Bees and lockdown

It’s been a challenging spring for all of us, but a fantastic one for the bees. They’ve been able to take advantage of the lengthening days, blossoming trees, and warmer than average temperatures to get out and collect food.

Spring is always a crucial time for bees. Honeybees emerge from the hive after winter and need to forage for nectar and pollen to take back to the hive to feed the young. The queen bee is busying laying eggs and these hatch into hungry larvae. Queen bumblebees also emerge from their temporary winter residencies to find a new home where they will lay stores of food and rear a new colony. And a new generation of solitary bees are born. One of the most common in urban gardens, the Red mason bees (Osmia bicornis), usually appear from the bee hotels we’ve erected on the south-facing side of our garden shed at the end of April, or early May. But this year, there was frenzied activity around the entrance of the hotels weeks earlier. The male bees, which check-out first, were buzzing expectantly around the hotels waiting for the females to be born so they could pounce on them and mate. She then finds clean, vacant ‘rooms’ in a hotel and spends the next 6 weeks filling them with eggs and pollen she collects from nearby flowers, often a blossoming apple tree.

Other than a few rainy, blustery days, it’s been perfect for bee spotting. And with lockdown, there has never been a better time to observe the natural world right under our noses. While we have had to adapt to a ‘new normal’, nature has been continuing apace. And many of us have been able to take some comfort in trees coming into leaf, bees buzzing and the joyful sound of bird song, often shut out in cities by the noise of road traffic and planes.

Planting Comfrey in a new flower bed near to the house means that we have attracted many more Hairy-footed flower bees (Anthophora plumipes) to the garden this spring. So we’ve had the pleasure of watching the females with their furry black bodies and outstretched proboscis (straw like tongue) darting between the purple bell-flowers sucking up the nectar, with pollen on their back legs. They really are the most adorable bee, and so distinctive; perfect for any beginner bee-spotter to identify. Just plant the Comfrey and they will come.

The other flowers that are attracting most bees in the garden just now are all considered weeds – Alkanet, Forget-me-nots, and White dead nettles. Will the Alliums and honeysuckle lure them away , when they are in full bloom (any day now)?

Over the next few weeks, the role of the beekeeper is vital to ensure the honeybee colonies are strong and healthy. They will visit hives weekly to inspect the colonies. The bees may need feeding if the weather turns bad, or extra storage space if the weather is fine to store the nectar they are collecting to turn into honey – their winter food. Beekeepers may also need to undertake swarm management to prevent bees swarming in the city environment. For this reason, beekeepers are allowed to undertake this crucial work during lockdown.

For the rest of us, we can take enjoyment in observing different bees in our gardens or in the parks and streets where we are taking our daily exercise. For help with ID, try the fantastic Field Studies Council ID chart , the great photos in Penny Metal’s book, Insectinside or Steven Falk’s comprehensive, Field Guide the the Bees of Britain.

Happy bee spotting!

Urban Bees in 2019

The year kicked off with Urban Bees collaborating with artist Mike Bianco to bring his Hivecubator to the Science Gallery in London. The sculpture project is designed to harness the heat created by bees in a hive to grow human tissue culture in a dish. Urban Bees supplied the bees and ensured they weren’t harmed and could get in and out of the gallery through a tube at the back of he structure that led to the outdoors. The survival of the human cells is determined by the health of the bee colony highlighting a fragile collaboration between humans and bees that has existed for thousands of years.

In May, our latest bee book was published. The Good Bee: A celebration of bees and how to save them. We hope the beautiful design and illustrations, easy to read format and fascinating facts will introduce many new readers to the wonders of solitary bees and encourage more people to look our for them. “Enthralling and enlightening,” was how one reviewer described it. We so enjoyed being able to research these amazing bees and share our knowledge. Thanks to publisher, Michael O’Mara for giving us his opportunity. By the end of the year, The Good Bee was a bestseller on Amazon.

The summer brought Urban Bees new contracts, including one with Savills where we transformed a sad looking roof space into a year-round bee-friendly haven by filling a dozen planters with a variety of bulbs, perennials, shrubs and herbs. It didn’t take long for carder bees and buff-tailed bumblebees to find this new source of food in the city of London.

Meanwhile those nice people at Lush made a Bee Movie of the work we’ve been doing transforming their roof into a bed and breakfast for bees, with food and habitat for solitary bees. And the Sunday Telegraph paid a visit to the Lush roof and wrote a lovely article showing readers how to help solitary bees. Radio 4 Today presenter and bee lover, Martha Kearney, dropped in to our back garden to record an item on helping solitary bees in the inner-city.

But it will take more than making towns and cities bee-friendly to save nature’s master pollinators. Transforming farming is essential. So we were delighted to be invited to give a talk at the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development on the importance of pollinators to farming. In addition Urban Bees ‘meet the bee’ sessions at clients KPMG and Coutts Bank may be helping to influence the leaders of tomorrow.

It was another good year for Regents Park honey, although it got off to a slow start. After the harvest, we hosted a cheese and honey tasting event for one of our most loyal clients, La Fromagerie. After visiting the hives and learning how the bees make honey, the participants came to our storeroom where tables were laid with delicious cheeses and honeys that complemented each other. It was a memorable event and one we hope to repeat.

As 2019 draws to a close we look forward to working with new and existing clients in the coming year and to contribute in our own very small way to help pollinators and people on the planet.

Lush HQ rooftop, Soho

Transforming a rooftop into a bed & breakfast for bees

Watch the Lush video here

On a freezing cold day in February, 2018, Urban Bees installed more than 20 hexagonal wooden planters on the London HQ of cosmetics company, Lush, in Soho.

