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

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