Tag Archives: gardening for bees

RHS Hampton Court highlights

I made a beeline for Gold medal winner Buglife’s B-Lines Garden to get some ideas for creating a small, urban bee paradise, including the attractive wooden bee towers. I also loved some of the tiny spaces designed by newly qualified garden designers, like Brian Bloodglut (pictured with me above) to demonstrate the scope of the Asteraceae family of flowering plants, including his Brian &the Blooms For the Birds garden. It’s amazing how many different Asteraceae he has crammed into such a tiny space. And the Flower Power Field below (right) was cool too, The Pollen Station in the Money Saving Garden was a reminder how important it is to vote for Nature in a General Election, which was the day after my visit.

I wasn’t the only one who loved the Making Sense Garden, above left. It won the People’s Choice Award for best Get Started Gardens.

Discovered a new flower in the Buglife garden – an African thistle (Berkheya purpurea) and I love the way that Kent Wildflower Seeds plant wildflowers, like Bird’s-foot trefoil and Clover, in pots we you would an ornamental plant.

Due to the dismal drizzle and cold, few bees were foraging on the lovely flower displays. However I did come across a lovely metal sculpture of a bumblebee, and some fun bees created by Manor Park primary school along with barrels filled with bee-friendly plants.

For all the information about the show winners, trends and plants here

July bees

Bee spotting gets a bit trickier this month, with lots of diminutive solitary bees flying this month including our tichiest UK bee, the Small scissor bee  measuring around 4.5mm and the not much larger Common-yellow face bee.  Both these tiny black bees, don’t conform to most people’s image of a bee. Luckily, larger Patchwork leafcutter bees and chunky Wool carder bees are fluffier and much easier to spot. And if you’re in the south of England, look out for the very nippy, 8mm Four-banded flower bee. If you have a bee hotel installed and see a bee with a long, pointed black-and-white tail hanging out around it, it’s likely to be a Large sharp-tail bee – the cuckoo of both leafcutters and flower bees at this time of year.

Tips for IDing July bumblebees:

  • The Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) is usually one of the most ubiquitous bees in my garden and many others. With her all-in-one fluffy brown coat, she’s also one of the cutest and easiest to identify foraging on a huge variety of common garden flowers with her medium-length proboscis (tongue). However, this spring/summer she has been notable by her absence, and it’s not just me who has observed this. They like to nest above ground in undisturbed areas of long grass and to line their nest with moss. Maybe the very wet spring this year made it difficult to rear their colony successfully, Hopefully I’m wrong and she is just making a later appearance and will be foraging from now until October.

You will also continue to see workers of some of our commonest bumblebee flying this month including Buff-tailed bumblebees and their cuckoo the Vestal cuckoo bee; Tree bumblebees and Garden bumblebees. Red-tailed bumblebees are also foraging, but I’ve not seen one yet this year! Here’s a guide the six most common bumblebee cuckoos. 

How to ID July solitary bees:

  • Large sharp-tail bee (Coelioxys conoidea) is a very distinctive bee with its very pointed wasp-like abdomen and black and white colouring. The best way to spot them is around bee hotels as they are cuckoo bees of leafcutter bees who may be nesting there. They use the pointed abdomen to make a slit in the partition of the host’s cell and place their egg inside. Their larvae have long curved jaws to kill the host’s egg or its larvae. Then they gobble up all the pollen in the host’s nest and develop into adult bees to emerge next summer. Don’t try and kill them to protect the host. This is nature and the appearance of a cuckoo bee is a sign of a healthy host population. They can also take over summer flower bee nests. TOP TIP FOR CUCKOO BEES: They never collect pollen.
  • The Four-banded flower bee (Anthophora quadrimaculata) is much smaller than the earlier flying Hairy-footed flower bee. They display the same darting movement and high pitched buzz, but being just 7-8mm are much more difficult to spot as they zip around. The males have big, green eyes – like the similar-sized Green-eyed flower bee (Anthophora bimaculata) – and they both noisily patrol patches of flowers and are polylectic – feeding on many garden flowers including catmints and lavender, and wild flowers like Black Horehound and dead-nettles. Both species seem to be confined to the South of England.
  • Patchwork leafcutter bee (Megachile centuncularis) is one of our most common 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. A bit smaller than a honeybee, leafcutters are brownish grey and the easiest way to identify them is that they collect pollen on the underside of their tummy in orange-coloured pollen brushes. As they have a habit of lifting up their abdomen in the air while feeding on flowers, this orange underside is clearly visible. 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.
  • 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 their nest in a ready-made cavity (maybe your bee hotel). Here she makes a hole in the middle of the ball, where she places the pollen and lays her egg on top. Unusually for bees, the males are larger. They aggressively defend their patch of purple flowers by attacking intruders in mid-air, armed with spikes under their abdomen. I’ve also seen 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.
  • Common yellow-faced bee (Hylaeus communis) is one of a dozen small, (5mm) bees which are predominately black, but this species has yellow spots (the females), or triangles like a yellow mask (the males) on their 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. If you have an observation bee box, with removal panels – so you can see what is happening in the cells the bees are creating – you will see this bee creating a waterproof cellophane-like ‘plastic bag’ around each egg and filling the bag with nectar and pollen.
  • Small scissor bee (Chelostoma campanularum) is the smallest bee in Britain. Measuring around 4.5mm, they can easily be mistaken for a tiny, black fly or ant by the lay person, or a black furrow bee. 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 tiny pre-existing holes in dead wood including fence posts and plug the holes 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).

Bee mimics: There are some interesting flying insects this month trying to look like bees to deter predators, and confusing some of us bee spotters. But look out for the giveaway signs – big eyes, spindly legs and the lack of pollen on their back legs, or under their abdomen.

  • Narcissus fly (Merodon equestris) – these fluffy hoverflies could easily be mistaken for a Common carder bee, expect for the big eyes, spindly legs and lack of pollen. It gets it name because it lays its eggs on daffodil bulbs. The larvae feed on the bulb during winter and in spring pupate in to the soil emerging in the spring. But they are still around.
  • Bee wolf (Philanthus triangulum) – this is a large, solitary wasp that nests in sandy soil and preys on honeybees, paralysing them with a sting and carrying them back to their burrow. Up to six paralysed honey bees are placed in each brood chamber, then a single egg is laid on one of the bees and the chamber is sealed with sand. After hatching, the larva feeds on the cache of honey bees before spinning a cocoon to hibernate through winter, ready to emerge in spring.

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. This month, I’ve already seen tiny Yellow-faced bees (Hylaeus) foraging on Fennell and Hebes, and lots of bee species on flowering thyme.
  2. If you only have a window box, Scabious japonica, dwarf harebells (campanula carpatica), dwarf lavenders, Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus) and creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum) will look good now and feed the bees if you keep watering regularly. You could also 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 leafcutter bees. We have created flat-pack bee hotels that can be easily assembled and come with instructions about where to put them and how to attract bees to nest in them by planting their favourite flowers. 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 one from Bee Equipment that we have just installed on a few sites. But remember, unless you have the forage they need to feed their young nearby, they won’t nest in them.
  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. The sand has to hold together, so try mixing builders sand with some clay soil or loam.
  8. Provide a source of water for thirsty honeybees. 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 flowe

Summer bees 2024

This month, we have to say goodbye to some of my favourite spring-flying solitary bees, like the Hairy-footed flower bees and the Red mason bees, as their short life-cycles come to end. But we can say hello to some summer beauties, like the wool carder bee and the leafcutter bees. You’ll hopefully see three more bumblebee species too and a cuckoo bumblebee, (There will also be plenty of buff-tailed and white-tailed bumblebee workers foraging, and smaller, brown common carder bees, but we haven’t included them in the June guide as we wanted to introduce you to some new faces). There are four new solitary bees to try to identify this month: a lovely mason bee, a small, zippy flower bee with huge green eyes, and we’ll see for the first time this year, leafcutter bees. And see if you can spot the difference between a bumblebee and a hoverfly that mimics a bumblebee.

