Tag Archives: wild bees

Not the Chelsea Flower Show

Less than two miles from the Chelsea Flower Show, I am cultivating a very different kind of ‘garden’. It’s a patch of land on a luxury housing development that was so densely planted with evergreen ornamental shrubs, and overrun with brambles and buddleia that no light could get in until the developers, St George, gave us the go ahead last July to turn it into a bee haven.

I know bees love brambles and buddleia, but to boost biodiversity we had to clear much of it to give other wild flowers a chance to flourish and to provide nesting sites for solitary bees.

I wrote a blog at the start of this project on Chelsea Creek.

So how is it looking 9 months on?

We had no idea what may grow, so I was pleased to find a pretty, yellow daisy has sprung up all over the sunny part of site. It turns out to be Oxford Ragwort, (Senecio squalidus), introduced from Sicily, which is known to colonise disturbed soil along railway lines. And our site backs onto the Overground. It is harmless, unlike Common Ragworth (Senecio jacobaea), which is thought to be harmful to livestock. (Not that they are any horses here!) I didn’t see any bees or other pollinators on it, but according to Buglife, it is a good nectar source for insects.

There are a few patches of dandelions –  excellent food for many small mining and furrow bees – lots of the delicate, pink Herb-robert (Geranium robertianum) – a foodplant and nectar-source for many invertebrates including bees, hoverflies and the barred carpet moth – and stinging nettles that caterpillars of the small tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies use as foodplants. I saw some ladybirds, which feast on aphids that shelter among the nettles.

Lots of grass has grown and unfortunately Goosegrass (Galium Aparine), also known as Sticky Grass or Sticky Willy is taking over.  My research found that although its tiny flowers have been observed being visited by a wide range of insects, including various flies, small wasps, Lepidoptera, ants, bees (both short- and long-tongued) and beetles, it has also been noted that insects visit flowers only “sparingly.” Additionally, self-pollination is common due to the minute structure of the flower—“when the stigmas mature… they always touch the anthers.”

One area I’ve manged to keep clear of it, is where I planted dwarf comfrey and balm-leaved deadnettle in July. And I’m delighted to report that these patches of flowers are doing well, flowering and attracting hairy-footed flower bees and common carder bees which I was very excited to observe.

The Lambs’ Ear (above right) is also thriving in a sunnier part, so I hope to see Wool carder bees in July when they collect the hairs on the underside of the velvety leaves.

Other plants, including Rosebay willowherb, Greater Knapweed and Big betony seem to have been swallowed up by the grasses, or strangled by the sticky willy, and neither Hollyhocks, nor Vipers bugloss have yet emerged from the seeds I sowed.

We left some of the Mexican orange blossom (Choisya) shrubs, the hawthorn and holly trees, which all adorned with white flowers. I hope to see a lovely little hawthorn mining bee (Andrena chrysosceles), on it, or the dandelions, one day.

As yet, no bees appear to have checked into the bee hotels, wooden logs with holes drilled different diameters, or the sand tower block that we’ve created for them, but it’s early days.

So what next?

I planted four Common Bugloss (Anchusa officinalis), which I bought from Bee Happy Plants. It’s website says “Research points to the concentration of sugars in its nectar (61%) as being considerably higher than another member of this family also popular with bees (Symphytum officinale). Similar, though much hardier, than its annual cousin Borage. This is an ideal subject to allow to self-seed in your wild garden (each plant producing many hundreds of seeds).” It adds: “Not to be confused with its cousin Green Alkanet (Pentaglottis sempervirens) which is a well-known weed, and has perhaps also given Anchusa officinalis a ‘weed’ label by some.”

But the bees adore Green Alkanet, so it gave me great pleasure to plant two seedlings transplanted from my garden.

The Guelder rose (Viburnum opulus) it about to flower and hopefully the Bastard Balm (Melittis melissophyllum). I will return in May to clear the Sticky Willy, to observe the bees and other pollinators visiting our rewilding project, see if any have taken up residence, and observe what else is emerging through the grass…

Disclaimer: I’ve used one of Penny Metal’s photos of a Male hairy-footed flower bee on Comfrey (above) as it is so much better than my blurry pics

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.

