On the few bright sunny days we had earlier this spring, it’s been delightful to spot queen bees bumbling around searching for early flowers like the blackthorn blossom. One of my ambitions for the year was to get to grips with bee identification, but alongside many of you, I’m now working from home and my access to nature is rather restricted. But, if you do have a garden then why not take my bee challenge…how many different bees can you find in your garden (or in your local green space whilst on your daily dose of exercise).
I’d love to hear how you’ve got on and see any photos that you’ve taken…perhaps I can try and improve my own skills on the pictures you send in?
The best starting point for your challenge is the large, fuzzy, bumblebees – whilst there are 25 different kinds, in your garden it is likely that it will be one of the ‘big 8’. Taking a look at the colours of their tail and the pattern of coloured bands will help you to narrow things down. At this time of year there will only be female bumblebees which also makes identification a little simpler. Try the great online guide from the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.
Bombus pratorum - early bumblebee by Pete Hughes
The queen bumblebee has been hibernating alone and underground all winter, using up her reserves of energy. She awakens as temperatures rise and goes off in search of nectar, which she drinks to regain her strength. She then begins her search for a suitable nest site...an old mouse hole, under a garden shed, a tussock of grass or even a bird box might do well. Nest site chosen, our queen begins to collect pollen, forms a mound of pollen and wax in her nest then lays her first brood of eggs. Next, she gathers nectar and stores it in a wax pot that she has created, positioning the pot in front of her mound.
It’s time to incubate the eggs, so she will sit atop her mound, shivering her muscles to keep warm and sipping from her pot of nectar to keep herself going. After a few days the white grub-like larvae will hatch and will feed on pollen and nectar collected by the queen. After two weeks they will spin a cocoon and develop into adult bees. This first brood are worker bees – all females – and they’ll carry out work inside and outside the nest; some are guards, others are cleaners, many are foragers. Much of the nectar will be brought back to feed the colony and the next batch of offspring. Once her workers have hatched the queen will not leave her nest – she’ll remain inside laying more eggs and bossing her workers around!
In late summer the nest produces new queens and male bees who leave the nest and search for mates from other colonies. Once they’ve mated the new queens will feed busily on pollen and nectar ready to hibernate and start a new nest in the spring. The old queen and her nest will come to an end as summer turns to autumn.
Occasionally, a bumblebee nest is invaded by a cuckoo bumblebee who will use the nest of our true queen to raise her own offspring. The female cuckoo bee will enter the nest and hide and eventually she may kill the resident queen and lay her own eggs. The worker bees then unwittingly raise the offspring of the cuckoo bumblebee – sneaky!
Whilst bumblebees might be the most conspicuous – especially in early spring – you may be surprised to know that there are around 270 bee species in the UK. There’s just 1 honeybee, around 25 bumblebees and the rest are known as solitary bees – a group which includes mason, mining and leafcutter bees.
Bryony mining bee - photo from Andy Jones
Solitary bees don’t live in a social family structure – there are no queens or workers, just males and females that mate. The female lays eggs in individual nests, the eggs hatch and eat a cake of pollen and nectar left for them by their mother then spend the best part of a year in the nest before emerging the following spring or summer. Some species of solitary bees nest in aggregations giving the appearance of a social colony – the south facing sandy slopes on our heathland are a great example of this, covered with volcano-shaped mounds and swarming with green-eyed flower bees, pantaloon bees (with furry ginger legwarmers) and ashy mining bees.
Green eyed flower bee by Chris Prince
All of these fabulous bees are wonderful pollinators and play a vital role – around 84% of European crops and 80% of wildflowers rely on insect pollinators. Gardening for bees can be rewarding in every sense – chose plants with different flower shapes and plan nectar and pollen sources throughout the year. You can create bumblebee nesters and bee hotels. One of the most likely occupants of the latter are red mason bees – a lovely rust-coloured, furry bee that pollinates apples. 1 red mason bee can pollinate the same amount of apple blossom as 125 honeybees. It’s been lovely to watch them busy around the bee hotels in our courtyard garden at the nature reserve in previous years, watching them sealing the bamboo tubes with damp mud. You might also see leafcutter bees using them as we did:
There are some great tips for encouraging wildlife into your garden on our website
and if you’ve got children at home with you try out our Wild Challenge activities which include building a bug hotel
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