Bees of the uk

Early bumblebee

As I write this blog at the end of March I have already seen a few bees in the garden. I have a fondness for bees of all varieties but struggle to identify many of them. This is not really surprising as there are over 270 bee species in Britain ranging from the well known honey bee, to bumblebees and solitary bees. 

Western Honey bee

The largest species of bee in the UK is the Garden Bumblebee, it is a long-tongued bee which uses its long face and tongue to pollinate hard-to-reach tubed flowers such as foxgloves. There are also many species of short tongued bees in the UK? They have short pointed tongues and often nest in soils. These bees collect pollen on the underside of the abdomen and on their legs. This is the reason why it is a good to grow flowers of different shapes so that your garden can be a feeding ground for a variety of bees and pollinators.

Tree Bumble bee

Most bumblebees are social insects forming colonies with a single queen. The colonies are smaller than those of honey bees, growing to as few as 50 individuals in a nest. One of the species which nests in bird boxes and lofts is the Tree Bumblebee. With this species you may often see ‘swarms’ of bees flying around the nest, this is perfectly normal as these are male bees flying around waiting for queens to come out so that they can mate. Male bumblebees cannot sting, so there is no need to be alarmed.

I love the fact that male bumblebees often have a yellow moustache. It gives them a comical look but it can also be a useful way to tell a male bee from a worker of the same species.

A waving bumble bee is said to mean GO AWAY!

There are also species of Cuckoo Bumblebees. Just like the cuckoo bird they take over the nests of true bumblebees. A female cuckoo bee will go into the nest, kill the queen, and take it over for herself. A cuckoo bee does not produce any workers, just new females and males. 

Most  bees to be found in the UK are solitary bees and have some fabulous names such as The Patchwork Leaf-cutter Bee. The females cut discs out of leaves, gluing them together with saliva in order to build the ‘cells’ in which their larvae live. The patchwork leaf-cutter bee is on the wing from April to August, and feeds solely on pollen and nectar.

Another of my favourite bees is the Hairy-footed Flower Bee. The hairy-footed flower bee can be seen in spring and summer, visiting tubular flowers like red dead-nettle and comfrey. As its name suggests, it has long, orange hairs on its middle legs.

Hairy-footed Flower bee

The Wool Carder Bee is a very distinctive bee with yellow spots down the sides of their abdomens. They are one of the few bee species in which the male is larger than the female. Females comb wool fibres from plants to use as nesting material, while males fiercely guard areas of these plants for potential mates. Male Wool carder bees may not have a sting but they do come equipped with a set of spikes on their tails. They will fiercely guard a patch of flowers and chase, head-butt and wrestle any other insect, which dares to enter their territory.

The Ashy Mining Bee is one of our most distinctive spring-flying solitary bees with striking black and grey/white markings. Female Ashy-mining bees excavate small tunnels in the earth to make their nests. They can occasionally be found nesting in large groups, but are also found in small groups or as single females. Males have similar markings to females, although they are smaller and not quite as noticeable. They have more obvious light hairs along the side of the thorax and also at the top of the abdomen.

Ashy Mining Bee

When you hear a buzzing in the garden this year take a closer look as bees come in all sorts of shapes, colours and sizes. There are some good sites to look up bee identification.

Bees are great indicators of a healthy environment. But right now, they’re at risk due to climate breakdown and habitat loss. Shifts in the seasons are disrupting flowering times and the availability of food, shelter and nesting sites. Climate change also brings extremes of drought, heavier rainfall and flooding.

We can all do our bit to help bees, this website is full of useful advice,

White-Tailed Bumble bee
Buff-Tailed bumblebee

Wildflowers during Lockdown

I have always enjoyed walking in the countryside and over the years have tried to recognise and learn the names of wildflowers. I have four wildflower books at home but even these do not show every flower as there are so many different ones in our lanes and fields. In more recent years there have been concerns about the demise of our native plants and the loss of wildflower meadows. It is thought that we have lost 97% of wildflower meadows since the 1930s. There is a lot of debate over the picking of flowers but it is important that children learn to love them and this could mean picking a few. This is what Plantlife has to say,

‘Contrary to widespread belief, it is not illegal to pick most wildflowers for personal, non-commercial use. In a similar vein, it’s not illegal to forage most leaves and berries for food in the countryside for non-commercial use.’

Path around the field.

During this period of Lockdown in 2020 we have been allowed to go out each day for exercise but asked to keep within walking distance of home. This has been quite an eye opener to discover all the flowers growing in the fields near Belper. I have been walking virtually the same route each day and have really noticed the succession of our beautiful, colourful flowers.

Looking across the fields towards the A6

Lockdown started on March 23rd and during this month I noticed Wood Anemones and Mouse-ears both small white flowers. Wood anemones grow in shady places and droop their heads at evening time or during bad weather. It used to be said that fairies slept in the flowers closing the petals around themselves. Mouse-ears seem to like a bit more sun and are considered to be a weed but I wouldn’t mind some in my garden. In the hedgerows blackthorn flowers open before the bush grows its leaves .

Blackthorn flowers before the leaves come out.

April is the month when Bluebells and Wild Garlic appear and this year the bluebells seemed to be early, probably because of the warm weather. The fields are bright with the yellow flowers of dandelions and bluebells flower around the field edges and in the hedgerows. Hawthorne flowers open in the hedges and the edge of woods look glorious with Wild Cherry blossom. Cow Parsley starts to wave in the field margins and cuckoo flowers appeared wherever the grass was allowed to grow. It was good to have the time to really observe these flowers as so much of my usual rushing around had to stop. 

In May Dandelions gave way to Buttercups, just leaving their whiteish seed heads behind. Cow Parsley continued to open closely followed at the end of the month by the much sturdier Common Hogweed (not to be confused with Giant Hogweed). Also towards the end of the month I noticed large areas of one field turning white with the opening of Oxeye Daisies. Hawthorne flowers faded and the Elderflowers came into bud ready to open towards the end of the month. On the edge of one of the fields was a large patch of Yellow Rattle the first time I have seen this in the countryside. The rest of this field was covered in the yellow and oranges of Bird’s-foot trefoil and the lovely cerise pink of clover.

June so far has seen the Elderflowers open properly in the hedges and some of the fields look red at a distance with the flowering of Sheep’s sorrel. I also notice pink Dog-roses covering the bushes and the small white flowers of Brambles are coming out.

I have really enjoyed walking over the same fields for weeks and noticing how different flowers come into bloom and change the colour of the fields and hedges. I had not really thought about this before and at the moment in June the fabulous Foxgloves are just starting to flower. The fields where the dandelions flowered earlier are now being covered by Rough hawkbit.

I am looking forward to seeing more flowers opening during the month of June and how these alter the colour of the fields.