April Bees 2023

Pictured above are three bumblebee species around this month: Tree , Early and Red-tailed bumblebees. (In addition you may also see buff-tailed bumblebees which have been flying all year in some southern parts of the UK and Common carder bees (Bombus pascuorum) which are starting to emerge).

How to ID them:

  • The Tree bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) has a conspicuous ginger thorax, black abdomen and a white tail. Unlike other bumblebees, they live high up, often colonising bird boxes when the chicks have fledged.
  • The Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) is smaller (up to 14mm) and prettier with her fluffy yellow collar and her noticeable orangey bottom. As her English name suggests, this is a spring specialist. The queens started to appear last month, followed by the female workers, and this month you may see both males and females. You can tell them apart because the males have much more yellow facial hair, like the one above.
  • The huge, 17mm Red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) queens are one of our biggest bumblebees and without doubt one of the most striking with here black body and fiery red bottom. Although widespread, I’ve not seen one for a long time. The books say she is partial to blossom of sallow (willow) and prunus (cherries and plum) trees. I find the smaller, yellow-faced males are easier to see later in the summer.

Queen bumblebees may have nested (most underground in old rodent holes, under paving slabs, garden sheds, or even in compost bins) by now and laid their eggs, and some, like the Early bumblebee, may even have produced worker bees who are out collecting nectar and pollen to take home to their queen and her developing colony.

How to help them:

  1. Leave a patch of the garden wild for nesting sites and don’t disturb a nesting site if you find one (it will only last until the end of the summer).
  2. Put up a blue tit box for the tree bumblebee to nest in after the chicks have fledged.
  3. Plant dead-nettles, clover, forget- me-nots, and rosemary to provide food this month for the short-tongued bumblebees.
  4. Sow seeds inside now to create more flowers later in the summer. Sweet peas, sunflowers, cosmos and Anise hyssop are some of the easiest to grow. Try growing on a heated mat until the seeds germinate.
  5. Don’t mow the lawn (let clovers flower) and ditch the weed killers and pesticides.
  6. It’s still cold in the mornings or at night, or when the sun goes in, so bumblebees can get chilled and easily exhausted. The best way to help is a teaspoon of sugar, water solution. But please don’t feed them honey, it harbours bacteria that is bad for them.

These are the six most common solitary bee species this month: Buffish mining bee,  Tawny mining bee, Orange-tailed mining bee (female), Red mason bee, Hairy-footed flower bees (male and female) and Gooden’s nomad.

How to ID them:

  • The Buffish mining bee (Andrena nigroaenea) is around 10mm with a dense brown pile on the top of its thorax (just below it’s head). Look at the flowers on blossoming trees and shrubs such as fruit trees, willows, and blackthorn, and wildflowers like dandelions, hawk’s-beards, buttercups and spurges. If you see a bee that at first you may think is a honeybee, take a closer look. If it is a smaller. slimmer and browner, chances are it’s one of the many brown mining bees out at this time, of which the Buffish is one of the most common, along with Gwynne’s (Andrena bicolor) and the Short-fringed (Andrena dorsata) mining bee. Don’t worry if you can’t ID them, the fact that you are looking closely is good. The latter two have two generations in one season, so if you don’t spot them in the spring, you may see the next lot in late summer instead.
  • The Tawny mining bee (Andrena fulva ) is easy to spot as she burrows up through lawns, her foxy-coloured coat strikingly visible against the green grass. And she leaves a tiny volcano-looking mound of soil in her wake. Like all mining bees, many will emerge from the same burrow or next door burrows in large aggregations.
  • Orange-tailed mining bee (Andrena haemorrhoa) females have now emerged after the smaller, drabber males. The 10mm females should be easier to spot because of the neat brick-red pile on their thorax. Try looking for them foraging on tree fruits, dandelions and spurge. They will fly until July so don’t give up if you don’t see them this month. Like all mining bees, they burrow into the ground to nest, and they collect pollen on their hairs on their hind legs.
  • Red mason bees will be checking out of bee hotels by chewing through the mud-plugged tubes. They are a little smaller (12mm) than a honey bee (14mm), more gingery and have a rounder bottom. The males appear a couple of weeks before the females and congregate around the bee hotels waiting to pounce when the females emerge.
  • Hairy-footed flower bees (Anthophora plumipes) are often mistaken for bumblebees because of their round, fluffy appearance, but they live alone (not in colonies). At this time of year gangs of brown-coloured males are clearly visible chasing the more striking black females among the lungwort (pulmonaria), wallflowers and alkanet with their long, straw-like tongues (proboscis) outstretched. It is mating season.
  • Gooden’s nomad bee (Nomada goodenianna) looks more like a common wasp, than a bee but it’s a cleptoparasite, or cuckoo bee. There are 34 Nomada species in the UK (850 worldwide), and this is one of the most common. She is much easier to ID than the small, brown mining bees which are her host. So if you see her, you know that the mining bees in the underground nest she is hovering around are either Grey-patched (Andrena nitida) or Buffish mining bees(Andrena nigroaenea). So lots of Gooden’s nomad bees, means the host bees, whose home they break into and lay their eggs, are alive and healthy. (Worldwide, a quarter of the 20,000 recorded bee species are cuckoos).

TIP How do you to tell a Gooden’s and a wasp apart? Gooden’s are usually flying low looking for the nest of a mining bee or even walking around on the ground. And they won’t bother you.

How to help solitary bees:

  1. Plant lungwort, wallflowers, comfrey and flowering currants for long-tongued hairy footed flower bees. Flowering fruit trees, willows, spurges, alkanet and forget-me-nots for red mason bees, and mining bees.
  2. Leave old mortar untouched as hairy-footed flower bees may be nesting here. Or make some cob bricks that they can nest in instead.
  3. Install bee-hotels in a warm location at least a metre off the ground, ideally facing south, where red mason bees can check-in and lay their eggs. We like to use these type of bee hotels with the cardboard tubes. You can take the cocoons out of in the winter and clean them.
  4. Leave a patch of loose, bare earth for mining bees to burrow and where red mason bees can collect soil to plug their nests.
  5. Create a bank of sand or a mound of sand in a sunny spot for mining bees to nest in.
  6. Let dandelions and alkanet grow – they are important early bee food.

For information on the honey bee (Apis mellifera) and the bee-fly (Bombylius major) see Bees to See in March blog here.

Bees to see in March (and the bee imposter!)

If you’re new to bee spotting, now is the month when you can begin. If you’ve been waiting all winter to get back to bee spotting, now’s the month to resume on dry, warm, sunny days.

In March, these are our three most common species of bumblebee:

  • The Buff-tailed (Bombus terrestris) is one of our most common and largest bumblebees. The queens – measuring up to 18mm – are hard to miss with their gold coloured stripes on their big black body and a buffish-coloured bottom.
  • The Tree bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) queen (14mm) has an intense ginger thorax and a white tail. Unlike other bumblebees, she lives high up in holes in trees and walls, even colonising bird boxes when the chicks have fledged.
  • The Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) queen is much smaller (13mm) and prettier with her fluffy yellow collar and orangey bottom. Bu the end of the month her brood may have developed into adult, worker bees and will be out foraging instead of the queen. They are a smaller version of the queen. At just 10mm, they are the smallest bumblebee you will see.

(A rarer bumblebee, but flying at this time of year, is the white-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum). She looks so similar to the Buff-tailed bumblebee in size and stripes, but the best way to tell them apart is that her stripes are more yellow rather than a dirty gold colour.)

The queen bumblebees are either looking for a place to nest (most nest underground in old rodent holes, which is why you may see them flying close to the ground), or they have just found a good location and laid some their eggs, and they are out collecting nectar and pollen to take home to feed their developing colony of workers.

Four solitary bees:

  • Hairy-footed flower bees (Anthophora plumipes) are often mistaken for bumblebees because of their round, fluffy appearance, but they live alone (not in colonies). The brown, male hairy-footed flower bees emerge a few weeks before the females. They visit pulmonaria and other flowers with bell-shaped flowers sucking up the nectar with their long, straw-like tongues (proboscis) to build up their energy for mating when the females appear.
  • Red mason bees (Osmia bicornis) – the males can emerge toward the end of the month if it’s warm to feed on blossoming fruit trees and shrubs. If you have a bee hotel you may see these cavity nesting bees checking out of the mud-plugged tubes. They are a little smaller (12mm) than a honey bee (14mm), more gingery and have a rounder bottom.
  • Gwynne’s mining bee (Andrena bicolor) is a bit harder to spot, being 6-8mm, but look down and you may see them burrowing through soil on south-facing banks. Although solitary, they nest next door to each other underground in burrows in large aggregations, so hundreds could emerge at the same time. But don’t worry, solitary bees don’t sting! The males are small (6-7.5m) and black, while the female (pictured above), which may not be out until next month, have a reddish-brown pile on the top of their thorax and hairy pollen brushes on the back legs.
  • Orange-tailed mining bee (Andrena haemorrhoa), also known as the early mining bee, is a slightly bigger solitary bee (7-9.5m). The males are brown with a dull brown fluffy thorax and tiny orange hairs at the tip of their bottom. You may see them emerging from holes in garden lawns, parks, playing fields – anywhere with light soil in a sunny spot. A little pile of spoil around the hole is a sure sign of a nest for most mining bees, and like Andrena bicolour they nest next door to each other, so you may see lots of them together. You may see the males on dandelions, blackthorn, willows and gorse. The females are much more striking with their rusty-red pile of hair on their thorax, but you’ll have to wait until next month to see them.

