Tag Archives: gardening for bees

February bees

Tips for IDing February bees:

The arrival of the male Hairy-Footed Flower Bee by the end of the month is quite an event as he heralds the stirrings of spring. Although he’s a solitary bee, he is often mistaken for a bumblebee because of his cute, fluffy appearance. You may even glimpse a slightly larger and more ginger-coloured Tree bumblebee queen foraging around the same time. Before then, we need to content ourselves with sightings of huge Buff-tailed Bumblebee queens and smaller workers, and Honeybees.

You may be wondering what the Marmalade hoverfly is doing in a bee ID guide. Well, this common hoverfly is an excellent bee mimic and many novice bee spotters may confuse it for a bee. By putting its photo along the bees you may see this month, I hope it will be easier to tell them apart.

How to ID

Buff-tailed Bumblebees (Bombus terrestris):-workers and queens

These plump, golden-striped bumblebees with a thick winter coat are the ones you’re most likely to see foraging now, especially if you live in a city in the south of England. This winter activity was first recognised in the late 1990s when Buff-tailed bumblebee workers where observed in various sites. It’s believed that some summer queens set up nests in October (instead of hibernating until spring) and produced workers in November to take advantage of milder winters and the abundance of food provided by winter-flowering heathers, honeysuckles, and especially mahonia – a prickly shrub, widely planted in car parks and public green spaces, that produces copious amounts of nectar and pollen in winter. Although called Buff-tailed bumblebees, in reality only the queen has a clearly buff-coloured bottom, the workers and males have whiter bottoms. It is the workers of the winter colony you will most likely see foraging and collecting blobs of mahonia’s orange pollen in the baskets on their hind legs. If you live further north where Buff-tailed bumblebee colonies die in winter, leaving only the queens to hibernate, it is these larger (up to 24mm) queens who you may see venturing out to forage close to the ground on snowdrops and winter aconites and searching for a suitable nesting site, perhaps a used rodent hole, or a crack in a pavement.

Honeybees (Apis millefera):

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

Tree Bumblebee (Bombus Hypnorum) – queen

The queens can measure up to 20mm and are early flyers usually in March, but sometimes in late February. She has the same markings as her smaller workers and males (which you’ll see later in the spring/summer) – tawny thoraxes, black abdomens and white tails. These bees are particularly drawn to downward hanging flowers. At this time of the year that’s likely to be early comfrey and also look out for her on winter heathers. As well as foraging, the queen will be on a mission to find a nest. As their name suggestions, holes in trees are traditional nesting sites, but house eaves , loft insulation, compost heaps and bird boxes provide alternatives, so look out for her investigating walls, fences or blue tit bird boxes. Tree bumblebees have only been in the UK since 2001. They were first recorded in Wiltshire. They are thought to have come over from mainland Europe and have successfully spread right across the UK.

Solitary Hairy-Footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes) – male

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

The 14mm brown-coloured males come out a few weeks ahead of the slightly bigger velvety-black females. Their thick coats enable them to withstand the cold, but the males need to build up their energy by drinking lots of nectar from early-flowering tubular-shaped flowers. Their favourites are lungwort (Pulmonaria) , dead-nettles (Lamium album) and early flowering comfrey (Symphytum iberian). So plant these, or find a patch, and you will see the male Hairy-footed flower bees with their long tongues outstretched ready to reach deep into the base of each flower for a nectar hit.

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

What’s in a name? As for their delightful name, Hairy-footed flower bees do indeed have hind legs that are covered with feathery hairs right down to their tiny feet.

There are some 550 species of Flower Bees worldwide. The Genus Anthophora is made up of 2 Greek words – Anthos means flower and phora means to carry or bear, so flower bearing, which makes sense as they carry pollen and nectar from flowers. The species most common is the UK is plumipes – again 2 Green works. Pluma is feather or plume, and pes is foot. So feather-footed.

We will meet other Flower bees later in the year, but they are much smaller and zippier, so harder to spot.

There are a few other solitary bee males that emerge this month but they are much scarcer so I’ve not included them in the Bees to See in February ID guide. However, if you’d like to know more, they include Clark’s Mining Bee (Andrena clarkella) and the Small Sallow Mining Bee (Andrena praecox) and Large Sallow Mining Bee (Andrena apicata). For more information read my blog here.

