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

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