Tag Archives: bumblebees

April Bees 2022

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 bumblebe(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:

  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.

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:

  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 bare earth for mining bees to burrow and where red mason bees can collect soil to plug their nests.
  5. 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.

Gardening for bees in March

From L-R clockwise: Hairy-footed flower bees on Comfrey; wallflowers in rooftop planters; primroses for short-tongued bees; lungworth (pulmonaria) for long-tongued bees

Gardening for bumblebees:

  1. Leave a patch of the garden wild for nesting sites and don’t disturb a nesting site if you find one in a compost bin, under a shed, or even in a watering can (it will only last until the end of the summer).
  2. Put up a box for blue tits. After the chicks have fledged, the box may be inhabited by tree bumblebees. The colony will vacant at the end of summer, so the blue tits can use it again next spring.
  3. Plant dead-nettles, primroses, forget- me-nots, and rosemary to provide food this month for short-tongued bumblebees.
  4. Leave ‘weeds’ like dandelions and alkanet to grow. They provide much-needed pollen and nectar in early spring. And you’ll see lots of different bees coming to feed on a clump of alkanet.
  5. 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 in pots. Try growing on a heated mat until the seeds germinate. I’m also going to try chives, viper’s bugloss and cornflowers outside.
  6. Don’t mow the lawn to let clovers flower.
  7. Ditch the weed killers, like Round-up, and any pesticides and bug sprays you may be using on your roses, or any other plants.

Gardening for solitary bees:

  1. Plant lungwort, wallflowers, early-flowering comfrey and flowering currants (Ribes) for long-tongued hairy footed flower bees. Red mason bees and mining bees, with shorter tongues prefer flowering fruit trees, willows, spurges, alkanet and forget-me-nots, and mining bees.
  2. Leave old mortar untouched as hairy-footed flower bees may be nesting here.
  3. Make cob bricks with holes in that hairy-footed flower bees could nest in instead.
  4. Install bee-hotels in a warm location at least a metre off the ground, where red mason bees (Osmia bicornis) 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. Leafcutter bees may use the hotels during the summer.
  5. Install a bee observation box which many different solitary bees may nest in over the season, including large-headed resin bees (Heriades truncorum) , common yellow-faced bees (Hyleaus communis), and blue mason bee (Osmia caerulescens) . The box comes with a removal panel which allows you to observe the life cycle of the bees.
  6. Leave a patch of bare earth for mining bees to burrow and nest, and where red mason bees can collect soil to plug their nests.
  7. Leave a pile of tiny pieces of grit that resin bees may use to plug their nests.

Bees to See in March

Here are tips for identifying the different species bees you will hopefully see in March in your garden, patio pots or window boxes if they are planted and maintained for bees.

Interview with William Ball, Portfolio General Manager, BNP Paribas Real Estate on making Belgrave House bee-friendly

When William Ball, Portfolio General Manager at BNP Paribas Real Estate, was first approached by his client Grosvenor Group about installing a roof garden on its Belgrave House property in Victoria, six years ago he was concerned over the practicality of managing such a project with limited knowledge.

“The roof isn’t accessible and I thought the tenants would not be able to see the benefits to the property of investing in it,” he explains.

Benefits outweigh costs

Fast forward to today and William says the tenants and Grosvenor now fully support the biodiversity project on the Buckingham Palace Road office block.

 “The benefits outweigh the costs one hundred fold. And it’s the right thing to do for the environment. The roof garden and the bees are one element of promoting environmental best practice. It’s one of the reasons Belgrave House has retained its BREEAM excellence rating and its ISO14001 year after year.”

William has more than 35 years’ experience in the property and facilities management industry. In 2018, he was awarded the national BNP Paribas CSR Award and in 2019, his team won the Professional Facilities Management Award for CSR.

Introducing bee hives

The same year, he contacted Urban Bees Ltd to install and maintain bee hives on Belgrave House. Grosvenor, whose own staff Urban Bees had trained as beekeepers a few years earlier, paid the initial start-up costs.

He proudly hands me a jar of 2021 Belgrave House honey with a pretty label designed by the receptionists. The bees are a great way to bring together his 21-strong team of security staff, cleaners, receptionists and engineers, he says.

“We all take great pride in the bees”.

William believes the bees have contributed to a string of environmental awards, including five Green Apples, three of them gold. They adorn his basement office, along with trophies and photos of him and his team collecting them.

Honeybees will easily fly a mile or two in search of an abundant food source. And William, who is the property site representative for the hives, has tracked the Belgrave House bees to the Queen’s gardens at the end of the road. But he wanted to create a bee-friendly garden on the roof for wild bumblebees and solitary bees.

Steps to creating a bee-friendly garden

William called on the expertise and goodwill of colleagues to help achieve his vision. The building consultancy surveyor advised that the roof was strong enough to hold a few planters filled with wet soil and flowers and shrubs, his engineers agreed to make planters out of wooden planks that William sourced, and the Grosvenor gardeners ordered extra lavender and other bee-friendly plants recommended by Urban Bees from its Plants for Bees list.

There are now four planters, one full of lavender and others planted with a mixture of perennial summer-flowering alliums, foxgloves and harebells (pictured above), as well as early-flowering hellebores and late-flowering echinacea.

Observation nesting box for solitary bees

Wind can be a problem for bees eight storeys up. “You could see the honeybees were really struggling getting to and from the hives,” recalls William. So, his engineers put up trellis against which 2ft high Ceanothus ‘Skylark’ bushes (pictured below) act as a windbreak. And their electric blue flowers are buzzing with all types of bees in late spring. Urban Bees added an observation bee box (pictured below right) for solitary bees to nest in.

Bee visitors

William spends many a summer lunch hour inspecting the small, 12 square metre, bee oasis, breathing in the flowers’ perfume and spotting different bees. He’s photographed many wild bee visitors including bumblebees with white tails (below left) and red tails (below middle), as well as some honeybees (below right).

Education

Each June on World Ocean’s Day, his team has a stand in the reception of Belgrave House to raise awareness about environmental issues. They work with a school in the Philippines to tackle the huge problem of plastic ocean pollution.

“We have honey and leaflets about our rooftop bees on the stand as the bees can really engage people in the bigger picture.”

Staff who want to know more are given a copy of The Good Bee, by Urban Bees founders, Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum, showcasing the world’s 20,000 solitary and social bees and how we can help them. 

“’We never knew there were so many bees’, is most people’s response.”

A webcam of the Belgrave House bee hives keeps staff up to date on the honeybees. In 2022, William plans to have a screen in reception live streaming the three hives. And he hopes to introduce a small water feature on the roof for bees to drink from and other wildlife to visit.

William’s advice to other facilities managers

For parts of London not able to sustain honeybee hives because there isn’t a plentiful supply of forage. (Afterall, not everyone has Buckingham Palace gardens on their doorstep), William’s advice for facilities managers is to look at their ESG strategy.

“Do a biodiversity plan for your property. Look at the bigger picture. Make sure you have a well thought our process and escalate it. Start small and grow as the tenants come on board. The cost is a miniscule part of their service charge. Start with plants and see what bees come without installing honeybees. Work with people like Urban Bees, who know which are the best bee plants in these windy, exposed conditions to ensure there’s food year-round for all different kinds of bees. Food is essential, along with creating places for wild bees to nest.”

“You do have greater output [jars of honey] with honeybees so there can be greater interest and support from tenants. But honeybees aren’t integral to having a roof garden on an office.”

