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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

February; a month of two halves

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

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

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

Early bee food

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

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

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

Bees before Christmas

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

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

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

The best way to help bees in winter

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

Bee-friendly makeover

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

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

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

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

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

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

KPMG bee hives

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bees and lockdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy bee spotting!

Urban Bees in 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lush HQ rooftop, Soho

Transforming a rooftop into a bed & breakfast for bees

Watch the Lush video here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Covid, lockdown and the garden

All went well until Covid hit in 2020. The national lockdown prevented us from getting access to the rooftop for over a year. This meant the planters were only watered by infrequent rainfall during the spring and summer. When staff returned to the office in April 2021, we were expecting the worst. Indeed many plants had died from lack of water, including the beautiful crab apple tree, a cotoneaster and heathers, but others had flourished. The drought survivors included:

  • Rosemary
  • Echium vulgare (Vipers bugloss)
  • Centranthus ruber (Red valerian)
  • Erigeron karvinskianus (Mexican fleabane),
  • and wild flowers, from dandelions to sow thistle and Black Medick, closely related to clovers which bees love.

We set about removing the dead plants and replacing with new bee-friendly perennials. And this time we installed a watering system.

By the summer, the garden was coming back to life and many wild bees were returning.

In July, I gave a talk to staff who were working in the London HQ about the creation of the rooftop garden and the bees who use it to feed and nest.

The Good Bee Bee Blog Tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YOU CAN ORDER A COPY OF THE GOOD BEE HERE

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

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

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

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

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

Urban Bees in 2018

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

Lush’s bee-friendly roof terrace

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solitary bees at RHS Chelsea Flower Show

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

Honeybees

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

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

Regents Park Honey

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

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

KXBeetrail

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

EU Pollinator Strategy

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

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

Trees 4 Bees flowering early

 

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

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

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

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

EU Pollinators initiative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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