Winter-flowering Mahonia, heathers and hellebores provided immediate bee food, and we also planted lots of perennials and shrubs that would flower in spring and summer, along with a Malus Evereste (Crab Apple) tree.  

By late spring, the tree was in full blossom. We attached bee hotels to it to provide tubes for cavity-nesting solitary bees like Red Mason bees (Osmia bicornis) to lay their eggs in. By the end of summer tubes were sealed with mud, proof that the bees had checked-in to the hotels and laid their eggs.  

We chose hardy, bee-friendly plants that can cope with exposed, dry conditions but an outside tap was fitted with an expandable hose so that staff were able to water every day throughout the summer heatwave which lasted from June right through to August.

We added a few hanging baskets and a bee pond (a shallow tray of water full of stones that the bees can stand on when having a drink).

The trick is trying to get a range of different bee-friendly plants flowering throughout the year. And where there is bee food, there are bees. We saw honeybees, bumblebees and a variety of solitary bees.

Staff used the terrace a lot during the summer as somewhere to hang out and have lunch (when it wasn’t so hot). They loved seeing and hearing the bees buzzing around. The bees didn’t come too close. They made a bee-line for the flowers.

In the autumn, we planted hundreds of crocus bulbs to provide much-needed spring pollen and nectar for early flying bumblebees.

In May 2019, a journalist from the Sunday Telegraph paid a visit to the transformed Lush roof and wrote a lovely article showing readers how to help solitary bees.

Covid, lockdown and the garden

All went well until Covid hit in 2020. The national lockdown prevented us from getting access to the rooftop for over a year. This meant the planters were only watered by infrequent rainfall during the spring and summer. When staff returned to the office in April 2021, we were expecting the worst. Indeed many plants had died from lack of water, including the beautiful crab apple tree, a cotoneaster and heathers, but others had flourished. The drought survivors included:

  • Rosemary
  • Echium vulgare (Vipers bugloss)
  • Centranthus ruber (Red valerian)
  • Erigeron karvinskianus (Mexican fleabane),
  • and wild flowers, from dandelions to sow thistle and Black Medick, closely related to clovers which bees love.

We set about removing the dead plants and replacing with new bee-friendly perennials. And this time we installed a watering system.

By the summer, the garden was coming back to life and many wild bees were returning.

In July, I gave a talk to staff who were working in the London HQ about the creation of the rooftop garden and the bees who use it to feed and nest.

The Good Bee Bee Blog Tour

Our book has just finished a national blog tour, which is when bloggers who have requested a review copy of the book post a review of it on their websites for all their followers to read. It’s been very exciting and the response has been fantastic. We thought we’d share some snippets with you:

“Enthralling and enlightening, The Good Bee, will bring you right up to date on the peril our pollinators are in and give you the tools to help them”, Emma Cooper, The Unconventional Gardener

“This beautifully written, illustrated and presented hardcover book will be a pleasure not only to read, but to give to a friend or loved one.  Even if they are not curious about bees now, they may be surprised.  It could be the beginning of a new-found fascination – and love!  In short, it’s a wonderful book, and I heartily recommended it.” Amanda at Buzz About Bees

Alison and Brian’s book The Good Bee is one of the best wildlife books I’ve read for a while – packed with information, beautiful to look at and the perfect gift for any nature lover. Check it out for fascinating facts on the social life of bees, their ingenious communication systems, links with humans, favourite flowers and more!” Lucy, Quest for Nectar

“To be honest, I had no idea there were so many types of bee…. An enjoyable and entertaining read… Recommended.” Richard Carter, The Friends of Charles Darwin

“I was quite impressed with the amount of detailed information packed into this little book … it goes into fascinating detail about the life histories of solitary bees and bumblebees. Yet it manages not to be overwhelming and reads more like a bee-focused episode of the BBC’s quiz show QI, with less of the scientific jargon and more of the wow-factor.” Elliot, Wildlife and Words

“In this charming little book, Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum, take us on a journey in the world of the bee. Most importantly there are details on what you can do to help them. It is a timely book, as it is slowly dawning on people that we need to look after the whole ecosystem because of the interconnected links between things. “Halfman, Halfbook

“The Good Bee is an excellent place to start if you know absolutely nothing about bees, or even if you know a little bit (that’s me!) and would like to know where to go next in your bee-journey. It’s very enjoyable journey – A WAGGLEDANCE OF WORDS, showing us the ways of these amazing creatures, and how we can help them in their hour of need.” Fi, Make Walk Read

“Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum have written the most wonderful book on the subject of bees. With superb illustrations from James Nunn we embark on a journey into the private life of the bee,” John, The Last Word Book Review


The Good Bee: A Celebration of Bees and How to Save Them

Our new book is out today, with beautiful illustrations of some of the amazing bee species we spent the winter researching and writing about, from the world’s largest bumblebee, the giant golden bumblebee (Bombus dahlbombii) in Patagonia – dubbed the flying mouse –  to the most northerly bumblebee (Bombus polaris) which sunbathes in Arctic poppies.

Nearer to home, we learned about the solitary bees living in our garden, including the delightfully named hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes). The furry black females are easy to spot in February and March darting among the lungwort and comfrey with their tongue sticking out in search of food. In April, red mason bees (Osmia bicornis) emerge from our bee hotels perfectly timed with the blossoming of the apple tree. Leafcutter bees (Megachile centuncularis) follow later in the summer flying through the air with a rose leaf clasped between their legs like a witch on a broom.

And we discovered a whole world of tiny black solitary bees, from the small scissor bees (Chelostoma campanularum) on our campanulas to the resin bees (Heriades truncorum)  nesting in holes drilled into wood and the furrow bees (Lasioglossum calceatum) on our Geranium rozanne (the best flower for solitary bees, research shows).