All photos taken by William Ball.
  • For more information about how Urban Bees can work with your company, contact Alison Benjamin at Urban Bees alison@urbanbees.co.uk 0788 4054150

Catkins for bees

Hazel tree dripping in golden male catkins in January/February; Pussy willow catkins turning yellow when ripe with pollen in March. Photo credits: Yoksel Zok and Alexander Lowe, Unsplash

Hazel trees‘ (Corylus avellana) dangling male catkins bear pollen, which is transported to tiny, red, bud-like female flower on another hazel tree by the wind. But some of the pollen is collected by early flying bees in need of a rich source of protein to feed their developing brood. However, the pollen’s not easy for them to collect and they can only gather it in small loads. This is because the pollen of wind-pollinated hazel is not sticky and each grain repels against another.

The same is true for other wind pollinated trees that produce pendulous male catkins early in the year, including Alder (Alnus glutinosa) , Aspen (Populus tremula)Black Poplar (Poplus nigra), White Poplar (Poplus alba) and later in the spring, Silver Birch and White Willow (Salix alba). Most of these trees are too big for an average garden and better for parks, streets and along river banks.

Goat Willow (Salix caprea) has silver, furry male catkins the look like a cat’s paws, hence it’s commonly known as pussy willow. Goat willow is dioecious, meaning male and female flowers grow on separate trees. In March, the male grey catkins become yellow when ripe with pollen and are immensely popular with bees. If you want to grow one in a small garden, try Salix caprea ‘Kilmarnock’, or ‘Kilmarnock willow’ a small, compact variety that reaches around 2m high and spreads up to 1.5m. It forms a weeping ‘umbrella’ of branches which are smothered in fuzzy silver catkins from late winter to early spring on bare twigs. Rounded mid-green leaves appear after the catkins.

Garrys elliptica (also known as the Silk tassel bush) is a small tree, or evergreen bush, native to north America, that from December to February is covered in a profusion of long attractive grey-green catkins, or tassels, which can be up to an incredible 35cm long. Again, it’s wind pollinated but will be visited by hungry winter-flying bees.

Bees in January

Tips for IDing January bumblebees:

Bee spotting is a rare pursuit this month as 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. 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 you will most likely see foraging and collecting blobs of Mahonia’s orange pollen in the pollen 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 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 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.
  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 I’ve not found a tulip that attracts bees). I’m going to try planting some wild tulips (Tulipa sylvestris) ‘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!

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.

Shrubs for bees

Honey bee on Mahonia; Buff-tailed bumblebee queen on winter-flowering heather (Photos: Alison Benjamin unless credited)

Many of us don’t have space to plant a tree, but what about planting a few shrubs instead? Researchers at Bristol University has found that one flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) with 3,000 flowers provides as much nectar as 16,000 primrose (Primula vulgaris) flowers or 69,000 snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) and that shrubs like mahonia, berberis, pieris, ceanothus, and pyracantha can be similarly nectar rich. 

I’ve been doing my own research to put together a list of easy-to-grow shrubs that if planted sequentially would provide year-round food for bees.

As it’s December, my bee-friendly shrub suggestions start from now. Even though many will grow well in shady spots, do remember that bees prefer to forage in warm, sunny areas. As always this is not a definitive list, but designed for people who want to maximise the limited space in their garden or pots to feed bees all year.

December

Oregon Grape ‘Charity’ (Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ and M. x media ‘Winter Sun’) – produces cheery, bright yellow, lemon-scented flowers rich in nectar and pollen from now until March. Tough, with prickly, holly-like leaves, it does well in dry, shady spots making it a favourite of municipal planting.

Laurustinus (Viburnum tinus) – lovely flat heads of small, white flowers until April can brighten up shady spots.

Clematis ‘Jingle Bells’ (Clematis cirrhosa ‘Jingle Bells’)  –   large, nodding, scented cream-coloured flowers  are ideal for over a doorway. It needs a sunny, sheltered spot and possibly protection from harsh winter frosts.

January

Sweet Box (Sarcococca confus or Sarcococca hookeriana) – works well as an evergreen hedge. Its tiny white flowers carry a heavenly scent until March.

Winter-flowering honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) is a bushy, deciduous shrub with highly fragrant, cream flowers on bare stems until March.

Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflora) doesn’t have the fragrance of other jasmines, but its bright yellow flowers on bare arching branches are a welcome sight in winter.

Viburnum tinus; Witch Hazel (photo credit: Laura Ockel, Unsplash); honey bee on Winter Snow heather

February

Heathers (Erica carnea) – 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.

Winter Daphne  (Daphne odora) or Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’   – a slow-growing medium-sized, evergreen shrub with clusters of pinkish and white flowers and an intoxicating scent in winter and early spring.

Witch Hazel (Hamamelis) –fragrant, strange-looking ribbon-like flowers hang off bare twigs in early winter. There are many cultivars with slightly different coloured flowers ranging from sulphur yellow to coppery red.

Winter Jasmine (Jasminum nudiflora) – what it lacks in fragrance, it makes up for with small, yellow flowers on bare stems from January to March.

March

Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolium) – an early spring-flowering Mahonia which is more compact and less prickly than the winter-flowering varieties but with similar bright yellow bee-friendly flowers.

Japanese quince (Chaenomeles japonica)  l- arge, bold, often bright reddish-orange flowers cover its bare, thorny stems for weeks before the leaves appear in May. Non-thorny varieties are available.

Bastard senna ‘Citrina’ or Scorpian Vetch (Coronilla valentina subsp. glauca ‘Citrina’) – pretty pea-like, yellow flowers appear in early spring and are often followed by a second flush in later summer. A native of Southern Europe and Northern Africa, it will benefit from the protection of a sunny, south-facing wall.

Camellias – but only those with single-headed flowers with well exposed pollen-laden stamens, unlike the many double-headed cultivars. They need acidic, ericaceous soil.

Japanese quince (Photo: Yoksel Zok, Unsplash); Camellia (Photo: Annie Spratt, Unsplash); Rhododendron (Photo :Padre Moovi, Unsplash)

April

Honey spurge, or Canary spurge (Euphorbia mellifera) – small, honey-scented, bonze tinted flowers are borne on an exotic looking, architectural dome-like structure.

Flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) – clusters of pinkish/reddish tubular flowers are loved by long-tongued bumblebees and hairy-footed flower bees.

Burkwood viburnum (Viburnum × burkwoodii) – a later flowering evergreen viburnum with similar domed clusters of fragrant white flowers until May, that open from pink buds.

Darwin’s Barberry (Berberis darwinii) – an evergreen, with similar holly-like leaves to Mahonia,  but clusters of orange flowers which are a major source of nectar and pollen in early spring and again in the autumn.

Lilly of the Valley shrub (Pieris japonica) – its bell-shaped flowers are visited by long-tongued solitary bees, such as hairy-footed flower bees, and bumblebees. Requires acidic, ericaceous soil.

Rhododendron – its flowers contain low concentrations of poison for honeybees, but long and short-tongued bumblebees find the single-flowered varieties highly attractive for both nectar and pollen. Best in acidic soils. Compact varieties can be grown in pots filled with ericaceous compost.

May

Californian Lilac (Ceanothus) – a stunning evergreen small ‘tree’ smothered in clusters of electric blue flowers that buzz with bees all month in full sun.

Firethorn (Pyracantha) –the bunches of small white flowers on this spiny-branched shrub are visited by many solitary bee species, but it’s mostly grown for the profusion of showy, bright orange-red berries in autumn.

Japanese pittosporum (Pittosporum tobira) – profuse and intensely scented flowers open white and then turn yellow in April and May against the attractive large, glossy foliage of this drought-tolerant shrub.