How to tell a male Andrena bicolor apart from an Andrena haemorrhoa?

With difficulty! Andrena bicolor males are darker (black in colour), smaller (6-7.5m) and less hairy. Andrena haemorrhoa males are brown, a little bigger (up to 9.5m), and bit fluffier on the thorax, and of course the tip of their bottom is orange, hence their common name. They forage on the same blossoming trees, flowering shrubs and spring flowers such as wood anemone, dandelions, lesser celandine, and even daffodils, and bluebells later in spring. And they nest in very similar locations. So, good luck (FYI haemorrhoa is pronounced He/more/rower.)

Why are only the male solitary bees around this month?

The males emerge earlier than the females because they need to build up their strength for mating when they girls appear. They will seek out sources of nectar to give them energy, patches of flowers which could make good mating grounds, and will often buzz around nests waiting for the ladies to check-out.

Honeybees?

We’ve not included honeybees in our Bees to See in March guide because they are managed bees, and we are focusing on identifying and helping wild bees. But you will see honey bee (Apis mellifera) workers (10mm) this month for sure because they leave the hive when temperatures reach around 13c. Shaped like a wasp, they have black and amber stripes. Look up and you will see them high up on fruit trees, pussy willows and hazel and alder collecting nectar and pollen to take home to feed their queen and thousands of hungry larvae that will develop into workers and drones.

The way to tell male mining bees apart from honeybees is:

  • size – honeybees are a bit bigger (10mm)
  • location – honeybees tend to forage in trees at this time of year, and mining bees will sometimes be nearer to the ground emerging, or looking for a nest, but they will also forage in blossoming trees
  • appearance – honeybees are more stripped, honey-coloured and are less hairy than the mining bees.
  • It gets easier to tell them apart the more you look.

Many people confuse the bee-fly (Bombylius major) for a bee (which is why we’ve included it). Not surprising, because it’s a great mimic – round and fluffy like a small bumblebee. It’s very visible in the spring, hovering around green alkanet. The easiest way to tell it apart from a bee is it’s long, spindly legs, hovering action, and two wings (bees have four wings) which stick out at a 45c angle.

If you’d like more information on the life cycle of bees and how to help them, click here for bumblebees, here for solitary bees, and here for honey bees.

You can follow Urban Bees on Twitter @BeesintheCity and on Instagram alison_urbanbees

Harbinger of spring

Tips for IDing February bees:

Bee spotting continues to be a rare pursuit in the cold. But by the end of the month, the Buff-tailed Bumblebees and Honeybees may be joined by by the male Hairy-Footed Flower Bee whose arrival heralds the stirrings of spring. Although he’s a solitary bee, he is often mistaken for a bumblebee because of his cute, fluffy appearance.

How to ID Buff-tailed Bumblebees (Bombus terrestris):

These plump, golden-striped bumblebees with a thick winter coat are the ones you’re most likely to see foraging now, especially if you live in a city in the south of England. This winter activity was first recognised in the late 1990s when buff-tailed bumblebee workers where observed in various sites. It’s believed that some summer queens set up nests in October (instead of hibernating until spring) and produced workers in November to take advantage of milder winters and the abundance of food provided by winter-flowering heathers, honeysuckles, and especially mahonia, a prickly shrub, widely planted in car parks and public green spaces, that produces copious amounts of nectar and pollen at this time of year. Although called buff-tailed bumblebees, in reality only the queen has a clearly buff coloured bottom, the workers and males have whiter bottoms. It is the workers of the winter colony you will most likely see foraging and collecting blobs of mahonia’s orange pollen in the baskets on their hind legs. If you live further north where buff-tailed bumblebee colonies die in winter, leaving only the queen to hibernate, it is this large (up to 16mm) queen who you may see venturing out to forage close to the ground on snowdrops and winter aconites and search for a suitable nesting site, perhaps a used rodent hole.

How to ID Honeybees (Apis millefera):

Managed honeybee colonies stay alive at this time of year by keeping warm in their hive and eating the honey they spend all summer making and storing for their winter food. On milder, sunny days or even cold, bright days when the sun has warmed up the hive, some worker bees will leave the colony to forage for winter-flowering shrubs nearby, or just to go to the toilet (they don’t do this in the hive). They are so much slimmer and smoother than bumblebees that there is little chance of confusing the two.

How to ID the male solitary Hairy-Footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes):

Solitary bees nest alone, not in large colonies with a queen, workers and drones like bumblebees and honeybees. Despite their solitary nature, solitary bees often live next door to each other in large aggregations and hang out in big groups looking as if they are playing with their mates. This is especially the case for male hairy-footed flower bees. Their distinctive hovering and darting flight and loud buzz makes them easy to spot. You will often see a few of them chasing each other in a patch of flowers from late February to April. But far from being friends, they are arch rivals patrolling a patch of flowers they want all to themselves to woo and mate with the females.

The 14mm brown-coloured males come out a few weeks ahead of the slightly bigger velvety-black females. Their thick coats enable them to withstand the cold, but the males need to build up their energy by drinking lots of nectar from early-flowering tubular-shaped flowers. So the another way to spot them, is to observe them feeding on their favourite lungwort (Pulmonaria) , dead-nettles (Lamium album) and early flowering comfrey (Symphytum iberian) with their long tongues outstretched ready to reach deep into the base of each flower for a nectar hit.

If you can find their nesting site, which are often in the mortar in between bricks in old walls that need repointing, or old cob walls, or even in crumbling fireplace walls, then you will see and hear the males darting noisily around, and in and out the holes hoping for a female to emerge. As old walls get repointed, or replaced by newer buildings, hairy-footed flower bees lose their nest sites. You could try to make cob bricks where they may nest instead (see below).

As for their delightful name, hairy-footed flower bees do indeed have hind legs that are covered with feathery hairs right down to their tiny feet.

There are a few other solitary bee males that emerge this month but they are much scarcer. They include Clark’s Mining Bee (Andrena clarkella) and the Small Sallow Mining Bee (Andrena praecox) and Large Sallow Mining Bee (Andrena apicata). For more information read my blog here.

How to help bees in February:

  1. Plant a tree now, or sponsor a street tree. Next month it will be too late to plant a tree in the ground as they will no longer be dormant. Some trees are better for bees than others, because they produce more nectar and pollen, or they supply it early in the spring, or in late autumn when little else is flowering. What bees really need are trees that blossom sequentially producing a bee banquet throughout the year. Check our trees for bees guide. If you plant a Himalayan cherry (Prunus rufa) or a Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrula) you’ll not only have great blossom for bees in spring (as long as you plant single flowered varieties, not double-headed ones), but also fantastic rich coppery, peeling bark in the winter.
  2. Underplant your tree with rich-coloured hellebores whose large, bowl-shaped flowers are blooming now and Elephant’s ears (Bergenia) whose tall spikes will be visited by bees from next month.
  3. Lungwort (Pulmonaria), White dead-nettles (Lamium album) and Iberian comfrey (Symphytum ibericum), which can flower as early as March, will attract hairy-footed flower bees to your garden. Plant in large clumps in sun, or semi-shade.
  4. If you forgot to plant bulbs in the autumn, plant now in pots. They will come out later, but it’s better than letting the bulb rot. I have some Sicilian honey garlic (Allium nectaracsardium) bulbs that I clear forgot about. They should flower in May-June, but if I plant them this month hopefully they will be feeding bees by July. We’ll see.
  5. Buy and plant bulbs ‘in the green’ You can buy bee-friendly bulbs now ‘in the green’, which means you plant them while the bulbs are in growth, rather than dormant (as they were in the autumn). Snowdrops and winter aconites will feed bees now and crocuses and grape hyacinths next month. English bluebells and small, yellow wild tulips (Tulipa sylvestris) will flower in April along with wild garlic and fritillaries.
  6. Plant early spring-flowering shrubs, such as Winter Daphne  (Daphne odora) or Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’ or Heathers (Erica carnea), which are perfect for a rockery or small flower bed with acidic, ericaceous soil. Winter flowering specimens, include white ‘Winter Snow’ (Erica carnea f. alba ), or ‘Winter rubin’ (Erica carnea ‘Winter Rubin’) for a splattering of pink. Although Rosemary usually flowers from April, with milder winters I’ve seen it flowering as early as January right through until summer. It’s also one of the most drought-tolerant plants I’ve come across and highly attractive to many different species of bee – mason, bumble, mining, and honey bees – so I’d recommend it to any bee-friendly gardener.
  7. As it gets nearer to spring there is the temptation to tidy up the garden so it will look neat when the crocuses and daffodils appear next month, but leave your garden unkept for as long as possible so as not to disturb bumblebee queens who could still be hibernating in piles of old leaves, long grasses or under a shed.
  8. It’s not too late to undertake bee hotel winter maintenance. Follow our simple step by step guide to care for these solitary bees over winter. Watch out for other insects hibernating in any empty tubes. I found queen wasps and spiders!
  9. You could try to build bricks of cob for the Hairy-Footed Flower Bee to nest in. Cob is an ancient material used for building walls and houses. It uses a mixture of clay, sand, cricket pitch loam, straw and water. There is a great video here by Devon-based naturalist, John Walter, on how to make cob bricks. They seem to need dry, warm weather to dry, or I suppose you could bring them inside to make them at this time of year. I’m going in search of cricket pitch loam! But the mistake I made last year was not protecting the cob bricks enough from the rain, so no Hairy-Footed Flower Bee nested in them. So I’m going to have to find an
  10. Submit sightings to BWARS of Buff-tailed bumblebees in the north of the UK. (Although it says it is for winter 2019/20, they are taking records for 2022 sightings).
  11. Submit hairy-footed flower bee sightings to BWARS so it can update its distribution atlas.

