July bees

Bee spotting gets a bit trickier this month, with lots of diminutive solitary bees flying this month including our tichiest UK bee, the Small scissor bee  measuring around 4.5mm and the not much larger Common-yellow face bee.  Both these tiny black bees, don’t conform to most people’s image of a bee. Luckily, larger Patchwork leafcutter bees and chunky Wool carder bees are fluffier and much easier to spot. And if you’re in the south of England, look out for the very nippy, 8mm Four-banded flower bee. If you have a bee hotel installed and see a bee with a long, pointed black-and-white tail hanging out around it, it’s likely to be a Large sharp-tail bee – the cuckoo of both leafcutters and flower bees at this time of year.

Tips for IDing July bumblebees:

  • The Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) is usually one of the most ubiquitous bees in my garden and many others. With her all-in-one fluffy brown coat, she’s also one of the cutest and easiest to identify foraging on a huge variety of common garden flowers with her medium-length proboscis (tongue). However, this spring/summer she has been notable by her absence, and it’s not just me who has observed this. They like to nest above ground in undisturbed areas of long grass and to line their nest with moss. Maybe the very wet spring this year made it difficult to rear their colony successfully, Hopefully I’m wrong and she is just making a later appearance and will be foraging from now until October.

You will also continue to see workers of some of our commonest bumblebee flying this month including Buff-tailed bumblebees and their cuckoo the Vestal cuckoo bee; Tree bumblebees and Garden bumblebees. Red-tailed bumblebees are also foraging, but I’ve not seen one yet this year! Here’s a guide the six most common bumblebee cuckoos. 

How to ID July solitary bees:

  • Large sharp-tail bee (Coelioxys conoidea) is a very distinctive bee with its very pointed wasp-like abdomen and black and white colouring. The best way to spot them is around bee hotels as they are cuckoo bees of leafcutter bees who may be nesting there. They use the pointed abdomen to make a slit in the partition of the host’s cell and place their egg inside. Their larvae have long curved jaws to kill the host’s egg or its larvae. Then they gobble up all the pollen in the host’s nest and develop into adult bees to emerge next summer. Don’t try and kill them to protect the host. This is nature and the appearance of a cuckoo bee is a sign of a healthy host population. They can also take over summer flower bee nests. TOP TIP FOR CUCKOO BEES: They never collect pollen.
  • The Four-banded flower bee (Anthophora quadrimaculata) is much smaller than the earlier flying Hairy-footed flower bee. They display the same darting movement and high pitched buzz, but being just 7-8mm are much more difficult to spot as they zip around. The males have big, green eyes – like the similar-sized Green-eyed flower bee (Anthophora bimaculata) – and they both noisily patrol patches of flowers and are polylectic – feeding on many garden flowers including catmints and lavender, and wild flowers like Black Horehound and dead-nettles. Both species seem to be confined to the South of England.
  • Patchwork leafcutter bee (Megachile centuncularis) is one of our most common 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. A bit smaller than a honeybee, leafcutters are brownish grey and the easiest way to identify them is that they collect pollen on the underside of their tummy in orange-coloured pollen brushes. As they have a habit of lifting up their abdomen in the air while feeding on flowers, this orange underside is clearly visible. 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.
  • 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 their nest in a ready-made cavity (maybe your bee hotel). Here she makes a hole in the middle of the ball, where she places the pollen and lays her egg on top. Unusually for bees, the males are larger. They aggressively defend their patch of purple flowers by attacking intruders in mid-air, armed with spikes under their abdomen. I’ve also seen 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.
  • Common yellow-faced bee (Hylaeus communis) is one of a dozen small, (5mm) bees which are predominately black, but this species has yellow spots (the females), or triangles like a yellow mask (the males) on their 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. If you have an observation bee box, with removal panels – so you can see what is happening in the cells the bees are creating – you will see this bee creating a waterproof cellophane-like ‘plastic bag’ around each egg and filling the bag with nectar and pollen.
  • Small scissor bee (Chelostoma campanularum) is the smallest bee in Britain. Measuring around 4.5mm, they can easily be mistaken for a tiny, black fly or ant by the lay person, or a black furrow bee. 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 tiny pre-existing holes in dead wood including fence posts and plug the holes 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).

Bee mimics: There are some interesting flying insects this month trying to look like bees to deter predators, and confusing some of us bee spotters. But look out for the giveaway signs – big eyes, spindly legs and the lack of pollen on their back legs, or under their abdomen.

  • Narcissus fly (Merodon equestris) – these fluffy hoverflies could easily be mistaken for a Common carder bee, expect for the big eyes, spindly legs and lack of pollen. It gets it name because it lays its eggs on daffodil bulbs. The larvae feed on the bulb during winter and in spring pupate in to the soil emerging in the spring. But they are still around.
  • Bee wolf (Philanthus triangulum) – this is a large, solitary wasp that nests in sandy soil and preys on honeybees, paralysing them with a sting and carrying them back to their burrow. Up to six paralysed honey bees are placed in each brood chamber, then a single egg is laid on one of the bees and the chamber is sealed with sand. After hatching, the larva feeds on the cache of honey bees before spinning a cocoon to hibernate through winter, ready to emerge in spring.

How to help bees in July:

  1. 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. This month, I’ve already seen tiny Yellow-faced bees (Hylaeus) foraging on Fennell and Hebes, and lots of bee species on flowering thyme.
  2. If you only have a window box, Scabious japonica, dwarf harebells (campanula carpatica), dwarf lavenders, Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus) and creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum) will look good now and feed the bees if you keep watering regularly. You could also add some trailing nasturtium and Bird’s-foot trefoil.
  3. Continue to let part of the the lawn grow long (after No Mow May) for dandelions and clovers.
  4. Ditch the weed killers and pesticides. That includes spraying your roses – remember the leafcutter bees collect pieces of leaf to make their nests.
  5. It’s your last chance to put up bee hotels for leafcutter bees. 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. But remember, unless you have the forage they need to feed their young nearby, they won’t nest in them.
  6. 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.
  7. Create a sand bank against a south facing wall for mining bees that like to burrow into sand. The sand has to hold together, so try mixing builders sand with some clay soil or loam.
  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. Buy a Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland if you are serious about IDing lots more bees.
  10. Start growing seeds, such as forget-me-nots, that will flowe

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