Californian lilac (Photo: Charlotte Harrison, Unsplash); Fuchsia with bumblebee (Photo: David Clode, Unsplash); Beautyberry berries in autumn ( (Photo: Yamasa, Unsplash)

June

Cotoneasters are a great source of nectar and pollen during the ‘June gap’ – when there’s a dearth of bee food between spring flowers dying and summer perennials flowering.  Research at Cambridge Botanic Gardens found that the  clusters of small white or pink flowers of many Cotoneaster species can provide a succession of forage for short-tongued bumblebees and honeybees from May to August. Varieties include the low-growing red-berried C. horizontalis, which can be trained up walls, and  Franchet’s (C. Franchetii) which makes an evergreen pollution-tolerant hedge; and the graceful willow-leaved (C.  ‘Rothschildianus) which has yellow berries.

Senecio Sunshine (Brachyglottis ‘Sunshine’) – a compact, drought-tolerant, evergreen shrub from New Zealand that works well in coastal areas and has hairy, grey leaves and bright yellow, daisy-like flowers in June and July.

July

Beautyberry ‘Profusion (Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii ‘Profusion’) Prized for its clusters of violet, bead-like berries on bare branches in the autumn, which are much-loved by birds, and its striking foliage that changes colour during the seasons. This deciduous shrub also has small pink flowers in midsummer which attract the bees.

Daisy bush (Olearia × haastii) – an evergreen drought-tolerant shrub smothered in white, daisy-like flowers with big yellow centres in July and August. Its glaucous, glossy leaves make it suitable for coastal, windy gardens.

August

Hardy fuchsias – bushy, compact shrubs with a profusion of dainty two-tone pendent flowers that the RHS describe as dangling in pairs, “like mini ballerinas with tutus”, along the stems towards the tips.  They can last well into the autumn and bring a tropical touch to a garden if planted in a sheltered, sunny spot and watered.

Bluebeard or Blue Spiraea (Caryopteris × clandonensis) – clusters of slightly fluffy, blue flowers appear in August and September on long stems among pointed, aromatic, grey-green leaves. (Although I have to admit, I’ve not had much success with this drought-tolerant shrub.)

Bluebeard (Photo: Emily Simpson, Unsplash) Buddleia (Photo: Gavin Allanwood, Unsplash) Chaste Tree (Photo credit: Griffin Taylor, Unsplash)

September

Butterfly bush or buddleia (Buddleja davidii) – buy a small cultivar of this coloniser of railway sidings for bee and butterfly visitors from July to October. Dense spikes of honey-scented, brightly coloured flowers can be encouraged by regular deadheading.

Chaste Tree (Vitex agnus-castus) – cone-shaped clusters of violet-blue lavender-looking fragrant flowers appear from July to October – if planted in a sunny, sheltered garden – on this attractive, slender drought-resistant plant with finger-like leaves .

October

Japanese Aralia (Fatsia japonica) – an autumn-flowering tropical-looking, evergreen with huge, glossy, palmate leaves for shady corners. It produces showy panicles of spherical, creamy white flowers from September right through to November.

Oleaster or Silverberry (Elaeagnus × submacrophylla) – in autumn, very small, but well-scented, creamy-white flowers open until November on this shade, drought and wind-tolerant evergreen that can be grown as a hedge.

 Fastsia Japonica (Photo credit: The Blow Up, Unsplash); Strawberry tree with Buff-tailed bumblebee queen

November

Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) – an evergreen, Mediterranean shrubby tree, with bell-shaped white flowers late in the year which hang from its branches unusually at the same time as its jolly, round, red fruit dangle like baubles on a Christmas tree.

Sources: RHS, Graham Rice, Buzz About Bees.net, The Garden Buzz, Dave Goulson, Gardening for Bumblebees, Pollinating London Together, BBC Gardeners’ World magazine, Addicted to bees, Urban Bees plants for bees list, Crocus.co.uk

Thanks to Diana Weir for her suggestions and help compiling this list.

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 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.
  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. 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.

.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.

Winter reading recommendations

Useful Bee ID guides

Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland, by Stephen Falk & Richard Lewington, (Bloomsbury) – this is the go to reference book that any bee spotter should have on their book shelf. It has more information than you’ll ever need to know about all our 250+ bee species, but it’s easy to dip in and out of and to find the photo, description and map for one bee and the family it belongs. And there is always something new to learn.

Insectinside: life in the bushes of a small Peckham Park, by Penny Metal – I know I’m biased because Penny is a friend and provides all the fabulous Bees to See photos, but her fantastic huge, close up photos show a variety of wild bees you’ll most likely to come across in all their splendour. The narrative is fun too. And as well as helping my bee ID skills, her book has awakened my curiosity in other invertebrates that share the garden. Check out Penny’s Flickr page too.

Bumblebees An Introduction, by Bumblebee Conservation Trust – is a simple guide to identifying and helping bumblebees with good photos, diagrams and tips. I also like their Pocket Guide to 8 Common Bumblebees, which I stick in my back pocket when doing a Bee Walk. They have ones for rare bumblebees and cuckoo bumblebees too.

Gardening for bees

There are so many glossy, coffee table, lifestyle bee-friendly gardening books. The one I like best because it’s about bees and their relationship with plants is:

Gardening for Bumblebees: A practical guide to creating a paradise for pollinators by Dave Goulson (Penguin) – He covers the more common solitary bees, as well as bumblebees. I have found the section on long-tongued and short-tongued bees particularly useful.

Introduction to bees

Most layman’s bees books are about honeybees and beekeeping. It’s only recently that bumblebees and solitary bees have got a look in. For a simple overview, I’d suggest our gift book:

The Good Bee; A Celebration of Bees and How to Save Them Alison Benjamin & Brian McCallum (Michael O’Mara) – It’s beautifully illustrated, a handy size, and an easy to read introduction for someone who doesn’t know there are so many different types of bees.

or equally

Plant Trees Sow Seeds Save the Bees Simple Ways to be Bee-Friendly, by Nicola Bradbear (Penguin) – a delightful, easy to read informative little paperback with useful tips for getting to know ‘stripeys’ and how to help them.

Nature books

Bees have been my gateway to a better understanding and appreciation of nature and biodiversity. As a result, many of my favourites reads are about more than bees:

The Stubborn Light of Things: A Nature Diary by Melissa Harrison (Faber) – a beautifully written collection of her Times nature diaries that closely observe the natural world around her over a six year period living in London and moving to Suffolk. You can dip in and dip out and always find a gem such as this from 21 October 2017: “If you live in a city and miss nature, the answer doesn’t have to be to move out: it’s to tune in.”

Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm by Isabella Tree (Picador) – an amazing 20 year account of what can be achieved if we work with nature, rather than against it. The return of nightingales, storks, bees, butterflies and dung beetles.

English Pastoral An Inheritance by James Rebanks (Allen Lane) – if there is one book you read this year, make it this one. Why? Because he takes you on his journey of discovery that the farming practices he and his father’s generation adopted are destroying the land. And the embrace of nature-friendly farming by this self-declared green sceptic shows what can, and must, be done and the role we can all play.