Rescue a lifeless looking bee:

Offer a lethargic or exhausted looking buff-tailed bumblebee an emergency energy drink of sugary water. At this time of year they can get cold and tired very quickly after leaving the nest if they don’t quickly find nectar from a flower. A mixture of two tablespoons of white sugar to one tablespoon of water should revive them, but it may take them a while to find enough energy to suck up the liquid from the spoon or saucer you provide. Be patient.

An alternative is to pick her up and take her to a flowering bush, such as Mahonia, full of nectar-rich flowers if there is one nearby. But remember, bumblebees can sting if they feel threatened so pick her up on a leaf, or in a container. 

Or invest in a Bee Revival kit which comes with a tiny refillable bottle attached to key ring containing an ambrosia® bee food syrup to feed a bee in an emergency.

Never feed a bee honey. Bacterial spores of a disease that affects bee larvae can be found in honey and this brood disease is highly contagious.

You can try the same remedy for a lifeless honeybee, but they may be more inclined to sting. Again DON’T FEED THEM HONEY.

For information on IDing and helping bees at other times of the year see my Bees to See in November blog here  Bees to See in October blog hereBees 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.

Early mining bees

Clark’s Mining Bee (Andrena clarkella) Pic credit: Ed Phillips

These are three male species of mining bees you may see emerging in mid February from their underground burrows constructed in sandy soil.

  • Clark’s Mining Bee (Andrena clarkella)
  • Small Sallow Mining Bee (Andrena praecox)
  • Large Sallow Mining Bee (Andrena apicata)

Andrena clarkella is the more common. The one above was one of many at a nesting colony at Brandon Marsh Nature Reserve, Warwickshire, where Ed Phillips took the photo a few years ago. More of Ed’s fantastic photos can be found here.

Male mining bees are most likely found at the entrance of the nest waiting for the females to come out a few weeks later.

L-R Males: Small Sallow Mining Bee (Pic credit: Graham Callow); Large Sallow Mining Bee (Pic credit: Nigel Jones)

The other two early male mining bee species – Small Sallow Mining Bee (Andrena praecox) pictured above left, and Large Sallow Mining Bee (Andrena apicata) to it’s right – both get their common names from the trees which provides them with pollen. Sallow is another name for willow – and they can be seen foraging on Goat willow tree (Salix caprea) – also known as pussy willow, as the male catkins look like a cat’s paws. However, it’s the females who emerge in March, that you are most likely to see collecting pollen.

These two mining bee species are scarce but can be widespread in the pockets of England and Wales where they are found since they nest in large aggregations.

Top bee spotting tip. Find an area teeming with willows – Goat willow, Grey willow, Eared Willow and even Weeping willow, and keep an eye out from late February to May. Here are the females, you may spot from March onwards. As you can see they are darker and fluffier. The best way to differentiate males and females, is:

  • the male’s pale moustache
  • males are a couple of millimetres smaller (8-9.5mm, 6-7.5mm, 7-9.5mm)
  • males fly in late February, females don’t appear until March
  • females are more striking, being brighter
  • females and females predominately forage on willows, but females can go to dandelion-like flowers too.
  • females often have pollen on their back legs.

L-R: Females. Clark’s Mining Bee on Pussy Willow (Pic credit: Nick Owens); Small Sallow Mining Bee; Large Sallow Mining Bee on finger (Pic credit: Nigel Jones).

It’s extremely difficult to differentiate between many mining bee species as they are all small and brown, but if a small, slender bee is flying in February it can only be one of these three mining bees, or a honeybee, which can look similar to the untrained eye, but is striped and less hairy.

For more information on these mining bees visit the Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society and Ed Phillips has a good blog here.

Bees in January

Tips for IDing January bumblebees:

Bee spotting is a rare pursuit this month as only two bee species fly at this time of year when it’s cold, dark and there’s little food around. The two species are buff-tailed bumblebees and honeybees, and in some areas it will only be the latter. On the plus side, it’s harder to get the ID wrong!

  • Buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) – these fluffy, plump golden-striped bumblebees are the ones you’re most likely to see foraging between now and February, especially if you live in a city in the south of England. This winter activity was first recognised in the late 1990s when buff-tailed bumblebee workers where observed in various sites. It’s believed that some summer queens set up nests in October (instead of hibernating until spring) and produced workers in November to take advantage of milder winters and the abundance of food provided by winter-flowering heathers, honeysuckles and especially widely-planted Mahonia, a tough shrub whose bright yellow flowers cheer up many an amenity shrubbery, car park, and city garden and park at this time of year and produce copious amounts of nectar and pollen.
  • Queen – Although called buff-tailed bumblebees, in reality only the queen has a clearly buff coloured bottom. Measuring 16mm in length, she is one of our largest bumblebees and hard to miss.
  • Workers and males have whiter bottoms. It is the workers (measuring around 10mm) you will most likely see foraging and collecting blobs of Mahonia’s orange pollen in the pollen baskets on their hind legs.

Submit sightings – If you see a bumblebee during the winter north of Birmingham, the Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society would like you to submit your sighting here. Even though the website says 2019/2020, I have been told that they are still mapping the spread of winter bumblebees across Britain as the winters become more mild.

How to ID honey bees:

Western honey bees (Apis millefera) – the managed honeybee colony stays alive at this time of year by keeping warm in their hive and eating their honey which they spend all summer making and storing for their winter food. But on milder, sunny days or even cold, bright days when the sun has warmed up the hive, some worker bees will leave the colony to forage for winter-flowering shrubs nearby, or just to go to the toilet (they don’t do this in the hive). They are so much slimmer and smoother than bumblebees, measuring around 14mm in length, that there is no chance of confusing the two.

How to help bees in January:

  1. Plant a tree between now and February to feed bees in the future, or sponsor a street tree. Some trees are better for bees than others, because they produce more nectar and pollen, or they supply it early in the spring, or in late autumn when little else is flowering. What we really need are trees that blossom sequentially producing a bee banquet throughout the year. Check our trees for bees guide. If you plant a Himalayan cherry (Prunus rufa) or a Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrula) you’ll not only have great blossom for bees in spring (as long as you plant single flowered varieties, not double-headed ones), but also fantastic rich coppery, peeling bark in the winter.
  2. Underplant your tree with Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) whose large, bowl-shaped flowers are borne in loose clusters in late winter and spring, and Elephant’s ears (Bergenia), Lungwort (Pulmonaria) to attract early flying bees next spring. More flower suggestions here.
  3. It’s still not too late to plant some bulbs. Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ can still be a bee magnet in May/June if planted this month. Grape hyacinths (Muscari) should still flower in March and some tulips will also do well planted this late (although only wild tulips (Tulipa sylvestris seem to attract bees). I will plant some of these ‘in the green’ next month, which means planting them while the bulbs are in growth, rather than dormant. It’s a good way to plant bulbs in February/March if you didn’t get round to it in the autumn.
  4. Plant winter or early spring-flowering shrubs, such as Winter Daphne  (Daphne odora) or Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’ or Heathers (Erica carnea), which are perfect for a rockery or small flower bed with acidic, ericaceous soil. Winter flowering specimens, include white ‘Winter Snow’ (Erica carnea f. alba ), or ‘Winter rubin’ (Erica carnea ‘Winter Rubin’) for a splattering of pink.
  5. Leave your garden unkept so as not to disturb bumblebee queens who may be hibernating in piles of old leaves, long grasses or under a shed.
  6. It’s not too late to undertake bee hotel winter maintenance. Follow our simple step by step guide to care for these solitary bees over winter. Watch out for other insects hibernating in any empty tubes. I found queen wasps and spiders!
  7. Install a bird box that’s suitable for small birds like blue tits, with a 25mm diameter entrance hole, as it may prove to be the perfect nesting sites for Tree bumblebees (Bombus hypernorum) when the chicks have fledged in late spring. The bees will vacant by autumn, leaving the box empty for birds to use next year.

