinking. Bees can’t swim!
  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 flower next spring.

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

Busy bees to spot and help in June

This month you’ll hopefully see the three bumblebees above and a cuckoo bumblebee, (along with the ubiquitous buff-tailed and white-tailed workers, and common carder bees who are all still busy foraging for pollen and nectar) . While we say goodbye to the charming hairy-footed flower bees and the bee-hotel dwelling red mason bees in late June, we say hello to five new solitary bees: a new mason bee, a new mining bee, and we’ll see for the first time leafcutter bees, furrow bees and one of my favourites, the wool carder bee.

Tips for IDing June bumblebees:

  • Garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) – some of you may have seen her last month, but for those of us still waiting for a sight of this long-tongued bumblebee, my advice is to sit by a patch of flowering foxgloves or honeysuckle and wait. The way to tell the garden bumblebee apart from other similar large, white-tailed bumblebees is the two golden bands at the front and back of the thorax which makes them look as if they are wearing a black skull cap. They have a third band on the abdomen.
  • Red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) – again some of you may have already seen these easy-to-spot queens and workers with their black bodies and fiery red tails. For those, like me, still waiting, I have read that they favour yellow flowers, but despite looking up into the branches of Laburnum trees drooping under the weight of yellow, pea-like flowers I’ve yet to see one. They seem to be out-competed by buff-tailed bumblebees in my corner of east London.
  • Tree bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) – their ginger thorax, black body and white tail may be visible on Cotoneaster, or bramble flowers. Better still, keep your eye on a blue tit box when the chicks have fledged as they may move in. Since the tree bumblebee arrived in southern England in 2001 from Europe it has become one of the most common species in the UK because it has exploited nesting sites not frequented by other bumblebees which usually prefer to live underground.
  • 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 large female (they don’t have queens or workers) seeking the underground nest of the buff-tailed bumblebee to take over. At this time of year only small buff-tailed workers are foraging. So if you see a big looking one with NO pollen baskets on her hind legs it’s likely a vestal cuckoo. Look closely and you’ll see she has only one single golden band on her thorax and another band on top of her white tail. She doesn’t collect pollen because after she takes over a nest, the buff-tailed workers become her slaves, collecting pollen for the vestal’s offspring when her eggs hatch.

How to ID June solitary bees:

  • The Wool Carder Bee (Anthidium manicatum) is one of my favourite solitary bees, because they are so easy to spot with their yellow spots along the side of their chunky bodies. 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 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. You may also see the larger male bees aggressively defending their patch of purple flowers by attacking intruders in mid air. They are armed with spikes under their abdomen that can kill their foes. NOTE: Despite having a similar English name to the Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum), they are very different. The latter is a social bumblebee.
  • Willugby’s leafcutter (Megachile willughbiella) is the most common of the leafcutter bees. They get their name, like many solitary bees, from how they construct their nests. They cut pieces of leaf from rose and lilac bushes to line their nests, leaving the plant looking as if it has been attacked by a hole punch. Similar in size to a honeybee, leafcutters are brownish grey and collect pollen on the underside of their tummy, which they have a habit of lifting up in the air while feeding on flowers. They nest in bee hotels if red mason bees have left any tubes unoccupied. They plug the entrance with 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.
  • Blue mason bees (Osmia caerulescens) are similar in size to a red mason bee and have the same round bottom and hairs on their tummy to collect pollen. The females are black with a blue sheen. The males, which appear a little earlier, have a gingery pile on their thorax. They can also check into bee hotels, but are less frequent guests than red mason bees. Their tubes will be plugged green, with chewed up leaf. You’re most likely to see these bees on catmint, crane’s bill (hardy geraniums), knapweeds and flowering herbs.
  • Orange-tailed mining bees (Andrena haemorrhoa) are one of the most common mining bees in urban areas and easy to spot if you look down in the grass. The size of a honeybee, females have a reddish pile on their thorax, a black body, and bright orange hairs right at the very tip of their pointy bottom. Although solitary, they like to nest next door to each other in underground burrows in south-facing grassy slopes.
  • Smeathman’s Furrow bee (Lasioglossum smeathmanellum ) – there are close on 40 different species of furrow bees recorded in the UK. They are not what you expect a bee to look like – black, with a smooth elongated body, often with a metallic green or blue sheen. Measuring less than 5mm (for comparison a honeybee is around 14mm), spotting this type of furrow bee is going to be a challenge even though they are common over most of southern England and Wales. They nest in old walls and bare slops in large aggregations and visit open-faced flowers like dandelions and daisies.

