All about bees

Wild bees are pretty amazing creatures.  I already knew that – I have the books sitting on my bookshelf and in my wishlist to prove it.  But I attended a talk this week that gave me even more reasons to love bees and, hopefully the inspiration to go out and study them in the local area (as there are not that many records for this part of the country).

Most bees are excavators, although some nest in holes in walls (or bee hotels) and some make their nest in empty snail shells (they hide these under sticks they collect – how cool is that?).  They provision a cell with pollen, lay an egg and seal it up, then leave more pollen and an egg and onwards until they reach the front.  Girl bees will be at the back with more pollen (because they are bigger larvae and bees) and boy bees at the front so they emerge first and are ready when the girls emerge.

One species of furrow bee is sometimes a solitary bee and sometimes a social bee – in the north they are solitary and in the south they are more likely to be social – the queen producing workers to forage whilst she guards the nest.

One solitary bee , Ceratina cyanea, (which unfortunately doesn’t seem to live in Northamptonshire) is fairly unique in a) living in bramble stems and b) surviving the winter as an adult.

Bees also have their parasites and cuckoos – in fact 27% of bee species in this country are brood parasites – that means they take over the host’s nest rather than killing and eating the larvae (although the queen often gets killed).  Fortunately, the parasites are rarer than their hosts – otherwise they would soon wipe themselves out.  One set of brood parasites are the Nomada bees (that look a lot like wasps) – these wasp-like bees are about the same size as their hosts and find them by smelling their nests.  I took these pictures of the Ashy Mining bee and its associated Nomada parasite at work.

Ashy Mining Bee
Nomada Bee – Parasite of Ashy Mining Bee

There are lots more amazing facts that make solitary and bumble bees worth studying, but I don’t want to reveal all their secrets.

130 species have been recorded in Northamptonshire, but only 80 have been recorded since 2000.  Some may have been lost, mainly due to land use change, but some may still be here just waiting to be found.  Now where’s my guide book and sweep net?

The importance of urban green spaces

There has been a lot of debate about green belt land and building on brown field sites, but the importance of urban spaces is often overlooked.   A recently published paper by M.H. Surohi e al looked at the populations of bees (solitary and eusocial, the latter being where a non-reproductive individuals care for the young of a single female as is the case with bumblebees) in an urban centre – in this case Northampton, the town where I work.

They surveyed several sites over the flight periods of the bees (March to October) within 500 metres of the geographical centre of the town (aka All Saints Church) and also some sites slightly further out that were local nature reserves or orchards.  Their results were somewhat surprising (especially if you know how built up the middle of Northampton is) and found 48 species of bees within the town, representing 22% of the known species of bee (there are just over 250 in the UK) including one that is nationally rare.  They also found that the urban sites were more diverse and abundant in bees than the meadows and nature reserves on the edge of town.  The areas surveyed in the town consisted of roadside verges and roundabouts, gardens and churchyards.

Most of the bees were seen in the period from March to June, and the most dominant genus was that of the mining bees, Andrena  which shows the importance of having non-tarmaced areas!  Less surprising was the fact that hte most abundant species was Osmia Bicornis, the mason bee which nests in walls – it would find plenty of those in the middle of Northampton.

All this makes me even more determined to try and determine the insects sharing the hospital site in Northampton – I have already seen the ashy mining bee there along with its nomada parasite.  Time to get my camera out…

ashy mining bee

Ashy mining bee, Andrena cineraria, not at the hospital

I learned today … that a new type of bee has found its way to the UK

OK, two bee posts in two days, but this was the most interesting thing I learned today (apart from the fact that potassium permanganate is used to treat weeping skin blisters as a last resort) whilst listening to a Radio 4 podcast.

First seen in 2001 the Ivy Bee ( Colletes hederae )is slowly progressing up the British Isles as shown on the survey map.   These bees start to fly around the end of August and have around a six week flight window coinciding with the flowering period of ivy.  Although I haven’t seen one they apparently look like furry ginger wasps.

