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  1. When we think of bees we tend to think of big, fat fluffy bees – the bumble bees.  Or the bees which live in hives and give us honey.  But there is so much more to bees. 

    In this country we have around 280 bees.  One of them is the well-known honey bee.  Some of them are bumble bees, but around 250 of them are solitary bees or, the so called, wild bees.  Whilst they are the largest group of bees they are the least known and least studied.

    Honey bee and bumble bee colonies have a queen bee who lays all the eggs for the colony.  The queen is assisted by sterile female workers who forage to bring food back and help to raise the young.  There will also be some drones (male bees).    

    Solitary bees just consist of males and females.  In many species the males emerge before the females.  As there are many different solitary bees, there are also many different behaviours.

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    (Green eyed flower bee)

    Some species of males will politely go off to the flowers the females will feed on and wait for the females to appear.  Others will set up patrols amongst flowers likely to be frequented by the females and will defend their territory against other males.  Yet others will hang around the nest site waiting for the females to emerge and then pounce on them! 

    After mating the female will find a nest site and set about building and provisioning a nest with pollen and nectar for her growing young.  First she builds a cell.  Then she provisions it with a ball of nectar and pollen on which she will lay an egg.  The cell will be sealed and then she will build another one.  Like most female worker bees (the queens are the exception) solitary bees only live for a few short weeks and she will die shortly after she has finished laying her eggs. 

    The eggs will hatch, the larvae will eat the food provided and then pupate.  The following year the new bees will emerge to start the cycle again, never having met their parents.  Hence the title “solitary” bee.

    Solitary bees nest in all sorts of places.  Some like hard compact ground to dig into, others sandy soil.  Some like to nest in hollow stems and canes or beetle holes in old and rotting wood. 

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    (Female bee peeking out of her nest)

    Other bees will use bee hotels.  Again, the different species will use different materials to seal the cells containing their young, materials such as mud, chewed up leaves and even sandy soil and small pieces of gravel.

    One of my favourite bees is the leaf cutter bee.  This bee likes to nest in hollow stems and so is often found in bee hotels.  The female cuts semi circles from leaves, often roses but other plants are used too.  She carries these back to her nest and fashions a cell which she provisions with nectar and pollen.  An egg is laid on the food and then the cell is sealed up with more pieces of leaf.  The female will keep on building cells along the cane until she reaches the entrance.


    (Patchwork leaf cutter bee with her bright orange abdomen)

    There are even a couple of specialist species who like to nest in snail shells.  Some of these species use mud to seal the snail shell, whilst others use chewed up leaves.  So next time you come across a snail shell full of mud, or a strange green material, you may have found a little bee nest.

    Whilst they are called solitary bees, if the nesting conditions are right, some species of solitary bee can nest in their 100s and sometimes even 1,000s.  These areas are known as nesting aggregations.

    Solitary bees come in a whole range of sizes.  The largest could be mistaken for small bumble bees whilst the smallest, like some of the furrow bees, are just 4mm long. 

    Furrow bee

    (One of the furrow bees - just 4mm long)

    In the spring one of the first solitary bees to emerge is one of my favourites – the hairy footed flower bee.  This solitary bee is the biggest of the solitary bees.  The female is easily recognised because she emerges at a time when the only other bees flying are the large queen bumblebees and the honeybees.  She is smaller than the bumble bee queens and all black with bright orange back legs.  So if you see a bee which looks like a small black bumble bee you can bet it’s a hairy footed flower bee.  The male is smaller and has white markings on his face, which look like a moustache!  I’ve never yet managed to get a photo as he darts around all over the place – so again is quite easy to recognise.

    Hairy footed flower bee on apple blossom

    (Female hairy footed flower bee nectaring on apple blossom)

    One by one over the spring and summer months into autumn the solitary bees emerge from their various nesting sites.  The flight time of each species is around 6 weeks so different species of solitary bees are seen at different times of the year.

    Some solitary bees will forage on lots of different plants, but some, like the ivy bee, have very particular needs.  This bee’s life cycle is timed to coincide with the ivy flowering and so it is the last solitary bee to emerge each year, emerging in September.  Whilst the adults will nectar on other flowers if the ivy hasn’t flowered when they emerge, they need the ivy pollen to rear their young.

    Ivy bee on flowering mint

    (Ivy bee feeding on mint as the ivy is yet to flower)

    The ivy bee is a recent introduction into this country and was first seen near the south coast in 2001.  They have gradually moved northwards. 

    Although I look forward to seeing the ivy bees each year, I am also a little sad as I know the “bee season” is coming to an end for this year and I’ll have to wait for my first glimpse of the hairy footed flower bees next spring.


