by Clive Harris
Bees are a part of our
landscapes and gardens, we know what they are and we know they make
honey, but our bees are in danger of disappearing due to habitat
destruction, chemicals and disease.
Without bees the human race will struggle to harvest enough food.
That sounds dramatic but our pollinators are responsible for the
fruiting of our harvest.
In short, we have to
change bee fortunes not only for their sake but for our own.
Bee numbers are a good indication of environmental health.
Like our native hedgehogs
they are in decline and this points
to environmental problems - but there are ways you can help reverse
The majority of people know bees make honey and they sting, but
there is so much more to this fascinating creature - did you know
they have five eyes? Two standard ones and then three on top of
their head, and were you aware there are hundreds of different types
in the UK alone?
Here's the ultimate guide to bees and how we can help them survive.
What Bees Live
in the UK?
It's less common now than 50 years ago, but most of us are
acquainted with the buzzing bee busily nestling inside our flowers.
There are hundreds of
different types, but for ease its
best to classify them as solitary and social bees.
Social bees such as honeybees live in hives and nests - up to 50,000
of them can live together in a hierarchy of command. The bumblebee
is also a social type, but chooses a smaller group of friends -
around 50-150. Social bees are ruled by a queen.
This monarch is
responsible for all egg laying, the rest collect food, keep the
hives clean and fertilize the queen.
Social bee types include:
There are a number of
bumblebees including the red-tailed, white-tailed, tree, small
garden and early bumble bees.
They are the loud, fluffy
bees that look utterly strokeable, and make a thud against your
windowpanes. Bumblebees have the longest tongue of all UK bees
reaching just over 2 cm at full stretch.
The old English name for
a Bumblebee is a Dumbledore just in case you ever wondered
where JK Rowling got the name.
Honeybees are slimmer, and they have a striped golden body,
unfortunately there are few wild colonies left in the UK, but
bee-keepers tend honeybees in artificial hives.
They are more common than
bumblebees, often feeding on flowers such as lavender, fruit blossom
and oilseed rape.
Carders are all brown bees ranging
from light orange to a yellowy brown.
They are found in most
gardens and enjoy taking nectar from weeds such as dandelions and
Solitary bees live alone in tunnels or burrows. This is the type you
might find in your bee hotel. They don't make honey or wax, and feed
their larvae with a mix of pollen and nectar.
Solitary bee types include...
Mason bees live in the brickwork of houses, wood, hard dead flower
stalks, and walls. They have quite black faces, with a deep ginger
body, and a squarer head than other bees.
They collect building
material such as mud to construct a small home in masonry study
Mining bees are the bees that leave little piles of earth on your
lawn - these miniature volcanoes are the work of mining bees that
nest in the ground.
There are many different
species, such as the ashy mining bee, and they range from dark
fluffy orange to a pale fluffy yellow. Mining bees live in all
environments ranging from quarries to gardens often taking advantage
of beetle tunnels.
Leafcutter bees are responsible for removing semi-circular sections
of plant foliage.
There are seven different
types in the UK. They use cut leaves to build a nesting cell for a
single larvae. They nest in beetle holes and need around 40 pieces
of leaf to make their nursery.
Where do Bees
Depending on the species they live in hives, in the earth, in tree
trunks and in the bricks of your house.
If you spot a large,
frail-looking papery nest, it's likely to be a wasp nest - do not
touch and keep your children and pets away. If you are lucky a
solitary bee may take up residence in your bee hotel.
What Do Bees
Bees get all they need from flowers.
carbohydrates and pollen provides protein.
Bees don't actually eat
honey in summer, instead they save it for their larvae. Remaining
honey is sealed off with wax and left to ferment for use over winter
when flowers are dormant and nectar is in short supply.
Do Bees Have Any
Bees are prey to a number of predators.
Birds will take bees on
the wing or as they bustle inside a flower. Spiders will catch bees
in a web and the crab spider, a prolific hunter, is a master of
stealth, changing color to match the flower environment before
pouncing on an unsuspecting bee.
Cats and dogs kill bees, often with consequential vet trips, and
many bees collide with cars. We kill bees too with garden
pesticides, a lack of flowers and simply squashing them because we
The Asian hornet (Vespa
velutina) is a particularly successful predator of honey
They will wait outside
hives to kill and collect bees as they return. It's not native to
the UK but has been accidently introduced to France and is working
its way across Europe.
The Asian Hornet can wipe
out entire colonies of honeybees.
Disease is also rife in bees, despite their hives having
antibacterial and antifungal properties. In particular the
Varroa mite is of concern to bee-keepers. It sucks the blood of
bees spitting infection into their bodies, and sneaks into
developing pupae inside hives and burrows.
Varroa is a real threat
to the bee population.
Difference between Bees and Wasps?
Many people tend to panic when they hear a buzz, but it's easy to
tell the difference between a bee and a wasp.
