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Is the bee spotting season over?

OK, so most bees don’t fly at this time of year, but there’s a chance you could still get to see four species flying when it’s mild and sunny. So get out in the garden or your local park on a bright, autumnal day and head for any flowers and shrubs still in bloom. And with so few bees to choose from at this time of year, it should make it easier to identify the ones you do see.

Tips for IDing November bumblebees:

  • Buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) – these fluffy, golden-striped bumblebees are the ones you’re most likely to see between now and March, especially if you live in a city in the south of the UK where the queens produce a third brood that lives through the winter, taking advantage of winter-flowering shrubs in parks and gardens. As a result, you’ll see queens, workers and males flying throughout the year. The queens are easily recognisable from their huge size (18mm) and distinctive buff coloured bottom. The workers are much smaller (13mm) and have a white tail. Both of these castes are female and what really sets them apart from the similarly marked 14mm males, is the brightly-coloured blobs of pollen they may be carrying on their hind legs to take back to the nest (see worker pictured above) . Further north, you may still see a queen buff-tailed bumblebee stocking up on nectar and looking for a dry, secure place to spend the winter, from which she will emerge in early spring.
  • Common carder bees (Bombus pascuorum) – you may see the odd one or two of these cute brown bees on anything that’s still flowering at this time of year . They will be the queens (15mm) having a final nectar feast before bedding down somewhere snug for the winter months such as a pile of old leaves, or under the garden shed.

How to ID November solitary bees:

  • Ivy bees (Colletes hederae) – If you’ve not yet seen an ivy bee, there’s a chance you may if ivy is still flowering where you live. But hurry, they are on their last legs. Once the adult female bees have laid all their eggs, and provisioned each one with pollen from the ivy flowers, their six to eight week life cycle is complete. To spot one, look for an insect with a fluffy ginger pile on top of its thorax (though it may be a duller brown by now) feeding on the last tiny white ivy flowers. It’s the fluffy thorax that sets the 13mm ivy bee apart from honey bees (check the guide above) and hoverflies (See our Is it a bee or a hoverfly? guide.)

How to ID honey bees:

Western honey bees (Apis millefera) – we’ve included these managed bees because they are still stocking up on nectar to take back to their hive before the winter. They may be on the last ivy flowers and are around 14mm long with a slim, tapered gold and black stripy body. They can be easily confused with other stripy insects: the slightly smaller ivy bee and the less hairy hoverflies that are still flying.

How to help bees in November:

  1. Cosmos, Penstemon, Fuchsia, salvias, dahlias and Geranium Rozanne are all still flowering but most bees don’t fly in the colder months . So now is the time to make you garden, roof terrace, patio or other outside space bee-friendly for the spring when they will emerge. If you only do one thing, plant those crocus bulbs you’ve been meaning to get in the ground before it gets too hard. Plant them under trees, in lawns and hanging baskets, and pots, as well as flower beds. They will give the early flying bumblebee queens food to fuel their flight next spring.
  2. For bee-friendly November window boxes, Cosmos and Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus), are still blooming. And again, add lots of crocus bulbs for a colourful display in early spring that will feed the bees.
  3. If you’ve decided which tree you could add to your garden to provide bee food, now is the time you can order it and plant a tree, while trees are dormant during late autumn and winter. Also, speak to your council tree officer about planting more bee-friendly trees in local streets and parks. Trees can provide an abundant source of food at times of year when bees may be going hungry like early spring and late summer. For advice on which tree to plant see our Trees for Bees guide. Some bee-friendly trees grow very well in pots, including small fruit trees such as crab apples (Malus sylvestris ‘Evereste’).
  4. Divide bee-friendly 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.
  5. Seeds to grow under glass this month including wild cornflower, cowslip, poppies and Pink Hawk’s Beard (Crepis rubra) – a new hardy annual I’ve just come across which looks a bit like a pink dandelion . 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.
  6. It’s tempting to give your garden a thorough tidy at this time of year after the autumn leaves have fallen. But it’s best to leave your garden a bit messy: piles of leaves and bits of old, rotting wood as queen bumblebees and other insects may find them perfect winter habitat.
  7. Clean out your bee hotels and bee boxes for solitary bees and store the bee cocoons in a dry, cool place over winter. Read here for more information.
  8. If you live in a milder part of the UK, it’s worth planting winter-flowers shrubs, such as Mahonia, and perennials, such a Hellebores, to feed buff-tailed bumblebees who fly all year round. More information on flowers here and shrubs here.

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 October blog here, Bees to See in September blog here, Bees to See in August blog here,  Bees to See in July blog hereBees to See in June blog here,  Bees to See in May blog here and Bees to See in April blog hereBees to See in March blog here.

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