As with many solitary bees these dig a hole in the ground in which to lay their eggs.  One pair will have around 10 offspring with up to 18 in a  good year.  In order to make sure the larva can survive for 10 to 11 months underground they provision the chamber where the egg is laid with up to 3million grains of pollen and nectar – this takes about 6 trips for each chamber – quite a task if you only live for about three weeks!

Although these bees are doing well – there is  no need to worry – as with other bees, the males don’t sting and the females are very docile.  As they have recently evolved they don’t yet have any predators here that have evolved with them and, as they don’t appear to pose any threat to native insects, let’s hope that they continue to flourish.  I’ll be setting a reminder in my calendar to look for them next September.  Looking at photos of them that I have found around the inter web I am fairly hopeful that I might recognise one if I see it.  I have included a photo below from Wikipedia taken by Hectonichus – maybe ginger humbugs was a good description!



Today I learned … that not all bees collect pollen on their legs.

I already knew about the existence of cuckoo bees.  These are bees that lay their eggs in the already provisioned nests of pollen collecting bees so that they don’t have to bother collecting pollen themselves.  This means that they don’t have the hairy pollen baskets on their legs.  This is one way of differentiating them from the hosts that they have evolved to mimic.  However, an interesting article by Mike Edwards in the excellent British Wildlife Magazine gave me an insight into different types of bees and why their efficiency at pollinating plants varies so much.

The standard belief is that there is a mutually beneficial relationship between plants and pollinators whereby plants provide nectar as a foodstuff for the pollinating insect. In turn the bee moves pollen from the male part of the flower to the female whilst collecting it to take back to the nest for their larvae.  This article revealed that this only occurs with certain species and that in many cases the plant is robbed!

bee or waspWhat I didn’t know before today is that some bees, such as this white faced bee, are almost hairless and eat the pollen and nectar they collect before flying back to the nest; therefore denying the flower its rightful pollination.

The best known bees are the honey bees and the bumble bees, however, I also learned today these are not very efficient pollinators.  In some cases these bees manage to get the nectar and avoid the reproductive parts of the flower and therefore don’t pollinate it at all.  However, even if they do collect the pollen in the baskets on their legs, they need to wet it with nectar so that it doesn’t fall out.  This means that the pollen isn’t readily transferred to the female part of the flower.  Honey and bumble bees are, in effect, pollen robbers!

Whilst googling cuckoo bees for this short article I also came across this cool picture on Wikipedia.  A cuckoo bee asleep, using its mandibles to hold on – what a fantastic shot!  Until today I didn’t realise that bees did this!


Creating a buzz just Bee Cause

Friends of the Earth are hoping to create a bit of a buzz with their Bee Cause campaign.  I attended a launch event in Northampton today – the aims of the campaign are to get those in power – specifically David Cameron, to acknowledge that the government needs to adopt and implement a bee action plan.  The launch event included a couple of talks about pollinators and their habitats.

Why are bees important?  Just to clear up a misconception, it is not just bees that are important it is all of natures pollinators – insects, animals and birds – even some lizards are important pollinators elsewhere in the world.  Across the world 87% of the estimated 308,000 plant species are pollinated by insects and other fauna.

There has been a lot of coverage about the collapse of honey bee populations across the world and lots of speculation about the reasons.  However, this is not a new phenomenon and since the 1800s the UK has lost 23 species of bee and 18 species of butterflies.  More recently there has been a 75% decline in moths since the 1970s and a 25% decline in hoverflies since the 1980s.  So, it would appear that the recent problems with honey bees are only the latest in a long line of declines.  Whilst there are lots of reasons for this, the overriding issue has to be loss of suitable habitat caused by urban expansion and the intensification of agriculture and removal of woodlands and hedgerows.  Indeed Northamptonshire holds the dubious distinction of having lost more species of wildflowers than any other county.  Not something to be proud of.