John Clare Selected Poems edited by Jonathan Bate (Faber) – I most admit I find most poetry difficult, but earlier this year, thanks to Professor Jeff Ollerton, I discovered John Clare’s Wild Bee poem and adored his descriptions of the different bees. So when I came across this collection of poetry I thought I’d give it a go. I’ve not read many yet, but if like me you’re a fan of russet hues you’ll love his ode To Autum:

…More sweet than summer in her loveliest hours, /Who in her blooming uniform of green/Delights with samely and continued joy/But give me autumn, where thy hand hath been/For there is wilderness, that can never cloy – /The russet hue of fields left bare and all/The tints of leaves and blossoms ere they fall…

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OK, so the bee spotting season is over. I know. But there’s a chance you could still get to see the odd one or two flying when it’s mild and sunny where there are flowers in bloom. So get out in the garden or your local park on a bright, autumnal day. 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 mining bee (Colletes hederae) – If you’ve not yet seen an ivy mining 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 on the tiny white flowers that has a fluffy ginger thorax, though it may be a duller brown by now. It’s the fluffy thorax that sets the 13mm ivy mining 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 again 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 with a slim, tapered gold and black stripey body. They can be easily confused with other stripey insects: the slightly smaller ivy mining 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. Tree 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.
  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 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.
  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.

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.

Fewer bee spotting opportunities

It had to happen sooner or later, the end of the bee spotting season. But don’t despair, in between the rain showers, you’ve still got a few weeks to see the ivy mining bee and the furrow bee, three bumblebee species and honeybees. Yes we’ve included these managed bees again this month because there are lots around on dry, sunny days stocking up on nectar to take back to their hive before the winter. They will be on the ivy flowers too and can be easily confused with ivy mining bees, so check the photos above and the ID tips below. Both bees can also be confused with stripey hoverflies also visiting ivy bushes, so click on our Is it a bee or a hoverfly? guide.

My best advice to you this month is make the most of any bright autumnal days to get out and spot the last bees of 2021.

Tips for IDing October bumblebees:

  • Common carder bees (Bombus pascuorum) – no confusing this brown fluffy bee with the tree bumblebees this month, as the latter aren’t flying anymore. So, any round, hairy bees with a ginger thorax or a faded ginger/brown thorax is sure to be a common carder bee. 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. They can be most easily seen this month on Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’, Michaelmas daisies and salvia ‘hot lips’ in my garden. You’ll most likely still be seeing workers, new queens and males who all look very similar. The queens are the largest (15mm) and the workers the smallest (11mm).
  • Red-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lapidarius) – one of my main disappointments of bee spotting in 2021 is how few of these gorgeous velvety black bees with their firery red bottoms I’ve seen in my garden or local parks in east London. But some people have reported an abundance of them. Anyway, be on the look out in these last few weeks for the 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 mining 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 mining 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 mining 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 next year that may become a nesting site. This video I shared last month 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 Ivy is probably 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 and Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus), both will bloom until the first frosts.
  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 common carder bee workers are still out in force. Wooden posts drilled with small holes, may be busy with large-headed resin bees plugging their nests with tiny pieces of grit and stone and gluing it together with tree resin. 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. And this month marks 20 years since the ivy bee was first recorded in the UK.

We decided to included honeybees in our guide this month for two reasons:

1. You’ll see lots on flowers in your garden because there aren’t many flowering trees in September, and it’s their last chance to collect nectar and turn it into their winter stores of honey

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.

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. 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) have 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 hole 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). The females have been known to nest in bee hotels/boxes if the hole dimension is small enough. They also plaster their nests and 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. (I’m yet to see any of this behaviour myself, so thanks to Nurturing Nature and Api:Cultural for the info and footage).
  • Large-headed resin bee (Heriades truncorum) – I have seen these industrious, small (5mm) solitary black bees with a strange wide head plugging their nests with tiny bits of grit in pre-existing holes in wood. It looks like they are making a mosiac from the grit which they stick together with resin they collect from trees. If you live in the south-east of England (where they are commonly found), and install wooden logs, or a post, drilled with holes a few milimetres wide, you may see them making mosiacs in your garden next summer. They have also been known to use bee hotels/boxes. If you live further north, take a look here at their fascinating behaviour. And with warmer summers across the UK, they could be coming to a green space near you especially where yellow ‘weeds’ such as ragwort, sow thistles and hawkweeds are left to grow.
  • 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, and wild marjoram 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 and buddleia are still flowering, and hemp agrimony is good in damp soil.
  2. The best late forage for short-tongued honeybees and ivy 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. Ditch the weed killers and pesticides. 
  7. Take semi-ripe cuttings if you are patient and want to propagate heathers, ivy, Mahonia, Escallonia and flowering-currents. The cuttings should be ready to pot on next spring.
  8. Create a bank of sand mixed with some clay soil against a south facing wall for mining bees which like to burrow into sand. It only has 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.
  9. 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.
  10. Provide a source of water for thirsty bees. This can be a shallow bowl or saucer with stones or pebbles in that the bees can stand on while they are drinking. Bees can’t swim!

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.

How to ID and help bees in August

Small, black bees dominate the solitary bee world again this month, but they are joined by a medium-sized furry, striped plasterer bee and a parasitic blood bee with a red abdomen.  You may also notice that some of the bumblebees just got a lot larger again, like the size they were in the spring. That’s because a new generations of queen bumblebees are flying. Many will have mated with males from nearby nests and are looking for somewhere safe to hunker down for the next few months until next spring when they will create their own colony.

Tips for IDing August bumblebees:

  • Male white-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lucorum) are commonly seen in parks and gardens at this time of year resting on flowers before flying in search of a virgin bumblebee queen to mate with. You can tell the males apart from workers and queens because they have bright yellow hairs on their face. The males of all bumblebee species are smaller than the queens, but bigger than the workers.
  • Buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) are the most common bumblebee in the UK. In August, the huge queens are easy to spot as they drink nectar from flowering plants to build up their energy and strength for the winter ahead. They will either be mated and looking for a safe, small hole in the ground to sleep until spring, or in Southern England they are more likely to have mated and be looking for an underground nest now in order to rear a new colony of workers that will live through our mild winter, feeding on Mahonia and Hellebores.
  • Common carder bees (Bombus pascurorum) are one of my favourite bees because they are frequent visitors to the garden until October and are small and cute with their brown/gingery coat, but they are often overlooked for more showy, striped bumblebees.  As their English name suggests, they are widespread, and they tease out (‘carder’) pieces of moss and grass for nesting material. Unlike many bumblebee species, they nest on the ground, rather than below it, often under hedges, or garden sheds, or in tall open grassland.

You may also see red-tailed bumblebees, tree bumblebees and garden bumblebee this month. All the castes could be out – the large queens, and smaller workers and males. And a new generation of cuckoo bumblebees may also be flying, such as the Field cuckoo bee (Bombus campestris), which lays its eggs in carder bees’ nests. Here’s a full guide to cuckoos. ID tip: They have darker wings than nest-making bumblebees and no pollen baskets because their host’s worker bees collect the pollen to feed the cuckoo bees’ females and males.

How to ID August solitary bees:

  • Willughby’s leafcutter (Megachile willughbiella), the most common of the leafcutter bees, is still flying until the end of the month. They get their name, like many solitary bees, from how they construct their nests. If, like me, you’ve not yet seen a female flying home with a piece of leaf she’s cut from a rose or lilac bush clasped between her legs, then watch this fantastic footage from Devon-based field naturalist, John Walter. She lines her nest and plugs it with pieces of leaf. She can nest in a bee hotel, alongside red mason bees, but can also be found in in many other artificial cavities including gaps in window frames, holes in walls and even rubber hoses and folded garden parasols. Tip: A similar in size to a honeybee, leafcutters are brownish grey and collect pollen on the underside of their tummy, which they have a habit of lifting up in the air while feeding on flowers.
  • Davies’ plasterer bee (Colletes daviesanus) is a smallish 5-7mm bee with a furry thorax and a shiny abdomen with grey-white stripes. There are 500 known species of plasterers – also called Colletes bees –  worldwide, but only nine in Britain. This is the main one you’ll see in your garden on any daisy-like flower and nesting in weathered sandstone walls, soft mortar or in south-facing slopes of bare soil.  They are called plasterer bees because they plaster the cells of the nests with a cellophane-like resin substance they produce which is both waterproof and fungus-resistant.
  • Common yellow-faced bees (Hylaeus communis) are one of many small, (5mm) predominately black bees which frequents gardens from mid to late summer. This one has tiny yellow spots or a triangle on its face, and yellow on its legs. It nests in a variety of small cavities including hollow stems and manmade bee hotels if the dimensions of the tube are small enough. It too lines the cells of its nest with waterproof, anti-fungal resin applied with its tongue, which explains why yellow-faced bees are classified in the same family as Colletes.  You won’t see pollen on their hind legs or under their tummy, because, unusually for a bee, they carry pollen back to its nest in a special stomach, called a crop and regurgitate it to make a semi-liquid mixed with nectar to feed their brood (larvae).
  • Small scissor bees (Chelostoma campanularum) were easy to spot last month despite their diminutive size, because the 4.5mm-long males shelter in the middle of bellflowers (campanula in Latin) during dull weather and/or at night. Now the bellflowers have gone, look in hardy geraniums instead. Another cavity nester, they use pre-existing holes in dead wood including fence posts and plug the holes with small particles like sand grains and pebbles.  
  • Common furrow bees (Lasioglossum calceatum) – are another black bee that fails to conforms to most people’s image of a bee. It has a smooth elongated body, often with a metallic green or blue sheen. If you’ve not seen them yet, try looking in thistles, knapweeds and ragworts early in the morning as the males may be roosting there overnight. They excavate underground burrows in light soil in which to nest. Like many solitary bees, they like living next door to each other in large aggregations.
  • Blood bees (Sphecodes) can often be found where furrow bees are nestingas they invade their nests and those of mining bees.   There are several hundred species of these parasitic bees globally and around 17 in the British Isles. They range in size from 4mm to 8mm, but can be identified from other black, hairless bees by their red abdomen which looks as if it is full of blood. Telling one blood bee species from another can be very challenging, despite possessing some of the best descriptive common names such as swollen-thighed, bare-saddled and dull-headed. If you see one on heathland or coastal dunes, chances are it could be the Sandpit blood bee. They are actually cleptoparasites, which means the female enters a host’s nest, opens up a cell and destroys the egg, or larvae, in it and replaces it with her own egg before resealing it. Females are usually found around the nests of the host, while males are often hanging out on a variety of daisy-like flowers and umbellifers. Tip: Don’t kill these bees to save the furrow and mining bees. Nature works in mysterious ways and we must respect that.

How to help bees in August:

  1. Plant different flowers for different bees. Hollyhocks, sunflowers, globe thistles are cardoons are all magnets at this time of year for short-tongued bees, along with open-faced dahlias. For the long-tongued bumblebees, black horehound, salvias and buddleia are still flowering, and hemp agrimony is good if you have damp growing conditions. Geranium rozanne and Calamint are still going strong, and Common sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) is starting to produce coppery blooms which are a top attraction for solitary bees according to Rosybee nursery’s fantastically helpful research . Marjoram (Origanum), Anise hyssop, thyme and Bergamot, are all later-flowering herbs that do well in pots in a sunny position.
  2. If you only have a window box, Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus), creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum) and trailing nasturtium and bird’s-foot trefoil are still flowering. Add sedum for late flowers and annuals such as cosmos and snap dragons.
  3. If you let your lawn grow into a wildflower meadow this year, now is a good time to do what’s called the ‘haycut’. Cut to 4cm with a mower, or better still use a scythe or shears. Leave the cuttings for a few days to let seeds drop to the surface of the soil, then rake the cuttings up to reduce soil fertility and encourage more wildflowers next year.
  4. Gather seeds from plants such as poppies, love-in-a-mist, bellflowers and foxgloves. 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 and hope for the best.
  5. Leave parts of the garden undisturbed, as ground nesting bumblebee queens may be looking for a snug place to spend the winter.
  6. Ditch the weed killers and pesticides. 
  7.  You can put up bee hotels now, but you probably won’t get any visitors until next spring. You can make a bee hotel. We recommend buying ones that you can clean out in the winter and store the bee cocoons safely in a cold, dry, dark place. We have successfully installed these bee hotels under the south-facing eaves of our garden shed. If you want to see what is happening inside a bee hotel, you could invest in an observation box with a Perspex viewing window such as this award-winning one from Nurturing Nature.
  8. It’s still not too late to 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. Small scissor bees or yellow-faced bees may take up residence.
  9. Create a bank of sand mixed with some clay soil against a south facing wall for mining bees which like to burrow into sand. 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.
  10. Provide a source of water for thirsty bees. This can be a shallow bowl or saucer with stones or pebbles in that the bees can stand on while they are drinking. Bees can’t swim!

For information on IDing and helping bees earlier in the year see my Bees to See in July blog here, Bees 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 spotting in July

Bee spotting just got a whole lot harder this month because three new solitary bee species are tiny – less than half the size of a 14mm honey bee. They are the small scissor bee, the diminutive common-yellow faced bee and the slightly bigger green-eyed flower bee. Luckily, the larger Willughby’s leafcutter bee and the Blue mason bee are still flying, along with the chunky Wool carder bee. I’m also excited about seeing the males of two species of bumblebee this month. They look even cuter than the workers and the queens!

Tips for IDing July bumblebees:

  • Male Red-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lapidaries) and White-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lucorum) are flying now because it is the time of year when the bumblebee colony is getting ready for mating. If you remember in early spring the queens emerged, foraged and looked for a nest. The first eggs they laid were worker females who were able to take over foraging duties when they became adult bees allowing the queen to focus on laying more eggs to strengthen the colony. Some of the eggs she has laid are males, who are now flying. Their sole job will be to mate with new virgin queens who will soon be emerging from the colony. The male red-tailed bumblebee is actually multi-coloured with fluffy yellow hairs on his face, two yellow bands on his black body and a red tail to boot making him surely one of our most attractive bees. The white-tailed bumblebee males also have endearingly bright yellow hairs on their face. Both are smaller than the queens.

You will also continue to see some of our commonest bumblebee flying this month: buff-tailed and white-tailed bumblebees, common carder bees, queen and worker red-tailed bumblebees, tree bumblebees and garden bumblebees. And cuckoo bumblebees, like the Vestal cuckoo bee we began seeing last month, are still around. Here’s a full guide to cuckoos. ID tip: They have longer tails than nest-making bumblebees and no pollen baskets.

How to ID July solitary bees:

  • The Wool carder bee (Anthidium manicatum) is easy to see with its yellow spots along the side of its chunky body. if you have a patch of Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantina), you may have seen the females visiting already to collect the soft downy material from the underside of the leaves to line their nests. They roll the hairs into a ball as big as themselves to carry home to her nest in a ready-made hole. You may also see the larger male bees aggressively defending their patch of purple flowers by attacking intruders in mid-air, armed with spikes under their abdomen. I’ve also seen the females using their long tongues to feed on foxgloves in my garden and Black horehound along the canal.
  • NOTE: Carder means to ‘tease out fibres’. Despite having a similar English name to the social bumblebee called a Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum), a Wool Carder Bee is not a bumblebee, it is a solitary bee nesting alone.
  • Willughby’s leafcutter (Megachile willughbiella) is the most common of the leafcutter bees. They get their name, like many solitary bees, from how they construct their nests. The leafcutters cut pieces of leaf from plants, including roses and lilac, to line their nests. Similar in size to a honeybee, leafcutters are brownish grey and collect pollen on the underside of their tummy, which they have a habit of lifting up in the air while feeding on flowers. They will nest in bee hotels alongside red mason bees, plugging the entrance of the tubes with leaf. Look out for a female flying with a piece of leaf as big as herself clasped between her legs. Like this fantastic footage captured by Devon-based field naturalist, John Walter.
  • Common yellow-faced bee (Hylaeus communis) is one of a dozen small, (5mm) predominately black yellow-faced bees you may see this month with tiny yellow spots or a triangle on its face. The common variety is the one you are most likely to see in your garden because it’s not fussy about where it nests – in a variety of small cavities including manmade bee hotels if the dimensions of the tube are small enough – and it feeds on many widespread flowers. Unusually for a bee, it carries pollen back to its nest in a special stomach, called a crop, rather than on its body.
  • Small scissor bee (Chelostoma campanularum) is one of the smallest bees in Britain. Measuring just 4.5mm, they can easily be mistaken for a tiny, black fly or ant by the lay person, or a black furrow bee by an entomologist. The clue to which bee you are looking at is in their Latin name – campanula is the Latin for bellflowers or harebells. They frequent these flowers, and males can be found sheltering in the middle during dull weather and/or at night. Another cavity nester, they use pre-existing holes in dead wood including fence posts and plug the holes the with small particles like sand grains and pebbles.  Like many solitary bees, they often nest next door to each other. ID tip: Another bee you may find sleeping in your bellflowers is the slightly bigger, browner and fluffier, Gold-tailed Melitta bee (Melitta haemorrhoidalis).
  • Blue mason bees (Osmia caerulescens) are black, but on close inspection females have a blue sheen. They are bigger and slightly hairier than scissor, yellow-faced and furrow bees. Similar in size to a red mason bee, they have the same round bottom, hairs on their tummy to collect pollen and they will also nest in bee hotels, but are less frequent guests. They plug their tubes with chewed up leaf, instead of mud. You’re most likely to see these bees on catmint, crane’s bill (hardy geraniums), knapweeds and flowering herbs.
  • The Green-eyed flower bee (Anthophora bimaculata) is a real beauty. Much smaller than the earlier flying Hairy-footed flower bee, she displays the same darting movement and high pitched buzz, and the males (which also have the big, green eyes) noisily patrol patches of flowers. However, you may only get to see them if you live on the coast in southern England since they like to nest in sand. We’ve included them in our guide because insect photographer, Penny Metal, has seen one in her local park in south London. It’s in her fantastic book Insectinside: life in the bushes of a small Peckham park (featured on Springwatch). Penny’s sighting gives me hope that some of you in urban areas may get a glimpse of one this summer, especially as they are polylectic – feeding on many flowers including catmints, Viper’s bugloss, Black Horehound, brambles, willowherbs, and the dandelion-looking Cat’s-ear,  many of which grow along canals, in the wilder areas of parks and on urban wasteland, where there’s also often construction sand.
  • Common furrow bee (Lasioglossum calceatum) – there are more than 1,700 furrow bees worldwide making them the largest bee genus, despite the fact they don’t conform to most people’s image of a bee – black, with a smooth elongated body, often with a metallic green or blue sheen. Measuring around 7mm, the common variety are widespread in gardens across Britain and males may roost overnight in thistles, knapweeds and ragworts at this time of year. They furrow in light soil to make their nests in large aggregations.

How to help bees in July:

  1. Plant different flowers for different bees Lots of bee-friendly flowers are blooming this month including salvias, knapweeds (Centaurea nigra)  and lavenders. However some lavenders are better than others for attracting bees. Lavadula x intermedia ‘Gros Bleu’ performed best in trials at Sussex University, whereas Lavendula angustifolia is less attractive. Lavenders are good for short-tongued bees, as are herbs including Marjoram (Origanum), Anise hyssop, thyme and borage. For long-tongued bees plant Bergamot, (bee balm), Viper’s bugloss, Lamb’s Ear, salvias and shrubs like buddleia, also loved by butterflies, hence it’s common name, the butterfly bush. Many of these plants grow well in pots and planters on a sheltered patio or roof terrace in well-drained soil and they are fairly drought-tolerant.
  2. If you only have a window box, try growing the flowers I suggested in June as they will still be flowering now: scabious japonica, dwarf harebells (campanula carpatica), dwarf lavenders, Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus) and creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum) and keep watering regularly. You could add some trailing nasturtium and bird’s-foot trefoil.
  3. Continue to let part of the the lawn grow long (after No Mow May) for dandelions and clovers.
  4. Ditch the weed killers and pesticides. That includes spraying your roses – remember the leafcutter bees collect pieces of leaf to make their nests.
  5. It’s your last chance to put up bee hotels for blue mason bees and leafcutter bees. You can make a bee hotel. We recommend buying ones that you can clean out in the winter and store the bee cocoons safely in a cold, dry, dark place. We have successfully installed these bee hotels under the south-facing eaves of our garden shed. If you want to see what is happening inside a bee hotel, you could invest in an observation box with a Perspex viewing window such as this award-winning one from Nurturing Nature.
  6. Drill holes in blocks of wood – 10mm, 8mm, 6mm and 4mm diameters and up to 30 cm deep – and screw them to a sturdy support. Drill holes in existing structures such as fence posts, or dead trees. See if small scissor bees or yellow-faced bees take up residence.
  7. Create a sand bank against a south facing wall for mining bees that like to burrow into sand. You may even attract the Green-eyed flower bee.
  8. Provide a source of water for thirsty bees. This can be a shallow bowl or saucer with stones or pebbles in that the bees can stand on while they are drinking. Bees can’t swim!
  9. Buy a Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland if you are serious about IDing lots more bees.
  10. Start growing seeds, such as forget-me-nots, that will flower next spring.

For information on IDing and helping bees earlier in the year see my Bees to See in June blog here,  Bees to See in May blog here and Bees to See in April blog here, Bees to See in March blog here.

Busy bees to spot and help in June

This month you’ll hopefully see the three bumblebees above and a cuckoo bumblebee, (along with the ubiquitous buff-tailed and white-tailed workers, and common carder bees who are all still busy foraging for pollen and nectar) . While we say goodbye to the charming hairy-footed flower bees and the bee-hotel dwelling red mason bees in late June, we say hello to five new solitary bees: a new mason bee, a new mining bee, and we’ll see for the first time leafcutter bees, furrow bees and one of my favourites, the wool carder bee.

Tips for IDing June bumblebees:

  • Garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) – some of you may have seen her last month, but for those of us still waiting for a sight of this long-tongued bumblebee, my advice is to sit by a patch of flowering foxgloves or honeysuckle and wait. The way to tell the garden bumblebee apart from other similar large, white-tailed bumblebees is the two golden bands at the front and back of the thorax which makes them look as if they are wearing a black skull cap. They have a third band on the abdomen.
  • Red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) – again some of you may have already seen these easy-to-spot queens and workers with their black bodies and fiery red tails. For those, like me, still waiting, I have read that they favour yellow flowers, but despite looking up into the branches of Laburnum trees drooping under the weight of yellow, pea-like flowers I’ve yet to see one. They seem to be out-competed by buff-tailed bumblebees in my corner of east London.
  • Tree bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) – their ginger thorax, black body and white tail may be visible on Cotoneaster, or bramble flowers. Better still, keep your eye on a blue tit box when the chicks have fledged as they may move in. Since the tree bumblebee arrived in southern England in 2001 from Europe it has become one of the most common species in the UK because it has exploited nesting sites not frequented by other bumblebees which usually prefer to live underground.
  • Vestal cuckoo bee (Bombus vestalis) – also called the Southern cuckoo bee because it is in this part of England where you are most likely to see the large female (they don’t have queens or workers) seeking the underground nest of the buff-tailed bumblebee to take over. At this time of year only small buff-tailed workers are foraging. So if you see a big looking one with NO pollen baskets on her hind legs it’s likely a vestal cuckoo. Look closely and you’ll see she has only one single golden band on her thorax and another band on top of her white tail. She doesn’t collect pollen because after she takes over a nest, the buff-tailed workers become her slaves, collecting pollen for the vestal’s offspring when her eggs hatch.