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 blooming and trees, such as the limes, have yet to begin and spring flowers fade before summer ones burst open. Try catmint (Nepeta) and cotoneaster for short-tongued bees, and foxgloves, honeysuckle, comfrey and thistles for long-tongued bees. 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) 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) to let dandelions and clovers grow.
  4. It’s not too late to install blue tit boxes for tree 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 for blue mason bees and leafcutter bees. You can make a bee hotel. We recommend buying ones that you can clean out in the winter and store the bee cocoons safely in a cold, dry, dark place. We have successfully installed these bee hotels under the south-facing eaves of our garden shed. 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 award-winning one from Nurturing Nature.
  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 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 bees. This can be a shallow bowl or saucer with stones or pebbles in that the bees can stand on while they are drinking. Bees can’t swim!
  9. Ditch the weed killers and pesticides.
  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? One of my favourite bees, the hairy-footed flower bee, disappears later this month, along with red mason bees. This is because solitary bees only live for a few weeks. In their short life cycle 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 hungry larvae which will hatch from her eggs. When she had 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 having achieved her aim: to successfully reproduce. In her short life, she pollinates many flowers, shrubs and trees whose fruits, seeds and nuts are food for birds and other species. After the fat larvae have spun a cocoon and metamorphosed into adult bees over winter, they will emerge next spring to start the life cycle again.

For information on IDing and helping spring bumblebees and solitary bees see my Bees to See in April blog here, Bees to See in May blog here and Bees to See in March blog here.

Queen Bees podcast featuring Brian! Brian! Brian!

Last week Brian visited Esther Coles’ hives on her allotment in Crouch End to appear in the beekeeping podcast she started during lockdown with her best mate, fellow actor, Jane Horrocks.

Jane clearly enjoyed it.

Esther was one of Brian’s first students. Twelve years ago Urban Bees taught 20 budding beekeepers over the course of a year how to become responsible urban beekeepers and they got bees and hive at the end of the training, courtesy of the Co-op’s Plan Bee campaign. Since then, Esther and Brian have become good friends. He last came to see her hives when he was the north London bee inspector for the government’s National Bee Unit a few years ago.

Esther has been hoping to get Brian down to the allotment to look at the 3 bee hives when rules permitted. When it finally happened last week, her and Jane were so excited they kept chanting Brian’s name!

If you listen to the podcast, you’ll know that Esther was worried that her bees may have a bacterial disease or a virus spread by the varroa mite. So, in this episode, Brian takes them through each of the hives explaining clearly and precisely what is going on.

There are a few surprises along the way….

Listen to the Queen Bees podcast, Series 3: episode 7 ‘Buzzing with the Drones’ here

WILD BEES, by John Clare (1820s)

Which bees can you identify from this poem?

These children of the sun which summer brings
As pastoral minstrels in her merry train
Pipe rustic ballads upon busy wings
And glad the cotters’ quiet toils again.
The white-nosed bee that bores its little hole
In mortared walls and pipes its symphonies,
And never absent couzen, black as coal,
That Indian-like bepaints its little thighs,
With white and red bedight for holiday,
Right earlily a-morn do pipe and play
And with their legs stroke slumber from their eyes.
And aye so fond they of their singing seem
That in their holes abed at close of day
They still keep piping in their honey dreams,

And larger ones that thrum on ruder pipe
Round the sweet smelling closen and rich woods
Where tawny white and red flush clover buds
Shine bonnily and bean fields blossom ripe,
Shed dainty perfumes and give honey food
To these sweet poets of the summer fields;
Me much delighting as I stroll along
The narrow path that hay laid meadow yields,
Catching the windings of their wandering song.
The black and yellow bumble first on wing
To buzz among the sallow’s early flowers,
Hiding its nest in holes from fickle spring
Who stints his rambles with her frequent showers;

And one that may for wiser piper pass,
In livery dress half sables and half red,
Who laps a moss ball in the meadow grass
And hoards her stores when April showers have fled;
And russet commoner who knows the face
Of every blossom that the meadow brings,

Starting the traveller to a quicker pace
By threatening round his head in many rings:
These sweeten summer in their happy glee
By giving for her honey melody.

