UK Bees - The Ultimate Guide

December, 2023
Darren Spalding

What do we know about bees? We know they love flowers of various kinds. We depend on them for honey and ensuring plant life continues growing due to the effects of pollination.

But, who of you knows that their very existence and survival are threatened by chemicals, disease, and habitat destruction? All of this may sound very dramatic and we feel for these little creatures who create a pleasant environment for us to enjoy.

What if we told you that without these winged wonders the human race will find it incredibly challenging to harvest enough food?

The thing is that our pollinators are made responsible, without them knowing it, for the fruiting of our harvest. In simple terms, we need to change bee fortunes not just for their own sake but for our own sake.

Bee numbers are a clear indicator of the wellbeing of our climate. They are in decline like our native butterflies and hedgehogs, and this points to environmental issues – however, there are steps that can help overturn their fortunes.

Many people know bees make honey and they sting, but this fascinating creature has so much more to it – do you realize they have five eyes? Two regular ones and then three on top of their heads. Also, were you aware of the fact that in the UK alone there are hundreds of different types?

Is it Really So That There are Bees Living in the UK?

It might not be as common as it was less than half a century ago that we take note of bees that fly all around us. However, most of us at one time or another will notice a bee sitting on a flower somewhere. The point we are making over here is that there are 100s of different bees in the UK alone.

Social bees like honey bees enjoy living in hives and nests. Close to 50,000 of them can keep living together in a command hierarchy. Even the bumblebee is a social sort, but prefers a smaller group of friends-around 50 to 150. A Queen rules social bees. This monarch is mainly accountable for the laying of all the eggs, the rest gather food, keep the hives clean and fertilize the queen.

As a side note - Who would have thought that these little winged creatures perform different functions.

Do gain a proper understanding of the bee species, let’s delve a little deeper into the different types of bees.

Mining Bees

Have you ever noticed piles of earth all over your lawn area? It looks like miniature volcanoes, making one think it is the work of baby moles. Mining bees are to blame for this as they do this to nest in the ground. The most common type is the ashy mining bee. They range in colour from a light fluffy yellow to a darker orange. Beetles have a hard time with these as they take advantage of their tunnels.

Mason Bees

What an appropriate name of these bees as they make their home in the brickwork of homes and can also be found in hard dead flower stalks, wood, and walls. You can identify them by their black faces that are complemented by a deep ginger colour body. Their heads are squarish. They are known for collecting building materials in the form of mud to construct a solid little abode.

Carder Bees

British folks would have seen brown bees going about their business. They are yellowy-brown and can be seen in many gardens where they are busy collecting nectar from weeds such as nettles and dandelions. Carder bees are commonly found living solo in burrows or tunnels. Unlike some of you would believe, they do not make wax or honey, but they feed their larvae with a mixture of nectar and pollen.


Cuddly cute and the kind that you wish you could stroke. Interestingly, these bees have a very long tongue that stretches well over 2cm. You will know it is a bumblebee by their famous white-tail or red-tail trademark. They can be very loud and are often seen thudding against window panes. The British fondly call them Dumbledore.

Leafcutter bees

These are the type of bees responsible for the removal of spiral leaf pieces. In the UK there are seven distinct types. For single larvae, they use cut leaves to create a nesting cell. They lay eggs in beetle holes and to create their nursery they need about 40 pieces of leaves.

Honey Bees

Honeybees are leaner and feature a striped golden body, but sadly there are few wild colonies remaining in the UK, even in artificial hives beekeepers prefer honeybees. They are more popular than bumblebees and mostly feed on flowers like lavender, oilseed rape, and fruit blossom.

Where Do Bees Make Their Home?

They live in hives, in the earth, in tree trunks and in your house bricks. Obviously it depends on the type of species you are dealing with. It's highly probable to be a wasp nest if you spot a huge, haggard-looking paper nest – don't touch and keep your kids and domestic animals out of harm's way.

If you're lucky, a lonely bee will stay at your bee motel.

What Do They Eat?

Well, if we were bees, then the delicious honey would be the first thing we devour. Bees feed on flowers as the nectar would provide carbohydrates, and they get their protein from the pollen.

In summer, bees do not actually eat honey but instead, save it for their larvae. The remaining honey is sealed off with wax and left to ferment when the flowers are dormant and the nectar is in short supply for use over winter.

Who are Their Enemies?

Bees are prey to various predators. Birds are going to capture the bees on their wing or whilst bustling within a flower. Spiders can catch bees in a web, while the crab spider, a prolific hunter, is a stealth master who changes colour to match the floral landscape to jump on a clueless bee.

