The sight or sound of a little, fluffy, cuddly toy buzzing round the garden is as synonymous with summer as the blazing sun (or quite possibly the driving rain!). There they are, working hard, minding their own business, collecting pollen for honey to feed their young, unknowingly helping to prevent the demise of the human race, and it can often seem like it’s all year round; the minute the sun makes an appearance, there’ll be a little striped, elongated pom-pom somewhere, taking a risk – sometimes to its own detriment – flying around in search of a chance flower that might provide an extra boost of pollen. We couldn’t live without bees – literally – and it’s probably fair to say most of us love them, so it’s only right we dedicate a blog post to these tiny miracle workers.

There are more than 270 species of bees in the UK alone, but their numbers are in decline: since 2010, three bumblebee species have become extinct, and honey bee numbers have fallen by a worrying 45%. Bees are responsible for practically every fruit and vegetable we consume, pollinating a third of the world’s food sources, so we need to do all we can to encourage these tiny, winged saviours into our gardens and help them as much as they help us.


Amongst the 270-plus species, there are 24 types of bumblebee, only one type of honeybee, both falling into the category of social bees, and over 250 species of solitary bees; whilst their name suggests they’re not community-based like their cousins, some live in smaller groups, often close to other smaller groups, and those that choose to live alone may well reside close to their fellow loners. But not all’s well in the world of the bee… ‘Cuckoo’ bees – or kleptoparasitic bees – lurk amidst bumble and solitary bees. Behaving similarly to cuckoo birds, they often mimic their hosts to avoid detection, allowing the females to find and kill the queen in hives, and take over the nests as their own, laying their eggs and allowing their young to be fed and raised by the established workers; in nests of solitary bees, the queen will lay her eggs in unsealed cells before sealing them, leaving the solitary bee to do all the work.

Aside from the opportunistic cuckoo bees, the rest live in relative harmony if left to their own devices; threaten them, however, and their renowned weapons will be put to good use! Did you know it’s only female bees that sting? Not all have the ability to do so, but the whole stinging set up is part of the female reproductive system, so males simply don’t have what it takes! They do, however, protect hives and nests in other ways, but if you’re unlucky enough to be stung by a bee, don’t blame the boys. There is some good news, however… the majority of bees do NOT die if they sting you. Honeybees are the only bees to have a barbed stinger, so once it’s engaged, it will tear the little warrior apart as it flies away; it may not happen first time, it may take a second attempt, but there really is no way to recover from that. In contrast, the sting of a bumblebee is smooth, so it’s able to sting multiple times with no harm done to itself; the same can’t be said about the recipient, however, so maybe give them a little space.


Another major difference between honeybees and other species is honey. As the name suggests, honeybees produce honey, and on a grand scale. The average hive can produce up to 100lbs of honey a year – that’s just over 7st or 45kg: not bad for a group of half-inch creatures! But that amount is only possible with the huge numbers within each hive, and for that reason, it is only social bees that produce honey; solitary bees do not have the man or rather, beepower. Bumblebees produce some honey but on a much smaller scale because they nest in smaller colonies than their cousins.


So what bees are we likely to find in our own gardens? Whilst they may be collecting nectar from your flowers for the hive, honeybees don’t generally live in the wild anymore. Most live in manmade hives, and although they may swarm when searching for a new home, those swarms will generally be collected by a beekeeper and relocated. Classified as social bees, they’re numbers run into several thousands.

Bumblebees – including carder bees – are also social bees and are a frequent sight in the garden, but they can also be found in open woodland and parks. Find some bramble, comfrey, fruit trees or fuchsia between March and July, and you’re bound to see a bumblebee or two. The most common ones are regarded as the ‘Big 7’, and they are:
Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus Terrestris)
More prevalent in England than other countries, it is the queen that gives the bee its name. The rest of the collective have white tails, making them very similar to other species, but the males may well have a yellowy band on the front of the tail.

Common carder bumblebee (Bombus Pascuorum)
What distinguishes carder bees (aside from the wool carder, the only carder that isn’t a bumble) is the colouring. They vary in colour depending on how much sun they’ve had (they’re not alone!) but are gingery/orange, and as their name suggests, they are one of the most common bumblebees.

Early bumblebee (Bombus Pratorum)
Another common bumblebee, this one is smaller than most. It’s name comes for the queen’s habit of emerging early, any time between March and May, and it has an orange tail. Often nesting underground, they’re sometimes tempted by old bird nests or boxes. Unlike other bees, the early bumblebee isn’t fussy; it’s known to collect nectar from 140 different species of flower.