Tips for IDing June bumblebees:

  • Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) – if you see a small bumblebee (9 -13mm) with a faint red bottom and yellow stripes, it’s an early bumblebee. The male (pictured above) is particularly striking with his bright-yellow fluffy facial hairs and a stripe on his body too. This month, new queens may be emerging, along with workers and the males. Look out for them on cotoneasters, brambles, Raspberry and garden crane’s-bill (hardy geraniums). They can also nectar rob from longer, tubular flowers. They have small colonies of up to 100 bees and generally nest underground in old rodent burrows like many bumblebee species, but they can also inhabit bird boxes (like Tree bumblebees (Bombus hypnourm) and nest in roof spaces and holes in trees, although I have yet to hear reports of this.
  • Garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) – sit by a patch of flowering foxgloves or honeysuckle and you will hopefully see this long-tongue bumblebee coming in and out of the flowers. Unfortunately they are becoming less widespread than many other large bumblebees with white tails who have shorter tongues but nectar rob by making a hole in the base of the flower. The way to tell the garden bumblebee apart from buff-tailed and white-tailed bumblebees is by looking at the two golden bands at the front and back of the thorax which I think makes the bee look as if it’s wearing a black skull cap. It has a third band on the abdomen. It also has a longer ‘horsey’ face than other bumblebees, and will be going into the flower rather than sucking up the nectar from the side.
  • Red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) –unmissable with jet black bodies and fiery red tails, but records show that they too are becoming less widespread. I have read that they favour yellow flowers, so I am planting lots of Birds-foot trefoil for them, but so far no luck in my London garden. I have seen them on a rooftop on a sedum’s tiny yellow flowers and collecting pollen from the pink-petaled seaside daisy (Erigeron glaucus). I’d also suggest looking up at Laburnum trees drooping under the weight of yellow, pea-like flowers. In the photo above she is putting up a leg as a warning signal that she feels threatened and to keep away. But these are gentle bees.
  • 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 huge females (18mm) seeking to invade the underground nest of Buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) and lay their eggs. At this time of year only small buff-tailed workers are foraging. So if you see a huge bee that looks like a big Buff-tailed bumblebee queen, it’s more likely to be its cuckoo. Other ID tips: she has a longer white tail with yellow hairs at the base, and there are NO pollen baskets on her hind legs. (She is a female and not a queen because she doesn’t have worker bees. Her eggs hatch into females and males that are fed by the buff-tailed bumblebees worker bees who become her slaves after she takes over their mother’s nest.)  NOTE: There are 6 Cuckoo bumblebee species in the UK. This is the most common one because its host is the most common bumblebee.

How to ID June solitary bees:

  • Green-eyed flower bee (Anthophora bimaculata) – these gorgeous fluffy bees with their stunning big green eyes are around half the size (8mm) of the more common Hairy-footed flower bees (Anthophora plumipes). Their diminutive size, along with their rapid darting movement between flowers, makes them much more difficult to spot and they are largely confined to southern England, especially coastal areas and heathland where they nest in large, noisy aggregations in sandy cliff tops and the edge of costal pathways. They feed on Vipers bugloss, Black horehound, brambles, Thyme and mints including garden catmints. Listen out for the high-pitched buzz as they feed, often in groups. They fly until September, so one to watch out for if you’re holidaying on the South cost this summer.  
  • The Orange-vented mason bee (Osmia leaiana) – has a fluffy orange pollen brush under her abdomen which she uses to collect pollen from a variety of flowers including Green Alkanet, Crane’s-bill (hardy geraniums), brambles and knapweeds. You may see her nesting in a bee hotel, or a bee observation box. Here is a video of her packing her nest with pollen (we mistakenly called her a Blue mason bee because they fly at similar times of the year and both use masticated leaf to plug the tubes of their nest).
  • Patchwork leafcutters (Megachile cenuncularis) are one of the most common leafcutter bees found in gardens. They get their name, like many solitary bees, from how they construct their nests. They cut pieces of leaf from many plants including rose and lilac bushes, honeysuckles, willowherbs, Amelanchier trees, birches and Horse chestnut to make their nests, leaving the leaves looking as if they has been attacked by a hole punch. This leafcutter bee is a little smaller (9-10mm) than a honeybee and a brownish grey colour. But the easier way to tell her apart from a honeybee is from the orange pollen brush on the whole underside of her tummy, (similar to the Orange-vented mason bee), which she has a habit of lifting up in the air while feeding on flowers. Favourites include thistles, knapweeds, burdock, Common Fleabane, Bird’s-foot trefoil, St John’s-wort and brambles.  They nest in bee hotels if Red mason bees have left any tubes unoccupied. They plug the entrance with pieces of 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. They can also nest in dead wood, cavities in walls and even occasionally in soil. TOP TIP: How to tell a Orange-vented mason bee from a leafcutter – with difficultly, but the mason bee is a fraction smaller (8mm), but has a bigger head and narrower body and uses chewed up leaf to construct her nest, rather than discs of leaves.
  • The Wool Carder Bee (Anthidium manicatum) is an easy bee to spot and therefore has to be one of my favourites, with their yellow spots along the side of their chunky bodies that looks like stiching. 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 and plug 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 in dead wood, cavities in wall and man-made objects. I’ve yet to see one. You may also see the larger male bees aggressively defending their patch of purple flowers for mating by attacking intruders mid air. They are armed with spikes under their abdomen that can kill their foes. As well as Lamb’s ear, they can often be seen feeding or mating around Black horehound, Purple toadflax and vetches. NOTE: Despite having a similar English name to the Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum), they are very different. The latter is a social bumblebee.
  • Bumblebee hoverfly (Merodon equestris) – some hoverflies are excellent bumblebee mimics with their fluffy coats and round bodies. TOP TIP: The way to tell them apart from real bumblebees is the eyes (flies have bigger eyes), the legs (flies have spindly legs and they don’t collect pollen on their back legs), and they tend to stay still on a flower or leaf for longer than a bee with their wings out, rather than tucked behind them.

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 flowering and trees, such as the limes, have yet to begin while spring flowers fade before summer ones burst into bloom. Try cotoneaster and thistles for short-tongued bees, and foxgloves, honeysuckle, comfrey and catmint for longer-tongued bees like the Green-eyed flower bee. 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), seaside daisy (Erigeron glaucus), 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 comes Let if Bloom June ) to let  clovers and knapweeds grow.
  4. It’s not too late to install blue tit boxes – not for birds but for Tree bumblebees (Bombus hypnorum) and possibly Early 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. It may be too late for Red mason bees, but Orange-vented mason bees, Blue mason bees and leafcutter bees may check-in and lay their eggs this summer. We have created flat-pack bee hotels that can be easily assembled and come with instructions about where to put them and how to attract bees to nest in them by planting their favourite flowers. 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 one from Bee Equipment that we have just installed on a few sites.
  6. Create your own nests for cavity-nesting solitary bees, by drilling 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 honeybees. 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 – that includes all bugsprays for your roses!
  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? The Hairy-footed flower bees (Anthophora plumipes) are disappearing, along with Red mason bees (Osmia bicornis) and early mining bees.  This is because solitary bees only live for a few weeks. And the spring flying solitary bees that came out in April or before have now reproduced and provisioned their nests with pollen, so their life cycle has come to an end.  In their short life 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 the hungry larvae which will hatch from her eggs and gobble up all the pollen. But she will never see her offspring. When she has 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. But in her short life she has done an extremely important job – pollinated many flowers, shrubs and trees whose fruits, seeds and nuts are food for birds and other species. One the larvae have eaten all the pollen, they spin a cocoon, pupate and transform into adult bees through metamorphosis. They overwinter in the cocoon and will emerge next spring to start the life cycle again. The males of all solitary bee species emerge first to build up their strength for mating. In the case of the Red mason bees, they break though the mud at the end of the tubes in the bee hotels.

