Summer bees 2024

This month, we have to say goodbye to some of my favourite spring-flying solitary bees, like the Hairy-footed flower bees and the Red mason bees, as their short life-cycles come to end. But we can say hello to some summer beauties, like the wool carder bee and the leafcutter bees. You’ll hopefully see three more bumblebee species too 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). There are four new solitary bees to try to identify this month: a lovely mason bee, a small, zippy flower bee with huge green eyes, and we’ll see for the first time this year, leafcutter bees. And see if you can spot the difference between a bumblebee and a hoverfly that mimics a bumblebee.

Tips for IDing June bumblebees:

  • Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) – if you see a small bumblebee (9 -13mm) with a faint red bottom and yellow stripes, it’s an early bumblebee. The male (pictured above) is particularly striking with his bright-yellow fluffy facial hairs and a stripe on his body too. This month, new queens may be emerging, along with workers and the males. Look out for them on cotoneasters, brambles, Raspberry and garden crane’s-bill (hardy geraniums). They can also nectar rob from longer, tubular flowers. They have small colonies of up to 100 bees and generally nest underground in old rodent burrows like many bumblebee species, but they can also inhabit bird boxes (like Tree bumblebees (Bombus hypnourm) and nest in roof spaces and holes in trees, although I have yet to hear reports of this.
  • Garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) – sit by a patch of flowering foxgloves or honeysuckle and you will hopefully see this long-tongue bumblebee coming in and out of the flowers. Unfortunately they are becoming less widespread than many other large bumblebees with white tails who have shorter tongues but nectar rob by making a hole in the base of the flower. 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. It also has a longer ‘horsey’ face than other bumblebees, and will be going into the flower rather than sucking up the nectar from the side.
  • Red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) –unmissable with jet black bodies and fiery red tails, but records show that they too are becoming less widespread. I have read that they favour yellow flowers, so I am planting lots of Birds-foot trefoil for them, but so far no luck in my London garden. I have seen them on a rooftop on a sedum’s tiny yellow flowers and collecting pollen from 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. In the photo above she is putting up a leg as a warning signal that she feels threatened and to keep away. But these are gentle bees.
  • 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 huge females (18mm) seeking to invade the underground nest of Buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) and lay their eggs. 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 bumblebee queen, it’s more likely to be its cuckoo. Other ID 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 bumblebees worker bees who become her slaves after she takes over their mother’s nest.)  NOTE: There are 6 Cuckoo bumblebee species in the UK. This is the most common one because its host is the most common bumblebee.

How to ID June solitary bees:

  • Green-eyed flower bee (Anthophora bimaculata) – these gorgeous fluffy bees with their stunning big green eyes are around half the size (8mm) of the more common Hairy-footed flower bees (Anthophora plumipes). Their diminutive size, along with their rapid darting movement between flowers, makes them much more difficult to spot and they are largely confined to southern England, especially coastal areas and heathland where they nest in large, noisy aggregations in sandy cliff tops and the edge of costal pathways. They feed on Vipers bugloss, Black horehound, brambles, Thyme and mints including garden catmints. Listen out for the high-pitched buzz as they feed, often in groups. They fly until September, so one to watch out for if you’re holidaying on the South cost this summer.  
  • The Orange-vented mason bee (Osmia leaiana) – has a fluffy orange pollen brush under her abdomen which she uses to collect pollen from a variety of flowers including Green Alkanet, Crane’s-bill (hardy geraniums), brambles and knapweeds. You may see her nesting in a bee hotel, or a bee observation box. Here is a video of her packing her nest with pollen (we mistakenly called her a Blue mason bee because they fly at similar times of the year and both use masticated leaf to plug the tubes of their nest).
  • Patchwork leafcutters (Megachile cenuncularis) are one of the most common leafcutter bees found in gardens. They get their name, like many solitary bees, from how they construct their nests. They cut pieces of leaf from many plants including rose and lilac bushes, honeysuckles, willowherbs, Amelanchier trees, birches and Horse chestnut to make their nests, leaving the leaves looking as if they has been attacked by a hole punch. This leafcutter bee is a little smaller (9-10mm) than a honeybee and a brownish grey colour. But the easier way to tell her apart from a honeybee is from the orange pollen brush on the whole underside of her tummy, (similar to the Orange-vented mason bee), which she has a habit of lifting up in the air while feeding on flowers. Favourites include thistles, knapweeds, burdock, Common Fleabane, Bird’s-foot trefoil, St John’s-wort and brambles.  They nest in bee hotels if Red mason bees have left any tubes unoccupied. They plug the entrance with pieces of 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. They can also nest in dead wood, cavities in walls and even occasionally in soil. TOP TIP: How to tell a Orange-vented mason bee from a leafcutter – with difficultly, but the mason bee is a fraction smaller (8mm), but has a bigger head and narrower body and uses chewed up leaf to construct her nest, rather than discs of leaves.
  • The Wool Carder Bee (Anthidium manicatum) is an easy bee to spot and therefore has to be one of my favourites, with their yellow spots along the side of their chunky bodies that looks like stiching. 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 and plug 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 in dead wood, cavities in wall and man-made objects. I’ve yet to see one. You may also see the larger male bees aggressively defending their patch of purple flowers for mating by attacking intruders mid air. They are armed with spikes under their abdomen that can kill their foes. As well as Lamb’s ear, they can often be seen feeding or mating around Black horehound, Purple toadflax and vetches. NOTE: Despite having a similar English name to the Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum), they are very different. The latter is a social bumblebee.
  • Bumblebee hoverfly (Merodon equestris) – some hoverflies are excellent bumblebee mimics with their fluffy coats and round bodies. TOP TIP: The way to tell them apart from real bumblebees is the eyes (flies have bigger eyes), the legs (flies have spindly legs and they don’t collect pollen on their back legs), and they tend to stay still on a flower or leaf for longer than a bee with their wings out, rather than tucked behind them.

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 while spring flowers fade before summer ones burst into bloom. Try cotoneaster and thistles for short-tongued bees, and foxgloves, honeysuckle, comfrey and catmint for longer-tongued bees like the Green-eyed flower bee. 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 comes Let if Bloom June ) to let  clovers and knapweeds grow.
  4. It’s not too late to install blue tit boxes – not for birds but for Tree bumblebees (Bombus hypnorum) and possibly Early 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. It may be too late for Red mason bees, but Orange-vented mason bees, Blue mason bees and leafcutter bees may check-in and lay their eggs this summer. We have created flat-pack bee hotels that can be easily assembled and come with instructions about where to put them and how to attract bees to nest in them by planting their favourite flowers. 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 one from Bee Equipment that we have just installed on a few sites.
  6. Create your own nests for cavity-nesting solitary bees, 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 honeybees. 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 all bugsprays 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? The Hairy-footed flower bees (Anthophora plumipes) are disappearing, along with Red mason bees (Osmia bicornis) and early mining bees.  This is because solitary bees only live for a few weeks. And the spring flying solitary bees that came out in April or before have now reproduced and provisioned their nests with pollen, so their life cycle has come to an end.  In their short life 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 and gobble up all the pollen. But she will never see her offspring. When she has 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. But in her short life she has done an extremely important job – pollinated many flowers, shrubs and trees whose fruits, seeds and nuts are food for birds and other species. One the larvae have eaten all the pollen, they spin a cocoon, pupate and transform into adult bees through metamorphosis. They overwinter in the cocoon and will emerge next spring to start the life cycle again. The males of all solitary bee species emerge first to build up their strength for mating. In the case of the Red mason bees, they break though the mud at the end of the tubes in the bee hotels.

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