Answers:

  1. Male Hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes) – white nosed/make their nests in mortared walls/and make a high pitched buzzing noise
  2. Female Hairy-footed flower bee – black as coal/collects different coloured pollen on her thighs/and her darting flight looks as if she is playing.
  3. Buff-tailed bumblebee queen (Bombus terrestris) – first bee to fly in early spring/feeds on the willow catkins/nests in holes in the ground.
  4. Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) – russet coloured, very common because it’s not a fussy eater and will visit many flowers to collect nectar and pollen).

I have to thank professor Jeff Ollerton for introducing me to the poetry of John Clare. Jeff was writing in the April issue of British Wildlife and described the Common carder bee in Clare’s words as the “russet commoner” which I loved. I found the poem and was pleasantly surprised to find that I recognised two other bee species from Clare’s poetic descriptions.

Another bee he describes as “in livery dress half sables and half red,
Who laps a moss ball in the meadow grass”, I learned from Jeff’s blog must be the much rarer Red-shanked Carder bee (Bombus ruderarius) because it is the only the only red and black bumblebee in the UK that makes a mossy nest above ground.

You won’t find the Red-shanked Carder bee on our Bees to See guide because unfortunately they are scare and in decline so you are unlikely to spot them.

Bee-spotting and helping wild bees in May

This month, hopefully you will see at least four bumblebee species, two types of mining bee, red mason bees and the now familiar hairy-footed flower bee. Her not so familiar cuckoo, the mourning bee, is also around.

You will continue to see some of the bumblebees you first spotted in March and April, but instead of queens you will now be seeing the smaller worker bees. Worker honeybees will also be busy foraging on flowering trees and plants. (Honeybees are managed, so not included on this list.)

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

How to ID May bumblebees:

  • The garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) is distinguishable from other large white tailed bumblebees by the black skull cap she appears to be wearing trimmed with bands of yellow. The best way to see her is flying into foxglove flowers.   As one of our long-tongued bumblebees she is able to get to the nectar at the base of the tubular bell. She usually emerges unrecognisably cloaked in pollen grains. (Other bees cheat by making a hole in the base of the flower so their shorter tongues can reach the nectar.)
  • The red-tailed bumblebee, female, (Bombus lapidaries) has to be the easier bumblebee to spot with her big black fluffy body and striking red tail. You may have seen her already this year on dandelions. She likes yellow flowers so I’m going to keep an eye out when the laburnum trees are drooping heavy with pea-like yellow flowers.
  • The common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) is one of my favourites. Despite the common name, which derives from the old word “to tease out fibres” – which she does from plants for nesting materials – she is a bumblebee (Bombus in Latin). I like her, partly because she is ubiquitous from spring to autumn on many garden flowers so you will definitely get to know her, and she is less flashy than other bumblebees with her small, round body and gingery brown colouring.
  • 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. Tree bumblebee colonies vacant at the end of the summer, so the bird box will be empty for the blue tit family next spring.

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).
  2. It’s not too late to put up a blue tit box for the tree bumblebee to nest in.
  3. Buy and plant alliums, catmint and cotoneaster from garden centres to provide food this month for the 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 flower). See the Plantlife No Mow May campaign.
  6. Ditch the weed killers and pesticides.

How to ID May solitary bees:

  • 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.
  • The Mourning bee (Melecta albifrons) is a fluffy grey/black colour edged with lateral white spots . Despite their cute appearance, they 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. Their appearance means that the host bee is healthy.
  • Red mason bees (Osmia bicornis) have been delayed checking out of bee hotels by the cold weather in many parts of the UK. But now these gingery, round-bottomed bees, a little smaller (12mm) than a honey bee (14mm), should be mating. Afterwards the females will find clean tubes in bee hotels, or holes in masonry, to nest and they will collect bare soil to carry home to divide each tube into 6 or 7 individual birthing chambers where they will lay an egg. They are also foraging on fruit tree blossom or garden flowers like Alkanet for pollen for their offspring to eat when the eggs hatch into larvae later in the summer.
  • Ashy mining bees (Andrena cineraria) are still around, so – if like me – you’ve not see one yet there is still time.  A smallish black and grey stripped bee (around 10mm), they nest 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 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.