Marmalade hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus) – They are often seen hovering around flowers and will often be mistaken for wasps or bees as they are a similar size to a honeybee worker or a common wasp. But if you look closely they are quite different. They have much larger eyes than bees and their abdomen is dark yellow and has black stripes across it, with thinner stripes, that resemble a moustache, below them. But I find the easiest way to tell them apart from a bee, is that this common hoverfly will stay still on a flower or a leaf for much, much longer than a bee with its wings held out wide (as in the photo above), whereas bees tend to tuck their wings back and they never stay still for that long, otherwise I’d have much fewer blurry photos of them!

What is the point of hoverflies? Adult Marmalade hoverflies help to transport pollen between plants as they feed on nectar. The larvae of this species help to control aphid populations. More details here

How to help bees in February:

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

Rescue a lifeless looking bee:

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

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

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

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

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

New Year bees

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

  • Buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) – these fluffy, plump golden-striped bumblebees are the ones you’re most likely to see foraging between now and February, especially if you live in a city in the south of England. This winter activity was first recognised in the late 1990s when buff-tailed bumblebee workers where observed in various sites. It’s believed that some summer queens set up nests in October (instead of hibernating until spring) and produced workers in November to take advantage of milder winters and the abundance of food provided by winter-flowering heathers, honeysuckles and especially widely-planted Mahonia, a tough shrub whose bright yellow flowers cheer up many an amenity shrubbery, car park, and city garden and park at this time of year and produce copious amounts of nectar and pollen.
  • Queen – Although called Buff-tailed bumblebees, in reality only the queen has a clearly buff coloured bottom. Measuring up to a whopping 24mm in length, she is one of our largest bumblebees and hard to miss.
  • Workers have whiter bottoms. It is the workers (measuring around 13-18mm) you will most likely see foraging and collecting blobs of Mahonia’s orange pollen in the pollen baskets on their hind legs.

Submit sightings – If you see a bumblebee during the winter north of Birmingham, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust would like you to submit your sighting at iRecord here.

How to ID honey bees:

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

How to help bees in January:

  1. Plant a tree between now and February to feed bees in the future, or sponsor a street tree. Some trees are better for bees than others, because they produce more nectar and pollen, or they supply it early in the spring, or in late autumn when little else is flowering. What bees really need are trees that blossom sequentially producing a bee banquet throughout the year. Check our Urban Bees 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. A Vilmorini’s Rowan tree (Sorbus vilmorinii) is a small tree (4m high in 20 years) that is smothered in white bee-friendly flowers in early summer, red/purple leaves in autumn, and dusky pink berries in winter that are a favourite with Waxwing birds from Scandinavia.
  2. Underplant your tree with Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) whose large, bowl-shaped flowers are borne in loose clusters in late winter and spring, and Elephant’s ears (Bergenia), Lungwort (Pulmonaria) to attract early flying bees next spring. More flower suggestions here.
  3. It’s still not too late to plant some bulbs. Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ can still be a bee magnet in May/June if planted this month. Grape hyacinths (Muscari) should still flower in March and some tulips will also do well planted this late (although only wild tulips (Tulipa sylvestris seem to attract bees). I will plant some of these ‘in the green’ next month, which means planting them while the bulbs are in growth, rather than dormant. It’s a good way to plant bulbs in February/March if you didn’t get round to it in the autumn.
  4. Plant winter or early spring-flowering shrubs, such as Winter Daphne  (Daphne odora) or Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’ or Heathers (Erica carnea), which are perfect for a rockery or small flower bed with acidic, ericaceous soil. Winter flowering specimens, include white ‘Winter Snow’ (Erica carnea f. alba ), or ‘Winter rubin’ (Erica carnea ‘Winter Rubin’) for a splattering of pink.
  5. Leave your garden unkept so as not to disturb bumblebee queens who may be hibernating in piles of old leaves, long grasses or under a shed.
  6. It’s not too late to undertake bee hotel winter maintenance. Follow our simple step by step guide to care for these solitary bees over winter. Watch out for other insects hibernating in any empty tubes. I found queen wasps and spiders!
  7. Install a bird box that’s suitable for small birds like blue tits, with a 25mm diameter entrance hole, as it may prove to be the perfect nesting sites for Tree bumblebees (Bombus hypernorum) when the chicks have fledged in late spring. The bees will vacant by autumn, leaving the box empty for birds to use next year.

