It had to happen sooner or later, the end of the bee spotting season. But don’t despair, in between the rain showers, you’ve still got a few weeks to see the ivy mining bee and the furrow bee, three bumblebee species and honeybees. Yes we’ve included these managed bees again this month because there are lots around on dry, sunny days stocking up on nectar to take back to their hive before the winter. They will be on the ivy flowers too and can be easily confused with ivy mining bees, so check the photos above and the ID tips below. Both bees can also be confused with stripey hoverflies also visiting ivy bushes, so click on our Is it a bee or a hoverfly? guide.
My best advice to you this month is make the most of any bright autumnal days to get out and spot the last bees of 2021.
Tips for IDing October bumblebees:
- Common carder bees (Bombus pascuorum) – no confusing this brown fluffy bee with the tree bumblebees this month, as the latter aren’t flying anymore. So, any round, hairy bees with a ginger thorax or a faded ginger/brown thorax is sure to be a common carder bee. Despite its English name, which derives from its behaviour of teasing out (carder is the old fashioned word for teasing out) bits of moss to cover its nest, it is a social bumblebee, hence its Latin Bombus tag. They can be most easily seen this month on Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’, Michaelmas daisies and salvia ‘hot lips’ in my garden. You’ll most likely still be seeing workers, new queens and males who all look very similar. The queens are the largest (15mm) and the workers the smallest (11mm).
- Red-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lapidarius) – one of my main disappointments of bee spotting in 2021 is how few of these gorgeous velvety black bees with their firery red bottoms I’ve seen in my garden or local parks in east London. But some people have reported an abundance of them. Anyway, be on the look out in these last few weeks for the large queens (17mm) who will now be mated and will be feeding on nectar to build up their fat reserves to see them through their dormant state during winter.
- Buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) – these white bottomed bumblebees with golden stripes are so successful that if you live in the south of the UK you are likely to see this species flying all year. This month, the huge queens (18mm) may be supping on ivy nectar alongside the other bees. In the south, they will be looking for a nest to produce a brood that lives throughout the winter. Further north, they are more likely stocking up on nectar before their dormant period and will appear early next spring to nest.
How to ID October solitary bees:
Ivy mining bee (Colletes hederae) – If there is one thing you should do before the end of the bee spotting season, it’s to try and see an ivy mining bee. Why? Here are ten reasons why ivy mining bees are so special:
- They are the last solitary bee to emerge in the year.
- They were only described as a separate species in 1993 in Germany. According to bee expert, Ted Benton, the lateness of this discovery may in part be explained by their similarity to two other late-flying close relatives: Heather mining bees (Colletes succinctus) and Sea Aster bees (Colletes halophilus).
- They were first discovered in England just 20 years ago, in an ivy bush in Dorset in 2001.
- There is a real thrill when you see one for the first time, because it means you have learned to distinguish its features (gingery pile on its thorax and segmented shiny bands on its abdomen) from the honeybee which is a bit bigger.
- They only fly for around six weeks, when the ivy is flowering, so they seem more special than bees that fly all summer.
- If you see one north of Shropshire, Staffordshire, Norfolk or south Wales you can contribute to a mapping project to show their spread across Britain.
- They nest in huge aggregations of thousands of bees, making burrows in loose soil and sandy banks. It’s an amazing sight watching them emerge in late August/early September. I’ve never seen it, but I hope to create a sand bank somewhere next year that may become a nesting site. This video I shared last month gives a flavour.
- Their symbiotic relationship with ivy – emerging to feed on its nectar and pollen and pollinating it at the same time – really demonstrates the connection between bees and flowering plants. This relationship has evolved over 60 million years.
- Watching them at work helps to connect us with nature on our doorstep. We don’t need to visit the ‘countryside’, or to far flung places, to see nature in action.
- They are also called plasterer bees, because like all bees with the Latin name Colletes, they line the nests they create in their burrows with a cellophane-like waterproof and fungus-resistant substance that they secret. Isn’t that amazing!
Common furrow bee (Lasioglossum calceatum) – these small black elongated shiny bees have been flying all summer. I have to admit I’m still not confident about IDing them. I think it’s the fact they are small and black, whereas I still expect my bees to be more colourful and fluffy. But I am getting better. My rule of thumb is that if it’s a small black insect with a long body on a flower late in the summer or in autumn, chances are it will be this bee. I know the yellow legs in the photo above, should help, and there are some band markings on the body, but I find these hard to see when it’s only 5.5mm.
How to help bees in October:
- There are still a few things flowering in the garden this month: Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’, Michaelmas daisies and annual Cosmos grown from seed for short tongued or medium tongued bees; Penstemon, Fuchsia, Salvia ‘hot lips’ and other salvias for long-tongues bees. The shrubby blue Caryopteris x clandonensis (Bluebeard) and red Perscicaria are both visited by bees, and of course, Geranium Rozanne is still flowering. But Ivy is probably the most valuable nectar and pollen source at this time of year, so if you have any mature, flowering ivy don’t prune it until after it’s flowered.
- For bee-friendly October window boxes, try Cosmos and Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus), both will bloom until the first frosts.
- Think about which tree you could add to your garden to provide bee food, or speak to your council tree officer about planting more bee-friendly trees in streets and parks. It’s best to plant trees during the winter when they are dormant.
- If you only do one thing for bees this month, plant as many crocus bulbs as you can in window boxes, pots, hanging baskets, flower beds and lawns, as they will provide much-need early pollen and nectar for bumblebee queens when they start flying next spring.
- October is a good time to divide perennials that have become overcrowded. Find another place for them in the garden or give them away to friends and neighbours to make their gardens more bee-friendly.
- If planting conditions are still good this month (not too cold and wet), it’s not too late to plant wallflowers. There are also some seeds that can be grown under glass this month including wild cornflower and cowslip. Yellow rattle can be grown outdoors and is useful if you are trying to convert part of your lawn into a wild flower meadow as it supresses the grasses and will allow the wild flowers to grow.
- Leave parts of the garden untidy as queen bumblebees may have found a nook or cranny to spend the winter and don’t wish to be disturbed.
- Clean out your bee hotels and store the bee cocoons in a dry, cool place over winter. Read here for more information.
There will be plenty more jobs we can do over the winter months to help bees thrive next spring. So, look out for future posts each month.
For information on IDing and helping bees earlier in the year see my Bees to See in September blog here, Bees to See in August blog here, Bees to See in July blog here, 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.