Rooftop mix and match – rewilding and planting

Eight months after we planted lots of new flowers (in response to the drought in 2022) on the roof 8 storeys up on Bread Street in the City, many are thriving, and have been joined by some blow ins – flowers that have arrived another way. Birds have deposited the seeds, or they’ve been blown in -like the yellow, dandelion-like flower above and the patch of Red dead-nettle below (middle), which is important food for long-tongued bees in spring, like Hairy-footed flower bees and Common carder bees. The red campion is back, despite removing most of it as it was taking over, and I want to have a diversity of flowering plants throughout the year to feed bees, not a dominant few.

I realise that I can’t just let the roof do it’s own thing, or else the sunnier planter would have been covered with nothing but Red hot poker (kniphofia). It absolutely loves it up there – in the heat, the wind, the cold, the rain. It is the hardiest plant I’ve ever come across.

It will be interesting to see if we see more bees visiting this summer than last year when there was much less diversity of flowering plants. In summer 2023, the survey of pollinators on the roof by Pollinating London Together found a furrow bee on Willowherb (Epilobium) – another blow in – as well as less interesting honeybees and Buff-tailed bumblebees.

PL’s  Greenspace Habitat Survey 2023 scored the roof 14/20. It scored 80% on diversity of flowers for pollinators. I’m hoping for 100% this year. But only scored 3/8 for number of pollinator species found on the days of the survey. I would argue that one day was too hot for most pollinators, and another was too windy. But they are the extremes that pollinators face on a rooftop in the City of London during the summer.

The first 2024 PLT survey is scheduled for 23 May, so let’s see how the roof fares compares to last year. I think it will be much more attractive to bees if the conditions are good.

Bees to See in May

This month, hopefully you will see at least one new bumblebee speciesa new mason bee, four types of mining bee, the now familiar Hairy-footed flower bee, and two ‘cuckoo’ bees – the Mourning bee and the Vestal cuckoo bee. (All photos credit: Penny Metal)

You will continue to see some of the bumblebees you first spotted in March and April, but instead of queens you will now probably be seeing the smaller worker bees foraging on flowering trees and plants.  

How to ID May bumblebees:

  • 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. (As you can see from the photo, the male on top is much smaller than the queen.) Tree bumblebee colonies vacant a bird box at the end of the summer, so it will be empty for the blue tit family next spring. I still find it hard to tell Common carder bees (Bombus pascuorum) and Tree bumblebees apart when they are flying, despite the latter having a darker body and a white tail.

Top ID tip to tell a Common carder bee from a Tree bumblebee – both sport a bright ginger pile at this time of year (later in the year, the former fades and the later goes a bit bald), so the best way to tell them apart now is to focus on getting a look at their bottom. The Tree bumblebee has a tiny white bottom and a darker body (abdomen). The Common carder bee is brown all over. Good luck!

Bumblebee cuckoo bee

  •  Vestal cuckoo bee (Bombus vestalis) – also known as Southern cuckoo bee because she used to be more common in the south of England – looks very similar to a Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris). That’s because it resembles the bee whose nest it takes over. Like the cuckoo bird (hence the name), it lays its eggs in the nest made by the host. But the cuckoo bee will actually kill the host queen and her eggs and dupe the worker bees into raising her young. Cuckoo bees are either male of fertile females. They do not have queens or worker bees..
  • There are six cuckoo bumblebees in the UK. Because Buff-tailed bumblebees are so common, so too is the Vestal cuckoo bee. Their presence means the host population is healthy.

Top tip for telling a Vestal cuckoo bee from a Buff-tailed bumblebee – The easiest way to tell these two large bumblebees apart is that the cuckoo has a longer white tail and above the tail is a pale yellow band. It’s a paler yellow than the dirty gold on the bee’s thorax and paler than the Buff-tailed bumblebee’s golden bands. The Vestal cuckoo female is a similar size to a Buff-tailed bumblebee queen but much bigger than Buff-tailed workers. Its wing may seem a bit darker and it never carries pollen (as the host workers will feed its young). This is true for all cuckoo bumblebees.

