Tag Archives: helping 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.

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

March

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

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

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

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

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

April

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

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

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

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

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

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

May

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

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

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

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

June

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

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

July

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

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

August

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

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

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

September

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

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

October

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

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

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

November

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

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

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

December bees

Tips for IDing December bumblebees:

Bee identification suddenly got very easy as there are only two bee species flying at this time of year: buff-tailed bumblebees and honeybees, and in some areas it will only be the latter.

  • Buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) – these fluffy, golden-striped bumblebees are the ones you’re most likely to see foraging between now and February, especially if you live in a city in the south of England. This winter activity was first recognised in the late 1990s when buff-tailed bumblebee workers (with the white tails) where observed in various sites. It’s believed that some summer queens set up nests in October (instead of hibernating until spring) and produced workers in November to take advantage of milder winters and the abundance of food provided by winter-flowering heathers, honeysuckles and especially widely-planted Mahonia, a tough shrub whose bright yellow flowers cheer up many an amenity shrubbery, car park, and city garden and park at this time of year and produce copious amounts of nectar and pollen. You’ll most likely see the white-tailed workers foraging on it and collecting blobs of its orange pollen in the baskets on their hind legs.

How to ID honey bees:

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

How to help bees in December:

  1. Plant a tree between now and February to feed bees in the future, or sponsor a street tree. Some trees are better for bees than others, because they produce more nectar and pollen, or they supply it early in the spring, or in late autumn when little else is flowering. What we really need are trees that blossom sequentially producing a bee banquet throughout the year. Check our trees for bees guide. If you plant a Himalayan cherry (Prunus rufa) or a Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrula) you’ll not only have great blossom for bees in spring (as long as you plant single flowered varieties, not double-headed ones), but also fantastic rich coppery, peeling bark in the winter.
  2. Underplant your tree with Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) whose large, bowl-shaped flowers are borne in loose clusters in late winter and spring, and Elephant’s ears (Bergenia), Lungwort (Pulmonaria) to attract early flying bees next spring.
  3. Leave your garden unkept so as not to disturb bumblebee queens who may be hibernating in piles of old leaves, long grasses or under a shed.
  4. It’s not too late to undertake bee hotel winter maintenance. Follow our simple step by step guide to care for these solitary bees over winter. Watch out for other insects hibernating in any empty tubes. I found queen wasps and spiders!
  5. Offer a lethargic or exhausted buff-tailed bumblebee an emergency energy drink of sugary water. At this time of year they can get cold and exhausted very quickly after leaving the nest if they don’t quickly find nectar from a flower. A mixture of two tablespoons of white sugar to one tablespoon of water should revive them, but it may take them a while to find enough energy to suck up the liquid from the spoon or saucer you provide. Be patient. An alternative is to pick her up and take her to a flowering bush, such as Mahonia, full of nectar-rich flowers if there is one nearby. But remember, bumblebees can sting if they feel threatened so pick her up on a leaf, or in a container. Never feed a bee honey. Bacterial spores of a disease that affects bee larvae can be found in honey and this brood disease is highly contagious.

.For information on IDing and helping bees at other times of the year see my Bees to See in November blog here  Bees to See in October blog hereBees to See in September blog here, Bees to See in August blog here,  Bees to See in July blog hereBees to See in June blog here,  Bees to See in May blog here and Bees to See in April blog hereBees to See in March blog here.

Winter reading recommendations

Useful Bee ID guides

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

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

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

Gardening for bees

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

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

Introduction to bees

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

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

or equally

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

Nature books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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OK, so the bee spotting season is over. I know. But there’s a chance you could still get to see the odd one or two flying when it’s mild and sunny where there are flowers in bloom. So get out in the garden or your local park on a bright, autumnal day. And with so few bees to choose from at this time of year, it should make it easier to identify the ones you do see.

Tips for IDing November bumblebees:

  • Buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) – these fluffy, golden-striped bumblebees are the ones you’re most likely to see between now and March, especially if you live in a city in the south of the UK where the queens produce a third brood that lives through the winter, taking advantage of winter-flowering shrubs in parks and gardens. As a result, you’ll see queens, workers and males flying throughout the year. The queens are easily recognisable from their huge size (18mm) and distinctive buff coloured bottom. The workers are much smaller (13mm) and have a white tail. Both of these castes are female and what really sets them apart from the similarly marked 14mm males, is the brightly-coloured blobs of pollen they may be carrying on their hind legs to take back to the nest (see worker pictured above) . Further north, you may still see a queen buff-tailed bumblebee stocking up on nectar and looking for a dry, secure place to spend the winter, from which she will emerge in early spring.
  • Common carder bees (Bombus pascuorum) – you may see the odd one or two of these cute brown bees on anything that’s still flowering at this time of year . They will be the queens (15mm) having a final nectar feast before bedding down somewhere snug for the winter months such as a pile of old leaves, or under the garden shed.

