Wednesday, 24 May 2017

'Help... there's a swarm of bees in my bird box!'

I'm getting LOADS of messages and emails this week from people who have noticed 'Swarms of bees in bird boxes'..... also under the eaves of houses and other unexpected places.

These will be Tree bumblebees Bombus hypnorum.

Please don't call out the pest control people!!! The nest has already been there, possibly unnoticed, for at least a few months. The reason for the sudden increased activity is that this is the time of year bumblebee colonies produces new daughter queens. The local males (who have already left their own nests) become very excited and congregate outside the nests where new queens are about to emerge.... in the hope that they can mate with them.

The males dance frantically around the outside of the nest (which is very often in an old bird box, a hollow tree, or under the eves of a house) giving the appearance of a swarm.

Don't worry; this will not last long. It just means the colony has been successful and is now approaching the end of its life-cycle.

The new queens will soon leave the nest, mate, stock up on pollen and nectar, and go into hibernation till early next spring. The old queen, together with all the remaining workers and the males will not survive for longer than a few more weeks.

Tree  bumblebees are the ultimate opportunists. I have seen the nesting in old canons, tumble dryer outlets and letter boxes. I also watched a nest thrive last year in a muck spreader that a local farmer was still using to spread muck at least 3 times weekly. He got stung a couple of times whilst attaching it to his tractor, but took it on the chin (literally) and generously decided not to evict them

So, enjoy and celebrate the fact that you have provided a home for these bumblebees!
A final word of caution. The female guard bees are on high alert during this period and a little more defensive in their behaviour than usual, so stay away from the nest whilst the males are dancing outside.... and be aware that they seem to become especially defensive, and occasionally aggressive, if you use strimmers or lawnmowers nearby.

And please submit a record of your sighting here...  TREE BUMBLEBEE SIGHTINGS

Loads more excellent info about tree bumblebee nests (and how to move them if you really need to) here... Reigate Beekeepers 

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Some very basic information about bees

Andrena cineraria (Ashy mining bee)
What's the first thing that springs to mind when you hear the word 'bee'? For many people this word conjures up images of beehives, honey, and people dressed in strange, white, masked outfits; i.e honeybee related images.

Yet, if I gave the same people a box of coloured pencils and asked them to draw me a bee, most would probably draw something black, yellow and black striped in the shape of a rugby ball; basically something more akin to a bumblebee. So there is clearly a little confusion.

I thought it might help if I wrote down some very basic information to help clear up some of this confusion..........

There are over 20,000 different species of bee in the world.

7 of these are honeybees.
250 are bumblebees
The rest are solitary bees!

In the UK we have around 270 different species:

1 honeybee
24 bumblebees 

240+ solitary bees

Honeybees and bumblebees are 'social' bees - which means they live together in colonies comprising a queen, female workers, and males.
There are tens of thousands of worker bees in a honeybee colony, but only around 50 - 400 in a bumblebee colony.

With social bees (i.e. honeybees and bumblebees) all the 'worker bees' are female. The males are produced at specific times of the life-cycle for the sole purpose of mating.

Solitary bees, on the other hand, do not have 'queens' or 'workers', nor (with one or two exceptions) do they share their nests with other solitary bees. This is why they are called 'solitary'. They do, however, often nests alongside each other.

After mating, female solitary bees make their nests. They do this either by excavating tunnels in the ground (ground nesting) or using pre-existing cavities in walls, trees, plant stems etc (cavity nesting). Each female provisions a number of individual cells in her nest with sufficient pollen for larvae to feed on when they hatch, then she lays an egg alongside each lump of pollen, seals each cell (and then the nest), and dies before her young complete their life cycles to become adult bees. These new adult bees remain in hibernation in their nests throughout autumn and winter... and emerge the following year in spring or summer to start their life cycle all over again.
Only honeybees make honey, which they make out of nectar collected from flowers. Honeybees turn the nectar into honey to store over winter, so the colony has something to feed on whilst it's too cold to forage and flowers are scarce.

Other bee species also collect nectar, but do not turn it into honey. They just use it as an energy drink.


Unlike honeybee colonies, bumblebee colonies do not overwinter. Each bumblebee colony produces males and new daughter queens in the summer (at different times depending on the species). These new queens mate and then go into hibernation till next spring. The old queen, together with all the female workers and the males, die before winter. That is the end of this nest. So, in a way, you could say honeybee colonies are 'perennials' and bumblebees colonies are 'annuals'.


As well as collecting nectar, bees also collect pollen, which they use to feed their young. Different species collect their pollen in different ways.....
Social bees (honeybees and bumblebees) collect it in pollen baskets on their hind legs. They pack the pollen into these baskets very neatly, so don't drop much off on their way home.
Solitary bees, however, collect pollen on stiff branched hairs, either under their abdomen (cavity nesting species) or on their legs (ground nesting species). It is not moistened or packed down, which means lots of this pollen drops off on the other flowers they visit as they make their way home. This makes them extremely good pollinators.

