This week the Great British Bee counts starts so I thought I’d write about my experiences last month starting to learn about and how to identify bees.

As lockdown started to reduce my bird watching and volunteering at RSPB Minsmere I thought, “Now’s a good time to learn more about Bees”. This choice of bees came about by the pleasant April weather we had and seeing so much activity in the garden. I had not realised just how many and similar species of bee we have in these islands, over 270.

My binoculars focus close, but I soon decided for accurate records I needed to use a camera.

For many years I have relied on the ‘Guide to bees of Britain’ field study council publication (available direct or in RSPB Minsmere shop).

The image shows just one of the four sides of images covering 28 species. On the reverse is a lot of useful information about the species shown.

 Once I started taking a real interest and photos, I needed more information. For this I was pointed by a Zoologist friend to Steven Falk’s ‘Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland’ published by Bloomsbury.

Again, a book you could get at the Minsmere shop, but due to lockdown I ordered mine online.

A great site for information is Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society,

Let us look at bees in more detail. We are all generally familiar with the bumblebees and honeybees, but they are but a small fraction of the species of bees out there all around us.

Taxonomically speaking all bees are of the class Insects and order Hymenoptera. In the UK there are 6 families, containing representatives in 29 Genus and 270+ species. The genus Bombus, for example contains all the bumblebees.

Bees require protein in the form of pollen, nectar, or occasionally floral oils. As we learnt at school, one of the main benefits to plants of bees visiting them is to enable cross pollination between flowers of the same type. A flower may be adapted to suit specific species only, have a colour particularly interesting to a certain species and offer the right food source to attract particular bees. Bees forage in three different forms, the most common is visiting a wide range of plants species, second less common those that only visit plants of a single group or genus and least common those that visit only one single plants species.

I am sure you can see the risks to bees if the impact of man reduces the biodiversity in plant life to their survival. Also, various bees need specific conditions to nest, some of which we can help with in the garden.

Let’s, have a look in my garden. I will start with a couple of bumblebees we may well be familiar with.

Above is a Buff-tailed bumblebee and on the right a Red-tailed bumblebee. These two were most likely queens looking for nest sites. The queens are about 16mm in length. The males are about 2/3 the size.

The next groups of bees are all mining bees (click on the image to enlarge).

From left to right the Yellow-legged mining bee, Sandpit mining bee and the last two are short-fringed mining bees. In all three of these species there is a variation in size with sex, but they overlap considerably. All three species are small, with the yellow-legged being the slightly bigger of the 3 at 9mm.

The lifestyle of bees is varied with some of the grouping names giving a hint at their behaviour’s plasterer bees, bumblebees, mining bees, nomad bees, leafcutter, cuckoo bees, etc. Cuckoo bees as you would expect exploit the nests of other bees, cleptoparasitism. Other insects also are parasitoids of bee larvae, e.g. the bee-fly and Ruby tailed wasp.

Although in my garden the biggest predator on bees is the fellow on the right. I’ve had a lot of Bee-fly’s on the left.

Other natural predators of bees include birds, mammals, and other predatory insects such as the bee wolf. When lockdown is fully over come and see them at RSPB Minsmere and the other fascinating species on ‘digger alley’.


The last bee pictured for this blog is one of those cleptoparasites, the Gooden’s nomad bee. I think it is quite a looker considering its behaviour.

This survey was by no means detailed and scientific as it just depended when I was in the garden. I must also admit to having a few shots I do not have enough information on to id species and I missed a few others. At least one other nomad bee got away.

Bees are a fascination group of insects to get to know. My eyes in just one month have been opened to their diversity and the environmental pressures we as man kind are putting them through. If you want to make your garden, window box or whatever more friendly to bees and other wildlife go to the RSPB website at

Please be aware RSPB Minsmere like many places is currently shut. I miss it too.

Do not forget to send your records of bee sighting into BWAS, website address above. Survey instructions are on their site.

Any mistakes are mine.

Take care, be safe

Phil Riley