More About Bees

I am becoming increasingly more fascinated by bees and can report that in my garden I have identified, Buff-tailed-bumblebees, Tree-bumblebees, Garden-bumblebees, a Mining-bee and a Hover-fly which looks very similar to a Honey-bee. Apparently Hover-flies have short antenna and only one pair of wings. One of the best sites I have discovered for simple identification of bees is Friendsoftheearth.uk

Hover-fly that looks similar to a Honey-bee.

A bee has a brain about the size of a sesame seed, (it is 20 times denser than a mammals brain) and they can do so many amazing things. Many scientists have spent years researching their behaviour, Dave Goulson  lecturer at the University of Sussex tells in his book A Sting in the Tale, about four years research he did while working at Southampton University. He wanted to find out how bees knew which flowers had plenty of nectar and which are temporarily low in nectar. He discovered that bees have smelly feet and if a bee had drained a flower of nectar another bee will be able to tell by the smell of the previous bees feet. 

The book I am reading at the moment.

I think bees are very clever and are confusing us all. Looking on the internet I notice more research has been done and some scientists say bees know which flowers to go to for nectar by learning scent patterns. This is what the Independent said in 2018,

‘A team of scientists from Queen Mary University of London and the University of Bristol studied how the arrangement of cells on flowers’ petals are arranged in patterns. These are recognised and learned by bees, enabling them to distinguish between flowers.’

Other scientists at Bristol University have done some research on what they call electric fields around flowers and this was published in 2013. 

The University of Bristol have shown that bumblebees can sense the electric field that surrounds a flower. They can even learn to distinguish between fields produced by different floral shapes, or use them to work out whether a flower has been recently visited by other bees. Flowers aren’t just visual spectacles and smelly beacons. They’re also electric billboards’

In other words we still don’t really know every skill or sense that a bee uses to locate the nectar they need. I have found out however that flowers make more nectar once a bee has had its fill. This was something I had wondered about as there are so many bees in my garden this year. I thought they would be draining the flowers and then have nothing left to eat but that doesnt seem to be a problem. Flowers are also very clever in the way they attract bees and then refill their nectar store to keep the bees coming back.

Bees collect nectar by sucking droplets with their proboscis (a straw like tongue), some bees has short proboscis will others have longer ones. Short-tongued bumblebees are able to extract the nectar from flowers with an open shape, like brambles and raspberries, whereas long-tongued bumblebees can reach nectar deep inside long, tubular flowers such as foxgloves.

This year one of the good things for me having been forced to spend more time at home has been to watch the bees in the garden. I realise how lucky I am that I have a garden and I don’t work in a stressful job. I have also been experimenting with knitting a slightly more realistic woolly bee and so I am adding the pattern to this blog.

Bee with pipe cleaner legs
Bee with crocheted legs.
I am not sure which species of bee this is!

Getting to know Garden Bees

I have to admit that most of my life I have not taken too much notice of bees. I have not been afraid of them because I believed they wouldn’t want to sting me and only do so as a last resort, unlike wasps. My ignorance was so bad that I didn’t realise that there were bumblebees and honey bees. I thought that all bees were black and yellow striped and fluffy looking. When I heard about bee decline and how important they were for pollinating and therefore our survival, I started to take more notice. I was amazed to discover there are several hundred different species of bee in the UK alone and that not all bees make honey, but all I believe collect pollen.

Tree Bumblebee on the cotoneaster

There is so much information today on the internet that anyone who wants to find out more has no excuse. Sites such as the different Wildlife Trusts , Countryfile , Blooms for Bees , and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust , to name just a few. It can be rather daunting however as within one species of bee the Queen, the Workers and the Male bees can be different sizes and have colour variations. As to really get to grips with bees would take a lifetime, I decided that with the lovely weather and restrictions on movement during lockdown, I would try to discover what bees visit my garden and learn to recognise them. 

Just received this by post, published this month May 2020

I have also been reading some really useful books on the subject such as The Secret Lives of Garden Bees by Jean Vernon, hot off the press this spring. It is a most beautifully produced book with fantastic photographs, perfect for anyone of any age who would like to get to know a bit more about the world of bees. There is a book review here, Kids of the Wild.