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. Leave old mortar untouched as hairy-footed flower bees and red mason bees may be nesting here.
  3. 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 type of bee hotels with the cardboard tubes. You can take the cocoons out of in the winter and clean them.
  4. Leave a patch of bare earth for mining bees to burrow and where red mason bees can collect soil to make partition walls between birthday chambers and to plug their nests.
  5. Don’t mow the lawn to let dandelions and clovers grow.
  6. Ditch the weed killers and pesticides.

For information on IDing the early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum), the large buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris), the white-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum), the foxy-coloured tawny mining bee (Andrena fulva ), and the wasp-like Gooden’s nomad bee (Nomada goodenianna), go to the Bees to See in April blog here.

Honey bee (Apis mellifera) and bee-fly (Bombylius major) info is in the Bees to See in March blog here.

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You can follow Urban Bees on Twitter @BeesintheCity and on Instagram alison_urbanbees or visit www.urbanbees.co.uk

How to ID and help bees in April

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

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

How to ID them:

  • The large buff-tailed (Bombus terrestris) and white-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum) are our most common bumblebees. They look so similar (up to 16mm long) with their yellow stripes on black bodies. There is no easy way to tell them apart, but the buff-tailed stripes are a slightly more gold colour than the white-tailed and they have a narrow line of buff-coloured fur at the top of their tail.
  • The early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) is smaller (up to 14mm) and prettier with her fluffy yellow collar and orangey bottom.
  • The tree bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) has a conspicuous ginger thorax, black abdomen and a white tail. Unlike other bumblebees, they live high up, often colonising bird boxes when the chicks have fledged.

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

How to help them:

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

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

How to ID them:

  • Hairy-footed flower bees (Anthophora plumipes) are often mistaken for bumblebees because of their round, fluffy appearance, but they live alone (not in colonies). At this time of year gangs of brown-coloured males are clearly visible chasing the more striking black females among the lungwort (pulmonaria) and wallflowers with their long, straw-like tongues (proboscis) outstretched. It is mating season.
  • Red mason bees will be checking out of bee hotels by chewing through the mud-plugged tubes. They are a little smaller (12mm) than a honey bee (14mm), more gingery and have a rounder bottom. The males appear a couple of weeks before the females and congregate around the bee hotels waiting to pounce when the females emerge.
  • The Tawny mining bee (Andrena fulva ) is easy to spot, her foxy-coloured coat against the green lawn she likes to burrow through leaving tiny volcano-looking mounds of soil in her wake.
  • Ashy mining bee (Andrena cineraria) is a smallish black and grey stripped bee (around 10mm) which nests in bare ground, footpaths and tracks. Although solitary, they nest next door to each other in dense aggregations, so hundreds can emerge at the same time. But don’t worry, solitary bees don’t sting and are short-lived (around 2 months)!
  • Gooden’s nomad bee (Nomada goodenianna). The wasp-like markings on this hairless bee give it away as a cleptoparasite, or cuckoo bee. There are 34 Nomada species in the UK (850 worldwide), and this is one of the most common. She is much easier to spot than the small, brown mining bees which are her host (the grey-patched, buffish and chocolate mining bees). But lots of Gooden’s nomad bees, means the host bees, whose home they break into and lay their eggs, are alive and healthy. (Worldwide, a quarter of the 20,000 recorded bee species are cuckoos).

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

How to help solitary bees:

  1. Plant lungwort, wallflowers, comfrey and flowering currants for long-tongued hairy footed flower bees. Flowering fruit trees, willows, spurges, alkanet and forget-me-nots for red mason bees, and mining bees. Don’t worry about the nomad bees. If their host is healthy, they will be too.
  2. Leave old mortar untouched as hairy-footed flower bees may be nesting here.
  3. Install bee-hotels in a warm location at least a metre off the ground, where red mason bees can check-in and lay their eggs. We like to use these type of bee hotels with the cardboard tubes. You can take the cocoons out of in the winter and clean them.
  4. Leave a patch of bare earth for mining bees to burrow and where red mason bees can collect soil to plug their nests.
  5. Let dandelions grow – they are important early bee food.

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

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

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

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

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

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

In March you could see four species of bumblebee:

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

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

Three solitary bees:

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

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

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

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

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