London Bee Tours 2022

Clockwise from top left: Common carder bee; buff-tailed bumblebee; leafcutter bee; honey bee; Regent’s Park apiary; Regents Park Honey (Bee Photo credits: Penny Metal)

Seeing bees in Regent’s Park

Last summer, we ran a bee tour for the Friends’ of Regent’s Park. On a warm August morning around 20 friends turned up to discover the bumblebees and solitary bees foraging in the flower beds. Equipped with our Bees to See guide, they were surprised at how many bees were buzzing in the bushes. They quickly learned how to identify common carder bees, furrow bees and buff-tailed bumblebees.

“I walk through this park practically every day, admiring the colours and scents of the flowers, but I have never before noticed the bees. Now, I will always look out for them.”

said one participant

The group also visited the bee hotels that we installed in the Regent’s Park allotment garden where red mason bees laid their eggs earlier in the summer. Here, they heard about the honeybees living in the park’s secret apiary, how these bees make honey and sampled the delicious, raw produce just harvested from the hives.

The 3-hour tour was such as success, that we have decided to run a similar tour once a month during spring and summer for anyone interested in bees.

For dates and prices of our London Bee Tours and how to book for yourself, or as a gift for friends and family, please click 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…

Leave a reply

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

Tips for IDing November bumblebees:

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

How to ID November solitary bees:

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

How to ID honey bees:

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

How to help bees in November:

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

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

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

Fewer bee spotting opportunities

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

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

Tips for IDing October bumblebees:

  • Common carder bees (Bombus pascuorum) – no confusing this brown fluffy bee with the tree bumblebees this month, as the latter aren’t flying anymore. So, any round, hairy bees with a ginger thorax or a faded ginger/brown thorax is sure to be a common carder bee. Despite its English name, which derives from its behaviour of teasing out (carder is the old fashioned word for teasing out) bits of moss to cover its nest, it is a social bumblebee, hence its Latin Bombus tag. They can be most easily seen this month on Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’, Michaelmas daisies and salvia ‘hot lips’ in my garden. You’ll most likely still be seeing workers, new queens and males who all look very similar. The queens are the largest (15mm) and the workers the smallest (11mm).
  • Red-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lapidarius) – one of my main disappointments of bee spotting in 2021 is how few of these gorgeous velvety black bees with their firery red bottoms I’ve seen in my garden or local parks in east London. But some people have reported an abundance of them. Anyway, be on the look out in these last few weeks for the large queens (17mm) who will now be mated and will be feeding on nectar to build up their fat reserves to see them through their dormant state during winter.
  • Buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) – these white bottomed bumblebees with golden stripes are so successful that if you live in the south of the UK you are likely to see this species flying all year. This month, the huge queens (18mm) may be supping on ivy nectar alongside the other bees. In the south, they will be looking for a nest to produce a brood that lives throughout the winter. Further north, they are more likely stocking up on nectar before their dormant period and will appear early next spring to nest.

How to ID October solitary bees:

Ivy mining bee (Colletes hederae) – If there is one thing you should do before the end of the bee spotting season, it’s to try and see an ivy mining bee. Why? Here are ten reasons why ivy mining bees are so special:

