Nature Natters (3) – Garden Bees

Nature: natters (3) – Garden Bees

The first bees to visit the garden in early spring are the bumblebees, the queens emerge from hibernation in early spring usually after the first spell of warm weather. Often the Buff-tailed Bumblebee is the first to emerge, this is our largest bee and as its name suggests has a buff coloured tip to the abdomen, the similar White-tailed Bumblebee is smaller and has a white tail, both have two yellow bands on a black body. The Red-tailed Bumblebee is jet black with an orange-red tail and the ginger-haired Common Carder Bee are also common garden visitors. Initially they will visit early flowers for nectar before seeking out a suitable nesting site, they will then begin to collect pollen to feed their offspring.

Bumblebee nests will often attract unwanted visitors in the form of Cuckoo Bumblebees, these have no workers and do not collect pollen, instead relying on the host species to rear their offspring. There are six species which have similar appearance to the species whose nest they take over, although they are less hairy and have a dark tinge to the wings.

The Honey Bee is another spring species, often appearing just after the bumblebees, these are slender bees and less hairy than bumblebees which live in large colonies. They collect both nectar and pollen straight away to replenish the stocks of supplies for the hive, the pollen is often visible on the hind legs of the bee.

Many species of solitary bee visit gardens, unlike bumblebees and honey bees they do not live in colonies although many nest in large numbers in close proximity. The female will construct a small nest often in the soil, in dead wood or even in soft mortar, she will then lay a small number of eggs. The eggs are provided with a supply of nectar and pollen and sealed within the nest, the majority will not hatch until the following year. The majority of solitary bees emerge in spring and are particularly important pollinators of fruit crops. Leaf-cutter Bees are an interesting group of solitary bees, the females of these insects are often responsible for cutting neat semi-circles from the leaves of roses. They will carry the cut section under their body back to the nest where they are used to line the cells in which the eggs are laid.

Solitary bees can be encouraged into the garden by providing suitable nesting sites, both natural and artificial, south or east facing situations work best, especially if there are nectar sources nearby. Holes up to 10mm in diameter can be drilled in logs or other wooden structures to various depths, these will attract a variety of species. Otherwise short lengths of bamboo cane or even drinking straws can be placed in bundles in suitable sites around the garden.

As with bumblebees the nests of solitary bees may be taken over by cuckoo bees which enter the nest where they lay their own eggs. These hatch out before those of the host species, they then feed on the contents of the nest cells prior to emerging. The so-called Nomad Bees are often the most obvious, these are almost hairless bees often with red, yellow and black stripes on the abdomen giving them a wasp-like appearance.

Recent declines in populations of many bee species has seen gardens and allotments become increasingly important as food sources and nest sites for many bee species. As part of the project to produce a distribution atlas of Hymenoptera in the Cheshire region RECORD are looking for volunteers to record visits by a selection of those bee species which regularly gardens or allotments. Details of the species concerned, their identification and recording form are available from the RECORD or by post from the Zoology Department at World Museum, William Brown St, Liverpool, L3 8EN.

You can also send Warrington Nature Conservation a message via our new web site

Tony Parker – Assistant Curator Vertebrate Zoology

Zoology Department at World Museum