So, the Bee Cause campaign aims to raise awareness of this problem and get people taking action.  I’ll be writing some more posts outlining what you can do to help our pollinators in the coming weeks.  In the meantime, if you are interested in getting involved in the campaign there is a lot of information on the FoE website.  Alternatively, if you are in the Daventry area and would like to help, give me a shout and we can work together to make Daventry a bee-friendly place.

Bumblebee Identification

I joined the Bumblebee Conservation Trust last year following a Summer trying to photograph them which made me realise how interesting and different they all were.  Couple that with all of the coverage regarding the plight of the honeybee which also extends, although for different reasons, to other pollinators, and I decided that it was time I discovered more about the bees in my garden.

Fast forward a year and with my new found interest in invertebrates I started to discover there were more bees about than I had realised, including my favourite, the red-tailed bumblebee, and others such as the wonderfully named hairy footed flower bee.  Despite many attempts and lots of photos, I still felt at a loss when it came to positively identifying them.  When I saw an advert for a bumblebee identification session at Leicester University on a Sunday afternoon then I signed up straight away.

I arrived early and thought I would go and try and find some bees to photograph – as you would (and, amazingly, got some photos I was really pleased with).  They had some lavender beds in their herb garden which we literally buzzing as well as some other plant such as echinops which also seemed pretty popular.

Anyway, back to the course.  It was run by a lovely lady called Maggie, who is obviously obsessed by bees. She went through the lifecycle of bees, some of the differences between them and included a list of plants that she had created and which she had subsequently grouped according to how many species of bee visited them.  I came away realising that I had to be a little more choosy about the plants that I am putting in the garden and with some ideas for research that I could also undertake.  First, however, I need to be able to identify them.

I was hoping to come away from a couple of hours amongst the flowers with the ability to recognise the common bumbles, the big six.  But, there are queens, workers and males – so the big six became 18, and then there are the cuckoo bumble bees – another 4 types with males and females so we are now at 26!  Suddenly it was not as easy as I had hoped.  (Cuckoo bumbles don’t need workers as they parasitise the nests of particular bumbles so use their workers to care for their offspring.)  Then, as the bees get older, just like us they fade and get greyer, well, paler – so then all the descriptions seem to go out of the window!

Did I come away knowing many of the 26?  Well, we did find four of the big six – but they are mainly males and workers at this time of year, the queens are in the nests.  So, I can recognise a carder bee (a little fluffy, ginger bee), and the red-tailed bumble bee, I will also have a go at the buff and white tailed bees  (the male white-tailed bumble bees are particularly lovely – see photo above), but we didn’t see the early or garden bumblebees, so I will carry on looking.  However, we did find three or four species of cuckoo bee, which I may have seen before and just not realised what they were (such as the one in the photo on the right)!  So, although I am not fully convinced that I can get the big six yet, I have now a better idea, and think I can have a go at finding cuckoo bees.  I will also be planning some winter research and some more bee-friendly plants for next year.

Not all bees are bumblebees.

OK, another post about bees, and, it is partly an excuse to put another picture of a bee on my blog, but there is a point I want to make. There has been a lot of concern about honey bees and the sudden collapse of hives (often this concern is motivated by the potential disaster for farmers and lost revenues), there has also been some publicity regarding bumble bees, following this I joined the Bumble Bee Conservation Trust, but what about other bees?  Other bees I hear you say – well, yes, what about solitary bees.  Before this Spring I didn’t really think about other types of bee, but once I started looking at them, the diversity amongst this set of insects becomes quite amazing.

In addition to the tawny mining bee that I mentioned in an earlier post, I have also come across the little chapess in the photo in my garden.  Once again I turned to I Spot as I had no idea what this was.  She was almost totally black, with a long proboscis and was totally obsessed with my pulmonaria.  She is in fact a hairy footed flower bee – what a fantastic name (anthophora plumipes). Both this bee and the tawny mining bee are solitary bees.  In this species the females are black apart from their pollen baskets whilst the males are more of a gingery colour.  They have particularly long tongues which they cannot fully retract, which is quite noticeable as they hover in front of flowers.  Although I have never noticed one before they are quite widespread in the South of England and are common visitors to gardens.