Rescue a lifeless looking bee:

Offer a lethargic or exhausted looking buff-tailed bumblebee an emergency energy drink of sugary water. At this time of year they can get cold and tired very quickly after leaving the nest if they don’t quickly find nectar from a flower. A mixture of two tablespoons of white sugar to one tablespoon of water should revive them, but it may take them a while to find enough energy to suck up the liquid from the spoon or saucer you provide. Be patient. An alternative is to pick her up and take her to a flowering bush, such as Mahonia, full of nectar-rich flowers if there is one nearby. But remember, bumblebees can sting if they feel threatened so pick her up on a leaf, or in a container. Never feed a bee honey. Bacterial spores of a disease that affects bee larvae can be found in honey and this brood disease is highly contagious.

You can try the same remedy for a lifeless honeybee, but they may be more inclined to sting. Again DON’T FEED THEM HONEY.

For information on IDing and helping bees at other times of the year see my Bees to See in November blog here  Bees to See in October blog hereBees 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.

Trees for Bees

The best thing you can do for bees in winter is plant a tree

  1. One flowering tree can produce thousands if not millions of nectar and pollen-rich blooms, so it’s able to feed many more bees and other pollinators than wild flowers or shrubs covering the same amount of ground.
  2. Native trees will also provide leaves for caterpillars to munch on before turning into butterflies or months, and non-natives will significantly extent the flowering season providing much needed food for bumblebee queens and honeybee colonies going into winter.
  3. Few flowers are in bloom in early spring and late autumn, so trees that blossom in these months provide a vital source of energy and protein for foraging bees.
  4. Catkins on hazel and alder trees in early spring are full of pollen which bumblebees and honeybees collect to feed their brood (babies).
  5. Some solitary bees are totally dependent on one species of tree for nectar and pollen. The clue is in the name: Large Sallow Mining Bee, Small Sallow Mining Bee, Hawthorn mining bee.

My top 10 trees for bees

  1. Goat Willow (mid bottom)
  2. Hazel (top left)
  3. Cherry ‘Okame’ (mid top)
  4. Dwarf Horse Chestnut/Bottlebrush buckeye (bottom left)
  5. Chinese Privet
  6. Seven Son Flower (top right)
  7. Crab apple (bottom right)
  8. Oleaster
  9. Sweet Chestnut
  10. Strawberry Tree

To find out why they are my favourites, read my article in BQ magazine, Planting the right trees for bees

For trees that flower sequentially go to the Urban Bees Trees for Bees guide

Of course, many of us don’t have large gardens to accommodate trees, but smaller varieties, such as crab apples like Malus sylvestris ‘Evereste‘, can grow in pots on rooftops and balconies. And speak to your local ward councillor, or the councillor responsible for green spaces, to encourage them to plant more trees in streets and parks to help pollinators as well as ensuring mature trees are protected from being cut down.

Review in pictures and numbers of Urban Bees’ 2022

1,089 subscribers to the monthly Buzz newsletter

100s of Bees to See in 2022 and 2023 calendars sold

100s of year-round bee-friendly flowers planted across London including:

Rosemary (Salvia rosemarinus) Wallflowers (Erysimum ‘Apricot Delight’) – pictured middle left with a Buff-tailed bumblebee arriving minutes after it had been planted – Lambs’ Ear (Stachys byzantina); Salvia ‘hot lips’; Hedge germanda (Teucrium x lucidrys); Sedum (Hylotelephium spectabile)

50 bee hotels made in 3 workshops for pupils and community gardening groups

30 bee hotels maintained

15 different species of bees spotted on roof top bee gardens in London including:

  • Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum)
  • Hairy-footed flower bee (Anthiphora plumipes)
  • Davies’ plasterer bee (Davies’ colletes)
  • Leafcutter bee (Megachile centuncularis)
  • Furrow bee (Lasioglossum)

10 bee talks given – reaching more than 500 people (in person and online): including

  • CityWire’s Impact Retreat 2022 – where I explained to ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) investors why the companies they invest in need to have a pollinator strategy to safeguard bee populations for food security and to mitigate climate change
  • On UN World Bee Day, I spoke online to more than 100 staff at Bouygues construction company about why bees and biodiversity are good for business
  • More than 150 KPMG staff learned about the nature-positive steps they can take to help bees and other pollinators and why they are so important for our eco-system
  • Local Hackney residents learned about bees and how to spot them at Dalston Eastern Curve garden
  • Alison kicked off the Wild World of Bees 2022 Master Academy online class run by Canadian-based ABC Bees (middle right photo)

7 new bee-friendly terraces created at:

  • Take 2 in Fitzrovia (pictured above top right, planting an Amelanchier lamarckii)
  • Price Waterhouse Coopers in the Embankment and More London

5 articles written: including

5 roof-top bee gardens maintained at:

  • Lush London HQ in Soho (bottom right photo)
  • Bread Street and Carter Lane offices managed by Savills in the City
  • Adam & Eve Advertising agency in Paddington
  • Amazon office, near the Barbican

5 bee observation boxes installed at:

  • Adam & Eve (painted yellow, with bee hotels, pictured middle bottom row)
  • Weil law firm
  • Belgrave House, managed by BNP Paris Real Estate
  • Amazon office

5 mature, large bee-friendly shrubs destroyed by the drought

  • Rosemary bushes and Salvia ‘hot lips’ on Bread Street rooftop in the City (top left photos before and after the summer drought, without an irrigation system)

4 bee tours of Regent’s Park (

3 new clients for Urban Bees including:

  • Take 2
  • PWC

1 roof-top bee garden tripled in size from 5 to 15 planters on:

  • Adam & Eve rooftop in Paddington, west London (new planters pictured bottom left)

1 corner of a housing estate improved for biodiversity in:

  • St George Chelsea Creek housing development in south west London (thistles pictured middle)

1 All-Party Parliamentary Group for Bees and Pollinators Advisory Board joined, which advises MPs

December bees

Tips for IDing December bumblebees:

Bee identification suddenly got very easy as there are only two bee species flying at this time of year: buff-tailed bumblebees and honeybees, and in some areas it will only be the latter.

  • Buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) – these fluffy, golden-striped bumblebees are the ones you’re most likely to see foraging between now and February, especially if you live in a city in the south of England. This winter activity was first recognised in the late 1990s when buff-tailed bumblebee workers (with the white tails) where observed in various sites. It’s believed that some summer queens set up nests in October (instead of hibernating until spring) and produced workers in November to take advantage of milder winters and the abundance of food provided by winter-flowering heathers, honeysuckles and especially widely-planted Mahonia, a tough shrub whose bright yellow flowers cheer up many an amenity shrubbery, car park, and city garden and park at this time of year and produce copious amounts of nectar and pollen. You’ll most likely see the white-tailed workers foraging on it and collecting blobs of its orange pollen in the baskets on their hind legs.

How to ID honey bees:

Western honey bees (Apis millefera) – the managed honeybee colony stays alive at this time of year by keeping warm in their hive and eating their honey which they spend all summer making and storing for their winter food. But on milder, sunny days or even cold, bright days when the sun has warmed up the hive, some worker bees will leave the colony to forage for winter-flowering shrubs near by, or just to go to the toilet (they don’t do this in the hive). That’s when you may see them. They are so much slimmer and smoother than bumblebees that there is no chance of confusing the two.

