Our bee guide looks at how to identify common British species, best places to spot and plants to grow to attract bees to your garden, plus what to do if you see a struggling bee.
What is the role of bees?
Bees are vital in the life-cycle of a plant, due to pollination. This process is essential because it allows plants to reproduce, and many plants depend on bees or other pollinators to survive.
A bee will collect nectar and pollen from the flower of a plant, as well as some from the stamens – the male reproductive organ of the plants. When the bee visits the next flower, the pollen is transported onto the stigma, or the tip of the pistil – the female reproductive organ of the flower. This is essential to the fertilisation process of plants, food and fruits.
More related content:
- Guide to British butterflies: how to identify and the best places to spot
- British beetle guide
- A beginner’s guide to native British wildflowers
How to identify common British bee species
Honeybees live in a colony, although they don’t hibernate they do work industrially and cluster together to stay warm. They work together to create food (honey) which is created and stored throughout the summer.
Bees have been created honey for over one hundred and fifty million years. To make one pound of honey, bees fly over 55,000 miles, or in other terms, 2.2 times around the world.
Though some colonies exist in the wild, the majority are domesticated, living in hives all year round. The colony consists of a queen, who can live to 3 years old, and many of her daughters. Honeybees have a short tongue length, meaning they are limited to certain pollen sources.
24 of the UK’s bee species are bumblebees. These are also social bees, though colonies are significantly smaller and vary slightly depending on the species. A well established colony could comprise of up to 400 bees. Tongue lengths vary so different species feed on different flowers.
The life cycle of a bumblebee
Bumblebees have an annual life cycle. Usually the queen wakes up from hibernation in spring and finds a good nesting location in which to lay eggs. These eggs hatch into sterile female worker bees, which help their mother increase the size of the nest and raise more workers.
The colony will expand until the queen decides that it is time to produce new queens and male bees which fly off and mate. The newly mated queens will find somewhere to hibernate through the winter, but the old queen, the males and all the worker bees die and the nest is abandoned.
This means bumblebees can be seen throughout spring, summer and into autumn, but they are rarely active in winter.
However over the last 20 years or so, people have started to notice winter activity of a bumblebee commonly found in gardens, the Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris). It appears that rather than hibernating, a small number of newly mated queens are establishing nests in the autumn. This means worker bees can be seen foraging in December and January, with new queens and males emerging in February.
Winter generations have mostly been recorded the southern half of England and the majority of bees are seen in urban gardens, parks and car-parks, where there is access to winter flowering ornamental plants. Mahonia seem most attractive to the bumblebees, along with winter-flowing heathers and honeysuckles.
The majority of the UK’s bee species are solitary bees, of which we have around 250 species. Solitary bees exist only in the wild and are the most effective pollinators of all bee species. Their appearance can vary hugely and some species are often mistaken for wasps or flies.
How to save a struggling bee
It’s not just us humans who are struggling with the heat this summer. If you come across a struggling bee, it could be suffering from exhaustion, have a parasite or simply been caught out in the rain. Eve Betts has rounded up a few things you can do to help perk your new stripy friend up.
Place the bee somewhere warm
If a bee is suffering from an internal parasite, there’s nothing you can do. But if you think the bee is simply exhausted, slide a piece of paper beneath it and place it in warm, dry place. Bees can only fly if the temperature of their thorax remains above 30 degrees, so a greenhouse or your house is ideal.
Feed the bee
A simple sugar and water solution is sufficient to get a bee buzzing again. One spoonful of water to two of organic sugar is perfect. Never feed a bee honey, though, even if it’s organic – bees can catch viruses if they eat honey from neighbouring hives.
Drop the sugar and water solution onto a paper towel in small amounts or place in a clean milk bottle lid. Leave it by the bee’s head. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to see the bee feeding with its long, reddish tongue.
Many bees will recover in anything from a few minutes to an hour after feeding on a syrup solution. If it’s not raining, put the bee somewhere safe outside, such as in a plant pot where it can stretch its wings and fly away when it’s ready. Hopefully, it will back and buzzing about in no time!
How to attract bees to your garden
Stop using – or limit use of pesticides
Studies have found that pesticides can be harmful to insects and other wildlife, so where possible switch to more wildlife-friendly methods, such as using mulch around plants or simply regular weeding.
Plant for bees
Bees and other pollinators love plants such as dahlias, buddleia, lavender, clematis, foxglove, hosta and wildflowers. See our tips below for more detail on the types of plants bees do and don’t love. If you have space, a patch of wildflowers or an overgrown lawn with dandelions and daisies is a big help to bees.