Rescue a lifeless looking bee:

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

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

For information on IDing and helping bees at other times of the year see my Bees to See in November blog here  Bees to See in October blog hereBees to See in September blog here, Bees to See in August blog here,  Bees to See in July blog hereBees to See in June blog here,  Bees to See in May blog here and Bees to See in April blog hereBees to See in March blog here.This entry was posted in All blogs and tagged bees to see in Januarybumblebees on  by alisonEdit

Lessons from the drought

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

A few months earlier:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons

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

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

September surprises

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

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

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

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

Tips for IDing September bumblebees:

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

How to ID September solitary bees:

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

How to help bees in September

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

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

Gardening for bees in March & April

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

If, like me, you didn’t get round to March tasks because of the rain, don’t worry, do them at the beginning of April instead. At least the dandelions, alkanet and other ‘weeds’ for bees will have grown well with all that rain followed by early April sunshine. Here’s a recap of the tasks to do.

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.

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.

Paperbush (Edgeworthia chrystantha) – pom-pom like clusters of tiny, yellow flowers on bare branches seduce bees with their heady scent from February – April.

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)  large, bold, often bright reddish-orange flowers cover its bare, thorny stems for weeks before the leaves appear in May. Non-thorny varieties are available. It likes ericaceous soil.

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.

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…

Blossom-sequencing trees for bees

February: Pussy willow (credit: Roberto Sorin, Unsplash)

Thinking about planting a tree this winter for bees, or speaking to your council tree officer about planting more trees to feed bees? These are the best trees because they produce pollen, or nectar, or both, when little else is flowering.

Early-flowering trees

February: Hazel catkins (Credit: Yoksel, Unsplash); March: Cherry ‘Okame’; April: Crab Apple

  1. Pussy/goat willow (Salix caprea) – although its catkins are wind pollinated, the protein-rich pollen they contain are collected by buff-tailed bumblebees and honeybees on mild February days to feed new larvae.
  2. Hazel (Corylus avellana) – showy, yellow dangling male catkins brighten up any garden in February/March and, though wind pollinated, provide much-needed pollen for early flying bees.
  3. Cherry ‘Okame’ (Prunus incam Okame) – a profusion of pretty pink blossom earlier than any other cherry makes this a magnet for bees that are out in March.
  4. Crab apple (Malus sylvestris) – a reliable, small bee-friendly tree that I have successfully grown in pots and planters on rooftops. It has beautiful white blossom in April for bees, and small red apples in autumn for birds, or for us to make jelly or jam.
  5. Bees are well served by trees in May and June from the huge Horse Chestnut trees with their thousands of white flowers borne on candelabras, to smaller Hawthorns, Rowans and Judas trees. They are followed by a variety of Lime trees (also known as Linden trees or Tilia), Acacia and Tulip trees. So try to plant a tree that flowers from mid July onwards instead.

Late-flowering trees

July: Dwarf chestnut tree (Credit: Wendy Cutler, WikiCommons); September: Seven son flower tree; October: Strawberry tree.

  1. The Indian horse chestnut tree (Aesculus indica) is a beauty and doesn’t suffer from the leaf miner or fungus that turns our conker trees’ leaves brown by mid summer. And it flowers after the Lime trees when the choice of blossoming trees greatly diminishes. But it does grow to 50ft so is only suitable for large gardens. A smaller option is the equally stunning Dwarf horse chestnut (Aesculus parviflora) which I’ve seen growing in large planters up to 8ft.
  2. If you already have a Common privet tree (Ligustrum vulgare), shrub or hedge, let it flower in July. Although it doesn’t smell pleasant to us, the scent attracts the bees to its nectar and pollen. The same goes for Oleaster (Elaeagnus × submacrophylla) which is often used for hedging. It you let it flower in October/November it can provide welcome food for bumblebees fattening up for winter.
  3. By August, there’s a real dearth of flowers on our trees and many popular garden flowers like lavenders and alliums have bloomed, so bees are getting hungry. Chinese privet (Ligustrum lucidum) is a handsome, small evergreen tree that has large panicles of white flowers providing much-needed food for late summer foraging bees.
  4. Seven son flower tree (Heptacodium miconioides) was the star of RHS Chelsea 2021 because it was the only tree in flower in September. It is a member of the honeysuckle family, with its clusters of heavenly scented white flowers, and can be grown as a multi-stemmed shrub or small tree. I predict that it will become widely planted throughout the UK, which will be a blessing for bees. I am going to try to find space for one.
  5. Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) If you plant this spreading , shrubby evergreen that grows in the wild all over the Mediterranean, you will be able to bee spot into November.

Not only will these trees feed bees, they will also bear fruits that birds can eat later in the year, and provide places for insects, including some bees to live, even when the tree has died. So they greatly promote biodiversity . And of course like all trees, they store carbon, mitigate flooding and pollution and reduce the temperature in towns and cities.

See our full Trees for Bees guide here. A remember, right tree, right place. Don’t plant a huge tree in a small garden.