The main difference is that a bee will not bother trying to eat your
food. It needs nectar, not your apple or ice-cream, but wasps are
attracted to sweet foods.
Bees also tend to have
fluffier, wider bodies with hairy legs whereas wasps are slim and
have thin waists.
There are two types of wasp in the UK:
the common wasp
the German wasp
They both have long,
black and yellow bodies that measure 12-15mm. Bees are usually more
orange in color.
Because bees have robust, hairy bodies with flat rear legs, and
wasps are slender some folk describe wasps as fast sports cars and a
bee is the comfortable Volvo.
And the nests?
It's rare if not impossible to locate a wild bee nest now, but it
would have wax cells and bee larvae stacked in rows.
A wasp nest is papery,
large and rounded. They nest in trees, lofts, and dark places. Both
types of nest will hum with activity and should not be poked or
messed about with.
There's another stripy insect to look out for too - if you spot what
looks like a wingless wasp sipping nectar- that's a pollinating
Hoverflies are simple to identify because they do just that, they
hover near a plant flapping their wings so fast you can't see or
hear them. They have no sting and are totally harmless.
Some do. Solitary bees tend to hibernate in their burrow or nest,
which is another reason to keep those plant stalks up till spring -
there may be a hibernating solitary bee fast asleep inside.
Honey bees congregate together for warmth in the hive taking turns
to go on the outside so all are heated up. They will eat
summer-stored honey supplies at this point.
Bumblebees tend to die off as the colder weather approaches, which
is why we see them dead more often than others.
The queen bumblebee will
survive nestled away in soil. If you disturb a large bumbler digging
your garden in winter just bow and leave it alone - it may well be a
queen that's needed to start a new colony in spring.
How Bees Help
Bees are an essential part of the food chain pollinating a third of
our food supply.
70 plants in the UK need
bee pollination, and it is estimated bees are worth £400 million per
year to the food production industry. Because they pollinate our
plants we are in trouble without them.
Take your apple trees for example. You may have two pollinating
partners, meaning two different types of apple tree that need cross
pollination to produce apples.
It's the bees (and other
pollinators like butterflies and hoverflies) that carry out your
When they drink nectar from a flower the pollen sticks to bee feet
and their hairy, fluffy bodies. Look close up at a bee drinking, it
won't hurt you, and you'll see the pollen stuck to its body. Pollen
will also float away as they move around on the bloom.
Plants and bees have co-evolved to help this process, which is why
it's such a tragedy we are wiping out our bees - they deserve
Bees are also part of the food chain for birds and other predators.
Breaking the natural food chain and lifecycles of our native
creatures leads to environmental problems.
In order to find the best pollen sources honey bees do a
waggle dance. Yes, it's a silly
name, but the man who discovered it won a Nobel Prize.
The waggle dance is a
satnav for bees.
A honeybee will return to
the hive and perform the dance to indicate directions to good nectar
sources. The basic routine is a figure of eight and a line. A long
waggle means it's a far distance and their speed or angles indicate
They will release a scent
to help with directions too.
How do Bees
Make Honey and Beeswax?
Honey bees are the only bees that make wax and honey.
Honeybee tongues are long enough to reach inside a flower and sip
out nectar. Extracted nectar is kept in a ‘honey stomach' before
they fly back to the nest to deliver their load.
Other bees in the hive take the nectar mouth to mouth and enzymes
break down sugar to make it less runny. It's then put in those
amazing hexagonal cells where bees fan it with their wings so it
cools and solidifies.
Honeycombs are works of art made by female worker bees that only
live for approximately six weeks. From ten days old bees are able to
make from wax which emerges from wax glands beneath their abdomens.
Nectar stored in the honey stomach mixes with enzymes to produce
flakes of wax, which they chew off to make mouldable, and add to the
Honeycombs are made to
house their young - it's a crèche, food storage area and the centre
of the honeybee world.
What is the
Social bees do not believe in democracy, instead they are ruled by a
There is only one queen in a hive - the other bees are drones and
workers. The queen is responsible for laying eggs which turn into
more workers, drones, and of course, the next queen.
Worker bees are always sterile females - they clean the queen and
feed her so she can keep laying eggs. Drones are male bees that
fertilise the queen.
The queen eats honey and royal jelly all year round to keep up the
protein levels required to lay 2000 eggs a day.
The queen bee is bigger,
shiner and smoother than other bees and fairly easy to spot in the
hive. She can live 5-7 years, but become less productive as she
Without a queen the hive cannot work properly, so if she dies worker
bees will immediately begin feeding female larvae large amounts of
royal jelly so she develops into
their new queen.
If you are wondering what royal jelly is:
it's a secretion
produced from the head of worker bees.
All larvae eat some royal
jelly, the drones and workers get about three days in the developing
larval stages, but the new queen larvae feast on royal jelly until
they are fully developed.