We wanted to share our infectious fascination and awe for bees by highlighting their vital role as a lynchpin in the working of our planet and their relationship with us throughout history.  We hope in doing so that people fall in love with nature’s wizards. But their existence is increasingly threatened.  So the book also sets out simple steps we can all take to help bees,  and explains how we need to make our countryside and our cities havens for bees to help not just their survival, but ours too.

Urban Bees in 2018

It’s been another exciting year for Urban Bees. Here’s our highlights:

Lush’s bee-friendly roof terrace

On a freezing day in February Urban Bees started to create a bee-friendly roof terrace for Lush cosmetics’ head office in Soho. Not ideal gardening conditions, but we installed more than 20 hexagonal wooden planters lugged up all the soil and planted a Malus Evereste (Crab Apple) tree, some shrubs including Mahonia, winter-flowering heathers and some beautiful Hellebores. We’ve never gardened in skiing gloves before…but there’s always a first time for everything. And Lush were very keen to get the garden established for spring/summer 2018.  Despite the Beast from the East Arctic conditions, by Marsh bumblebees had already been spotted on milder days out the heathers collecting early pollen. Yippee!

By late spring the terrace is starting to flower with sky blue Mytosis (Forget-me-nots), stunning white Allium Cowanii and the Malus Evereste (Crab Apple) in full blossom being pollinated by honeybees. We attached bee hotels to the crab apple tree to provide tubes for cavity-nesting solitary bees like Red Mason bees (Osmia bicornis) to lay their eggs in. By the end of summer tubes were sealed with mud, proof that they had been used.

We chose hardy plants that can cope with exposed, dry conditions but luckily an outside tap was finally fitted to which we attached an expandable hose. This meant staff were able to water every day throughout the heatwave which lasted from June right through to August.

We added a few hanging baskets (containing RosyBee’s wonderful selection of bee-friendly flowers for pots), plus some trailing mini Strawberries, a bee pond (a shallow tray of water full of stones that the bees can stand on when having a drink) and summer perennials. The trick is trying to get a range of different bee-friendly plants flowering throughout the year, which we more or less managed. And where there is bee food, there are bees. We saw honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees.

Staff used the terrace a lot during the summer as somewhere to hang out and have lunch (when it wasn’t so hot). They loved seeing and hearing the bees buzzing around. Next year we hope to talk to them about the bees and maybe get an ID project going.

We ended the year planted hundreds of crocus bulbs that will provide much-needed early pollen and nectar for early flying bumblebees in spring 2019. Can’t wait to see them all. During the year, Lush were filming the roof’s transformation from a bee desert to a bee restaurant, so hopefully it will be ready to view soon.

Solitary bees at RHS Chelsea Flower Show

We teamed up with River for Flowers to create a solitary bee garden in the education zone of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2018. It was a fantastic opportunity to educate the public about how to create wildflower meadows and living walls for solitary bees and create nesting sites in a small urban space. We had a special bee box created by Nuturing Nature which allows visitors to see the stages of a solitary bees; development in the nest. We produced tote bags, postcards and leaflets to give away. Our brilliant garden designers, Kerrie McKinnon and Gabrielle Shay, won a much deserved silver medal and we had lots of visitors including Joanna Lumley, the BBC’s Martha Kearney, the gardening writer Alys Fowler and bee campaigner Samantha Roddick. Thanks to River of Flower’s Kathryn Lwin for her vision, project management and sheer brilliance to make it all happen. The living wall was installed on the Middlesex University Campus and planters went to brighten up a Royal Free hospital terrace.


We continued to work with clients including KMPG, Canada House and Amazon. And following the success of the hives on the Skyline garden at Coutts we began fortnightly  ‘meet the bee’ sessions for staff during the summer.

In 2019, we will be working with a number of new companies and raising awareness about the importance of making our cities better for all types of bees.

Regents Park Honey

We had a bumper crop of honey this year from our apiaries in Regents Park following an extremely long, dry, hot summer which allowed the bees to get out and forage for longer than usual. In addition to the abundance of nectar the bees traditionally collect from the park’s lime trees in June, we think this year the avenues of tulip trees were also in full flower, adding to the nectar flow and giving the honey a delicious deeper flavour than previous years.

We also teamed up with the RAC to run our first Regents Park bee experience in September.  Adapting our successful bee experience in King’s Cross, we introduced 20 members of the RAC to the different bees in the royal park and the flowers they feed on, got the visitors into bee suits and opened up a hive, and ended the tour with a honey tasting session in our storeroom. We hope to run more experiences in 2019.


The award-winning Honey Club King’s Cross Bee Trail App ran through the school summer holidays again. We were disappointed not to get any new partners on board. The King’s Cross development has hugely expanded since the App was launched four years ago, so now it covers just a small part of the site. We need new partners in 2019 with the technical expertise and know how to expand the App.

EU Pollinator Strategy

In March, we traveled to Brussels to impart some of our experience of raising awareness about bees in urban environments with policy makers, NGOs and academics across Europe as part of a consultation exercise to devise an EU-wide pollinator strategy. We met lots of interesting people doing some amazing projects. And an EU pollinator initiative was launched in June.

Special thanks to RosyBee for only growing and selling bee-friendly plug plants and researching which are the different bees’ favourites.  