How to help bees in December:

  1. Plant a tree in your garden between now and February to feed bees in the future, or sponsor a street tree, or join a local tree planting group to plant trees in parks and community orchards. Some trees are better for bees than others, because they produce more nectar and pollen, or they supply it early in the spring, or in late autumn when little else is flowering. What we really need are trees that blossom sequentially producing a bee banquet throughout the year. Check our trees for bees guide. If you plant a Himalayan cherry (Prunus rufa) or a Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrula) you’ll not only have great blossom for bees in spring (as long as you plant single flowered varieties, not double-headed ones), but also fantastic rich coppery, peeling bark in the winter.
  2. Underplant your tree with Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) whose large, bowl-shaped flowers are borne in loose clusters in late winter and spring, and Elephant’s ears (Bergenia), Lungwort (Pulmonaria) to attract early flying bees next spring.
  3. Leave your garden unkept so as not to disturb bumblebee queens who may be hibernating in piles of old leaves, long grasses or under a shed.
  4. It’s not too late to undertake bee hotel winter maintenance. Follow our simple step by step guide to care for these solitary bees over winter. Watch out for other insects hibernating in any empty tubes. I found queen wasps and spiders!
  5. Offer a lethargic or exhausted buff-tailed bumblebee an emergency energy drink of sugary water. At this time of year they can get cold and exhausted very quickly after leaving the nest if they don’t quickly find nectar from a flower. A mixture of two tablespoons of white sugar to one tablespoon of water should revive them, but it may take them a while to find enough energy to suck up the liquid from the spoon or saucer you provide. Be patient. One way to ensure you are always prepared to revive a bee is by carrying a Bee Revival Kit with you at all times. You can buy these ingenious Bee Revival Kits – a vial filled with an ambrosia syrup that attaches to a key ring. An alternative is to pick a bee up and take her to a flowering bush, such as Mahonia, full of nectar-rich flowers if there is one nearby. But remember, bumblebees can sting if they feel threatened so pick her up on a leaf, or in a container. Never feed a bee honey. It sounds counterintuitive, but the bacterial spores of a disease that affects bee larvae can be found in honey and this brood disease is highly contagious.

.For information on IDing and helping bees at other times of the year see my Bees to See in November blog here  Bees to See in October blog hereBees 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.

Books of the year

  1. A Flower A Day, by Miranda Janatka (Batsford), is a hefty, colourful coffee table book, full of bite-sized chunks of information about a different a flower blooming somewhere in the world on each day, with photos and illustrations. Today, it’s Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) from North America and its medicinal properties. It would make a lovely present for anyone who loves flowers.
  2. Drought-Resistant Planting by Beth Chatto (Frances Lincoln), was publicised many years ago, but the lessons from this late, great plants woman’s gravel garden have never been more timely. I keep going back to it.
  3. Grey bees by Andrey Kurkov (Maclehose Press) is nothing really to do with bees but the protagonist is a beekeeper living in the Donetsk region between 2015 -2020. He loves his bees more than anything. It is the best novel I’ve read this year, other than Kurkov’s classic black satire, Death and the Penguin, about Ukraine in the 1990s.
  4. Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard (Penguin) is the real life story of the scientist some of you will recognise from the novel Overstory by Richard Powers whose discovery that trees ‘talked’ to each other and co-operated for survival was discredited by male academia for decades.
  5. Rachel Carson Cared About Our World by Kate Coombs and Seth Lucas (Gibbs Smith) is one of a series of BabyLit books introducing very young children to some of our great conservationists. I discovered the book in my local, independent bookshop and then looked online to find others in the series include John Muir and Beatrix Potter. It’s a US publisher, but you can get them here.
  6. I can’t mention children’s books without including Nan Eshelby’s entertaining and quirkily illustrated Maisie, Daisy and Mo series to save wildlife, including Bombus and the Beeline. (I should disclose that I have advised Nan on some of the bee facts.)
  7. Wild Fell: Fighting for Nature on a Lake District Hill Farm, by Lee Schofield (Transworld) “I found myself turning the pages with an inward leap of joy”, says Isabella Tree (author of Wilding) of Lee’s battle to persuade farmers around RSPB Haweswater to work with, not against, nature.
  8. Jake Fiennes’ Land Healer: How Farming Can Save Britain’s Countryside, – actually written beautifully by award-winning nature author, Tim Ecott – (Ebury) is in the same vein and equally important by showing farmers the small tweaks they can make and the positive impact it can have on nature.
  9. Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse by Dave Goulson (Penguin) out in paperback this year, is a compelling and essential read.
  10. Insectinside; life in the bushes of a small Peckham park, by Penny Metal, will always have a place in my top 10 because the amazing photos are a great way to start identifying not just bees, but hoverflies, wasps and other amazing insects we will all encounter if we just stop and pay a bit more notice to nature.
  11. Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland, by Steven Falk and Richard Lewington (Bloomsbury), is the bee bible that anyone series about trying to identify bees cannot be without.

Lessons from 2022

  1. Orange-vented mason bees (Osmia leaiana) pictured above (Pic credit: Jeremy Early) like to nest in garden bee observation boxes and are more common than I realised. I mistook our occupant for a Blue mason bee (Osmia caerulescens) because they too chew leaves to construct and plug their nest and I thought they were more common. But when bee ID expert, Steven Falk, pointed out on Twitter the long orange fur on the underside of her abdomen, it was clear that she was an Osmia leaiana.
  2. Common yellow-faced bees (Hylaeus communis) like to use the smaller holes in the observation box. It’s fascinating they way they create a cellophane-like sac to protect the brood.
  3. Red mason bees (Osmia bicornis) hardly used our bee hotels this year. The tubes were clean, they were positioned in the same place (under the eaves of the shed facing south). Perhaps the early drought played a part, or maybe they found somewhere better.
  4. Hairy-footed flowers bees (Anthophora plumipes) didn’t nest in my lovingly constructed DIY cob bricks. Either they weren’t sheltered enough from the rain, or else they just have other good places to nest in old walls as there are a lot of old buildings where we live. I will try again next spring, with better shelter.
  5. I’ve still got a long way to go to improve my ID skills.
  6. Red hot pokers (Knifofia) are one of the most drought-resistant plants. I was surprised that salvia ‘hot lips’ and rosemary aren’t but they where stretched to their limit – the roots were in shallow soil (20cm) and there was no rain for weeks and weeks and scorching sun and heat.
  7. All rooftop gardens need a timed irrigation system even if the plants are drought tolerant as so few will survive the weather conditions we experienced in London this spring and summer.
  8. More lessons to come

Central St Giles 11th floor – improvements for bees

The wildflower turf and sedum on this roof only feeds bees in mid summer and later, so we suggested to Savills, which manages the building, the garden designer and the maintenance contractor that they add crocuses, wallflowers and other earlier flowering plants to feed bees from spring 2022.

We also suggested installing a 3m square x 4m deep mound of sand packed down and with logs around the base drilled with holes. The idea is to provide a place where mining bees can nest and also solitary bees that like to nest in wood. On another London roof where a similar structure has been built, the following bees have been recorded nesting:

  • Buffish mining bee (Andrena nigroeanea) and it’s cuckoo Early Nomad bee (Nomada leucophthalma)
  • Common mini miner bee (Andrena minutula)
  • Furrow bee (Lassioglosum)
  • Orange-legged furrlow bee (Halictus rubicundus)
  • Orange-tailed mining bee (Andrena heamorrhoa)
  • Chocolate mining bee (Andrena scotica).

We also installed bee hotels for mason bees and leafcutter bees to use.

Unfortunately, the roof isn’t accessible to staff working in the building, so we suggested in 2022 that Urban Bees visit each month from late spring to late summer to monitor bee visitors and report back to staff.

In 2022, we spotted:

  • Leafcutter bees (Megachile) on knapweed
  • Common carder bees (Bombus pascuorum) on wildflowers
  • Furrow bees (Lasioglossum) on daises
  • Buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) on vetches
  • Buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) on Bird’s foot trefoil
  • Honeybees (Apis mellifera) on achillea.

In November, I spoke to the staff of NBC Universal who are tenants of the Central St Giles about the work Urban Bees is doing to rewild the rooftop to help a variety of wild bee species throughout the spring and summer.

We will monitor in 2023 for more bee species and record if any species are nesting on the roof.

Sian’s bee project

Planting bare root trees in the foothills of the Rhinog mountains

Sian writes: “I came late to bee obsession, but when it hit, it hit hard. After an epiphany watching a bee feed during the first lockdown, I’ve spent the majority of my time and energy trying to make the four acres of land my husband and I own in the foothills of the Rhinog mountains, in North Wales, into as much of a wild bee paradise as I can. We’re in a fortunate position here, located close to riparian corridors, temperate rain forest and two Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).

Creating a clover meadow on the four acre land

What this has meant in practice has been being covered in mud daily, my arthritis screaming at me to stop, trying to make bee habitat and provide fodder.  The soil is thin and acidic, the winds frequent and strong. We’ve planted native hedging, established two stumperies, dug two ponds, increased the plant diversity onsite, and withdrawn some of the land from grazing. It’s often felt frustratingly slow to me, and I am humbled daily by just how much I don’t know, and just how resilient and determined the bees are. This years, it’s been a joy to watch a variety of bee species feeding on our plants from early spring to the the end of October.

