These children of the sun which summer brings As pastoral minstrels in her merry train Pipe rustic ballads upon busy wings And glad the cotters’ quiet toils again. The white-nosed bee that bores its little hole In mortared walls and pipes its symphonies, And never absent couzen, black as coal, That Indian-like bepaints its little thighs, With white and red bedight for holiday, Right earlily a-morn do pipe and play And with their legs stroke slumber from their eyes. And aye so fond they of their singing seem That in their holes abed at close of day They still keep piping in their honey dreams, And larger ones that thrum on ruder pipe Round the sweet smelling closen and rich woods Where tawny white and red flush clover buds Shine bonnily and bean fields blossom ripe, Shed dainty perfumes and give honey food To these sweet poets of the summer fields; Me much delighting as I stroll along The narrow path that hay laid meadow yields, Catching the windings of their wandering song. The black and yellow bumble first on wing To buzz among the sallow’s early flowers, Hiding its nest in holes from fickle spring Who stints his rambles with her frequent showers; And one that may for wiser piper pass, In livery dress half sables and half red, Who laps a moss ball in the meadow grass And hoards her stores when April showers have fled; And russet commoner who knows the face Of every blossom that the meadow brings, Starting the traveller to a quicker pace By threatening round his head in many rings: These sweeten summer in their happy glee By giving for her honey melody.
Male Hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes) – white nosed/make their nests in mortared walls/and make a high pitched buzzing noise
Female Hairy-footed flower bee – black as coal/collects different coloured pollen on her thighs/and her darting flight looks as if she is playing.
Buff-tailed bumblebee queen (Bombus terrestris) – first bee to fly in early spring/feeds on the willow catkins/nests in holes in the ground.
Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) – russet coloured, very common because it’s not a fussy eater and will visit many flowers to collect nectar and pollen).
I have to thank professor Jeff Ollerton for introducing me to the poetry of John Clare. Jeff was writing in the April issue of British Wildlife and described the Common carder bee in Clare’s words as the “russet commoner” which I loved. I found the poem and was pleasantly surprised to find that I recognised two other bee species from Clare’s poetic descriptions.
Another bee he describes as “in livery dress half sables and half red, Who laps a moss ball in the meadow grass”, I learned from Jeff’s blog must be the much rarer Red-shanked Carder bee (Bombus ruderarius) because it is the only the only red and black bumblebee in the UK that makes a mossy nest above ground.
This month, hopefully you will see at least four bumblebee species, two types of mining bee, red mason bees and the now familiar hairy-footed flower bee. Her not so familiar cuckoo, the mourning bee, is also around.
You will continue to see some of the bumblebees you first spotted in March and April, but instead of queens you will now be seeing the smaller worker bees. Worker honeybees will also be busy foraging on flowering trees and plants. (Honeybees are managed, so not included on this list.)
Urban Bees teamed up with amazing insect photographer, Penny Metal, to create month-by-month visual guides to help you spot the most common wild bees in our parks and gardens.
How to ID May bumblebees:
The garden bumblebee(Bombus hortorum) is distinguishable from other large white tailed bumblebees by the black skull cap she appears to be wearing trimmed with bands of yellow. The best way to see her is flying into foxglove flowers. As one of our long-tongued bumblebees she is able to get to the nectar at the base of the tubular bell. She usually emerges unrecognisably cloaked in pollen grains. (Other bees cheat by making a hole in the base of the flower so their shorter tongues can reach the nectar.)
The red-tailed bumblebee, female, (Bombus lapidaries) has to be the easier bumblebee to spot with her big black fluffy body and striking red tail. You may have seen her already this year on dandelions. She likes yellow flowers so I’m going to keep an eye out when the laburnum trees are drooping heavy with pea-like yellow flowers.
The common carder bee(Bombus pascuorum) is one of my favourites. Despite the common name, which derives from the old word “to tease out fibres” – which she does from plants for nesting materials – she is a bumblebee (Bombus in Latin). I like her, partly because she is ubiquitous from spring to autumn on many garden flowers so you will definitely get to know her, and she is less flashy than other bumblebees with her small, round body and gingery brown colouring.
