Luke Phillips is usually busy promoting all the amazing things you can see and do on RSPB reserves, but over the last few weeks he's been taking the time to get to know the busy bees that are keeping his veg patch going...
"This spring I’ve gone plant crazy. I’ve got far too many tomato plants, peppers coming out of my ears and I’m probably going to be eating courgettes for the entire autumn, but all this gardening has got me bigging up the bees! They’ll be ensuring my plants produce the goods later this year so I will have a lot to thank them for in a few months’ time.
The gorgeous weather has also meant sunbathing has almost turned into a hobby. But I get a bit bored just lying there so to occupy my time, I’ve been watching the bees buzzing about the garden doing their thing.
Now I love my insects and I knew there were over 2500 of moth species in the UK and over 4000 types of beetle. But the fact we’ve got over 270 species of bee was news to me! Fancy finding out a little more about who you might spot in your garden? Let’s get started…
Bees for beginners
First up – the honey bee. These are the classic bees that live in a hive, produce honey and have stripy bodies. And even better? There’s only one kind of honey bee so nice and easy to get our heads around!
What’s next? The humble bumble. Big, fluffy, buzzy and stripy. Bumblebees live similar lives to their honey counterparts in that they live and work together to make a home and look after the next generation. They just build a nest rather than a hive.
Things get a little more complicated from here on out though. There’s actually 27 species found in the UK, but don’t fret! They tend to have really helpful names that either describe how they look or where you might find them.
Top (and easiest) bumblebees to spot right now
New bee on the block…
Insects are having a tough time right now and we’re seeing large declines in lots of species. But, some species are actually moving to new places and some are even expanding their ranges. And one of those species might just be one you spot in the garden. I give you the tree bumblebee!
You wouldn’t have seen one of these beauties in the UK before 2001, but as I’m writing this blog there is a nest of them just outside, in a small gap in the roof. Look out for its distinctive ginger, black and white combination. It often nests well off the ground unlike other bumblebees that nest underground or close to ground level. Keep your eyes peeled for them checking out your empty nest boxes!
Best of the rest
Now what about the other 200 plus species…
I must admit that this is where things get really tricky and even though I love my insects, getting my head around all of them isn’t something I’ve managed to do. So we’re going to keep things nice and simple.
Those remaining 200+ species are collectively known as solitary bees. Instead of living in social groups like their honey and bumble cousins, they live almost completely solitary lives. (Cue Bridget Jones singing “All by myself” on her sofa.) Females will dig a hole or use a cavity in which she’ll lay her eggs in little cells that they create from all sorts of material from mud to bits of leaf. Within these cells they leave small deposits of pollen and that’s pretty much job done! The eggs then develop and hatch out, usually the following year.
But if there’s more than 200 of them, how can we tell what we’re looking at? Well rather handily these solitary bees often fill niches whether it be feeding on a particular flower or making nest holes in very specific types of soil. One species even uses old vacant snail shells! How amazing it that?
Here’s our top three signs to spotting if you have solitary bees:
Later in the year, check out any ivy you’ve got in the garden. See if you can spot a bee with an almost wasp-like bottom half and hairy shoulders and head. Got it? That’ll be an ivy bee!
Bring on the bees!
I owe my bees a lot. My veggie patch would be rubbish without them! So to pay them back, here’s what I’m going to do:
We’d love to know what bees you spot in your garden and what you’re doing to give these buzzing beauties a boost."
Image credits: Honey bee, buff-tailed bumblebee, common carder, tree bumblebee by Sue Kennedy (rspb-images.com). White-tailed bumblebee by David Woodfall (rspb-images.com). Garden bumblebee by Richard Packwood (rspb-images.com). Red-tailed bumblebee and ivy bee by Roger Tidman (rspb-images.com). Early bumblebee by Richard Bedford (rspb-images.com). Leaf cutter bee by Richard Bowler (rspb-images.com)
We spend 90% of net income on conservation, public education and advocacy
The RSPB is a member of BirdLife International. Find out more about the partnership
© The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is a registered charity: England and Wales no. 207076, Scotland no. SC037654