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 is essential for the cropping of most fruits and some vegetables.

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 are many different species in Britain and they can generally be divided into three groups.

Honeybee (Apis mellifera)

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

  • 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 females  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

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

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 or in beetle borings in dead wood

How to encourage bees

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

Our lists of RHS Perfect for Pollinators can be used to extend and improve the range of plants offering nectar and pollen in your garden.

Check out our "Helping our bees" video and blog.

Five ways to help bees:

  1. Clumps of bee-friendly plants in sunny places will be more attractive than plants that are scattered or in shade.
  2. Double or multi-petaled cultivars of plants are best avoided as they may lack pollen and/or nectar, or it may be difficult for bees to reach them. Also avoid pollen-free cultivars of some plants, such as sunflowers, that are grown as florists’ flowers.
  3. Use pesticides sparingly. Those based on fatty acids or plant oils and extracts pose little danger to bees but will not control all pests. Do not spray open flowers.
  4. Become a beekeeper. Details of county beekeepers associations and training courses can be found on the British Beekeepers' Association website.
  5. Provide nest sites for bees. Some will nest in hollow stems, such as bamboo canes or herbaceous plant stems. Hole diameters in the range 2-8mm are required. Cardboard nest tubes can be bought in garden centres. Holes 2-8mm diameter can be drilled in fence posts or logs. Place these nest sites in sunny positions. 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. Bumblebee nest boxes can be purchased but they are often ignored by queen bumblebees. They prefer to find their own nest sites down tunnels dug by mice or in grass tussocks. If you are lucky enough to have tree bumblebees in a bird box leave them alone, but clean out the box in the winter.

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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