Garden bumblebee (Bombus Hortorum)
Similar to Barbut’s cuckoo bumblebee and the heath bumble, but the face shape differs: both imposters have round faces that are perfectly circular, but the face of a garden bumblebee is longer than it is wide. Along with the stereotypical yellow and black stripes, it has a white tail.

Red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus Lapidarius)
Predominantly black, female red-tailed bumblebees have bright red or red-orange tail, whereas the have yellow on their heads and bodies. Another fan of making old burrows into nests, they’ll also hibernate in the ground in banks.

Tree bumblebee (Bombus Hypnorum)
Similar colour to common carders, but the ginger only appears on the thorax; the rest of the body is black with a white tail. Tree bumblebees are also likely to nest in nesting boxes, and interestingly, have only been found in the UK since 2001. They seem to have adjusted well to life here and are now widespread.

White-tailed bumblebee (Bombus Lucorum)
White-tailed bumblebees look like bumblebees! They’re very similar in colour and patterning to buff-tailed and early bumbles, but their yellow stripes are brighter than the former and they are bigger than the latter, and they obviously have white tails.

JK Rowling named one her main characters after the old English word for bumblebee, any idea which one? You’ll have to read to the end…

Unlike the previous two categories, solitary bees are not classed as social bees, but that’s not to say they avoid other solitaries. Females make nests in a variety of places, often close to fellow solitaries, and they’re active for a very short time. In the UK, solitary bees are the biggest genus of bee, and although there are at least 250 types, some are more common than others: Flower Bees, Leafcutter Bees, Mason Bees, Mining Bees, Nomad Bees and Wool Carders. These groups can also be divided into smaller groups, and we could be here until Christmas analysing them all! So, here are the ones more likely to frequent your garden:
Flower bees: There are 5 species of flower bee in the UK, and they’re often confused with bumblebees as they have a similar fluffy, rotund look. Many nest in the ground, and the hairy-footed flower bee is the largest.

Leafcutter bees: With 7 varieties, leafcutter bees do exactly what their name suggests, using the cuttings to make nests in stems, dead wood, bee hotels or holes in walls, and also to seal the nesting cells for their young.

Mason bees: As their name suggests, mason bees build their nests in masonry – more specifically, in holes in brickwork – along with wooden cavities and even vacant snail shells! Of the 12 different types, the red mason bee is the most common, particularly in built-up areas.

Mining bees: The largest genus of bees, there are 67 species of mining bees in Britain, and unsurprisingly, they make their nests in the ground, creating individual cells to lay eggs. Those most likely to be nesting in your garden are the tawny, the ashy and the buffish mining bees.


Nomad bees: These are the cuckoos! Although there are 34 types, Gooden’s nomad bee is the most common. These kleptoparasites are more wasp-like in appearance than most other bees and are hairless in the main, targeting the nests of mining bees in particular. When the larvae hatch, they destroy the eggs of their hosts and consume all the food provided.

Wool carder bee: Unlike other carders, this particular bee is not a bumblebee, and unusually, the males are bigger than the females. Whilst the females are out searching for wool-like fibres to line their nests, the males are defending their territory, utilising spikes on their abdomens to defeat and often kill any potential competitors.

It’s a well-known fact that bee numbers are declining, and both climate change and humans are ultimately to blame. We may never be able to increase numbers to previous, healthy numbers, but there’s no harm in trying. With the right plants, we can encourage bees – and other pollinators – into our gardens, safe in the knowledge that unless they feel threatened, they will do nothing more than help nature. There’s no need to tear your garden apart, but if you need to fill a gap, a border or even a few pots, some carefully chosen plants could make a big difference.


As humans, we see a wide range of colours, but with ultraviolet vision, bees are unable to see the same spectrum as us. That said, they can distinguish very well between light and dark; bright colours at the end of the spectrum, however – namely, red – are seen as black. So, anything blue, purple, violet, yellow and white is idea: Aquilegias, Asters, Black-Eyed Susan, Buddlejas, Cosmos, Delphiniums, Foxgloves, Hellebores, Larkspurs, Lavenders, Marigolds, Penstemons, Phlox, Scabious and Sunflowers, but this list is far from exhaustive. Herbs like Chives, Mint and Oregano may produce smaller flowers, but they’re rich in nectar and a firm favourite, and of course, weeds and wildflowers are just as beautiful to bees as the more desired plants.


Whatever we can do to help these little winged warriors will help us too, and our gardens will be delighted. Drop by and take a look at the range of plants we have in our pollination section, and let’s all give bees a chance.


PS: Did you guess Dumbledore?

Some photos curtesy of Pixabay; some sketches curtesy of Friends of the Earth

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