Busy bees to spot and help in June

This month you’ll hopefully see the three bumblebees above and a cuckoo bumblebee, (There will also be plenty of buff-tailed and white-tailed bumblebee workers foraging, and smaller, brown common carder bees, but we haven’t included them in the June guide as we wanted to introduce you to some new faces) . 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 this year, leafcutter bees, furrow bees and one of my favourites, the wool carder bee.

Tips for IDing June bumblebees:

  • Garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) – sit by a patch of flowering foxgloves or honeysuckle to see this long-tongue bumblebee. Unfortunately they are becoming less widespread than many other bumblebees with white tails. The way to tell the garden bumblebee apart from buff-tailed and white-tailed bumblebees is by looking at the two golden bands at the front and back of the thorax which I think makes the bee look as if it’s wearing a black skull cap. It has a third band on the abdomen.
  • Red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) – this year, I’ve been lucky enough to have already spotted the black bodies and fiery red tails of the queen and her workers. I have read that they favour yellow flowers, and I did see them on a sedum’s tiny yellow flowers and the yellow part of the pink-petaled seaside daisy (Erigeron glaucus). I’d also suggest looking up at Laburnum trees drooping under the weight of yellow, pea-like flowers.
  • 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 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 huge bee that looks like a big buff-tailed, it’s more likely to be its cuckoo. Other tips: she has a longer white tail with yellow hairs at the base, and there are NO pollen baskets on her hind legs. (She is a female and not a queen because she doesn’t have worker bees. Her eggs hatch into females and males that are fed by the buff-tailed worker bees who become her slaves after she takes over their mother’s nest.) 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.

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 slopes in large aggregations and visit open-faced flowers like dandelions and daisies. At first glance you may dismiss them for some kind of fly, but flies have spindly legs and larger eyes and tend to rest with their wings open, while bees tuck theirs back.

How to help bees in June:

  1. Planting different flowers for different bees is particularly important this month when there can often be what’s called a June gap In the UK – a lull in nectar and pollen supplies as the horse chestnut trees finish flowering and trees, such as the limes, have yet to begin and spring flowers fade before summer ones burst into bloom. 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), seaside daisy (Erigeron glaucus), and creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum) which flower from June onwards. Water regularly.
  3. Don’t pull up weeds like Alkanet, which feed many types of bees, and continue not to mow part of the lawn (after No Mow May) 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. Even better at this time of year is a summer unit with a variety of different sized nest blocks for many different species of solitary bee.
  6. Create your own, by drilling holes in blocks of wood – 10mm, 8mm, 6mm and 4mm diameters and up to 30 cm deep – and screw them to a sturdy support. Drill holes in existing structures such as fence posts, or dead trees. See which bees take up residence over the summer.
  7. Continue to leave bare earth for mining bees to burrow into.
  8. Provide a source of water for thirsty 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, that includes sprays for your roses!
  10. Buy a Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland if you are serious about IDing lots more bees.

Where have the solitary spring bees gone? 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 the hungry larvae which will hatch from her eggs, after she has died. 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 eating all the pollen, the bee larvae spin a cocoon and metamorphosed into adult bees. They over winter in the cocoon and 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.

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