4 Things You
Can Do to Help Bees
Bees are dying out and the main problem is how our environment is
There are less wildflowers than ever before due to housing
development and changes in farming practice, pesticides are a real
problem and bee disease too.
You can help bees in numerous ways.
Pollen rich flowers are essential to bees.
flowers from early spring to late autumn because double
flowers are too tight and difficult for bees to get inside.
The best plants
for our bees are native to the UK.
Some good choices are foxglove, comfrey, bluebell, knapweed,
hellebore, witch hazel, honeysuckle, buddleia, sedum,
lavender, fruit trees such as apple and pear, poppies, and
hebe. Wildflowers are important too, in fact the rarer types
of bee prefer wildflowers.
Don't forget vegetables. Bees will take nectar from broad
bean and runner beans - any flowering veggie is attractive
If you want to encourage deeply purring bumblebees choose
deep flowers like foxgloves because only bumble bees have
tongues long enough to reach inside them.
The RHS have a Perfect for Pollinator label which is worth
looking out for, and they are conducting tests to see which
flowers our pollinators prefer.
Don't use pesticides
Chemicals are a real problem for wildlife of all types.
used to kill aphids and greenfly also kill bees. If you must
use them, do it at dusk when the bees have retired for the
A solution of
citrus peel and water is often successful on aphids and if
you have lady birds these are voracious killers.
chemical neonicotinoids (thiacloprid
and acetamiprid) known as neonics are available at most
garden centres and are thought to cause bees real problems.
On a wider scale chemicals used in farming practices cause
widespread bee loss. There are studies and arguments over
whether farming use of neonics are responsible for our bee
Bees love weeds!
Dandelions in particular
are adored by bumblebees and honeybees like clover flowers.
Leave some for the bees by keeping a wild patch in your
A water source
Not many of us think about bees needing a drink, but they do
Bees drown in deep, cold water but a great way to help them
is by putting out a terracotta saucer filled with pebbles
and water. Pebbles give bees and butterflies something to
sit on and drink in safety.
Bee baths need
filling regularly as hot sun can dry them out within a day.
How to Feed
and House a Bee
Bee houses we've mentioned, but these do provide a safe place for
solitary bees to nest.
Make one using a square frame filled with hollow bamboo canes or buy
one from a garden centre or online. Whichever you choose needs to be
set up correctly or you'll have a vacancy sign forever.
Put your bee house in a south-facing position that isn't in direct
sunlight. It will need a roof so rain doesn't get in, and be fixed
against a fence. Bee houses on a chain turn into wind tunnels, and
no-one appreciates a draft on their back, not least bees.
You can leave long stalks, dry flower borders and dead wood around
for other types of bee.
Alongside growing more flowers you can feed bees a sugar solution.
Mix a half and half mixture of water with granulated sugar and pop
it in your bee bath or in a saucer.
Bees will alight for an
energy filled drink.
When to Rescue
Don't bee scared. Bees are not aggressive creatures.
They do sting when hurt,
but this leads to their death so it's a last resort. A bee will walk
over your hands and arms without stinging you, but whacking it,
screaming and infecting children with panic does no-one any favors.
If you don't want the bee on you (really you should be honored) put
your body part against flowers or greenery and it will walk away.
And that buzz that so terrifies people? It's just their wings
vibrating in the wind.
When scared bees flap
them more it's to try and scare away predators.
If you do get stung put an ice pack over the area and it'll go off.
Interestingly, beekeepers rarely get arthritis and studies are
revealing bee venom may be an effective treatment against rheumatism
and forms of arthritis.
A bee in water is in desperate trouble. If there are no sides to
climb out, like a paddling pool bird bath or steep-sided pond, they
will struggle, freeze and drown. It's a sad sight to see a fluffy
bumbler dead in cold water.
There is no excuse - help
them out and put them in a sunny position away from predators to
warm up. With a teaspoon of sugar water they should be fine after
ten minutes of peace.
Bees often cling to your washing on sunny days with chilly evenings
or if there's a cold breeze. Check your washing as you take it down
for bees, ladybirds, butterflies and moths who love the warm safety
of a duvet cover or even your socks!
Put them somewhere sheltered and give them that teaspoon of sugary
water we've already discussed.
A Sting in The
Bees are nothing to be afraid of - this once common insect is a joy
in the garden, and they provide the UK with food.
It's simple to underestimate what bees freely provide for us, and we
ought to give something back in return. When that something is
native flowering plants and throwing out chemical sprays we can't
At the very least our children need to know bees are not harmful, if
you don't want to be near them, at least leave them alone and pass
on your knowledge, because without bees scientists predict our food
levels will rapidly decrease, putting our food supply in danger.
Research is trying to find alternative methods of pollination, but
the simple way is to help the pollinators we already have before
their numbers fall so low it's impossible to bring them back.
Save the Bee, Save the Planet is no catchy quote - it's a
fact that we need to act on, and fast...