Trees 4 Bees flowering early


Limes (Tilia europaea) , sweet chestnuts (Castanea sativa) and the glorious Indian Bean Tree (Catalpa bignonioides) all produce bounteous amounts of nectar during the summer for bees to turn into honey in our towns and cities. Mature lime trees, in particular, which have been planted in huge numbers in London parks and streets, with their tiny white flowers, are the main source of honey for the capital’s honeybees, producing a delicious light honey.

This summer, with the extreme heat and drought conditions the trees have all flowered much earlier than usual. The limes were out by mid June, if not earlier in some locations. Sweet chestnuts, to my surprise where not long behind, with their dramatic spindly, long white flowers blooming by the end of the month. And I nearly fell of my bike on the 26 June when the magnificent Indian Bee Tree that I pass on my way to work every day was in its full glory – displaying its enormous white blooms which usually don’t appear until early August!!! You don’t see many of them in London, but they usually stand out in late summer with their eye-catching display when other trees have long-finished flowering.

But not this year, coming out at a similar time as the others.  Is this because they are stressed by the lack of rain and need to flower quickly to produce seed? As the name of the Indian Bean Tree suggests, its seeds are contained in long bean pods which hang from the tree after it’s flowers have been pollinated.

Whatever the reason for the early show of flowers, it unfortunately means the Urban Bees Trees for Bees guide is hopelessly out this year with the month the trees are flowering. More concerning, it means that there won’t be any late summer forage for bees if the trees have all flowered by July.

EU Pollinators initiative

Urban Bees went to Brussels last month to take part in a consultation workshop on the EU’s proposed initiative for pollinators. With a reported dramatic decline in insects leading to warnings of ‘ecological Armageddon’ any initiative can’t come soon enough.

Our session – attended by NGOs, academics and policy makers – looked at how to best protect pollinators in urban areas. We introduced participants to our educational work in London, where we are raising awareness about the importance of improving forage and habitat for all bees and other pollinators through ‘meet the honeybee’ lunchtime classes, bee spotter sessions and our King’s Cross Bee App.

We suggested the best approach the EU could take would be to:

  • regulate that all new developments in cities must be pollinator-friendly with living roofs and parks and green spaces that are good for pollinators as well as for people
  • ban the sale and use of pesticides and weed killers.

Policy makers made it clear that the EU can’t legislate on city developments as this is up to individual member states. They also said the EU doesn’t ban things, which seemed odd as they are about to introduce a field ban neonicotinoids across the EU.

Ten years ago, when honeybees started to vanish in alarming numbers in the US mainly due to what was dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder, any pesticide ban was completely unthinkable. Pesticides were dismissed by most scientist and politicians as having little to do with the problem. Conveniently for the manufacturers no independent testing was done at that time, and the public was unaware of all of this.  But that soon changed.  The mobilisation of millions of concerned people across the globe, together with the potentially huge economic impact of bee losses on the food supply, led governments to invest in independent research and take the protection of bees – honeybees in particular – seriously.  A temporary ban on neonics followed in 2013 after plenty of research showing they were part of the problem and pressure on politicians from NGOs from Friends of the Earth to 38 Degrees, and their millions of members to ‘save the bees’.  Now it’s even clearer that they are a major problem for bees’ health a total field ban looks likely.

So the moral of the story is to exert pressure and don’t give up until the politicians start to listen.

Other good suggestions to come out of the workshop included introducing:

  • an EU award like the Blue Flag scheme for clean beaches for pollinator-friendly spaces
  • a kitemark like FairTrade for food manufacturers and their suppliers that support pollinators.

To have your say on the public consultation on the EU initiative for pollinators which ends on Thursday 5 April.

The Honey Club’s KX Bee Trail App

Urban Bees founded the Honey Club in King’s Cross, with youth charity, Global Generation, and brand agency, Wolff Olins, in order to bring young people and businesses together on the new development through bee-related events, from cooking with local honey to planting for bees.  

Out of this partnership grew the King’s Cross Bee Trail App, using new technology to introduce visitors and people who’d just moved to the area for work or to live to an exciting new part of London.

Users of the App followed a trail. At each stop they discovered fascinating facts about bees and how to help them. At some stops they became citizen scientists IDing and counting the bees they saw, the results of which were shared with Greenspace Information for Greater London. After completing a count, the App unlocked vouchers to use in participating cafes and restaurants.

In 2017, the App won a Defra Bees’ Needs Award  for raising awareness about bees and pollination.  

Thanks to everyone who made it happen, especially Nicole at Global Generation, Des Smith at Willbery Landscapes and Penny Metal, bee photographer extraordinaire.

Since then, Wolff Olins, Global Generation and Urban Bees have moved out of the King’s Cross development and the partnership disbanded.

Urban Bees in 2017

Here’s my brief look back at the year’s highlights for Urban Bees.

Airbnb Bee Tour

While the honey bees were still tucked up in their hives during winter, people were coming on the Airbnb bee tour of King’s Cross, getting to exploring London Wildlife Trust’s Camley Street Nature Park and the Skip Garden and to taste delicious honeys from across the capital.

Their numbers increased throughout the year, with more than 100 in total enjoying the tour from all over the globe, as far as Australia and China to much closer to home in London. Time Out even made a short film.  With an average 4.9 satisfaction rating (out of 5), everyone had a fantastic time and it was great for us to be able to spread the word about how to help all bees in urban environments across the world.

Bumblebees and solitary bees

With the arrival of spring we ensured the Savills planters on a roof at 111 Buckingham Palace Road were full of early flowering crocuses, wallflowers, primroses and heathers for any queen bumblebees venturing out on mild days in search of food.

We also looked out solitary bees, with managed bee hotels on the Savills roof and on the Weils roof terrace off Fleet Street. And we ran a DIY bee hotel workshop for pupils at Friars Primary School in Southwark where Weils’ staff volunteer. The 30 plus pupils also got to learn how to identify bees using our bee spotter guide on the terrace.