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). Leave some permanent long grass in which Common carder bees may nest.
  2. It’s not too late to put up a blue tit box for the tree bumblebee to nest in. Again, they will leave at the end of the summer and birds can use it next spring.
  3. Buy and plant alliums, catmint and cotoneaster from garden centres to provide food this month for 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 and dandelions flower). See the Plantlife No Mow May campaign.
  6. Ditch the weed killers and pesticides.
  7. Scatter wildflower seeds or seed balls in pots or on bare earth. The annuals will flower later in the summer and perennials next year.

How to ID May solitary bees:

  • Grey-patched mining bee (Andrena nitida) is one of the commonest mining bees in southern Britain, extending up to Lancashire and Yorkshire. She has a brighter red, fluffy pile on her thorax than the short-fringed mining bee, and grey patches on her black abdomen. They can be found foraging on spring blossoming shrubs and trees and dandelions and in scattered nests in flat or sloping turf and lawns.

Top tip for finding a Grey-patched mining bee – find it’s more striking waspish-looking Nomad bee, (another name for a cuckoo), Flavous nomad bee (Nomada flava).  You can see them on the ground searching out a Grey-patched mining bees’ nest to take over, and then you may spot the host bee herself.

  • 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 also around at this time of year.
  • 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.
  • Ashy mining bees (Andrena cineraria) A distinctive black and grey stripped bee (around 11-14mm), 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. But don’t worry, solitary bees don’t sting and are short-lived (around 2 months)!
  • The Mourning bee (Melecta albifrons) is another black and grey bee. Her coat is a fluffy grey/black colour, edged with lateral white spots. Despite her cute appearance, these 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.

Top tip for telling a Mourning bee from an Ashy mining bee – the former is rounder and fluffier, like its host bee, and also has lateral whitish spots down its body. The Ashy mining bee has a longer, smoother black body and is often found near to the ground.

  • Common mini-miner (Andrena minutula). If you see a tiny mining bee (4-5mm) at this time of year, chances are it will be this mini-miner bee because as its name suggests it’s the most common of the 10 species of mini-miners in the UK. They have a hairy fringe along the thorax and markings on their head if you can get that close. They are most visible on dandelion type flowers and sallow (willows). They nest in loose soil in large groups.
  • Blue mason bee (Osmia caerulescens) – bit smaller than the more common Red mason bees, the males, which are flying now, have a fluffy brown pile of hair over a dark metallic-coloured body. The females look blueish-black with a box-shaped head. They will nest in manmade bee hotels, but construct the cells and plug the tubes with chewed pieces of leaf. You may see them on a variety of flowers in an urban garden. The females come out a week or so after the males and they are around until July.

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 flat-pack bee hotels we have made, filled with either cardboard tubes or bamboo tubes that are 150mm long and around 5mm in diameter.
  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 birthing chambers and to plug their nests.
  7. Don’t mow the lawn to let dandelions and clovers grow. Small, brown mining bees are easiest to see on bright yellow dandelions. I now let dandelions grow in my herbaceous perennial flower borders to spot these bees.
  8. Ditch the weed killers and pesticides.

Early spring bees

If you’re new to bee spotting, now is the month when you can really 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 three species of bumblebee:

  • The Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) queen is smaller (14mm) and prettier with her fluffy yellow collar and orangey bottom.
  • The Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) The queen bumblebees are collecting (cardering) bits of moss to line their nest which they make above ground in undisturbed areas at the bottom of gardens. They also need nectar to fuel their flight after a long period of hibernation. Their long tongue, means you are likely to see them foraging on dead-nettles at this time of year.

