As summer approaches and the flowers come into bloom, the gentle hum of the busy bee becomes an increasingly familiar sound in the garden. Although feared by some due to its unfortunate reputation as a "stinger", the bee is in fact one of our most useful and necessary garden visitors. In Britain there are approximately 250 different species of bees, some living socially in colonies, but the majority leading solitary lives. Due to the large numbers in a single colony, it is the social bees which we are most familiar.

Social bees

Honey bees

British honeybees are almost entirely domesticated and form permanent communities in hives where they are tented by the beekeeper. Some, however, exist in the "wild" where they set up colonies in hollow trees or occasionally in buildings.
The colony is a well-organised social structure consisting of a queen, the egg layer; workers, sterile females who carry out all the work of the hive; and the male drones.
It is the workers which we usually see around the garden collecting nectar and pollen to feed the queen and larvae. The drones only live for a short time, their task being to mate with the new queens, after which they die.


The colony grows at a rapid rate at the height of the season there may be as many as 60,000 bees in one hive. At this time, usually around May, when a new queen is ready to emerge and the hive is overcrowded, the old queen leaves with about half the community and seeks a new nesting place. Once the swarm has settled the beekeeper will collect them and take them to a new hive where the colony will begin to build again. Very often the swarm will settle on a branch while "scouts" look for a reasonable nesting place. If this occurs in your garden the best course of action is to contact the local beekeeper who will retrieve them, or leave them well alone and in a few hours they will probably move on.


The only other truly social bees in Britain are the bumblebees. There are several species of these attractive insects.
The life of a bumblebee is very similar to that of the honeybee. The main difference is that, unlike honeybees, they have no store of honey for the winter and only the young queens survive in hibernation to start their colonies in the spring. Most British species of bumblebee nest below ground, often in old mouse holes, although a few nest on the ground. Occasionally they will nest in debris in a garden shed or outhouse. They are not usually dangerous but can sting if handled, so they are best left alone. Having found a suitable nesting site the queen makes her nest out of grass, moss or leaves. After the first batch of eggs has developed the queen is able to concentrate on laying while the workers look after the nest. Later in the season both drones and queens are produced and the colony at this stage may consist of several hundred bees. Towards the end of the summer the new queens mate with the drones and then search for a place to hibernate. The remainder of the colony dies when the weather gets colder.

Solitary bees

There are many species of solitary bees in Britain, but because of their rather unobtrusive life-style they are often overlooked. Those we may encounter around the garden include mining bees which look rather like honeybees but are generally much smaller. The female digs a burrow, sometimes up to 2 ft deep. She makes a cell at the end which she places a ball of honey and pollen and then lays an egg. After sealing the cell she may move up the tunnel and repeat the process several times, then she leaves the burrow and goes her own way.
Solitary bees nest in a number of different places, some species prefer earth or sand, some dig in lawns or garden paths, while others nest in soft mortar or decaying masonry. Although not social creatures, a number of individuals may nest close together and this grouping can be mistaken for a colony.

Gardener's friend

Bees are perhaps the most important garden visitors. Without them many of our food and plant crops could not be pollinated. As the females fly from flower in search of nectar the hairs on their bodies become dusted with pollen. The pollen is gathered into "baskets" on their back legs however, some remains on the body and is transferred to the next flower, so pollinating it.
While other insects play some part in pollination, bees have a major role and a significant drop in their population level might be very serious for plant life.
The length of a bee’s tongue determines which flower it visits. Those with short tongues take nectar which is freely exposed, while the nectar in the large tubular flowers can be reached by those with longer tongues. This, coupled with the fact that some bees are dependent on particular types of flowers, means that the destruction of one species could directly affect the survival of that particular plant.

Bee stings

Contrary to our beliefs and fears, bees do not normally sting us. The female alone can sting and will only do so when threatened or provoked, as losing their sting will result in death shortly afterwards. If we are stung by a bee it is probably because we have inadvertently threatened it or have perhaps blocked its flight path.
Of the bees we may find in the garden none can be considered dangerous. Bumblebees are very unlikely to sting us, they are usually docile, it is even possible to stroke them without coming to harm. The sting of solitary bees is often too weak to even penetrate our skin.

A-Z of Wildlife

Photo of Red-tailed Bumblebee

Name: Red-tailed Bumblebee

Scientific name: Bombus lapidarius

Category: Bees and wasps

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