Bee aware: wild bees in the UK
When you think about bees, bumblebees are probably what buzzes to mind. But did you know there are actually 24 species of bumblebee in the UK? And as for solitary bees, there are over 200 species of these pollinators in the UK. Here are just a few of the wild bees you might encounter in your garden:
Willughby's leafcutter bee (12-18mm)
Incredibly crafty, these bees cut little circles out of plants and glue them together with their sticky saliva to create miniature nests in which they lay their eggs. Look out for the characteristic holes in garden leaves, especially roses. This bee can be seen from April to August and like the red mason bee, only eats pollen and nectar.
They can appear similar to honeybees, but the underside of the leafcutter’s abdomen (the rear part of an insect’s body) is usually covered in tufted orange or yellow hairs, unlike the honeybee. The seven species of leafcutter bee in the UK, all similar in appearance.
Red mason bee (11mm)
Small but mighty, these amazing bees build their nests in hollow stems, holes in cliffs and in gaps in the walls of buildings. They create cells separated by a tiny wall of mud in which the larvae develop and the female bee will often fill the space with as many cells as will fit. These enterprising critters don’t weaken mortar, but take advantage of mortar that has already softened.
The way they shape the mud for their tiny nests gives them their name ‘mason’. The ‘red’ part comes from their thick ginger hair. After the eggs hatch the larvae feed on the nectar and pollen, and when fully grown they pupate within the cell. You can see the adult bees around and about from late March until June.
Tree bumblebee (10-16mm)
First recorded in the UK in 2001, the tree bumblebee has since become widespread. This bee likes to nest in aerial situations including holes in walls, eaves of houses and bird boxes. At its peak, a nest consists of around 150 workers and there can be two or even three generations of ‘nest’ a year. The first queens appear in March. The brown thorax and black abdomen with a white tip make mean the tree bumblebee is unlikely to be mistaken for any other species of bumblebee found in the UK.
White-tailed bumblebee (12-18mm)
One of the most common bumblebees, the white-tailed is found throughout Britain. It typically nests underground in old rodent burrows. Queens emerge from overwintering sites in March and nests peak at about 200 workers.
White-tailed bumblebees can appear similar to several other species with the exception of worker buff-tailed bumblebees, which are uncommon.
Tawny mining bee (10mm)
Mining bees generally nest in the ground, often leaving a pile of ‘mined’ soil at the surface. Tawny mining bee likes to nest in areas of low vegetation, typically on south-facing slopes, sometimes forming large nesting aggregations.
They are sometimes found in great numbers in lawns making its nests in spring and early summer. There are nearly 70 species of mining bee found in the UK. The Tawny mining bee female is one of the most characteristic of all UK solitary bees, about the size of a honeybee and covered in a dense covering of hairs, orange on the abdomen and reddish on the thorax.
Common carder bee (13mm)
Preferring to nest above ground in dense vegetation such as grass tussocks or under hedges and shrubs, this bumblebee forms colonies that can be as small as 60 workers. In southern Britain there can be two generations of nest between March and October.
The brown bumblebee is most likely to be seen in gardens, but it can be difficult to distinguish from the much scarcer Moss carder and Brown-banded carder bees.
Wool carder bee (13mm)
This is the only wool carder bee to occur in Britain. The females nest in cavities in walls, dead wood and sometimes other objects. They gather hairs from plants with furry leaf surfaces such as lamb’s-ear to construct nests.
Male wool carders are highly territorial, often patrolling plants which females are likely to forage for hairs. They will attack and attempt to crush any rivals that approach the plant and of course mate with any visiting females.
Illustrations by Corinne Welch, © Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts 2017
Many thanks to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust for assistance in creating this guide.