How to ID June solitary bees:

  • The Wool Carder Bee (Anthidium manicatum) is one of my favourite solitary bees, because they are so easy to spot with their yellow spots along the side of their chunky bodies. And if you plant Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantina), you are guaranteed to see them collecting the soft downy material from the underside of the leaves to line their nests. Carder means to ‘tease out fibres’, and the female rolls the hairs into a ball as big as herself to carry home to her nest which is in a ready-made hole. You may also see the larger male bees aggressively defending their patch of purple flowers by attacking intruders in mid air. They are armed with spikes under their abdomen that can kill their foes. NOTE: Despite having a similar English name to the Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum), they are very different. The latter is a social bumblebee.
  • Willugby’s leafcutter (Megachile willughbiella) is the most common of the leafcutter bees. They get their name, like many solitary bees, from how they construct their nests. They cut pieces of leaf from rose and lilac bushes to line their nests, leaving the plant looking as if it has been attacked by a hole punch. Similar in size to a honeybee, leafcutters are brownish grey and collect pollen on the underside of their tummy, which they have a habit of lifting up in the air while feeding on flowers. They nest in bee hotels if red mason bees have left any tubes unoccupied. They plug the entrance with leaf later in the summer when they have laid all their eggs in a tube. If you’re very lucky, you may see a female flying with a piece of leaf as big as herself clasped between her legs.
  • Blue mason bees (Osmia caerulescens) are similar in size to a red mason bee and have the same round bottom and hairs on their tummy to collect pollen. The females are black with a blue sheen. The males, which appear a little earlier, have a gingery pile on their thorax. They can also check into bee hotels, but are less frequent guests than red mason bees. Their tubes will be plugged green, with chewed up leaf. You’re most likely to see these bees on catmint, crane’s bill (hardy geraniums), knapweeds and flowering herbs.
  • Orange-tailed mining bees (Andrena haemorrhoa) are one of the most common mining bees in urban areas and easy to spot if you look down in the grass. The size of a honeybee, females have a reddish pile on their thorax, a black body, and bright orange hairs right at the very tip of their pointy bottom. Although solitary, they like to nest next door to each other in underground burrows in south-facing grassy slopes.
  • Smeathman’s Furrow bee (Lasioglossum smeathmanellum ) – there are close on 40 different species of furrow bees recorded in the UK. They are not what you expect a bee to look like – black, with a smooth elongated body, often with a metallic green or blue sheen. Measuring less than 5mm (for comparison a honeybee is around 14mm), spotting this type of furrow bee is going to be a challenge even though they are common over most of southern England and Wales. They nest in old walls and bare slops in large aggregations and visit open-faced flowers like dandelions and daisies.

How to help bees in June:

  1. Planting different flowers for different bees is particularly important this month when there can often be what’s called a June gap In the UK – a lull in nectar and pollen supplies as the horse chestnut trees finish blooming and trees, such as the limes, have yet to begin and spring flowers fade before summer ones burst open. Try catmint (Nepeta) and cotoneaster for short-tongued bees, and foxgloves, honeysuckle, comfrey and thistles for long-tongued bees. Research by bee-friendly plant supplier, Rosybee found that in June the yellow flowers of  Dyer’s chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria) were the best for all types of solitary bees, followed by purple Geranium rozanne ( a favourite in my small garden because it flowers until October). Viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare) was best for bumblebees, as it produces nectar all day long, followed by catmint (Nepta racemosa – another long flowerer) and a white lavender (Lavandula x intermedia ‘Edelweiss’). Don’t forget Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantina) for the wool carder bees.
  2. If you only have a window box, try growing scabious japonica, dwarf harebells (campanula carpatica), dwarf lavenders, Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus) and creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum) which flower from June onwards. Water regularly.
  3. Don’t pull up weeds like Alkanet, which feed many types of bees, and continue not to mow part of the lawn (after No Mow May) to let dandelions and clovers grow.
  4. It’s not too late to install blue tit boxes for tree bumblebees to nest in. They will vacate at the end of the summer, so you may get blue tits nesting next spring.
  5. Put up bee hotels for blue mason bees and leafcutter bees. You can make a bee hotel. We recommend buying ones that you can clean out in the winter and store the bee cocoons safely in a cold, dry, dark place. We have successfully installed these bee hotels under the south-facing eaves of our garden shed. If you want to see what is happening inside a bee hotel, you could invest in an observation box with a Perspex viewing window such as this award-winning one from Nurturing Nature.
  6. Drill holes in blocks of wood – 10mm, 8mm, 6mm and 4mm diameters and up to 30 cm deep – and screw them to a sturdy support. Drill holes in existing structures such as fence posts, or dead trees. See which bees take up residence over the summer.
  7. Continue to leave bare earth for mining bees to burrow into.
  8. Provide a source of water for thirsty bees. This can be a shallow bowl or saucer with stones or pebbles in that the bees can stand on while they are drinking. Bees can’t swim!
  9. Ditch the weed killers and pesticides.
  10. Buy a Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland if you are serious about IDing lots more bees.

Where have the solitary spring bees gone? One of my favourite bees, the hairy-footed flower bee, disappears later this month, along with red mason bees. This is because solitary bees only live for a few weeks. In their short life cycle they mate and then the female makes, or finds and adapts a nest in which to lay her eggs. She forages for pollen to leave in the nest for hungry larvae which will hatch from her eggs. When she had laid all her eggs and provisioned them with pollen, she will plug up the entrance to the nest, and exhausted from all her activities she will die on the wing having achieved her aim: to successfully reproduce. In her short life, she pollinates many flowers, shrubs and trees whose fruits, seeds and nuts are food for birds and other species. After the fat larvae have spun a cocoon and metamorphosed into adult bees over winter, they will emerge next spring to start the life cycle again.

For information on IDing and helping spring bumblebees and solitary bees see my Bees to See in April blog here, Bees to See in May blog here and Bees to See in March blog here.

WILD BEES, by John Clare (1820s)

Which bees can you identify from this poem?

These children of the sun which summer brings
As pastoral minstrels in her merry train
Pipe rustic ballads upon busy wings
And glad the cotters’ quiet toils again.
The white-nosed bee that bores its little hole
In mortared walls and pipes its symphonies,
And never absent couzen, black as coal,
That Indian-like bepaints its little thighs,
With white and red bedight for holiday,
Right earlily a-morn do pipe and play
And with their legs stroke slumber from their eyes.
And aye so fond they of their singing seem
That in their holes abed at close of day
They still keep piping in their honey dreams,

And larger ones that thrum on ruder pipe
Round the sweet smelling closen and rich woods
Where tawny white and red flush clover buds
Shine bonnily and bean fields blossom ripe,
Shed dainty perfumes and give honey food
To these sweet poets of the summer fields;
Me much delighting as I stroll along
The narrow path that hay laid meadow yields,
Catching the windings of their wandering song.
The black and yellow bumble first on wing
To buzz among the sallow’s early flowers,
Hiding its nest in holes from fickle spring
Who stints his rambles with her frequent showers;

And one that may for wiser piper pass,
In livery dress half sables and half red,
Who laps a moss ball in the meadow grass
And hoards her stores when April showers have fled;
And russet commoner who knows the face
Of every blossom that the meadow brings,

Starting the traveller to a quicker pace
By threatening round his head in many rings:
These sweeten summer in their happy glee
By giving for her honey melody.