(You will also likely see big Buff-tailed bumblebees as they are our most common bee with their golden stripes and whitish tails)

Six solitary bee species:

  • 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 emerged a few weeks ago in some warmer parts of the country and bigger blacker females have also recently been spotted. But most of us will have to wait a bit longer to see both of them. They visit Pulmonaria (lungwort) and other flowers with bell-shaped flowers. The males suck up the nectar with their long, straw-like tongues (proboscis) to build up their energy for mating when the females appear. A male will often jealously guard a patch of flowers where he hopes to get lucky, and chase off other potential suitors. More than one male can often be seen in pursuit of a female.
  • Buffish mining bee (Adrena nigroaenea) is one of our most common garden mining bees widespread across England. Around the size of a honeybee but a bit stockier, this 10-11mm-long bee has a dense fluffy brown pile on the top of its thorax. It can be tricky to identify from other brown bees. It nests in footpaths, flowerbeds and lawns. Although solitary, these bees nest next door to each other in large groups. Like all solitary bees, the male appear a couple of weeks before the females.
  • Male Red mason bees (Osmia bicornis) can emerge towards the end of the month to feed on blossoming fruit trees and shrubs. (But if it’s unseasonably warm and the trees flower early females too will appear.) If you have a bee hotel you may see these cavity nesting bees checking out of the mud-plugged tubes. They eat their way out. And the male eggs are laid at the front of the tubes making it easier for them to emerge easier than the females. They are a little smaller (6 – 8mm) than a honey bee (9-10mm), more gingery and have a rounder bottom.
  • Male Orange-tailed mining bees (Andrena haemorrhoa) are a little smaller (8-11mm) and less robust than Buffish mining bees. The smaller males have buff on their face and a brown pile on the thorax and at tip of their tail. Their name derives from the larger females (which may not be out until April) which have an orange-tipped tail. They took up residence one summer in our Bee Observation Box, which I will put up next month.
  • Gwynne’s mining bee (Andrena bicolor) is a bit harder to spot, being 7-11mm, 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 males are much blacker and shinier. They seem to eat most spring flowers and as such are seen throughout England and Wales.
  • Common mini-miner (Andrena minutula). If you see a tiny mining bee (4-5mm) at this time of year, chances are it will be this mini-miner bee because as its name suggests it’s the most common of the 10 species of mini-miners in the UK. They have hair fringe along the thorax and marking on their head if you can get that close. They are most visible on dandelion type flowers and sallow (willows). They nest in loose soil in large groups.

Bee mimic of the month:

Many people confuse the Dark-edged bee-fly (Bombylius major) for a bee (which is why we’ve included it). Not surprising there is confusion, because it’s a great mimic – round and fluffy like a small bumblebee (14mm long). It’s very visible in the spring, hovering around green alkanet and wallflowers. The easiest way to tell it apart from a bee is its long, spindly legs, hovering action, and two wings (bees have four wings) which stick out at a 45c angle, and relatively big eyes.

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. (We’ve not included them in our Bees to See in March guide above as we wish to raise awareness about solitary bees and bumblebees).

How to help bees this month:

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 (Bombus hypnorum). The colony will vacant at the end of summer, so the blue tits can use it again next spring.
  3. Plant primroses, Forget- me-nots, Rosemary and heathers to provide food this month for short-tongued bumblebees.
  4. Longer-tongued bumblebees like Common carder bees prefer dead-nettles and wallflowers.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 next month.
  7. Instead of seeds, you can buy bee-friendly plug plants that are quicker to establish. My favourites are stocked by Rosybee.
  8. Don’t mow the lawn to let clovers flower.
  9. 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, dead-nettles, 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.
  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. When the weather is dry and warming up a bit, I 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’ve designed our own wooden bee hotels which we stuff with cardboard tubes.
  5. 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.
  6. If you see bees coming up through your lawn, just leave them. They are a harmless mining bees emerging in spring to pollinate your garden flora.
  7. Don’t mow the lawn to let the mining bees emerge and to nest, and to let dandelions flower.
  8. Ditch the weed killers, like Round-up, and any pesticides and bug sprays you may be using on your roses, or any other plants. Leafcutter bees depend on the leaves of rose bushes to construct their nests.

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.

Skimmia – an evergreen shrub that is valuable for its multi-season displays. Glossy evergreen leaves provide a lovely contrast to the fragrant white or yellowish flowers in March and April and long-lasting winter berries. Works very well in pots and prefers a position in shade as full sun can cause the leaves to turn yellow.

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.