Common carder bee on Viper’s bugloss Three carder bees on a flower

I came to understand the critical importance of accurate bee identification over the last year, because without it, I can’t know which bees the land is supporting or what is successful in what we’re doing. To gain ID skills, and also to know what to provide, I’ve needed to immerse myself in sources of information I trust. Chief among them has been Professor Dave Goulson’s work, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Bee, Wasp and Ant Recording Society (BWARS) and of the Urban Bees newsletter and calendar. The newsletter has been hugely helpful, especially for a newbie in the throes of coming to understand how to use larger reference books for identification. It’s much easier to assimilate succinct, clearly presented information that is seasonally relevant. Alison and Brian ’s books have also given wonderful focus and context. “

Lessons from the drought

Going, going, gone. Rosemary at the fare end of the planter in June, July and at the front of the planter in August

A few months earlier:

Rosemary thriving in February, kniphofia looking great in May with the Shard behind.

I thought that the huge Rosemary bushes and Salvia ‘hot lips’ that I’d inherited when I took over the maintenance of two large planters on the roof of 1 Bread Street, in the City, were completely drought-resistant. They had thrived in 2021 with just rain water, and at the beginning of 2022 were looking magnificent. But after the driest spring and summer since 1976, they were dead by July, and the Kniphofia (Red hot pokers) also looked dead, along with Nepeta (Cat mint), Rose campion (Lychnis coranaria), and Verbena bonariensis.

The reason I didn’t install an irrigation system after the very dry spring was twofold:

  1. I thought it would start raining and the drought-resistant plants on the roof would bounce back
  2. When it was obvious we were in the middle of a long drought, the intense heat prevented me from venturing up on the eighth storey rooftop in the City surrounded by concrete, steel and glass. It wouldn’t have just been the plants that would have expired!

So I’m afraid, I let that abundant source of nectar and pollen perish. It was heart breaking when I finally got back up to the roof to see the devastation.

In August, the heat abated and we were able to install a timed, sprinkler irrigation system. A few days later, it finally rained! But it was too late to rescue the Rosemary, Salvia, Nepeta and others. Only the sedums, thank goodness, lived up to their reputation and withstood the drought without any problems, and I added more.

Timed sprinkler system installed, sprinklers placed in planters, but only the sedum appeared to survive.

In September, myself and my new friend and now colleague, Alex – who is extremely knowledgeable about plants and an experienced gardener – agreed to help me remove the dead Rosemary, salvia and other plants, and replace them. One day a week for a month, we cut and pulled, and lugged bags of dead woody branches.

The rain and the watering system did help the Kniphofia, a tough plant from South Africa, bounce back. But it also encouraged ‘weeds’ to spring up all over the planters. I know weeds are just flowers in the wrong place, but they really had to go. Luckily my client was very understanding. And it’s a roof that staff don’t have access to, so aesthetics aren’t as important as they would be if it was accessible. The client is paying for the planters to be full of plants that feed bees throughout the spring and summer and early autumn.

We replaced the dead plants with a variety of bee-friendly plug plants and 2 litre pots hoping they will take and grow by next spring and summer.

New additions included: Calamint, lavender, Teucrium hircanicum (Caucasian germander), Origanum, Eupatorium, Veronica, Nepeta and Stachys byzantina (Lambs’ Ear) (all supplied by Rosybee) , along with 2 litre pots of late-flowering plants including Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), Tickseed (Cereopsis), Globe thistle (Echinops), Nerine (Nerine bowdenii) and Agapanthus – some of the latter had survived the drought. We also planted new creeping Rosemary plants, but it will take years before they reach anything like the size of the ones that died.

We mulched around the new planting, to suppress the weeds and to protect the plants from excessive rain we may get this winter, and to keep their roots warmer . We turned off the watering system for winter.

Lessons

  1. It’s essential to have an irrigation system installed for planters on a rooftop, even if the plants are drought-resistant, unless you are being paid to water frequently in dry spells.
  2. The planters I inherited are only 20cm (200mm) deep and not all of that is soil. There is a layer of soil, a fleece and a layer of lecca for drainage below the fleece. The lack of depth of soil played a part in the Rosemary’s demise. If it had had deeper roots it may have been able to cling on. I would recommend planters with 400mm depth of soil for plants to thrive.
  3. Visit rooftop planters more often to assess the conditions of the planters.
  4. Take preventative action more quickly.
  5. South African plants like Kniphofia, Agapanthus and Nerine bowdenii, a late flowering lilly, are extremely tough, drought-resistant plants they don’t mind windy exposed conditions, full sun and no water. There may be others I’ve yet to discover….

Watch this space to see how the planters are looking in 2023.

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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.

Bee summer unit – to clean or not to clean?

Middle left: 3 channels used by an Orange-vented mason bee (Osmia leaiana), R: close up of Common yellow-face bee (Hylaeus communis) Photos taken when unit was removed in October

For for the first time this summer, we inserted a summer unit into our solitary bee observation nest box in our garden. They have various size holes to attract different species of cavity-nesting solitary bees during the summer.

It was very exciting when our first bee arrived; At first we thought she was a Blue Mason bee (Osmia caerulescens), because they are fairly common and divide up their cells with chewed leaf. But with the help of Twitter, she was correctly identified as an Orange-vented mason bee (Osmia leaiana) by the orange pollen brushes on the underside of her abdomen. A new species to me!

That was in July, and the video we posted of her busily making her cells and provisioning them with bright yellow pollen went viral.

Just below the Orange-vented mason bee, a smaller, shiny black bee with yellow markings on its tiny face moved in. This Common Yellow-faced bee (Hylaeus communis) started to do something incredible, lining her cell with a cellophane-like, waterproof substance. Each egg is laid inside a cell which resembles a see-through plastic bag filled with a mix of nectar and pollen for the larvae to eat.

Heatwave and drought…

We left the bees to get on nesting, but were concerned how they’d fare during the heatwave and drought. We couldn’t move the unit to a shadier, slightly cooler spot because the adult females wouldn’t be able to find it. Would mum struggle to find nectar from drought-hit plants? Would her eggs, and/or larvae be boiled alive in the heat? Would she?

When we finally removed the summer unit at the beginning of October, with a view to cleaning it out for winter, we could see lots of pollen in the area being used by Osmia leaiana and the Hylaeus communis larvae still developing in the waterproof sacs.

So, are they OK?

None of my books prepared me for this, so I contacted George Pilkington, creator of the summer unit and bee expert, Ted Benton for their thoughts.

Orange-vented mason bee

George told me that in his experience Osmia leaiana can sometimes take two years to develop! “I have found this as quite a few times I thought they had died and binned them only to find some years later that left to their own devices, they emerge the second summer. I know of others who have had this too. Now I leave them in the cavities and let them get on with it. “

Ted was a more concerned: “If there is still a lot of pollen in the cells, the larvae will not have developed. I’m not clear why that would be. Possibly the eggs didn’t hatch, or maybe there wasn’t enough nectar mixed with the pollen for them to gain their full nutritional requirements.” Ted suspects that  many summer-flying solitary bees have found it difficult to deal with the drought this year because “the key problem has been lack of nectar for food and moisture”.

Verdict: Not sure

Common yellow-face bee

Both confirmed that the Hylaeus communis larvae looked OK. “They have consumed all their food supply and appear to be in the ‘mature’ larval stage as ‘prepupae’. They will remain in that stage over winter, and then pupate and emerge late spring/ early summer,” advised Ted.

George Pilkington has a fantastic video of the life cycle of the Common Yellow face-bee here that confirms they don’t make cocoons like the mason bees we are more familiar with.

Verdict: Yes

As a result, we have decided not to clean out the unit. We have put it back in the observation box and put them in the shed where they will keep cool and dry over winter. We will see what happens what happens next year.

Bees in autumn

If you’ve still not seen an Ivy bee, get out this month while it’s still warm and dry in many parts of the UK and stand patiently by a buzzing ivy bush in the autumnal sunshine. This is where you’re likely to see them feeding on the tiny, white, pin cushion-like flowers for nectar and pollen, alongside slightly bigger honeybees that they can easily be confused with. Just to make it harder, they will be joined by heaps of stripy hoverflies. The photos above and the ID tips below are designed to help you tell a ivy bee and honeybee apart. And our Is it a bee or a hoverfly? guide should help distinguish both from their hoverfly mimics.

Also observe bees on later flowering blooms, such as Salvias, Michaelmas daisies, Fuchsia, Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’, Cosmos and Penstemon. Some will be the longer-tongued Common carder bees whose ginger tufts will have probably faded to straw. Small workers and larger Queens will be flying, along with Red-tailed bumblebee queens, and ubiquitous Buff-tailed bumblebees. And tiny furrow bees may still be seen.

My best advice to you this month is the same as I give every October; make the most of any mild, bright autumnal days to get out and spot many of the last bees of 2022.