The Museum of London also hosted an Urban Bees bee hotel workshop as part of its sustainable cities festival.


We continued to work with clients such as Grosvenor estates and Canada House, where we introduced beekeeping to the new high commissioner’s husband. Other existing clients, included KPMG in Canary Wharf, where our weekly ‘meet the bee’ sessions for staff during the summer continue to be oversubscribed. For those who didn’t get a peek at the hives this year we ran some very popular lunch ‘n’ learn sessions about bees and forage and gave away wild flower seeds and Urban Bees leaflets on the best forage to plant for bees.

Among our exciting new clients were Coutts the bank who asked us to install and maintain a number of hives on its amazing Skyline garden above the Strand where executive chef, Peter Fiori has been growing exotic fruits and vegetables for a few years.  Now many of those plants will be pollinated by their own bees which are also producing exclusive honey for the bank’s executive restaurant.

We will be working with a number of new companies in 2018, raising awareness about the importance of making our cities more bee-friendly.


One of the most exciting events of the year, was recognition for The Honey Club King’s Cross Bee Trail App. Now in its third year, the App won a Defra Bees’ Needs Award for raising awareness about bees and pollination.  What was particularly gratifying about being nominated by our peers and winning the government award in 2017 was that it had been challenging to adapt and relaunch the App this year. The App designers, Wolff Olins,had moved from King’s Cross at the end of 2016 and so it was left to the remaining two members of the Honey Club (youth charity, Global Generation, and Urban Bees) to continue the work with little experience of designing and building Apps.  After many hiccups along the way, it was eventually launched just in time for the summer holidays and was loved by everyone who downloaded it and got to count bees, explored the area, and got money off at participating restaurants and cafes along the way. Thanks again to everyone who made it happen, especially Nicole at Global Generation, Des Smith at Willbery Landscapes and Penny Metal, bee photographer extraordinaire (all pictured above).

Other pollinators

Urban Bees was delighted to be able to support Penny’s amazing book, Insectinside – incredible photographs and wry observations of the hundreds of insect species in her local park.

Bees in winter

I’ve not known a whole month like January when woke up to a carpet of hard frost in the back garden every day and had to put on five layers, including leggings under my jeans and two pairs of socks to cycle the 20 mins to work in central London! The temperature has hovered around 5 C. So did the bees cope? Well actually this is better for them, than a mild winter when they’re out flying and using up their energy reserves. Honeybees huddle in their hive, keeping it nice and toasty by using their bodies and wings to create a shivering sensation that heats them and their home. (Rather like penguins on the ice). The cluster of some 10,000 worker bees and their queen will eat the honey left by the beekeeper. That’s fine if they’ve enough stores and it’s easy to get to it. Problems can occur if it’s a mild winter when they need to eat more honey to fuel their flights outside the hive looking for the very few plants that are flowering.


Given the mild December, many beekeepers (even the ones like us that left each hive a super of honey) were out by mid January putting some bakers’ fondant on the top of their hives for the bees to eat if they were hungry.

For bumblebees, the cold weather is also good. Only the queen is alive at this time of year and she’ll be tucked away in a nest – probably an old mouse hole, or a compost bin, or under a pile of untouched leaves – ready to come out when it gets warmer. As long as she’s not disturbed, she’ll be just fine.

As for the cavity-nesting solitary bees that lay their eggs in hollow stems, or our man-made bee hotels, their babies spend the winter in a cosy cocoon before they emerge in the spring as adult bees. Here there’s just one tube in this cylindrical bee hotel that contains eggs. It’s the one you can see that has been sealed with mud.




We can’t feed wild bees during the winter, but what we can do is think about how to feed them when they start flying by planting early forage, like this Sweet Box (Sarcococca), which smells devine and was covered in honeybees foraging for pollen and nectar _ in preference to the Fondant – when the sun came out on Friday.

DIY Bee Hotel

Now’s the ideal time to make a bee hotel for solitary bees. Wooden bee hotels are easy to make if you’re good with a saw and nails (which I’m not). You can also buy them in garden centres. avis But it’s easy to make a more simple type of bee hotel with an old water bottle.

There are more than 200 different species of solitary bees. All are vital pollinators. Many are cavity nesting, so they need dark holes in which to lay their eggs in the spring onwards. They nest alone, but often next door to each. They rarely sting. Red mason bees (Osmia bicornis), blue mason bees (Osmia caerulescens) and Leafcutter bees (Megachile centuncularis) are the most common solitary bees you’ll be helping by putting up a bee hotel.

For our simple bee hotel, you’ll need String, or garden twine; a plastic drinks bottle; bamboo tubes between 4mm to 10mm, but mainly 7-8mm in diameter; a scalpel; a small hack saw if you’re going to cut the bamboo (You can buy it pre-cut here). It takes a long time to saw 50 pieces of bamboo!

How to make your solitary bee hotel Cut off the neck off the bottle with the scalpel so it measures about 16cm long. Make two small holes equal distance apart along the length of the plastic bottle. Thread the twine through allowing enough length to make a loop for hanging up. If you are cutting the bamboo, use a hack saw and cut to 15 cm. Avoid any nodules. Make sure the bamboo canes are hollow throughout including both ends.

Tightly pack your 15 cm tubes into the plastic bottle (you want them to be protected from the rain so ensure they’re not sticking out), so that they don’t fall out. You many need to push some smaller twigs or plant stems in between the tubes to wedge them in.

