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More about Bees

There are many bee species other than honeybees. The Order called Hymenoptera contains over 100,000 known species - insects with two pairs of membranous wings. This includes Vespoidea (wasps), Apoidea (bees) and Formicoidea (ants).

World-wide there are nearly 20,000 known species of bee. In the UK, there are 268 species of native bees (only one of which is the honeybee, Apis mellifera. Of these 225 are classified as 'solitary' - the fertilised females rear young alone and have no casts (different types of female within the same nest).

Bees are (for classification purposes) arranged into 9 families. Many of these are peculiar to Africa and places other than the UK. The following are notable for bees that live here:

Andrenidae - (large family - example shown right)

Apidae - Honeybees, bumblebees, cuckoo bees, carpenter bees

Colletidae - Plasterer bees

Megachilidae - Mason bees, leafcutter bees and Carder bees

Positive identification of the different species of bees is hampered by the fact that male and females are usually different in appearance (sexually dimorphic). In addition, there are many 'mimic' bees and other insects. There are even a group of bumblebees called cuckoo or Psithyrus bees who often resemble their hosts. Some resources to help with identification are shown below.

Photo NAL

Andrena nitida (no common name). This solitary mining bee is gathering pollen from Cherry blossom

Solitary bees

Included in this category are carpenter, cuckoo, plasterer, mason, mining and leafcutter bees. Many of them do not have a common name, relying only on their latin names.

These bees raise their young in isolation, but often congregate their nest sites together for mating purposes. Nests are most commonly made in the ground, but may be in hollow stems or holes in trees.

They do not create wax or honey. Usually their eggs are sealed in a tunnel, together with a quantity of pollen (sometimes mixed with nectar) as food for the young larvae.

Solitary bees are not susceptable to Varroa mites (as honeybees are), but have their own parasites and diseases. They suffer particularly from parasitic wasps which lay their eggs in the nest, only to emerge and eat all the provisions before the young bee can get to it.

It is solitary bees' untidy method of collecting pollen that contributes to them being more efficient pollinators than honey bees.

We can help solitary bees by providing suitable nest sites - either bare (uncultivated) patches of earth in the garden or with small bundles of bamboo. Avoid the use of pesticides, and allow some weed and wildflower growth to take place in an untended corner of the garden.

Click here to download free fact sheet from IBRA about solitary bees (shown right).


There are (currently) 24 native bumblebees species in the UK. Many of them are in decline. The most common six are:

Common carder bee - Bombus pascuorum

Red-tailed bumblebee - Bombus lapidarius

Early bumblebee - Bombus pratorum

Buff-tailed bumblebee - Bombus terrestris

White-tailed bumblebee - Bombus lucorum

Garden bumblebee - Bombus hortorum

bumblebee nests (courtesy BBC)

True bumblebees are social - they have a reproductive female (known as a queen), female workers and males. Unlike the honeybee, bumblebees do not overwinter as a colony; only queens survive to emerge in the Spring to start a new colony.

The first job the newly emergent queen must do is find something to eat. Bumblebees have an advantage over honey bees in that they can tolerate much colder conditions for flight. The queen then finds a suitable nest site (could be disused mouse nest or cavity in a compost heap) and builds a small wax pot to store nectar. She may also make a pile of pollen at this time.

The first brood emerge as workers, who then set about the business of gathering pollen while the queen lays more eggs. The colony may grow to between 50 and 400 workers. Later in the year, the colony will produce more queens and some males - these fly out to mate with opposites from other colonies.

The old queens, workers and males all perish in the autumn, leaving the newly mated queens to find a nest site (usually underground) to overwinter in hibernation.

Bumblebees are commercially important as pollinators. There are some crops that honeybees are unable to pollinate - particularly those that belong to the Solanaceae (tomato and potato) and some of the Leguminosae (bean and pea) families. Bumblebees, with their ability to beat their wings at about 400 Hz and their long tongues, are able to pollinate these plants effectively.

It is thought that the change in farming methods (including the loss of hedgerows) is partly responsible for the decline in bumblebee populations, particularly over the last 50 years. One of the most important things we can do to reverse this trend is to reintroduce hay meadows, rich in wildflowers. Details of which plants are good for bumblebees can be obtained from the Bumblebee Conservation Trust (see below).

Links to related websites

Bumblebee Conservation Trust

Bumblebees are beautiful, hard working and incredibly important pollinators. The UK has 25 species, but sadly 3 are nationally extinct, and many more are seriously threatened...


Natural History Museum

Read about all kinds of bees and questions of identification at the Nature Plus 'Bug Forum' about bees.


Solitary Bees

Mention bees and most people think of the 'social bees' - swarms of honey bees, or gangs of bumblebees. In fact, the vast majority of bees are solitary, living out their lives as single bees, provisioning single nest cells, rather than working with other bees to raise huge numbers of offspring in shared nests.


Bees, Wasps & Ants Recording Society

BWARS is the national society dedicated to studying and recording bees, wasps & ants (aculeate Hymenoptera) in Britain. There is a wealth of photographs and identification aids on this site.


Buglife Conservation Trust

Buglife is the only organisation in Europe devoted to the conservation of all invertebrates, and is passionately committed to saving Britain's rarest little animals, everything from bees to beetles, and spiders to snails.


Bee identification site in the Netherlands

Lots of excellent photographs to help with identification


An Atlas of Hymenoptera and pollens in Belgium

Large photographic resource of photographs of many species in Hymenoptera and pollens




A website devoted to almost every aspect of bumblebees


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