     (Hairy footed flower bee on flowering purple sprouting broc)

  2. In late February/March bumble bee queens start to emerge from hibernation.  Some solitary bee species also start to emerge.  Both of these will need nectar to give them the energy they need to find a nest site and to start their nests.  They will also need pollen to raise their young.

    Honey bee colonies are also starting to expand.  As nectar flow increases the queen bee is fed more and this increases her rate of lay.  Honey bees bringing pollen back to the hive is always a welcome sight to the beekeeper as it means the queen is laying eggs and the colony are raising young.


    Bees come in different sizes and also, to a certain extent, different shapes.  Bumble bees tend to be big and fat and fuzzy, whilst honey bees and solitary bees are smaller and slimmer.  Bees also have different tongue lengths.  Why is this important?  Well it’s because they use that tongue (or proboscis) to suck up nectar from the flowers.  That tongue length helps to determine the flowers the bees can access the nectar from, as does the size of the bee. 

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    Often we think we have to be able to grow wildflower mixes to help feed bees, but this really isn't the case.  The good news is that when it comes to planting for bees, as there are so many different types of bees, there isn’t “a one size fits all” answer.  By following a few simple “rules” it’s actually very easy to add a few “bee friendly” plants to your garden, allotment, balcony or patio.  You also don’t need acres of space, or even a big garden.  Just a few pots or hanging baskets will all help to make a difference.

    So what are the “rules”?

    Bees need flowers where they can access the nectar and pollen easily.  Many highly developed flowers no longer produce nectar or pollen.  Even if they do the bees struggle to reach it with lots of petals to get past.  As I’ve mentioned before I love the highly scented “frilly” roses, but the bees can’t get to the pollen very easily in these roses.  So open flowers are much better for bees.  Flowers like cosmos, old fashioned "dog" roses, fruit blossom and open dahlias like this one.


    Many plants have developed tubular shaped flowers.  Whilst these aren’t open flowers, they are still great for bees as they can crawl inside to access the nectar.  These flowers are quite clever because they’ve evolved in such way that as the bee crawl inside the pollen gets dabbed on the bee’s back where it is less easy to groom and means there is pollen in just the right place to pollinate the next flower.  Foxgloves are a great example of this.  Those little dots on the inside of the flower are like a runway straight to the nectar for bees!


    Plants which produce lots of small flowers are great for bees as they can move quickly from one flower to another collecting pollen and nectar as they go.  I have a lot of herbs at the allotment such as marjoram, mints, lavender, rosemary, thyme etc and they are always popular with the bees as well as the butterflies.  Later in the year sedums are a popular choice.

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    Similarly flowers which we might think of as being one flower, but are actually made up of lots of small flowers, such as sunflowers, are great for bees. I used to wonder why the bees would spend so long on sunflowers not realising that each sunflower is actually made up of 100s of actual flowers.  Bees do a great job of pollinating them, because if they didn’t they wouldn’t develop the masses of seeds they usually do.

    Common carder bee - bombus pascuorum

    Planting in clumps is good as, again, it means the bees can quickly travel from one flower to another.

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    Flowering shrubs are also a good addition to your bee friendly garden. 

    A great tip if you’re not sure what to buy is to let the bees tell you.  Next time you visit a garden centre or nursery have a look and see which plants are attracting all the bees.  I have to hold my hands up and say I am more of a fruit and veg grower than a flower gardener and I’m not great with the names of plants.  The few shrubs I have at the allotment were impulse buys as they were buzzing with bees when I visited the garden centre! 


    If you are gardening on a budget why not grow from seed.  A few packets of seeds will often produce far more plants than you actually want.  Some of the seeds could be saved for next year, but even so there may still be more than you want so why not swop some with friends and neighbours.  I love growing cosmos, calendula, cornflowers, sunflowers and dahlias from seed each year as well as chives amongst others.

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    I always find March a bit of a tricky month as I’m usually itching to get sowing, but the weather can be so variable it’s often best to hold off for a few weeks until later in the month or even April.  With day length increasing and (usually!) warmer weather seeds sown then usually catch up earlier sown ones.  So don’t panic if you’ve not started seed sowing yet.

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    Check out next month’s blog for more about what’s going on at the allotment, the bees and what we can be growing for them.

    Why not drop me an email or post a comment telling me what you are up to in the garden.  You can also follow me on facebook.


  3. It can be a bit of a struggle to do much gardening during January and February.  Whilst the intention may be there often the weather is against us.  If you can bear to get out in the garden/allotment now though is the perfect time for getting the structure in place. 

    Trees can be pruned (with the exception of stone fruit such as plums, cherries, peaches etc) as can fruit bushes, raspberry canes, blackberries and tayberries etc.  Branches which have been pruned can be stacked in a corner out of the way.  Beetles will be one of the first to use the wood, boring into it.  Then solitary bees may nest in the logs.  Any hollow stems will also be used by solitary bees and other insects such as lacewings.