Where to locate your bee hotel A warm wall (south or south west facing), sheltered from the wind, 1 metre or more, off the ground. You don’t want the hotels to be shaded by overhanging trees or other vegetation, or to sway around. Suspend it with a slight tilt so the rain runs off the bottle and not into the open tubes. I’ve wedged this one into some trellis and attached the twine to a branch above.


We also use ready-made cylindrical bee hotels, which come with cardboard tubes lined with paper. Here, we have attached a number under the eaves of our south facing garden shed. We’ve also located them on corporate roof terraces alongside bee-friendly flowers.

When to put it up End of March or early April, then you will hopefully attract solitary bees that are newly emerged, have mated and are looking for somewhere to lay their eggs, like this one in the photo.

Bed and Breakfast Solitary bees are more likely to check-in to your hotel if there’s also food and drink. So ensure you grow some of the following plants in spring/early summer:

  • forget-me-not (Mysotis)
  • wallflowers (Erisymum)
  • green alkanet (Pentaglottis)
  • Pieris japonica
  • Culinary herbs including rosemary, thyme, oregano, horehound (Marrubium vulgare)
  • Cranesbill geraniums, such as Rozanne.
  • Bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) and St John’s Wort (Hypericum) and roses, for leafcutter bees which like to cut discs from their leaves of roses to make their nests.

You also need to leave some bare areas of soil, as red and blue mason bees will use this to make the nest, and a regularly topped up saucer/basin of water with stones in it that the bees can balance on while taking a drink. Bees can’t swim.

How do I know if my bee hotel is being used? When bees have laid their eggs in a tube, they will seal it with either mud or leaves. These tubes can be left out over winter and new bees should emerge the following spring. Looks like only one room in this bee hotel has been occupied so far.

Be patient. It may take some time for bees to know the bee hotel is there. The more bee-friendly flowers you grow the more likely you are to attract them.

Hopefully next spring you may see solitary bees emerging through the sealed mud like this little fellow.

2017 – Bee London

January is always a good time of year to look back at what Urban Bees has been doing over the last 12 months and to anticipate the coming spring.

So, looking back to 2016, there were three main themes to our work:

  • raising awareness about bees and forage through lunch ‘n’ learn workshops, talks with beekeeper friends at Kew Gardens in the amazing Hive installation, and expanding the King’s Cross Honey Club bee trail App (see the launch video here) which got lots of publicity as far a field as China
  • maintaining bee hives for a number of clients and running ‘meet the bee’ sessions for staff
  • maintaining solitary bee hotels and forage for bees and clients. And advising clients on bee forage throughout the year that’s suitable for their locations, from roof terraces to window boxes. This involves ongoing research for our Trees for Bees and Plants for Bees and other pollinators guides and trials of flowers, shrubs and trees that produce lots of nectar and pollen and are hardy, long-flowering, drought resistant and like exposed conditions.

Looking forward to this spring, we’re going to be working with more clients in 2017 to share our knowledge, advising:

  • companies how to take steps to become more bee-friendly
  • and improving London’s green infrastructure so the city provides more food and shelter for bees and other pollinators.

As we said in our 2014 Tedx talk,

Crocuses – early bee food

The crocus bulbs we plant in the autumn flower in February and early March. We love them because they bring early colour to the garden after winter. But the bumblebees love them for food. I always buy a variety with a bee-friendly label on it just in case such as Crocus tommasinianus (Best to be on the safe side these days with so many sterile plants sold just for their looks rather their ability to feed bees).

When bumblebee queens emerge after hibernating they’re often starving, so they need all the food they can find. But they only eat nectar and pollen from flowers. Nectar gives them the energy to forage for more food and to look for a good place to make a nest. Pollen is the protein-rich food they feed to their babies, after their eggs have hatched into hungry larvae.

Crocuses are among the best early flowering food for bees if they’re planted in the sun where the bees like to forage. I also plant mine under our apple tree with snow drops, because they’re natural woodland flowers and look so lovely there, but in truth it’s a bit too shady for the bees.

A patch of crocuses in a sunny corner will deliver a big meal for a queen bumblebee.

First bee on roof of 111 Buckingham Palace Road

The first bee has been spotted on the roof. It’s a fluffy white-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum) collecting nectar and pollen from a Cosmos flower. This exciting news comes a few months after Urban Bees Ltd was contracted by Savills to install four planters on a corner of the roof. These wooden planters have been gradually filled with a variety of plants that will flower in succession from early spring right through to late autumn, which is when bees are out looking for food if the weather is mild and dry. Bees only eat nectar and pollen from flowers. The nectar is their energy drink ( turned into honey by honeybees), pollen is the protein food they feed to their babies.

We don’t know where this bumblebee lives, but by making a corner of the roof on 111 Buckingham Palace roof bee-friendly, we are providing a nectar refueling stop for her and any other London bees on their way home after a hard day’s foraging for food. The lose of flower-rich land as a result of urban development in towns and cities means there is less food for bees and other pollinating insects. The planters are helping to create a B-Line through Victoria by linking existing green spaces, like parks, together. It’s easier for the bees to fly from one big green space to another if they can stop off for a snack en route.

The National Pollinator Strategy for England 2014 set out a ten year plan to help pollinating insects. The planters on the roof are playing their part by feeding bees and raising awareness about their importance . Bees pollinate most of the fruits and vegetables we eat and in cities they pollinate trees and bushes that produce fruits and berries for birds, so they are a vital part of the eco-system and contribute massively towards biodiversity.

There are more than 200 species of bees in the . The honeybee lives in man-made hives, but the 24 different species of wild bumblebees and the hundreds of solitary bee species need to find a home in undisturbed holes in the ground, soil or old masonry. New construction makes nesting sites more scarce. We can help by providing ‘bee hotels’ for cavity nesting solitary bees.

