Luke Phillips is usually busy promoting all the amazing things you can see and do on RSPB reserves, but during lockdown he took the time to get to know the busy bees that were keeping his veg patch going...Fast forward two months and whilst his garden might look different, the bounty of bees is still plentiful!

"Here we are in mid-July and my earlier suspicions about having an abundance of courgette and tomatoes has come true, although my peppers haven’t really done anything… But it's not just the veggie patch that's seen a growth spurt - my appreciation for my garden bees has too! I've been adding extra cream to my superbly sweet strawberries which were made possible by them as a fitting tribute.


I’ve also taken much more time to notice bee’s around the wider countryside now I’m not limited to spending time in my own back garden. My biggest delight was discovering a little colony of sharp-tailed bees in a bank by the coast near my home a few weeks ago. There were a few dozen burrowing into the ground to lay their eggs. They were totally fascinating to watch and I’m so pleased that my experiences during lockdown have opened my eyes to our beautiful busy bee’s wherever I happen to be wandering.

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

  • Garden bumblebee 
  • Buff-tailed bumblebee
  • White-tailed bumblebee

  • Early bumblebee
  • Red-tailed bumblebee 

  • Common carder bumblebee with its overall brown colouration.

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:

  1. Keep an eye on your bee hotel, if you have one. If the holes are filled in, then there should be solitary bees developing inside
  2. Look out for bees spending a lot of time around the leaves of plants like lamb’s ear. Wool carder bees “comb” wool fibres from the leaves and use them as nesting material. They’re easy to spot thanks to the yellow spots down both of their sides
  3. Noticed any strange cut outs in the leaves in your garden? Or are the holes in your bee hotel filled in with green? Then you’ve got leaf cutter 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:

  1. I’ve got ten little lamb’s ear plants growing in my greenhouse that are almost ready to go out and help those wool carder bees make their nest holes
  2. I’m going to keep planting as many nectar rich, native plants as I can so there’s plenty of food for the bees to eat
  3. I’m going to give those solitary bees a helping hand by popping up a bee hotel.

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)

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