Did you know?
- A single bee can visit up to 5,000 flowers every day.
- When flying, a bee’s wings beat up to 230 times per second.
- Bees sleep and may even dream!
- All bees have five eyes - two compound eyes and three ‘ocelli’, and can see ultra-violet light.
- The oldest known bee fossil is around 73 million years old, but fossil nests have been discovered dating to around 100 million years old.
- Female bees can selectively lay male or female eggs, and only female eggs are fertilised.
- Male bees cannot sting.
- There are around 250 species of bee in the UK - 24 Bumble Bee species, one Honey Bee species and the rest are all Solitary Bees species.
What are the different types of bees?
In the UK, it is mostly bumblebees and honeybees that are truly social (Eusocial) species. Each colony comprises a queen and a caste of smaller, sterile females called workers. The queen lays all the eggs and the workers care for the larvae, with the older workers foraging for nectar and pollen.
Honey Bee colonies have a complex infrastructure with many structural and behavioural differences between the queen and the worker bees. The main role of the honey bee queen is to produce eggs. Colonies can produce over 100,000 workers. The workers produce a large amount of honey which can enable the colony to survive through the winter, in the absence of other nectar resources.
Unlike bumble bees, honey bee males are produced in the spring and, after mating with the new queens, these males will be expelled or killed by the workers.
In spring, bumble bee queens emerge to forage on flowers and search for suitable nest sites. These include old mouse burrows, cavities in hedge banks and compost heaps or above ground in grass tussocks. The queen creates a small mound of pollen and wax on which she lays her eggs. She also creates little wax pots to store nectar in, which she drinks from while sitting on the eggs to incubate them. These pots of nectar may also be used during bad weather.
During late summer or autumn, males and new queens are produced. They fly off to mate with bees from other colonies. At the end of the colony cycle, the queen, workers and males will die, with only the new queens overwintering to start the cycle all over again the following year.
Over 90% of our bee species are solitary (200+ species in the UK), and although these solitary species may often nest in dense populations, each nest is the work of a single female.
The offspring of those solitary bees which are active in the spring, complete their development in the late summer and overwinter as adults - emerging the following year. Offspring of the later-appearing species, overwinter as full grown larvae and mature the following spring.
There is a selection of common solitary bees that can be found in Britain’s gardens. These can be formed into two groups, Mining Bees and Cavity Nesting Bees.
Cavity Nesting Bees
Cavity nesting bees don’t excavate nests of their own. These species, such as masked bees, masons, leafcutters and carders, use existing cavities. This may be a hollow plant stem or beetle borings in dead wood. Some species of mason bees may even use empty snail shells, dividing them into compartments with walls of mud or chewed leaves.
Mining bees excavate nest tunnels and cells in the ground. Most species prefer light, sandy, often disturbed soils but some have preferences for firmer clay and some also nest in vertical clay or chalky cliffs.
Some species may share a single entrance, where each female will enter and go to her own main nesting tunnel.
Some bees have evolved to parasitise the nest of another bee. A female cuckoo bee will lay an egg on the pollen store of another bee’s nest. This egg will hatch before that of the host and the larva will eat the host egg and the pollen. Because cuckoo bees do not need to collect pollen, they have no pollen sacks, baskets or brushes.
The importance of bee conservation
Bees are the principal pollinators of flowering plants and, as such, play a crucial role in food production. Without bees many fruits, vegetables and other produce would not be produced and many wild flowers would disappear from the countryside.
Despite their crucial role in pollination, bees are declining across Europe with bumble bee populations in Britain declining massively in the last 50 years. One factor is the loss of many wildflowers in the countryside due to intensive farming methods and also the use of insecticides. Honey bee numbers have not decreased globally, the number of honey bee hives around the world is still increasing. Many native, wild bees are under threat however, including several species in the UK.
How can I help bees in my own garden?
All bees feed on nectar and pollen, so providing a wide variety of plants, shrubs and trees that flower at different times throughout the seasons is one of the best ways to help bees and other nectar feeding insects, providing them with a constant food supply. You can also provide nesting habitat and leave some wild areas undisturbed in your garden.
What should I plant in my garden to attract bees?
Many popular varieties of flowers have been hybridised for features that benefit gardeners – such as disease resistance, enhanced colour, flower size and bigger or longer blooms. The result of this is a reduction in the nectar and pollen produced by these hybrids. So, where possible, it is good to offer native plants for bees.
Top flowering plants for bees include: aubretia, alysum, aster, balsam, broom, buddleia, busy lizzie, candytuft, clover, coneflower, cornflower, crocus, dandelion, hebe, honeysuckle, hyacinth, hydrangea, lavender, laveteria, leopards bane, ling heather, lobelia, lupins, marjoram, michaelmas daisy, mint, oregano, phlox, poppy, primrose, scabious, sedum, sweet rocket, snowdrop, tree poppy, thyme, viburnum, wallflower, single flowered varieties of flowering cherries, almonds & apricot.
- Plant a range of flowering plants that flower at different times of the year
- Plant varieties that have a mixture of deep and shallow flower cups to accommodate different species of bee.
Habitats and Nesters for Bees
Bees need a variety of habitats for nesting, and in the absence of natural nest sites, an artificial nesting site can be offered.
Wildlife World produces a range of bee habitats for both bumble bees and solitary bee species, offering purpose-built nesting habitats for different species
Useful Bee Contacts
The Bumble Bee Conservation Trust – www.bumblebeeconservation.org.uk
The Beekeepers Association
The National Beekeeping Centre,
National Agricultural Centre,
Tel: 02476 696679