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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Continue to let part of the the lawn grow long (after No Mow May) for dandelions and clovers.
- Ditch the weed killers and pesticides. That includes spraying your roses – remember the leafcutter bees collect pieces of leaf to make their nests.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- Buy a Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland if you are serious about IDing lots more bees.
- Start growing seeds, such as forget-me-nots, that will flower next spring.