Tips for IDing October bumblebees:

  • Common carder bees (Bombus pascuorum) – the workers will often sport a faded ginger/brown thorax that looks more straw-coloured at this time of year. They will often be seen foraging on Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’, Michaelmas daisies and Salvia ‘hot lips’ in my garden, alongside new, more vibrant looking queens and males stocking up on nectar before the winter. The queens are the largest (15mm) and the workers the smallest (11mm). 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.
  • Red-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lapidarius) – one of my main disappointments of bee spotting again this year was how few of these gorgeous velvety black bees with their fiery red bottoms I’ve seen in my garden or local parks in east London. However, I did spot some of the pretty, yellow-faced males so there must be queens around. Anyway, be on the look out in these last few weeks for the new generation of 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 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 bee. Why? Here are ten reasons why ivy mining bees are so special:

  1. They are the last solitary bee to emerge in the year.
  2. 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 bees (Colletes succinctus) and Sea Aster bees (Colletes halophilus).
  3. They were first discovered in England just 20 years ago, in an ivy bush in Dorset in 2001.
  4. 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.
  5. They only fly for around six weeks, when the ivy is flowering, so they seem more special than bees that fly all summer.
  6. 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.
  7. 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 that may become a nesting site. This video gives a flavour.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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:

  1. 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 flowering ivy is by far 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.
  2. For bee-friendly October window boxes, try Cosmos, Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus), and Cyclamen.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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 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.

September surprises

You’d probably expect to see less bees flying as summer gives way to autumn, and it’s true that the leafcutters, wool carder bee and many mining bees have gone. But if you have late flowering blooms you may see plenty of bumblebee queens stocking up on nectar before searching for a cosy winter hideaway and smaller common carder bee workers are still out in force. And if you’re near flowering ivy (yes, mature ivy is smothered in tiny white flowers later this month) don’t miss the Ivy mining bee. This short-lived solitary bee emerges just before the ivy flowers and disappears shortly after. It was first recorded in the UK, just over 20 years ago.

We have included honeybees in our guide this month, despite the fact they are managed bees rather than wild bees. We’ve included them for two reasons:

1. You’ll see lots on flowers in your garden because it’s their last chance to collect nectar and turn it into their winter stores of honey, and there are few trees blossoming this month.

2. It’s easy to confuse ivy bees and honeybees when they are both on the ivy flowers. So carefully examine the photos above and ID notes below to tell the difference.

Tips for IDing September bumblebees:

  • Tree bumblebees (Bombus hypnorum) – if you’ve been bee spotting all summer, you should be quite adept at identifying tree bumblebees by now. But they can be confused with similar sized common carder bees as both have a gingery thorax. The tree bumblebee sometimes looks like it has a bald patch and it’s abdomen is blacker and it’s bottom (or tail) is always white. They usually have two generations each summer so the ones you see flying this month will be new queens, workers and males from the second 150-strong colony. The only difference in appearance between the queen, males and workers (known as the three castes) is their size. Queens are a larger 15mm, males 13mm and workers 11mm.
  • Common carder bees (Bombus pascuorum) seem even more common at this time of year. Queens that began producing worker bees in April are now producing new queens and males so they are flying too . The castes all have the same ginger pile on their thorax, but their fluffy bodies can vary in colour from light to dark brown as they fade with age. They are the smallest bumblebees flying in September.
  • Red-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lapidarius) – easily recognisable with their gorgeous red butt, but unfortunately this bee is a less frequent sight for many of us these days. In the south, queens can produce a second colony of up to 300 bees, so it’s this second generation there are now flying. The queen is one of our biggest bumblebees: measuring 17mm, she can look quite intimidating with her velvety black body and striking red tail. Workers are a smaller version of the queen(12mm), but males (12mm) look quite different with their cute yellow facial hair and yellow bands on their bodies.
  • Buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) our most common bumblebee, has two generations in the summer and even a third which flies during the winter in the south of England. However at this time of year, I find them much less ubiquitous than common carder bees. This may be because only the huge mated queens (18mm) are flying stocking up on nectar and looking for a suitable nesting site to raise a new colony in the south, or further north, the queens are stocking up on nectar and looking for a suitable place to overwinter.

How to ID September solitary bees:

  • Ivy mining bee (Colletes hederae) – one of the highlights of autumn is being able to spot an ivy mining bee. To the untrained eye, they can look deceptively like a honeybee, especially as they are both found on mass buzzing around nectar-rich ivy flowers in the south of England and Wales. However, look closely and you’ll see the ivy bee sports a quiff of orange hair on its thorax and its body has much more defined and shiny segmented bands in buff and brown alternate colours. Ivy bees are also a little smaller (10mm) than honeybees (14mm). Ivy bees are the last solitary bee to emerge in the UK. The males first, in late August, or early September, and females a couple of weeks later. They can gather nectar (and the females pollen) from a variety of late flowers before the ivy flowers, but the easiest way to see them is to inspect the tiny white ivy flowers. Ivy bees belongs to the Colletes family, which mine into the ground to make their nests – often next door to each other in very large numbers – and they line their nest with a cellophane-like waterproof and fungus-resistant substance, which is why Colletes are also called plasterer bees. If you have a south-facing slope with light soil you may see hundreds, even thousands, of these bees emerging from their individual nests. It is easy to forget that they are solitary bees. As you can see on this great video from the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. Fascinating fact – the Ivy bee was only described as a separate species in 1993 and wasn’t discovered in the UK until 2001 in Dorset. Unlike the other newcomer, the Tree bumblebee, Ivy bees aren’t thought to have spread to the north of England. But if you see one beyond the Midlands, please report your sighting to BWARS (Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society).
  • Common yellow-faced bee (Hylaeus communis) – these small (5mm) predominately black bees with tiny yellow spots or a triangle on their face has been a familiar sight in gardens since mid summer (if you’ve been able to spot such a diminutive bee) and this year we were lucky enough for a female to nest in our bee observation box as the hole dimension was small enough. They also plaster their nests, but unlike other bees collect pollen in a special stomach, called a crop, and regurgitate it to make a semi-liquid mixed with pollen to feed the larvae. Fascinating fact: They have been observed blowing bubbles of nectar to evaporate the water. This is known as water homeostasis and it concentrates and thickens the nectar/pollen mixture making it tacky like honey. The bees eggs and larvae ‘stick’ to its surface, unlike many other solitary bee larvae which ‘sit’ on top of the more solid pollen mixture. Here is a video of the bubble blowing. (Thanks to Nurturing Nature and Api:Cultural for the info and footage).
  • Pantaloon bee (Dasypoda hirtipes) – I always associate this sand-loving mining bee (9-11mm in length) with beaches because of the way she uses her large, rather comical oversized pollen brushes on her hind legs, known as ;pantaloons’ to dig a hole for nesting in coastal dunes. But she is just as happy on sandy brownfield sites in mainly southern England and Wales. Her nest can be distinguished from other burrowing bees by the large fan of sandy spoil she leaves to one of side of the hole.
  • Common furrow bee (Lasioglossum calceatum) – these small solitary bees with an elongated black shiny body have been flying since early spring. So there is no excuse for not recognising them (although I still have problems with ID). The ones you will be seeing now are males and females that were born in July and can fly until October. Fascinating fact: These burrowing bees can display primitively eusocial behaviour, which means the early flying females in warm climates are actually queen bees that in early summer produce workers. These worker bees will collect nectar and pollen for the new females and males that are born later in the summer.