Two bee hotels are attached on stands to the rooftop planters. They are packed full of small hollow tubes where solitary red mason bees (Osmia bicornus) can check in during the spring and lay their eggs. The following spring, when the weather warms up and the apple blossom is out, the new generation or red mason bees will start to emerge from the nest. They will find a mate, forage for pollen and nectar nearby, and then the female bee will look for new tube where she can lay her eggs and start the cycle all over again.

When the bees have laid a number of eggs in a tube they seal over the entrance with some mud. When the new bees emerge they eat through the mud to get out (like the pic right). Urban Bees placed some sealed tubes from another bee hotel into these ones in the hope we would see bees emerge this spring. Unfortunately, we weren’t lucky enough to see any this year. We hope to see solitary bees checking in next spring.


Image result for bumblebee on lavender In the meantime we’ll keep a look out for bees snacking in the planters. With the catmint (Nepeta) and lavenders coming into full bloom, there should be many more sightings over the summer months.

For a list of bee-friendly flowers you can grow throughout the year, go to Urban Bees forage guides.

Anyone can make a DIY ‘bee hotel’ for a garden or even a balcony.

Urban Bees improving bee forage and habitats in 2015

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We continued to work with our corporate clients Grosvenor Estates and KPMG to improve the landscape for honey bees and wild bees. A tour of Kensington Roof Gardens showed them how it’s possible to have 125 trees on a London roof top in just 18 inches of soil providing year round bee-friendly forage. We are passionate about the potential for cities to have more roofs like this to help pollinators and ourselves by increasing flood resilience and reducing pollution.

Two roofs high above Canary Wharf are now providing more forage for bees; one large green roof managed by Willerby Landscapes, where we advised on replacing some of the plants struggling in the exposed conditions with other more robust varieties that bees like, the other roof where the hives are located at KPMG now has planters containing year-round bee flowers. And thanks to Alec Butcher, landscape manager at Canary Wharf management, the few green spaces in Canary Wharf are now planted with more pollinator-friendly shrubs and flowers including holly bushes, Pulmonaria and Erysimum bowles mauve.

More bee hotels for solitary red mason bees (Osmia bicornis) to nest in are now installed across London, including on the side of our garden shed. We put a bee hotel on the roof at Weils law firm in the City, having worked with the gardener last year to improve the bee forage on the terrace. It’s used for events during the summer so isn’t suitable for hosting a hive but the company was keen to learn about how they could help wild bees instead. We gave a talk to staff about what they could do at home to provide shelter and food. We also encouraged KPMG staff at its Watford office to create a bee and bug hotel in their car park.

We gave talks and ran workshops throughout the year for corporates and local communities on how to provide better forage for wild bees (including a talk at urban gardening show, GROW ) and how to build your own bee hotel out of recycled wooden organ pipes (kindly donated by St Peter’s Church in Hackney) or out of plastic water bottles and hollow bamboo canes. One of the most enjoyable events was at the Dalston Eastern Curve garden, a weekend of Bees, Butterflies and Blooms for the Chelsea fringe. The brightly painted bee hotels are now proudly displayed on a south facing wall. We hope they will be inhabited this coming spring. As part of the weekend, we created bee ID charts that allowed visitors to spot the different bees they saw.

In King’s Cross we continued to work with youth charity, Global Generation. This year, we partnered on a Bees for a Better World project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, which introduced young people to both wild bees and forage around the urban development and on an organic farm in Wiltshire.

The HoneyClub KX Bee Trail app, developed by Honey Club members (Urban Bees, Wolff Olins and Global Generation) was the culmination of our educational work around bees and forage. The exciting app allowed visitors during August to tour London’s new development counting four species of bees at a various locations, learning about the forage and bee habitat en route and unlocking vouchers to use at bars and cafes in the area. Thanks to Des Smith, head gardener for Willerby Landscapes on the King’s Cross site, for working with us to map the bee-friendly flowers throughout the year across the development and Argent for supporting the piloting of the app.

The Urban Bees apiary continued to flourish at London Wildlife Trust’s Camley Street Nature Park, and we gave LWT volunteers an opportunity to learn more about the workings of a hive and to enjoy the honey that the bees produced over the summer.

We are also began training corporate beekeepers for a couple of new clients in central London this year.

As 2015 draws to a close with unseasonably warm weather in London allowing honeybees to forage over Christmas, and flooding in the north of England, we have to make our cities more resilient.

One of the highlights of the year was meeting planting design professor, Nigel Dunnett at the opening of the first rain garden in central London. It’s outside the HQ of the John Lewis Partnership in Victoria where Urban Bees has worked with Victoria BID to train responsible beekeepers to keep hives. The rain garden will capture rainwater runoff from surrounding buildings and slowly release it into soil, to be absorbed by 30 different types of plants and two Italian Alder trees.

By making cities more bee-friendly by planting more trees and shrubs to feed them and other pollinators, and to act as urban drainage we create a win, win for bees and for us.

Thanks to all our partners and collaborators and people that inspired us in 2015.

First rain garden in central London


Great to meet Nigel Dunnett at the opening of the John Lewis rain garden in Victoria, yesterday. Professor Dunnett is responsible for making wildflower meadows popular again following the success of his beautiful creations at the London Olympics .

The rain garden couldn’t be more different from the vibrancy and wildness of the planting in the Queen Elizabeth park. It’s smart, tidy and clean, but still includes more than 30 plants selected for their attractiveness to pollinators, and ability to cope in shade and have their roots in water. They include lots of pink Bergenia ‘Overture’, forget-me-not like blue flowers and sliver follage of Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’, and the white brush-like flowers of Tiarella ‘Spring Symphony’. All these are in flower now. They’ll be followed later in the summer by Rudbeckia, Kniphofias (Red hot pokers) , Asters and the architectural Acanthus hungarlcus.


