Bees: encouraging into your garden

Bees visit flowers to collect nectar and pollen, which they use as food for themselves and the larvae in their hives or nests. 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, beetles, butterflies and moths is essential for the cropping of most fruits and some vegetables.

Bees on eryngium.

Bees on eryngium.

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 250 species in Britain and they 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 mid-summer, a bumblebee nest will have no more than 100-200 bees.

  • There are about eight social bumblebee species and four cuckoo species that are common in gardens
  • Unlike honeybees, which overwinter as colonies feeding on their honey stores, only young fertile female bumblebees (queens) overwinter
  • Most species have queens that burrow into the soil and emerge on sunny days in spring, occasionally they can be observed foraging on warm winter days
  • These 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
  • 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 September-October, 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 is a recent arrival in the UK and since 2001 has become widespread in England and Wales
  • Occasionally overwintering queen bumblebees are uncovered, should this occur try not to cause further disturbance and recover the bee
  • In some warmer areas, particular urban areas in southern England, the buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) can have active nests all year round

Solitary bees (Andrena, Lasioglossum and other species)

There are about 260 species of solitary bee in Britain.

  • Unlike the above social bees, 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 tollerated
  • Other solitary bees make their nests in hollow plant stems, soft rotten wood, soft sandy cliff faces or in beetle borings in dead wood

Honeybee (Apis mellifera)

This is a social bee that lives in colonies of up to 60,000 and is the insect that produces honey. Most colonies are maintained by beekeepers.

  • 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

The best ways to encourage bees of all types into you garden is by providing nectar and pollen rich flowers throughout the year and encouraging them to nest in your garden.

Due to the rich diversity of plants growing in Britain’s gardens, these outside spaces, and the gardeners who tend them, are critical to support a wide range of pollinators. There are often more pollinators in our nation’s gardens than in surrounding agricultural land.
There is though always space for more pollinators in our gardens. Here’s how you can do more to support pollinators in your garden, outside space or community.
1. Nectar and pollen rich plants are crucial to support our pollinators; RHS research shows that to attract the maximum numbers of pollinators gardens and other ornamental plantings should be crammed with a range of flowering plants.  A wide range of such plants can be found in the RHS Plants for Pollinators lists
2. Avoid using pesticides wherever possible, never spray open flowers and always read and follow label instructions. Preventing and reducing pests and diseases by good cultivation, cultivar selection, garden hygiene and using biological control should always be the first line of control. If pesticides are used consider using short persistent organic products. Accepting the presence of some pests can provide larval food for pollinators, for example aphids are food for some hoverfly larvae.
3. Provide nest sites for bees; either make your own or you can purchase nests for solitary bees. Some solitary bees nest in the ground, either in bare soil or short turf. They will find their own nest sites, so tolerate the small mounds of soil deposited by the female bees when they excavate their nest tunnels. Purpose built bumblebee nest boxes often go unused. Instead bumblebees often prefer to nest in holes in the ground, for example under hedges with plants along the base. One species, the tree bumblebee often uses bird nest boxes.
4. Provide water for pollinators: Bees and other pollinators sometimes need to drink; having a shallow margin of a pond or a shallow dish filled with stones or marbles filled with water will provide a safe source of water.
5. Become a beekeeper: Details of county beekeepers associations and training courses can be found at The British Beekeepers Association.

Check out our "Helping our bees" blog.

Get involved

The Blooms for Bees project is a citizen science project to promote and improve gardening for bumblebees. Help explore which bumblebee species visit gardens and allotments, and discover which flowers are bumblebee favourites. The project is HLF funded project led by Coventry University, with the RHS, Bumblebee Conservation Trust and Garden Organic as partners.

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 using 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 too close to a bee hive unless you are wearing a beekeeper’s suit.

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