Dogs and cats kill bees and many bees collide into cars. Humans kill bees with garden pesticides too, a shortage of flowers and simply crushing them since we're afraid.

The Asian hornet is an especially successful honey-bee predator. They must wait to kill and collect bees from outside the hives when they return. It is not originally from the United Kingdom but was mistakenly brought to France and is making its way through Europe.aThe Asian Hornet can easily destroy whole honeybee colonies.

Disease is also prevalent in bees, given the antibacterial and antifungal properties of their hives. The Varroa mite is of particular concern to bee-keepers. It extracts the blood of bees and spit infection in their mouths, and sneaks into forming pupae within the burrows and hives. Varroa represents a real threat to the population of bees.

Notable Differences Between Wasps and Bees

Off the bat, bees are way hairier and of a big help to the human family as they pollinate our plants. Their only food is nectar and pollen. As a whole, they are very gentle and rarely get angry to the point where they sting you. They tuck their legs in when they fly.

Wasps, on the other hand, have hardly any hair on their body. They also help us by eating other insects and by getting rid of excess human food that lays around. Do not mess with them as they are aggressive and will sting you at a moment’s notice. You will notice that their legs hang down when they fly.

Why We Prefer Bees to Wasps

Bees are friendlier in that they hardly ever bother you for the food you’re eating. They favour nectar and not ice-cream or other sweet stuff. Wasps love sweet food. So, if you hear a buzz close to you, the chances are good that it is a wasp.

The UK has two types of wasp-the German wasp and the common wasp. They both have long limbs, bodies that are black and yellow, measuring 12-15 mm. Bees appear to be more orange in colour.

Since bees have strong, hairy bodies with flat back legs, and wasps are slender some folk classify wasps as high-speed sports cars and a bee as Volvos.

Where are the Nests?

Locating a wild bee nest now is rare if not impossible it would have bee larvae and wax cells stacked in rows. A wasp nest is large, rounded and papery. They are nesting in lofts, trees, and in dark places. Both types of nests will be constantly humming and should not be poked or messed with.

Then there is another stripy insect to look for – if you see what looks like a wingless wasp sipping nectar – it's a pollinating hoverfly.

Hoverflies are easy to identify because they do just that, they hover near a flower. You will notice they flap their wings so quickly that you likely won't hear or see them. They don't have a sting and are absolutely harmless.

What About Hibernation - Is it Something a Bee Would Do?

Contrary to popular belief, some bees do hibernate. We are talking about solitary bees who hibernate in their nest or burrow. This is another reason why it is a brilliant idea to keep your stalks staying up until spring.

Honey bees would gather together for a bit of warmth and take turns to go outside. They would survive by consuming honey that they stored from their summer activities.

Bumblebees, on the other hand, usually die off once colder weather arrives. This is the reason why we may notice a lot of dead bumblebees lying around than any other bees. It is different for the queen bumblebee as she nestles herself into the soil in preparation for starting a new colony once spring arrives.

Why Having Bees Around Matters

Bees make up a vital part of the food chain as they pollinate up to a third of our food supply. In the UK, 70 plants require bee pollination and the food production industry estimates that bees are worth £ 400 million a year. We find ourselves in trouble without them because they pollinate our plants.

For example, take our apple trees. You may very well have two pollinating partners, which means two distinct kinds of apple tree that require cross-pollination for apple production. It is the bees, hoverflies, and butterflies that perform the pollination.

When drinking nectar from a flower the pollen sticks to the feet of the bee and its thick, fuzzy bodies.

Bees and plants co-evolved to aid this process, which is why it is terribly sad that we are having a part in wiping out our bees – they deserve better.

Bees are also a part of the birds and other predators' food supply. However, breaking off our native creatures' natural food chain and life cycles leads to environmental problems.

Wait until you get to learn what technique bees use to source high-quality pollen for their honey-making.

Have you heard of the waggle dance?

The name might sound silly to you, but the man who took note of what the bees were doing and named it as such deserves a medal.

The waggle dance is a bees navigation system. A honeybee will come back to the hive and execute the dance suggesting directions for good sources of nectar. The basic pattern involves a figure-eight pattern. A long waggle indicates that it is a distance away, and the bees speed or angles signify direction. To help with directions they will release a scent too.

What Method Do Bees Use to Make Beeswax and Honey?

Out of all the bee species, it is the honey bee that makes honey and wax. How do they do it? Let’s find out.

Honeybee tongues are able to reach within a flower and to sip nectar out. Before they fly back to the nest to deliver their load, the extracted nectar is stored in their 'honey stomach.'