This is the first rain garden in central London; “a pioneering project that be the shape of the future as we adapt our urban environment to climate change”, said Dunnett. He thanked the John Lewis partnership for being “courageous” in taking the risk.

The cobbled area in front of the JLP HQ had seen problem flooding in recent years. The rain garden will help use rainwater runoff from the surrounding buildings, as well as create a biodiverse, attractive green space for people and wildlife to enjoy. It will look more attractive as it matures.

How it works – instead of rainwater runoff going into the drains which can lead to flooding after a torrential downpour, guttering has been diverted so rain water is collected and stored in a large raised planter (rather like a water butt, but with plants in it) with any overspill then slowly running into the garden itself where it will be soaked up by the plants, soil and two newly planted majestic Italian alder trees.

This seemingly simple idea took two and a half years to come to fruition and about £50k to create. It’s been designed by Nigel Dunnett, who is professor of planting design and urban horticulture at Sheffield University, and The Landscape Agency , and delivered by Landform consultants for the Victoria BID.

The project received funding and support from the Mayor of London’s Greening the BIDs project and Natural England via the Cross River Partnership regeneration agency.

Signage will be going up soon to explain to the thousands of people who pass by the area each day what the rain garden aims to achieve.

Creating homes for solitary bees

Twenty five new solitary bee homes will be going up in gardens, parks and on balconies around De Beauvoir in the next few weeks following a ‘how to make a bee hotel’ free workshop yesterday run by Urban Bees for the Hackney community.

workshoppublicity 4.busyworkshop6.paintingtable

Held at St Peter’s Church, the frames for the bee hotels were made from old, wooden organ pipes kindly donated by the church. Old floor boards were srewed in for the backing.


Local residents donated the bamboo stems, from their gardens, in which the solitary bees will hopefully make their nests come the spring.

Those confident with a hack saw cut the hollow stems into 15cm length pieces.

3.readinginstructions 2.fionasawing

For others, Brian had cut hundreds of pieces earlier in true Blue Peter style ready to fit inthe frames.


Young participants painted their bee hotels fantastic bright colours. A budding Pollock and Rothko perhaps!

7.jackpainting8.Pollockbeehotel 9.Rothkobeehotel 10.lovebees

It’s no good just taking your hotel home, fixing it firmly to a shed or wall or fence in a warm location, at least 1 metere above ground. The red mason bees need forage from March to July. It’s as important as proving habitat where they can nest and lay eggs.

So everyone left with a bee-friendly plant, mainly Forget-me-nots (myostis) from my garden which supply the solitary bees with nectar and pollen. And some pulmonaria from Diana Jackson’s garden.

11.beehabitatandforage 12.carolinebeehotelandmyotosis

Everyone had a fantastic afternoon. I gave a short talk about solitary bees – the unsung heros of the bee world.

“I never knew bees were so fascinating,” said Julia Porter, St Peter’s vicar and now a proud owner of a bee hotel made with her own hands that will go into the vicarage garden.

Hackney council gardener, Craig Davies, will be putting three up in De Beavoir Square.

Special thanks to Gillian Borrie for helping with the refreshments and Ruth Napolitano for taking donations to cover the costs of the event. And for Diana Weir for coming up with the idea in the first place.

Everyone went home very happy to be doing something positive for bees locally. The red mason bees and leafcutter bees will be emerging next month and looking for new homes. Workshop participants hope to share photos of bees checking-in to their hotels.

13.russelbeehotel completedbeehotel

This is the first of a series of events that Urban Bees will be involved in, designed to make the De Beauvoir neighbourhood of Hackney more bee and pollinator -friendly.

Valetine’s beekeeping

Around Valetine’s Day is the beginning of the beekeeping calendar.

With the days getting longer, and the catkins on the alder and hazel out, the honeybees are starting to fly on milder days like today when the temperature hit 12 degrees at our apiary in Camley Street. Here’s a bee having a rest on the roof of a hive after a short flight.


So myself and Brian took a romantic walk around the apiary to check how the bees have been doing over the winter.

He opened up the roof of all the hives and placed a feed of fondant over the hole in the crownboard for bees who may need it as a food supplement until more flowers are out. And if we have a cold spell, they may not be able to forage for a few weeks.


A couple of hives didn’t make it through, but the majority are looking good at the moment.

Solitary bees check-in to garden hotel

rowofbeehotels solitarybee1 packinginpollen

Great to see Red Mason bees (Osmia bicornis) using the solitary bee hotels we’ve put up in the garden.

solitarybee21 gettingstuckin 3completednests

The female bees emerged a few weeks ago, have mated, and are now busily laying their eggs in the hollow tubes. They forage for pollen from the flowers and pack it around each egg so when it hatches later in the summer it has plenty of food. She makes a partition wall of mud between each egg. After she’s laid eight to ten eggs in each tube, she seals the tube with mud she’s brought back to the hotel. Then she does the same in a second tube. This bee seems to have completed two tubes. She’ll keep going until she’s laid all of her eggs, which could be another three tubes.

solitarybeehouse Stephensbeehotel

Unfortunately we’ve still not heard of any reports of bees checking into the bee hotels we made at our workshop earlier in they year. They’ve been put around the neighbourhood in sunny spots but the bees have yet to find them. There may be too much dappled light in front of this second hotel.


As well as suitable habit, the Red mason bees need food.