Pictured above are three bumblebee species around this month: white-tailed, early and tree bumblebees. (In addition you may also see common carder bees, garden bumblebees and the ubiquitous buff-tailed bumblebees which has been flying all year in some southern parts of the UK).
How to ID them:
- The large, White-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum) looks very similar to our most common buff-tailed bumblebee workers, which also have white tails. The easiest way to tell these two 16mm species apart, is that the stripes on the buff-tailed bumblebees are a gold colour while the white-tailed bumblebees’ stripes are more yellow.
- 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 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.
Queen bumblebees may have nested (most underground in old rodent holes, under paving slabs, garden sheds, or even in compost bins) by now laid their eggs, and may 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:
- 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).
- Put up a blue tit box for the tree bumblebee to nest in after the chicks have fledged.
- Plant dead-nettles, clover, forget- me-nots, and rosemary to provide food this month for the short-tongued bumblebees.
- 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.
- Don’t mow the lawn (let clovers flower) and ditch the weed killers and pesticides.
These are the five most common solitary bee species this month: Hairy-footed flower bee, red mason bee, tawny mining bee, ashy mining bee, buffish mining bee and Gooden’s nomad.
How to ID them:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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, so the tawny mining bee can make a bit of a mess on the lawn.
- The Ashy mining bee (Andrena cineraria) is a smallish black and grey stripped bee (around 10mm) which nests in bare ground, footpaths and tracks. Although solitary, they nest next door to each other in dense aggregations, so hundreds can emerge at the same time often from bare earth or slopes but occasionally lawns too. But don’t worry, solitary bees don’t sting and are short-lived (around 2 months)!
- 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). Don’t worry if you can’t ID them, the fact that you are looking closely is good.
- 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 are either grey-patched (Andrena nitida) or buffish (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. So if a wasp-looking insect is buzzing around your food or drink, chances are it’s a wasp.
How to help solitary bees:
- 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.
- Leave old mortar untouched as hairy-footed flower bees may be nesting here. Or make some cob bricks that they can nest in instead.
- 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.
- Leave a patch of bare earth for mining bees to burrow and where red mason bees can collect soil to plug their nests.
- 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.