Tree bumblebees(Bombus hypnorum) with their ginger thorax, black body and white tail could be the new occupants of your blue tit box if the chicks have fledged. Be prepared for noisy buzzing outside their new home as gangs of males compete to mate with virgin queens. Tree bumblebee colonies vacant at the end of the summer, so the bird box will be empty for the blue tit family next spring.
How to help bumblebees in May:
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).
It’s not too late to put up a blue tit box for the tree bumblebee to nest in.
Buy and plant alliums, catmint and cotoneaster from garden centres to provide food this month for the short-tongued bumblebees. Foxgloves, honeysuckles and thistles for the long tongued bumblebees.
It’s not too late to grow from seed annuals that provide late summer bee forage such as sunflowers, cosmos and Anise hyssop.
Hairy-footed flower bees (Anthophora plumipes) have been flying for a couple of months now so you are probably becoming accustomed to seeing them darting noisily around patches of comfrey and wallflowers with their tongues outstretched. Many of the black females will have mated and are now busy collecting pollen on their hairy hind legs for their young.
The Mourning bee(Melecta albifrons) is a fluffy grey/black colour edged with lateral white spots . Despite their cute appearance, they are the hairy-footed flower bees’ cuckoo. The female lays her eggs in the already made nest and when her larvae hatch they steal the pollen collected by the hairy-footed flower bee for her own babies. A quarter of the 20,000 plus bee species on the planet are cuckoos. Their appearance means that the host bee is healthy.
Red mason bees(Osmia bicornis) have been delayed checking out of bee hotels by the cold weather in many parts of the UK. But now these gingery, round-bottomed bees, a little smaller (12mm) than a honey bee (14mm), should be mating. Afterwards the females will find clean tubes in bee hotels, or holes in masonry, to nest and they will collect bare soil to carry home to divide each tube into 6 or 7 individual birthing chambers where they will lay an egg. They are also foraging on fruit tree blossom or garden flowers like Alkanet for pollen for their offspring to eat when the eggs hatch into larvae later in the summer.
Ashy mining bees (Andrena cineraria) are still around, so – if like me – you’ve not see one yet there is still time. A smallish black and grey stripped bee (around 10mm), they nest in bare ground, footpaths and tracks. Although solitary, they nest next door to each other in dense aggregations, so hundreds can emerge at the same time. But don’t worry, solitary bees don’t sting and are short-lived (around 2 months)!
The short-fringed mining bee (Andrena dorsata) is widespread in southern England. Sporting a reddish-brown fluffy pile on her thorax, a smooth black body with thin stripes, and a hairy dorsal fringe on the top of her back leg, the female should hopefully be easier to identify on dandelions and daisies than some of the other small, brown mining bees.
How to help solitary bees in May:
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.
Leave old mortar untouched as hairy-footed flower bees and red mason bees may be nesting here.
It’s not too late to install bee-hotels in a warm location at least a metre off the ground, where red mason bees can check-in and lay their eggs. We like to use these type of bee hotels with the cardboard tubes. You can take the cocoons out of in the winter and clean them.
Leave a patch of bare earth for mining bees to burrow and where red mason bees can collect soil to make partition walls between birthday chambers and to plug their nests.
Don’t mow the lawn to let dandelions and clovers grow.
Ditch the weed killers and pesticides.
For information on IDing the early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum), the large buff-tailedbumblebee(Bombus terrestris), the white-tailed bumblebee(Bombus lucorum), the foxy-coloured tawny mining bee(Andrena fulva ), and the wasp-like Gooden’s nomad bee (Nomada goodenianna), go to the Bees to See in April blog here.
Honey bee (Apis mellifera) and bee-fly(Bombylius major) info is in the Bees to See in March blog here.
Sign up to our new monthly newsletter, The Buzz, to get top bee tips sent to your inbox.