Bees in your garden

Bees visit flowers to collect nectar and pollen, which they use as food for themselves and their larvae. By moving from flower to flower, they are vital pollinators of many garden and wild flowers. Insect pollination which can be carried out by any insect that visits flowers including many flies, social and solitary wasps, beetles, butterflies and moths, is essential for the cropping of most fruits and some vegetables.

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Buff-Tailed Bumblebee on a <i>Scabiosa</i> flower Credit RHS/ Andrew Halstead
Buff-Tailed Bumblebee on a Scabiosa flower Credit RHS/ Andrew Halstead

Quick facts

Common names Honeybee; bumblebees; solitary bees
Scientific names Examples include Apis mellifera, Bombus spp, Andrena spp., Lasioglossum spp.
Suitable for Encouraging bees and other pollinating insects in gardens
Timing All year
Difficulty Easy

Which bees am I likely to see?

Bees are insects in the order Hymenoptera. There over 270 species in Britain, they feed largely on nectar and pollen and are some of the most familiar of the 1000’s of pollinating insects found in Britain. British bees can generally be divided into three groups.

Bumblebees (Bombus species)

There have been about 26 species recorded in Britain, but some are now extinct or have a very restricted distribution. At peak strength in summer, a bumblebee nest will have between 50 and 400 worker bees.

  • There are about eight social bumblebee species and four cuckoo species that are common in gardens
  • In most cases only young fertile female bumblebees (queens) overwinter, unlike honeybees, which overwinter as colonies feeding on honey stores
  • Most species have queens that burrow into the soil to overwinter. They emerge on sunny days in spring, though occasionally they can be observed foraging on warm winter days
  • In spring the queens search for suitable nest sites and often choose tunnels made by mice or other rodents
  • The queen then sets about raising her first brood of larvae in early spring
  • Once these become adult worker bumblebees, they take over the nectar and pollen gathering duties, allowing the queen to remain in the nest and continue laying eggs
  • In mid to late summer, male bumblebees and next year’s queens are produced
  • By late summer, bumblebee nests are in decline with the old queen, workers and males all dying
  • Sometimes bumblebee nests are found in compost heaps or other places where they can be inconvenient. Wherever possible these nest should be left to naturally die out in the late summer or autumn
  • One species, the tree bumblebee, Bombus hypnorum prefers to nest in holes in trees and will often use bird boxes. This species arrived in Britain in 2001 and has since become widespread in England and Wales
  • Occasionally overwintering queen bumblebees are uncovered, in which case try not to cause further disturbance and cover the bee back over
  • In some warmer areas, particular urban areas in southern England, the buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) can have active nests all year round

More information on bumblebees is available from the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

Solitary bees (AndrenaLasioglossum and other species)

There are more than 250 species of solitary bee in Britain.

  • Unlike the social bumblebees and honeybee, solitary bees do not have a worker caste
  • Each female constructs and provisions her nest on her own and dies before the next generation of bees emerges
  • Despite being solitary, some soil-nesting species can be gregarious and there may be many nests situated close together
  • Soil-nesting bees produce conical heaps of soil above the nest tunnels where excavated soil has been deposited. This can be inconvenient in lawns but is usually for only a few days or weeks each year and could be tolerated
  • Other solitary bees make their nests in hollow plant stems, soft rotten wood, soft sandy cliff faces or in beetle borings in dead wood
  • Leaf cutter bees make nests out of leaf or flower petal sections
  • Most solitary bees are active in spring or summer. An exception is the ivy bee (Colletes hederae) a species that has become widespread in southern England and Wales since it was found in Britain in 2001. It can nest in large aggregations in sandy soils and the adults visit ivy flowers in autumn

More information on solitary bees along with information on wasps and ants can be found from the Bees Wasps and Ants Recording Society (BWARS)
You can encourage solitary bees into your garden with pollinator-friendly plants. Please see our following webpage for planting ideas:

Honeybee (Apis mellifera)

This is a social bee that lives in colonies of up to 60,000. Honeybees are the only insects that produce honey. Most colonies are maintained by beekeepers, although 'feral' colonies can occur in hollow trees and cavities in buildings.

  • Each colony or hive has a single fertile female (queen bee) whose role is to lay eggs and maintain social cohesion within the colony
  • There will be several hundred male honeybees (drones), but most of the bees in a hive are infertile female worker bees
  • It is the workers that go out to gather nectar and pollen, as well as performing all the other duties of caring for the larvae, comb building and defending the hive

How to encourage bees and other pollinators

Thanks to the rich diversity of plants and flowers, gardens are some of the best habitats for pollinators. There is always space though for more pollinators in our gardens.

The best ways to encourage bees and other pollinators into your garden is by providing nectar- and pollen-rich flowers throughout the year. Creating suitable nest sites in your garden is another excellent way to provide for them.

Here’s how you can do more to support pollinators in your garden, outside space or community:

  1. Fill gardens with RHS Plants for Pollinators plants
  2. Allow lawn ‘weeds’ to flower by cutting less often
  3. Provide water for pollinators
  4. Avoid using pesticides wherever possible and never spray open flowers
  5. Provide nest sites for wild bees

Find out more about how gardeners can help bees and other pollinators

Will I get stung?

Getting stung by bees in your garden is unlikely, as long as you treat bees with respect.

All female bees have stings, but solitary bees are not at all aggressive and only use their stings in self-defence if roughly handled.

Similarly bumblebees and honeybees are unlikely to sting while they are going about their business of collecting nectar and pollen if they are left alone. Avoid disturbing bumblebee nests or standing close to a bee hive.

Get involved

Help monitor bumblee populations in the UK by getting involved in the Bumblee Conservation Trust's BeeWalk for bumblebees-

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Advice from the RHS

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