Answers:

  1. Male Hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes) – white nosed/make their nests in mortared walls/and make a high pitched buzzing noise
  2. Female Hairy-footed flower bee – black as coal/collects different coloured pollen on her thighs/and her darting flight looks as if she is playing.
  3. Buff-tailed bumblebee queen (Bombus terrestris) – first bee to fly in early spring/feeds on the willow catkins/nests in holes in the ground.
  4. Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) – russet coloured, very common because it’s not a fussy eater and will visit many flowers to collect nectar and pollen).

I have to thank professor Jeff Ollerton for introducing me to the poetry of John Clare. Jeff was writing in the April issue of British Wildlife and described the Common carder bee in Clare’s words as the “russet commoner” which I loved. I found the poem and was pleasantly surprised to find that I recognised two other bee species from Clare’s poetic descriptions.

Another bee he describes as “in livery dress half sables and half red,
Who laps a moss ball in the meadow grass”, I learned from Jeff’s blog must be the much rarer Red-shanked Carder bee (Bombus ruderarius) because it is the only the only red and black bumblebee in the UK that makes a mossy nest above ground.

You won’t find the Red-shanked Carder bee on our Bees to See guide because unfortunately they are scare and in decline so you are unlikely to spot them.

Bee-spotting and helping wild bees in May

This month, hopefully you will see at least four bumblebee species, two types of mining bee, red mason bees and the now familiar hairy-footed flower bee. Her not so familiar cuckoo, the mourning bee, is also around.

You will continue to see some of the bumblebees you first spotted in March and April, but instead of queens you will now be seeing the smaller worker bees. Worker honeybees will also be busy foraging on flowering trees and plants. (Honeybees are managed, so not included on this list.)

Urban Bees teamed up with amazing insect photographer, Penny Metal, in 2021 to create month-by-month visual guides to help you spot the most common wild bees in our parks and gardens.

How to ID May bumblebees:

  • The garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) is distinguishable from other large white tailed bumblebees by the black skull cap she appears to be wearing trimmed with bands of yellow. The best way to see her is flying into foxglove flowers.   As one of our long-tongued bumblebees she is able to get to the nectar at the base of the tubular bell. She usually emerges unrecognisably cloaked in pollen grains. (Other bees cheat by making a hole in the base of the flower so their shorter tongues can reach the nectar.)
  • The red-tailed bumblebee, female, (Bombus lapidaries) has to be the easiest bumblebee to spot with her big black fluffy body and striking red tail. You may have seen her already this year on dandelions. She likes yellow flowers so I’m going to keep an eye out on the laburnum trees which this month will be drooping heavy with pea-like yellow flowers.
  • The common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) is one of my favourites. Despite the common name, which derives from the old word “to tease out fibres” – which she does from plants for nesting materials – she is a bumblebee (Bombus in Latin). I like her, partly because she is ubiquitous from spring to autumn on many garden flowers so you will definitely get to know her, and she is less flashy than other bumblebees with her small, round body and gingery brown colouring.
  • Tree bumblebees (Bombus hypnorum) with their ginger thorax, black body and white tail could be the new occupants of your blue tit box if the chicks have fledged. Be prepared for noisy buzzing outside their new home as gangs of males compete to mate with virgin queens. Tree bumblebee colonies vacant at the end of the summer, so the bird box will be empty for the blue tit family next spring.

How to help bumblebees in May:

  1. Leave a patch of the garden wild for nesting sites and don’t disturb a nesting site if you find one for example in a compost bin or under a garden shed (it will only last until the end of the summer).
  2. It’s not too late to put up a blue tit box for the tree bumblebee to nest in.
  3. Buy and plant alliums, catmint and cotoneaster from garden centres to provide food this month for the short-tongued bumblebees. Foxgloves, honeysuckles and thistles for the long tongued bumblebees.
  4. It’s not too late to grow from seed annuals that provide late summer bee forage such as sunflowers, cosmos and Anise hyssop.
  5. Don’t mow the lawn (let clovers flower). See the Plantlife No Mow May campaign.
  6. Ditch the weed killers and pesticides.

How to ID May solitary bees:

  • Hairy-footed flower bees (Anthophora plumipes) have been flying for a couple of months now so you are probably becoming accustomed to seeing them darting noisily around patches of comfrey and wallflowers with their tongues outstretched. Many of the black females will have mated and are now busy collecting pollen on their hairy hind legs for their young.
  • The Mourning bee (Melecta albifrons) is a fluffy grey/black colour edged with lateral white spots . Despite their cute appearance, they are the hairy-footed flower bees’ cuckoo. The female lays her eggs in the already made nest and when her larvae hatch they steal the pollen collected by the hairy-footed flower bee for her own babies.  A quarter of the 20,000 plus bee species on the planet are cuckoos. Their appearance means that the host bee is healthy.
  • Red mason bee (Osmia bicornis) males have already checked out of bee hotels, but now the females will be emerging too, so if you have a bee hotel there should be a frenzy of mating activity in the vicinity. These gingery, round-bottomed bees, are a little smaller (12mm) than a honey bee (14mm). After they are mated the females will find clean tubes in bee hotels, or holes in masonry, to nest and they will collect bare soil to carry home to divide each tube into 6 or 7 individual birthing chambers where they will lay an egg. They are also foraging on fruit tree blossom or garden flowers like Alkanet for pollen for their offspring to eat when the eggs hatch into larvae later in the summer.
  • Ashy mining bees (Andrena cineraria) are still around, so – if like me – you’ve not see one yet there is still time.  A smallish black and grey stripped bee (around 10mm), they nest 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. But don’t worry, solitary bees don’t sting and are short-lived (around 2 months)!
  • The short-fringed mining bee (Andrena dorsata) is widespread in southern England. Sporting a reddish-brown fluffy pile on her thorax, a smooth black body with thin stripes, and a hairy dorsal fringe on the top of her back leg, the female should hopefully be easier to identify on dandelions and daisies than some of the other small, brown mining bees which are also around at this time of year.

How to help solitary bees in May:

  1. Plant wallflowers and comfrey 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. For more plants, shrubs and trees that are good for different types of bees, see our Plants for Bees and Trees for Bees guides and blog about Shrubs for Bees.
  3. Leave old mortar untouched as hairy-footed flower bees and red mason bees may be nesting here.
  4. It’s not too late to make cob bricks with holes in that hairy-footed flower bees may nest in. See how to make them with clay soil, builders’ sand, straw and water in this wonderful video by ecologist John Walters.
  5. It’s not too late to install bee-hotels in a warm location at least a metre off the ground, 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.
  6. Leave a patch of bare earth for mining bees to burrow and where red mason bees can collect soil to make partition walls between birthday chambers and to plug their nests.
  7. Don’t mow the lawn to let dandelions and clovers grow.
  8. Ditch the weed killers and pesticides.

For information on IDing the early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum), the large buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris), the white-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum), the foxy-coloured tawny mining bee (Andrena fulva ), and the wasp-like Gooden’s nomad bee (Nomada goodenianna), go to the Bees to See in April blog here.

Honey bee (Apis mellifera) and bee-fly (Bombylius major) info is in the Bees to See in March blog here.

Sign up to our new monthly newsletter, The Buzz, to get top bee tips sent to your inbox.

You can follow Urban Bees on Twitter @BeesintheCity and on Instagram alison_urbanbees or visit www.urbanbees.co.uk

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

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!