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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.

An easy month-by-month guide to help you spot bees

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, sunny days.

In March you could see four species of bumblebee:

  • The large buff-tailed (Bombus terrestris) and white-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum) are our most common bumblebee. They look so similar with their yellow stripes on black bodies. The large, 16mm queens are the ones flying this month. How can you tell them apart, especially as the buff coloured bottom soon fades? There is no easy way, but the buff-tailed stripes are a slightly more gold colour and a little less defined than the white-tailed.
  • The early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) queen is smaller (14mm) and prettier with her fluffy yellow collar and orangey 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 queen bumblebees have just found a place to nest (most underground in old rodent holes) and lay their eggs, and are out collecting nectar and pollen to take home to their developing colony of workers.

Three 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.
  • Male red mason bees (Osmia bicornis) usually emerge toward the end of the month to feed on blossoming fruit trees and shrubs. (But if it’s unseasonably warm and the trees flower early they too will appear.) 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 aggregations, so hundreds could emerge at the same time. But don’t worry, solitary bees don’t sting! The female has a reddish-brown pile on the top of her thorax and hairy pollen brushes on her back legs .

The honey bee (Apis mellifera) workers (14mm) leave the hive when its 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.

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

Early bee food

Eye-catching catkins seem to be everywhere now, red ones dripping from Red Alder trees, and more common golden pendants hanging off Hazels and Alders in parks and gardens. They stand out against the brown branches and remind us that spring is on the way, and with it the emergence of early flying bee species. Although these trees are wind pollinated, the catkins are made up of pollen grains full of protein which bees desperately need to feed their young at the beginning of the season. So before long we should see bees on the catkins.

I’ve already spotted buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) queens in among the undergrowth of bushes and hellebores hunting for a good place to nest and lay their eggs. They are mainly feeding at this time of year on the bright yellow Mahonia aquifolium, white Winter honeysuckle and a whole variety of coloured and pale cream hellebores.

Not everyone has space for a tree in their garden or backyard, but try and find somewhere to plant these early flowering forage plants for bees. The Mahonia and hellebores even do well in shady spots.

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!

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.