I have also listened on Audible to the book by Brigit Strawbridge Howard, Dancing with Bees, a journey back to nature. Brigit writes about her love of the natural world and how important it can be for our mental health. She gives us a lot of very interesting information about bees and other garden wildlife. This book was published in Summer 2019. More information can be found here on Brigit’s Blog. I can thoroughly recommend both of these books for a beginner who would like to know more about the world of bees.

Anyway to get back to my garden bees. So far I have discovered four different species which I now hope I would be able to recognise again. The first and probably the one I have seen most of is a new comer to our UK gardens, the Tree Bumblebee. This bee has been very obliging and I have managed to take a few photographs.

I have designed a knitted bee that has a resemblance to the Tree bumblebee. I will add this pattern to my next blog post for anyone who would like to try knitting one. The Tree Bumblebee has only been here since about the year 2000 but does seem to like the flowers we have in our garden. More information can be found HERE

The second species I have noticed in the garden is the Buff-tailed bumblebee. This one is a bit confusing as apparently it is the Queen whose tail is buff coloured but the workers have white tails. They have two yellow stripes not three like the Garden bumblebee. I noticed one of these bees on the cotoneaster but it would not stay very still for me to photograph consequently my picture is very blurred.

Buff Tailed bumblebee

I found a bee lying on its back in our dining room, thinking it was dead I got a piece of kitchen roll to pick it up. When I put my hand near the bee it moved and clung onto the paper towel. I quickly took it outside and placed on some weigela flowers, the bee immediately moved into one of them. It spent about thirty minutes eating and resting before flying off. I believe this was a solitary bee called a mason bee. I have now bought a home for mason Bees and really hope someone moves in https://www.masonbees.co.uk

We also have some bees nesting under our shed but to be honest I am not sure what species they are but could be the Buff tailed. I have noticed a bee on our walks which seemed to like to burrow into hard ground and I think this may have been a Mining Bee.

A small selection of UK bees.

My next blog will have details of knitting your own Tree bumblebee or possibly bee species of your choice.

Learning to Forage

I have been fascinated for some years with the idea of foraging and being able to eat free food from the countryside. Some of the obvious items such as blackberries we have eaten for years and almost don’t think of these as wild. In the last couple of years I have made Elderflower Cordial from the flowers and last Autumn Elderflower Jelly from the berries.

With more time at home at the moment during lockdown I have been trying out other recipes. The first was wild garlic pesto. I found a recipe on line and substituted wild garlic for basil,  walnuts for pine nuts and strong cheddar for parmesan. It was delicious and I used some to flavour pasta and also spread on chunky homemade bread. The flowers of wild garlic can be eaten and these look good as a garnish to decorate salads etc.I posted my efforts on Facebook and was challenged to make a tart which included wild garlic, dandelion leaves and stinging nettles. The recipe suggested seem to use large quantities of all three so I decided to make a cheese and egg quiche and add as many leaves as I could gather. The original recipe was for Wild Garlic, Nettle and Dandelion Tart,  which does have useful information on how to prepare the wild leaves. I then made my usual shortcrust pastry, lined a flan dish, added the prepared leaves, filled with grated cheese, 4 beaten eggs mixed with half a pint of milk, cooked at 180 C until well risen and golden about half an hour. It was delicious.I have always loved dandelions as a flower, they are such a lovely bright yellow colour, the leaves have a most interesting shape and seed heads are amazing.  They are also very important in the Spring for bees and other pollinators but this year I have been even more aware of them in the fields and grass verges. I decided to have a go at making dandelion flower jelly. Altogether it took about 5 hours. One to gather the flowers, 2 to remove the petals, 2 to simmer the petals in water, so not an efficient use of time. I eventually ended up with one jar of jelly. I have since found several recipes for dandelion honey and this does seem quite popular so I may have another try. I am also going to try dying fabric with some dandelion petals.I have noticed that the elderflowers are in bud but not quite out yet so I made some cordial from hawthorn flowers. The recipe is here Hawthorn Blossom Cordial I really love this recipe and the flavour of the flowers, I would even go so far as to say I prefer it to the elderflower cordial.There are so many wild plants that can be eaten but also many that are very poisonous so I am very careful to stick to the plants I can be very sure of.