How to help bees in September

  1. Plant flowers that bloom this month to provide important late sources of nectar and pollen. Sedum, Michaelmas daisy, dahlia, fushsia, Devil’s bit scabious, Perovskia Blue Spire, commonly known as Russian sage, and wild marjoram (Origanum) are all good, and don’t forget Common sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), the solitary bees favourite, according to Rosybee nursery’s fantastically helpful research . A particular fav in our garden is Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ a slug-proof sunflower, and of course, the Geranium Rozanne is still going strong! For the long-tongued bumblebees, black horehound, salvias, buddleia and hemp agrimony are still flowering.
  2. The best late forage for short-tongued honeybees and Ivy mining bees without a doubt is ivy. But ivy only flowers when it is mature and that can take 11 years! So if you have any sprawling ivy that needs a trim, please don’t cut it back until after it’s flowered this month.
  3. If you only have a window box, Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus), trailing nasturtium and bird’s-foot trefoil are still flowering. Add sedum and annuals such as cosmos and snap dragons. If you grow herbs in pots and window boxes, let the mint and oregano keep flowering.
  4. Gather seeds Store them in labelled paper bags in a cool, dry place for sowing or scattering next spring. Or, just scatter them around your garden now while the soil is still warm. Lightly rake the soil, scatter the seeds, cover them with fine soil and firm down.
  5. Leave parts of the garden undisturbed, as ground nesting bumblebee queens may be looking for a snug place to overwinter and don’t chop down old, dead stems that solitary bees may have laid eggs in.
  6. Boost your wildflower meadow . If you started a meadow this year, now is the perfect time to do a final cut this month, scarify the cut meadow to expose bare soil where seeds can grown, then add yellow rattle seeds to suppress grasses taking over next year. Finally, add perennial plug plants of wild flowers that will grow well in the soil and feed bees.
  7. Ditch the weed killers and pesticides. 
  8. Take semi-ripe cuttings if you are patient and want to propagate heathers, ivy, Mahonia, Escallonia, flowering-currents, verbena, penstemon and salvias. The cuttings should be ready to pot on next spring.
  9. Create a bank of sand mixed with some clay soil against a south facing wall, or a free-standing mound, for mining bees which like to burrow into sand. It needs to be about 400mm deep. Create steps in the sand as some bees like to nest vertically and others horizontally. The clay will help the bank to keeps its shape after the bees have tunnelled into it. If you’re lucky you may get ivy mining bees nesting in it this autumn next door to each other in large neighbourhoods.
  10. Drill holes in blocks of wood – 10mm, 8mm, 6mm and 4mm diameters and up to 30 cm deep (although some bees only need a depth of a few centimetres to nest in) – and screw them to a sturdy support. Drill holes in existing structures such as fence posts, or dead trees. Large-headed resin bees, scissor bees and yellow-faced bees may take up residence, but probably not until next year.

For information on IDing and helping bees earlier in the year see my 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.

Chelsea Creek – first year report

Following clearance of dense evergreen shrubs in July 2021, the 100 square meters now has many unshaded areas of direct sunlight where bees can bask to warm themselves.

There is more variety of year-round, low maintenance nectar-rich bee-friendly flowering plants for long and short-tongued bees including wild mallow, chicory, thistles, ragwort and sow thistle. Patches of flowers, such as Lamb’s ear and Comfrey have also been planted to provide mating habitat and nesting material.

Nesting sites have been installed – although bees aren’t nesting yet. Sand mounds need to be created for mining bees.

A variety of bees have been spotted on site Including:

  1. Buff-tailed bumblebee (queens and workers)
  2. Common carder bees (workers)
  3. Hairy-footed flower bees (males and females)
  4. Leafcutter bees (females)
  5. Short-fringed mining bee (female)
  6. Furrow bees (males and females)
  7. Small scissor bee (males and females)
  8. Honey bees (workers).

In addition, moths, ladybirds, butterflies, hoverflies, dragon flies and a number of different bird species have been recorded, including robins, wrens and gold finches.

Downsides

Lack of irrigation on site has hindered some of the plants that could provide good sources of nectar and pollen from growing, given the drought we have had this summer. There are still irrigation hoses laid on site but they don’t appear to work.

The soil is too rich for many wild flowers to flourish, and instead has led to an abundance of grasses that don’t provide food for bees.

Red mason bees have not nested in the bee hotels. This could be due to lack of suitable forage flowering in late spring.

Conclusion

A diversity of bee species are now visiting the site throughout spring and summer to feed, but most do not appear to be nesting. More planting and nesting sites are required, and irrigation to ensure the site can sustain forage during a drought.

You can read in more detail about the first year journey of this project: the flowers that sprouted from nowhere, the insects that appeared, and the many challenges, in 3 earlier blogs: August 2021, April 2022 and July 2022.

Seaside bees

Pic credits L clockwise: Great Yellow bumblebee, Laurie Campbell; Brown-banded carder bee, Ray Reeves; Moss carder bee, Nick Withers, Pantaloon bee, Penny Metal; Long-horned bee, Catherine Mitson

The Great Yellow bumblebee (Bombus distinguendus), is one of our rarest bumblebees, only found on flower-rich machair areas around the coast in the Orkneys, Inner and Outer Hebrides, and Caithness and Sutherland where traditional crofting and low intensity agriculture means red clovers , bird’s food trefoil and other vetches are in good supply.  Bumblebee Conservation Trust is working to save the bee.

Moss carder bee (Bombus muscorum) is another rare bee also found in Scotland and the Pennines, on moors eating knapweeds and vetches. Further south it’s confined to flowery coastal marshland, like Romney Marsh in Kent where a BBCT project has brought this bleached bodied, long tongued bee back from the brink by working with farmers to plant their favourite food. Queens measure 14mm, making them the largest carder bee in Britain.

Brown-banded carder bee (Bombus humilis) is another rarity, restricted to coastal areas along the south coast of England and Wales from May to September. It also looks like it’s been spending too much time in the sun with its pale blonde body and has benefited from the BBCT project above.

Ruderal bumblebee (Bombus ruderatus) is so rare you have to be extremely lucky to catch site of it in a few isolated pocket along the south coast between Rye and Folkstone, and in Lincolnshire where red clovers still grows abundantly. Queens are a huge 18mm and look like a giant Garden bumblebee. Nine of them have been recently recorded by BBCT trust staff in central Carmarthenshire.

Pantaloon bee ((Dasypoda hirtipes) is a solitary bee you have a good chance of seeing excavating its nest, with its oversized pollen brushes, or ‘pantaloons’ in sandy banks and footpaths if you’re holidaying anywhere from Dorset to Norfolk and maybe even Wales.

Long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis) is so called because the males have what appear to be ridiculously long antennae, longer than their bodies. The females have shorter ones and can be seen foraging on clovers, vetches and legumes like bird’s foot trefoil in a few places on the south coast of England and Wales, notably Prawle Point in Devon, where a project is underway to by expand and reconnect the vital coastal habitats on which this and many other wildlife species depend. Learn more here.

Six-banded Nomad bee (Nomada sexfasciata) is our rarest nomad bee because its host bee – whose home it lays its eggs in – is so rare – the Long-horned bee. In fact, this striking nomad bee is now only recorded at the cliffs at Prawle Point. All nomad bees lay their eggs in the burrows of their host bee and then their larvae kill the host’s egg and gobble up all the food. So nomad bees can only exist if there is a healthy population of host bees.

Sandpit Blood bee (Sphecodes pellucidus) is one of 17 UK species of the cleptoparasite Blood bees which take over the nests of various ground nesting furrow bees and mining bees. They are small (5-7mm), and non-hairy, but have a distinct red segment on their otherwise black abdomen which looks as if they have been drinking blood. This one hangs out on coastal dunes and rock cliffs and heathland where its host, the brown, fluffier Sandpit mining bee (Andrena barbilabris) is commonly found.

Summer unit nesters

L-R Orange-vented mason bee (Osmia leaianna) and Common yellow-face bee (Hylaeus communis)

We had 2 bees nesting in the summer unit bee observation box which we put up in the garden for the first time this year.

One is an Orange-vented mason bee (Osmia leaianna) who we confused for a Blue mason bee (Osmia caerulescens) . They are a similar size (8mm) and both carry pollen on the underside of their abdomen. They could both be confused for a leafcutter bee, but they divide their birthing cells and plug the entrance of their nest with chewed up leaf, whereas the leafcutter uses whole pieces of leaf. The easiest way to tell the Orange-vented and Blue mason bee apart is to observe the colour of their pollen brushes after the pollen has been deposited. You’ll see that Orange-vented mason bees have orange pollen brushes and Blue mason bees’ pollen brushes are black.

Watch some amazing footage of her in action

The other nester is a much smaller bee, the 5mm Common yellow-face bee (Hylaeus communis) – black apart from yellow marking on her face and legs. She nested in the cavity with a smaller entrance hole underneath the mason bee.

It’s amazing to be able to see 2 very different species of bee creating nests in very different ways. You won’t see pollen on the hind legs or under the tummy of a yellow-face bee because, unusually, they carry pollen back to the nest in a special stomach, called a crop and regurgitate it to make a semi-liquid mixed with nectar to feed their brood (larvae).

Left – Top right: pollen-packed cells of the Orange-vented mason bee; Middle: Orange-vented mason bee Bottom: Common yellow-face bee creating cellophane-like bags and depositing nectar and pollen and an egg in each waterproof cell.

Right: Top right: second row of eggs and pollen created by the Orange-vented mason bee Middle: Eggs have hatched into larvae in some of the Common yellow-face bee cells and she is making more cells

Orange-vented larvae developing ,

Our Orange-vented mason bee used three cavities and the Yellow face-bee one before unprecedented heat hit our garden and the adult bees disappeared. Hopefully, they had finished their work and died naturally. The summer unit was in full sun, so we’re not sure if the brood has survived or was cooked alive!

We will keep an eye on them to see if they develop further by spinning a cocoon and pupating over winter.

These summer units can be purchased from a variety of suppliers. We got ours from George Pilkington at Nurturing Nature They really do open up a hitherto hidden world.