Provide access to water
Bees need water to drink and to use in their hives. While they will often drink the droplets off a lawn or a flower, you can help by giving them access to a water source. Deep water will drown the bee so simply spray water over plants in dry seasons, allowing the odd pool of water to gather to give them a chance of a drink.
Bees – and many other insects, love a shady, sheltered spot. Allow, a spot in your garden to be a bit wilder with a couple of stacked logs or you could even treat the bees to a bespoke bee house.
Which plants are best for bees?
The more diverse flowers and plants you have in your garden, the more pollinators you will attract, however not all plants are good for bees.
Clematis have beautiful, wide flowers and are 100 per cent bee-friendly.
Best to avoid: Rhododendron
Spectacular and beautiful, not many people know the common rhododendron hides a poisonous secret – its nectar is toxic to bees. It’s common practice for beekeepers to keep their hives closed until the flowering season is over. The resulting honey from rhododendrons has also been known to contaminate honey, making it unsafe for humans to eat.
Foxgloves are a bee favourite and despite being poisonous if consumed by humans, they are both honey and bee safe.
Best to avoid: Azalea
Rhododendron’s sister, azaleas are also toxic to bees.
Try honeysuckle for deliciously scented results.
Best to avoid: Trumpet flower, or angel’s trumpet
Though ornamental and sweet smelling, the trumpet flower’s nectar can cause brood death in bees and is best avoided.
Snapdragons are equally as bright and arguably more attractive in small or large gardens.
Best to avoid: Oleander
Harmful to butterflies as well as bees, oleander has a severe effect on hives. Nectar taken to the hive concentrates as it dries out, which increases the amount of toxins and usually results in a mass hive wipeout.
Plant Black-eyed Susans in tubs and along fences for a pretty, easy-to-grow substitute.
Best to avoid: Yellow Jessamine
Pleasantly aromatic and attractive as they are, bees are often poisoned by the vines and flowers of the yellow jessamine and its toxins are said to be as severe as hemlock.
Lilacs are both beautiful and wonderfully sweet smelling. Easy to grow and are loved by bees and butterflies.
Best to avoid: Mountain Laurel
Part of the blueberry family, the mountain laurel is an evergreen shrub with sweet, white or pink flowers when in bloom. Pretty they may be, but the honey produced by mountain laurel is toxic to humans and is often bitter tasting.
Hollyhocks are impressive and just as beautiful as the stargazer but bee-friendly.
Best to avoid: Stargazer lily
Stunning but deadly, stargazer lilies’ pollen is poisonous to bees.
Although not quite as exotic as their toxic counterparts, hyacinths are fragrant, gorgeous and easy to grow.
Best to avoid: Heliconia
Exotic and interesting, heliconia, or lobster-claws as its sometimes called, is very toxic to bees.
Dahlias are a highlight of late summer gardens. Beautiful and simple to grow, dahlias often flower until the first frosts of the year.
Best to avoid: Amaryllis
Now most commonly recognised as decorative Christmas flowers, amaryllis are gorgeous in bloom but their pollen produces toxic honey.
Why not try planting a classic rosemary bush – aromatic, resilient and favoured by bees.
Best to avoid: Bog rosemary
Not to be confused with the herb, bog rosemary is acutely poisonous and the honey made from this plant can cause paralysis to humans.
How to build a bee house
Bee houses are fun and easy to make. Your bee house will be ideal for solitary bees, of which there are over 220 wild species in the UK. These solitary insects do not belong to hives like honey bees, but make their own individual nests for their larvae.
To make your bee house you will need:
- A wooden box or empty plastic bottle
- A drill
- Bamboo sticks
- Secateurs, saw and screws
- A hook
Step 1: Take a wooden box and remove one side, or alternatively cut the top off a large plastic bottle. An old bit of piping would also be ideal. This will become the container for your bamboo shoots.
Step 2: Cut the bamboo sticks to the same length as the depth of your container. Using different widths of bamboo is ideal, as bees can then choose between the sizes. Alternatively, you can drill deep holes 2-10mm wide into the blocks of wood that fit into your container. Make sure the holes are clean and splinter-free, as bees won’t use untidy holes.
Step 3: Pack the bamboo sticks or blocks of wood tightly into the box, plastic bottle or pipe.
Step 4: Attach a hook to the back of your bee house. Hang or place in full sun, facing the south or south east. Your bee house must be at least a metre off the ground and free from surrounding foliage.
Now simply watch and wait! Make sure your bee house stays dry and consider moving it during the winter months to protect any nesting bees.