  1. They are the last solitary bee to emerge in the year.
  2. They were only described as a separate species in 1993 in Germany. According to bee expert, Ted Benton, the lateness of this discovery may in part be explained by their similarity to two other late-flying close relatives: Heather mining bees (Colletes succinctus) and Sea Aster bees (Colletes halophilus).
  3. They were first discovered in England just 20 years ago, in an ivy bush in Dorset in 2001.
  4. There is a real thrill when you see one for the first time, because it means you have learned to distinguish its features (gingery pile on its thorax and segmented shiny bands on its abdomen) from the honeybee which is a bit bigger.
  5. They only fly for around six weeks, when the ivy is flowering, so they seem more special than bees that fly all summer.
  6. If you see one north of Shropshire, Staffordshire, Norfolk or south Wales you can contribute to a mapping project to show their spread across Britain.
  7. They nest in huge aggregations of thousands of bees, making burrows in loose soil and sandy banks. It’s an amazing sight watching them emerge in late August/early September. I’ve never seen it, but I hope to create a sand bank somewhere next year that may become a nesting site. This video I shared last month gives a flavour.
  8. Their symbiotic relationship with ivy – emerging to feed on its nectar and pollen and pollinating it at the same time – really demonstrates the connection between bees and flowering plants. This relationship has evolved over 60 million years.
  9. Watching them at work helps to connect us with nature on our doorstep. We don’t need to visit the ‘countryside’, or to far flung places, to see nature in action.
  10. They are also called plasterer bees, because like all bees with the Latin name Colletes, they line the nests they create in their burrows with a cellophane-like waterproof and fungus-resistant substance that they secret. Isn’t that amazing!

Common furrow bee (Lasioglossum calceatum) – these small black elongated shiny bees have been flying all summer. I have to admit I’m still not confident about IDing them. I think it’s the fact they are small and black, whereas I still expect my bees to be more colourful and fluffy. But I am getting better. My rule of thumb is that if it’s a small black insect with a long body on a flower late in the summer or in autumn, chances are it will be this bee. I know the yellow legs in the photo above, should help, and there are some band markings on the body, but I find these hard to see when it’s only 5.5mm.

How to help bees in October:

  1. There are still a few things flowering in the garden this month: Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’, Michaelmas daisies and annual Cosmos grown from seed for short tongued or medium tongued bees; Penstemon, Fuchsia, Salvia ‘hot lips’ and other salvias for long-tongues bees. The shrubby blue Caryopteris x clandonensis (Bluebeard) and red Perscicaria are both visited by bees, and of course, Geranium Rozanne is still flowering. But Ivy is probably the most valuable nectar and pollen source at this time of year, so if you have any mature, flowering ivy don’t prune it until after it’s flowered.
  2. For bee-friendly October window boxes, try Cosmos and Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus), both will bloom until the first frosts.
  3. Think about which tree you could add to your garden to provide bee food, or speak to your council tree officer about planting more bee-friendly trees in streets and parks. It’s best to plant trees during the winter when they are dormant.
  4. If you only do one thing for bees this month, plant as many crocus bulbs as you can in window boxes, pots, hanging baskets, flower beds and lawns, as they will provide much-need early pollen and nectar for bumblebee queens when they start flying next spring.
  5. October is a good time to divide perennials that have become overcrowded. Find another place for them in the garden or give them away to friends and neighbours to make their gardens more bee-friendly.
  6. If planting conditions are still good this month (not too cold and wet), it’s not too late to plant wallflowers. There are also some seeds that can be grown under glass this month including wild cornflower and cowslip. Yellow rattle can be grown outdoors and is useful if you are trying to convert part of your lawn into a wild flower meadow as it supresses the grasses and will allow the wild flowers to grow.
  7. Leave parts of the garden untidy as queen bumblebees may have found a nook or cranny to spend the winter and don’t wish to be disturbed.
  8. Clean out your bee hotels and store the bee cocoons in a dry, cool place over winter. Read here for more information.

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

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

Pantaloon Bee – one to see on holiday

If you’re by sand dunes this summer on the south, or south west coast, or Wales look out for the Pantaloon bee (Dasypoda hirtipes). This fluffy solitary bee excavates her burrow using those oversized pollen brushes that make her look like she’s wearing pantaloons on her back legs.

How does she excavate her burrow? Well, here’s a fascinating video showing you.

She has also been spotted on sandy brownfield sites in towns and cities.

More information about the Pantaloon bee here.

WILD BEES, by John Clare (1820s)

Which bees can you identify from this poem?

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

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

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

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

Answers:

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

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

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

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

Bee-spotting and helping wild bees in May

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

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

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

How to ID May bumblebees:

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

How to help bumblebees in May:

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

How to ID May solitary bees:

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

How to help solitary bees in May:

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

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

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

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

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