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Bees are a familiar sight in summer gardens as they go about collecting nectar and pollen from native flowers. They are delightful to watch from a distance and it is fascinating to consider that in the UK there are over 200 species of bees, and around 20,000 species in total worldwide.
This iconic black and yellow striped insect has been symbolically represented in artwork since ancient times as a sign of bountifulness and fertility. The honeybee symbol is featured in the City of Manchester coat of arms as a symbol of hard work and industry, and it can be found on many of the city’s older buildings.
Bees play a crucial role in the ecosystem, and indeed the entire food chain of the world. This is because they are the most effective of all pollinators, as they not only feed on the pollen produced by flowering plants, but also gather it to stock their nests. They are responsible for pollinating 66% of the world’s food crops, including the majority of fruits and vegetables.
Bees also pollinate over 90% of the world’s wildflowers, including plants that are used to derive ingredients for medical products, such as painkillers and cancer treatments. It’s easy to take them for granted. However, bees are under threat from various sources and it is important that we all do what we can to help them thrive and survive.
Sadly, British bees have been declining in numbers and diversity, with 13 species considered extinct and a further 35 under threat. Changes in land use and habitat loss, modern farming methods, climate change, disease, and invasive species have all led to fewer bees in the UK and also worldwide.
The following flowering pond plants can be planted in the marginal shelves around your pond and will help to attract bees to your garden: Marsh marigold (golden cup-like flowers in spring) Purple loosestrife ( a tall growing plant with bright spiky purple flowers), and Yellow flag (also known as flag iris, it has tall stems with large droopy yellow flowers).
Here’s a look at the different species of bee commonly found in the UK. All bees have four wings and their hind legs are longer and stronger than their front legs, and almost all species have a stinger. However, they have some important differences.
The most famous of all bees is the honeybee. In the UK, the only species to be found is the European honeybee. However within this species are different races, including the Carniolan bee and the Italian bee. The majority of honeybees in the UK are cultivated in hives and there are very few wild colonies.
The bees form colonies of between 20,000 and 60,000 bees centering around the queen bee, which can lay up to 1,500 eggs per day.
The worker bees are female and they collect pollen to feed the young and make honey, but do not breed. The male bees are drones and their sole purpose is to mate with a queen bee. Once they have mated, the drones die and unsuccessful drones are evicted from the hive by worker bees.
Honeybees can be identified by black and amber coloured bands and a black abdomen and sandy thorax. They have short tongues and favour orchard trees, herbs, and shrubs.
There are 24 species of bumblebee in the UK, and they also live in colonies, though in lesser numbers than the honeybee; it can be less than a hundred in some cases, or several hundred. They are typically oval shaped and have a fluffy appearance, but vary in size, markings, and colour.
The distinctive tree bumblebee has a ginger thorax with a wide black band around its body and a white tail. They are common visitors to gardens and woodlands.
The red-tailed bumblebee can be found in gardens and many other natural habitats. Only the female has a distinctive red or red-orange tail. The males are a pale yellow colour.
These are very common bees, identified by a bright yellow abdomen band and collar with black bands and a white tail.
Brown carder bees
These are the only species of bumblebee without a white tail. They are a brown or gingery colour with a hairy black abdomen and hairless rear legs.
Mason bees are solitary bees that nest in cavities in walls, wood, and hollow stems, and so are frequently spotted in built-up environments and gardens. The most common species of mason bee is the red mason bee. They have a black head, orange abdomen, and a brown thorax. The females are exceptionally fluffy.
Mining bees are another solitary species of bee, and there are over 67 different species. They nest in the ground, and you may be able to detect them by small mounds of earth on your lawn or in borders.
The most common variety is the tawny mining bee. They are large ginger insects with a black face, and are often found in gardens or any areas where there is exposed soil.
The ashy mining bee is easy to spot because it has black and grey or white bands rather than yellow, brown or ginger colouring. It favours heathlands, coastal areas, and open woodland.
Insects that are often confused with bees
It is easy to spot a winged insect with black and yellow or orange bands and assume it is a species of bee, but there are other creatures that it might be. Here are just a few.
Hoverflies have yellow and black banded bodies and large black heads, but only one set of wings. They are also pollinators but unlike bees they have no stinger.
Wasps are often unfairly discriminated against in favour of bees. However, they also play an important role in pollinating flowers and crops and regulating pests. Social wasps have cone shaped bodies with yellow bands, and live in nests made from chewed wood.