How to ID November solitary bees:

  • Ivy mining bee (Colletes hederae) – If you’ve not yet seen an ivy mining bee, there’s a chance you may if ivy is still flowering where you live. But hurry, they are on their last legs. Once the adult female bees have laid all their eggs, and provisioned each one with pollen from the ivy flowers, their six to eight week life cycle is complete. To spot one, look for an insect on the tiny white flowers that has a fluffy ginger thorax, though it may be a duller brown by now. It’s the fluffy thorax that sets the 13mm ivy mining bee apart from honey bees (check the guide above) and hoverflies (See our Is it a bee or a hoverfly? guide.)

How to ID honey bees:

Western honey bees (Apis millefera) – we’ve included these managed bees again because they are still stocking up on nectar to take back to their hive before the winter. They may be on the last ivy flowers and are around 14mm with a slim, tapered gold and black stripey body. They can be easily confused with other stripey insects: the slightly smaller ivy mining bee and the less hairy hoverflies that are still flying.

How to help bees in November:

  1. Cosmos, Penstemon, Fuchsia, salvias, dahlias and Geranium Rozanne are all still flowering but most bees don’t fly in the colder months . So now is the time to make you garden, roof terrace, patio or other outside space bee-friendly for the spring when they will emerge. If you only do one thing, plant those crocus bulbs you’ve been meaning to get in the ground before it gets too hard. Plant them under trees, in lawns and hanging baskets, and pots, as well as flower beds. They will give the early flying bumblebee queens food to fuel their flight next spring.
  2. For bee-friendly November window boxes, Cosmos and Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus), are still blooming. And again, add lots of crocus bulbs for a colourful display in early spring that will feed the bees.
  3. If you’ve decided which tree you could add to your garden to provide bee food, now is the time you can order it and plant a tree, while trees are dormant during late autumn and winter. Also, speak to your council tree officer about planting more bee-friendly trees in local streets and parks. Tree can provide an abundant source of food at times of year when bees may be going hungry like early spring and late summer. For advice on which tree to plant see our Trees for Bees guide.
  4. Divide bee-friendly perennials that have become overcrowded. Find another place for them in the garden or give them away to friends and neighbours to make their gardens more bee-friendly.
  5. Seeds to grow under glass this month including wild cornflower and cowslip. Yellow rattle can be grown outdoors and is useful if you are trying to convert part of your lawn into a wild flower meadow as it supresses the grasses and will allow the wild flowers to grow.
  6. It’s tempting to give your garden a thorough tidy at this time of year after the autumn leaves have fallen. But it’s best to leave your garden a bit messy: piles of leaves and bits of old, rotting wood as queen bumblebees and other insects may find them perfect winter habitat.
  7. Clean out your bee hotels and bee boxes for solitary bees and store the bee cocoons in a dry, cool place over winter. Read here for more information.

There will be plenty more jobs we can do over the winter months to help bees thrive next spring. So, look out for future posts each month.

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

September surprises

You’d probably expect to see less bees flying as summer gives way to autumn, and it’s true that the leafcutters, wool carder bee and many mining bees have gone. But if you have late flowering blooms you may see plenty of bumblebee queens stocking up on nectar before searching for a cosy winter hideaway and common carder bee workers are still out in force. Wooden posts drilled with small holes, may be busy with large-headed resin bees plugging their nests with tiny pieces of grit and stone and gluing it together with tree resin. And if you’re near flowering ivy (yes, mature ivy is smothered in tiny white flowers later this month) don’t miss the Ivy mining bee. This short-lived solitary bee emerges just before the ivy flowers and disappears shortly after. And this month marks 20 years since the ivy bee was first recorded in the UK.

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

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

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

Tips for IDing September bumblebees:

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

How to ID September solitary bees:

  • Ivy mining bee (Colletes hederae) – one of the highlights of autumn is being able to spot an ivy mining bee. To the untrained eye, they can look deceptively like a honeybee, especially as they are both found on mass buzzing around nectar-rich ivy flowers in the south of England and Wales. However, look closely and you’ll see the ivy bee sports a quiff of orange hair on its thorax and its body has much more defined and shiny segmented bands in buff and brown alternate colours. Ivy bees are also a little smaller (10mm) than honeybees (14mm). Ivy bees are the last solitary bee to emerge in the UK. The males first, in late August, or early September, and females a couple of weeks later. They can gather nectar (and the females pollen) from a variety of late flowers before the ivy flowers, but the easiest way to see them is to inspect the tiny white ivy flowers. Ivy bees belongs to the Colletes family, which mine into the ground to make their nests – often next door to each other in very large numbers – and they line their nest with a cellophane-like waterproof and fungus-resistant substance, which is why Colletes are also called plasterer bees. If you have a south-facing slope with light soil you may see hundreds, even thousands, of these bees emerging from their individual nests. It is easy to forget that they are solitary bees. As you can see on this great video from the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. Fascinating fact – the ivy bee was only described as a separate species in 1993 and wasn’t discovered in the UK until 2001 in Dorset. Unlike the other newcomer, the tree bumblebee, ivy bees aren’t thought to have spread to the north of England. But if you see one beyond the Midlands, please report your sighting to BWARS (Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society).
  • Common yellow-faced bee (Hylaeus communis) – these small (5mm) predominately black bees with tiny yellow spots or a triangle on their face has been a familiar sight in gardens since mid summer (if you’ve been able to spot such a diminutive bee). The females have been known to nest in bee hotels/boxes if the hole dimension is small enough. They also plaster their nests and unlike other bees collect pollen in a special stomach, called a crop, and regurgitate it to make a semi-liquid mixed with pollen to feed the larvae. Fascinating fact: They have been observed blowing bubbles of nectar to evaporate the water. This is known as water homeostasis and it concentrates and thickens the nectar/pollen mixture making it tacky like honey. The bees eggs and larvae ‘stick’ to its surface, unlike many other solitary bee larvae which ‘sit’ on top of the more solid pollen mixture. Here is a video of the bubble blowing. (I’m yet to see any of this behaviour myself, so thanks to Nurturing Nature and Api:Cultural for the info and footage).
  • Large-headed resin bee (Heriades truncorum) – I have seen these industrious, small (5mm) solitary black bees with a strange wide head plugging their nests with tiny bits of grit in pre-existing holes in wood. It looks like they are making a mosiac from the grit which they stick together with resin they collect from trees. If you live in the south-east of England (where they are commonly found), and install wooden logs, or a post, drilled with holes a few milimetres wide, you may see them making mosiacs in your garden next summer. They have also been known to use bee hotels/boxes. If you live further north, take a look here at their fascinating behaviour. And with warmer summers across the UK, they could be coming to a green space near you especially where yellow ‘weeds’ such as ragwort, sow thistles and hawkweeds are left to grow.
  • Common furrow bee (Lasioglossum calceatum) – these small solitary bees with an elongated black shiny body have been flying since early spring. So there is no excuse for not recognising them (although I still have problems with ID). The ones you will be seeing now are males and females that were born in July and can fly until October. Fascinating fact: These burrowing bees can display primitively eusocial behaviour, which means the early flying females in warm climates are actually queen bees that in early summer produce workers. These worker bees will collect nectar and pollen for the new females and males that are born later in the summer.

How to help bees in September

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

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

How to ID and help bees in August

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

Tips for IDing August bumblebees:

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

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

How to ID August solitary bees:

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

How to help bees in August:

  1. Plant different flowers for different bees. Hollyhocks, sunflowers, globe thistles are cardoons are all magnets at this time of year for short-tongued bees, along with open-faced dahlias. For the long-tongued bumblebees, black horehound, salvias and buddleia are still flowering, and hemp agrimony is good if you have damp growing conditions. Geranium rozanne and Calamint are still going strong, and Common sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) is starting to produce coppery blooms which are a top attraction for solitary bees according to Rosybee nursery’s fantastically helpful research . Marjoram (Origanum), Anise hyssop, thyme and Bergamot, are all later-flowering herbs that do well in pots in a sunny position.
  2. If you only have a window box, Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus), creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum) and trailing nasturtium and bird’s-foot trefoil are still flowering. Add sedum for late flowers and annuals such as cosmos and snap dragons.
  3. If you let your lawn grow into a wildflower meadow this year, now is a good time to do what’s called the ‘haycut’. Cut to 4cm with a mower, or better still use a scythe or shears. Leave the cuttings for a few days to let seeds drop to the surface of the soil, then rake the cuttings up to reduce soil fertility and encourage more wildflowers next year.
  4. Gather seeds from plants such as poppies, love-in-a-mist, bellflowers and foxgloves. Store them in labelled paper bags in a cool, dry place for sowing or scattering next spring. Or, just scatter them around your garden now and hope for the best.
  5. Leave parts of the garden undisturbed, as ground nesting bumblebee queens may be looking for a snug place to spend the winter.
  6. Ditch the weed killers and pesticides. 
  7.  You can put up bee hotels now, but you probably won’t get any visitors until next spring. You can make a bee hotel. We recommend buying ones that you can clean out in the winter and store the bee cocoons safely in a cold, dry, dark place. We have successfully installed these bee hotels under the south-facing eaves of our garden shed. If you want to see what is happening inside a bee hotel, you could invest in an observation box with a Perspex viewing window such as this award-winning one from Nurturing Nature.
  8. It’s still not too late to drill holes in blocks of wood – 10mm, 8mm, 6mm and 4mm diameters and up to 30 cm deep (although some bees only need a depth of a few centimetres to nest in) – and screw them to a sturdy support. Drill holes in existing structures such as fence posts, or dead trees. Small scissor bees or yellow-faced bees may take up residence.
  9. Create a bank of sand mixed with some clay soil against a south facing wall for mining bees which like to burrow into sand. Create steps in the sand as some bees like to nest vertically and others horizontally. The clay will help the bank to keeps its shape after the bees have tunnelled into it.
  10. Provide a source of water for thirsty bees. This can be a shallow bowl or saucer with stones or pebbles in that the bees can stand on while they are drinking. Bees can’t swim!

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

Bee spotting in July

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

Tips for IDing July bumblebees:

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

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

How to ID July solitary bees:

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

How to help bees in July:

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

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