So, now you know, not all bees are bumble bees or honey bees, not all are stripy and (like the tawny mining bee) not all bees sting.

This week’s nature roundup.

It seems that the warm weather has really started things moving this week.  And, the more you look, the more you find.

For a starter, many of the trees and plants are bursting into flower.  Cowslips (primula veris) are springing up everywhere – the one posing in this picture was taken next to the car park at work.  These are fairly common on open ground around the UK and have uses in traditional medicine for the treatment of headaches, although some people are allergic to them.  Also noticeable is the preponderance of dandelions decorating roadsides (and dare I say gardens) at the moment, providing a useful nectar source for the increasing number of bees.

Speaking of bees, there do seem to be a lot about at the moment.  Most noticeable are the massive red-tailed and buff-tailed bumble bee queens flying about, but, if you look closely, you may see other types of bee that you hadn’t noticed before.  One of these, again spotted as I was leaving work, was a tawny mining bee (adrena fulva).  I don’t remember seeing these before, but they are bright orange and, although fairly small and constantly on the move, they are not easy to miss.  These are solitary bees that often make their home in lawns, digging a hole to lay their eggs in and to provide a safe place for the young bees for which they collect pollen.  The picture that I took was the best I could get as they seem quite jumpy and do not settle for long even when sunning themselves.

Also of note this week are the increasing number of house martins that can be heard, if not seen, in the skies above Daventry, the first bluebells starting to open and a few more butterflies on the wing.

In the garden, the courgette seeds that I planted last weekend are coming up, although my beans, which are outside, whilst presumably enjoying the sunny days are not appreciating the frosty nights and are refusing to put in an appearance.  Tulips are in full bloom and the blackcurrant and blackberry are coming back to life.  I am also contemplating pulling my first rhubarb of the season.


I spent a short amount of time in the garden today trying to photograph bees.  I have found that looking through a macro lens makes one study insects much more closely and reveals a fantastic level of detail.  So much so that I can be distracted from pressing the shutter button.

Bombus lapidarius on a cornflower
Bombus lapidarius on a cornflower

I was particularly interested in a bee with an orange behind, which, I am assuming was a red tailed bumble bee (Bombus lapidarius) and wanted to get a shot of it on a cornflower due to the contrasting colours.  I took some shots and then it flew off.  I then noticed it on some yellow flowers, time for another shot.

Bombus lapidarius on yellow flower
Bombus lapidarius on yellow flower

It was whilst I was sitting watching the bee and waiting for it to emerge from the midst of the flowers that I noticed another bee on the cornflower.  Whilst observing both of these bees, it became apparent that one preferred the orange and yellow flowers, whilst the other was only interested in the cornflowers.  Is it the case that individual bees prefer certain colours or types of flowers, or had, for example, cornflower bee already visited all of the yellow flowers and so was avoiding them?  Should I be growing as many different types and colours of flowers as I can?

Native Bees to the Rescue?

According to some recent reports (the Guardian and Radio 4) a new study is looking at the potential of the native black bee as a solution to the disappearance of about 30% of the UK’s honeybees.  The current bee population is based on an Italian bee which is relatively docile and very prolific as a honey producer.  The theory being tested is that the cold wet summers have left the Mediterranean bee less well equipped to deal with the Winter, whereas the native black bee is more used to the typically damp British weather and is therefore better equipped to last through the Winter on depleted food supplies.

I had heard about the black bee, but did not realise there are several colonies in the UK.   The first step is being helped by the Co-Op which has launched a fund to help map where existing populations exist so they can be used to increase the numbers of native black bees.

For more background on the current problems in the bee population (although it is admittedly slightly USA – centric despite being written by a British couple) a good place to start is the book ‘A World Without Bees‘ or read the story as published in the Guardian this week.