Other bees take the nectar from their mouths and let the enzymes break down the sugar to make it less runny. It is then placed in those stunning hexagonal cells where bees fan it with their wings to cool and solidify.

Honeycombs are pieces of art created by female worker bees who live only for about six weeks.Ten-day old bees already have the ability to make wax from the wax glands below their abdomen.

The nectar we spoke about earlier that’s stored in honey tummies integrates with the enzymes and produces wax flakes, which the bees will chew on and mold to be added to the honeycomb. There you have it - their very own bee crèche that is also a food storage area.

What Role Does the Queen Bee Play?

Many of you may reason that the poor bees do a lot of the work. What about the queen bee? What is her role?

We are glad you asked. Social bees are not into democracy. They crave dictatorship, which involves the queen bee.

You will only find one queen in a hive. All the other bees are drones and workers. She is responsible for laying eggs that develop into even more workers, drones and then the next queen of course.

Worker bees are in fact sterile females whose only job is to clean and feed the queen so she can continue to lay eggs. The male bees are drones and they fertilize the queen.

The queen eats honey and royal jelly throughout the year to maintain the protein level needed for laying 2000 eggs per day. The queen bee is larger, shinier and smoother than all the other bees and is relatively easy to identify in the hive. She easily lives between 5 to 7 years but gets less productive as she grows older

What happens when the queen bee dies? Well, beehives will cease to exist without her, which is the main reason why worker bees will immediately start to feed copious amounts of royal jelly to female larvae to ensure she grows into the new queen bee.

What Can We Do to Help Bees?

Bees are dying out much faster than we think. The key reason for this is that our environment keeps changing.

For one, there are far fewer flowers than before. To a large degree, it has to do with housing development and how people are farming in that they make use of pesticides, which kills thousands of bees.

Following are just some of the ways we can help bees

Grow More Flowers

Flowers that are rich in pollen is what bees need. What we can do is to grow open-headed flowers when spring starts. Double flowers are way too tight and bees will find it difficult to get inside.

Some excellent choices are bluebell, comfrey, hellebore, foxglove, honeysuckle, lavender, witch hazel, and so forth. We are sure you’re getting the picture.

Vegetables such as runner beans and broad beans are great too. The bees find themselves attracted to the flowering veggies.

Adopt Natural Alternatives to Pesticides

Chemicals pose a major concern for all forms of wildlife. Chemical sprays used to kill aphids will even kill bees. If you have to use them, do so at night once the bees are retired for the night. When treating aphids, you may want to consider a solution of citrus peel and water. This type of treatment often works quite well. Especially, if you have to regularly deal with ladybirds.

At most garden centres, the chemical neonicotinoids (thiacloprid and acetamiprid) known as neonics are available and are believed to cause serious problems for bees.

Chemicals used in agricultural practices on a larger scale cause significant loss of bees. There are studies and arguments about whether the use of neonics in farming is mostly responsible for our bee loss.

Other ways you can help our bees is to keep dandelions around as bees thrive on these. Set up a wild patch that has some of these to help our bees.

Bees get thirsty too. They may drown when exposed to deep, cold water. However, the best way to help them out is to place a terracotta saucer that contains a few pebbles and water. They can sit on the pebbles and drink water no problem without risking drowning.

How Can You House and Feed Bees?

One cool way is to make use of a square frame that you can fill with a whole lot of hollow bamboo canes. Alternatively, you can purchase a bee home from your local hardware store.

Where Would You Place the Bee House?

South Facing is the best position for your bee house. As long as you ensure there is a sturdy roof that will prevent the rain from penetrating your bee home, the bees will be safe and secure.

Besides having bountiful flowers all around the bees nesting area, you may want to resort to a sugar solution by mixing half granulated sugar with water and pop the solution into a sauce or bee bath.

Talking about solutions. We have one for you if you are the kind of person that easily gets scared when faced with one. Should a bee sit on you, all you need to do is put the body part it is sitting on against greenery or flowers and the bee will simply walk away.

In the event that you do get stung, put an ice pack on the affected area and it will go away. As a matter of interest, beekeepers hardly have issues with arthritis as the bee venom proves to be an effective remedy against various forms of arthritis.

We should not be afraid of bees. They are a joy to have around in our gardens, and they ensure our food supplies are taken care of in the UK and other parts of the world.

There is a lot we can do to ensure their survival. Teaching our children about them and showing them they are not a danger to us is one way to accomplish this mission. Now is the time to save our planet by saving the bees.

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