Only female bees have a sting. Male bees do not. If a honeybee worker stings you, she dies. If bumblebees sting (which they very rarely do) they will not die. This is because the honeybee sting is barbed, whereas the bumblebee sting is more like a needle. Apart from a few exceptions, solitary bee stings are mostly redundant and incapable of even piercing the human skin.

More on stings here -  Which bees sting and which bees don't? 


The most important thing of all is that we provide food and habitat for ALL of these species. They all pollinate different plants, in different ways, at different times of the year, and in different habitats. DIVERSITY is the key! It is equally important that we provide for other pollinating insects like butterflies, moths, hoverflies, beetles, wasps and flies.

Photos below are of a honeybee, bumblebee, cavity nesting solitary bee and ground nesting bee.... showing the different ways they collect their pollen.

Apis mellifera (Honeybee)

Bombus terrestris (Buff-tailed bumblebee)

Megachile centuncularis (Patchwork leafcutter bee)

Halictus rubicundus (Orange-legged Furrow-bee)

Saturday, 21 January 2017

If I Could Be A Dream

I wish I could be a 'dream'. If I could, I would visit our misguided leaders, policy makers and those who run the banks and multinational corporations, in their sleep. I would fill their troubled heads with images, sounds and smells of meadows and verges full of wild flowers, butterflies, crickets and bees; sunshine, rain and clouds; breezes and howling winds, muddy puddles, brooks, rivers, and oceans; dandelion clocks and daisy chains; ancient woodlands and wild forests; home made bread, cake and compost; children and people of all races creeds and colours playing together and holding hands; freshly picked runner beans and tomatoes that have been grown outside and pollinated by local native bumblebees; healthy soil; arts and artists; rainbow coloured mosses and pale green lichen; song birds and slow worms; and lots and lots of glow worms; mountain tops and mole hills; Sunday afternoon walks and family get togethers from the days before shops were open every day of the week and Sundays truly were a day of rest; people playing music in local parks without a licence; pine martins, beavers, wolves and otters; open doors; raindrops caught in spiders webs; kindness; full moons and starlit skies; the feel of walking bare foot on wet grass; laughter; abundance for everyone; bridges and open arms; the sound of curlews on the Yorkshire moors; deliciously crisp but misshapen apples; fresh, unpolluted air and fresh, unpolluted (free) water; hedgerows brimming with life; more bees, butterflies, moths and crickets; and with so many more good, healthy, natural, magical, enchanting and beautiful things….. that they would not be able to resist falling head-over-heels in love with this amazing planet we live on. Then, they would wake up (in more than just one sense) and instead of their minds being full of fear, greed, hate and noise.... they would be full of love, peace, joy and stillness. They would abandon their destructive elitist policies, decisions, rules and regulations to reflect their new found 'earth, people and wildlife friendly' views.

This dream would be my gift to ALL those who have lost touch with the natural world. 

Wishing and hoping that peace, love, light and good old fashioned common sense will prevail


Tuesday, 15 November 2016

A very simple way to help wildlife...

Spoon billed sandpiper. 200 breeding pairs left in the world
Wildlife documentaries are being viewed and talked about by more people than ever before. We love them.

We love wildlife!

Yet this same wildlife that we love to watch and learn about on TVs or other devices is suffering unprecedented declines. We watch, in awe of the magnificent and diverse creatures we share this planet with, then we go shopping and buy food and products that contribute directly to their decline.

I could write a list of all the things we buy that cause damage, directly and indirectly, to the planet's ecosystems (and to human beings less fortunate than ourselves) but I'd be here all day. Things that contain palm oil, are wrapped in plastic, or have been grown using pesticides spring to mind to start with.

The bottom line is that we have the intelligence and the technical backup to search for information.... and we have the freedom of choice to make decisions and changes. If we all made a few changes and spent the money we have in our pockets in a more wildlife/human friendly way we would collectively make a difference.

Planting more flowers for pollinators, leaving wild areas in our gardens for wildlife, signing petitions, planting trees etc are all vitally important, but if we don't simultaneously look at what we buy and where/how we spend our money, then this is all for nothing.

Children get this when it is explained to them. Adults should too.

I know it is not easy to make changes and that the more ethical and environmentally sound choices are often more expensive. But that doesn't men we shouldn't at least try.

Do please watch the beautiful and powerful series China: Between Clouds and Dreams - it says it all!


Monday, 17 October 2016

Non-native invasive species. Friends or foe?

I've been thinking a great deal over the last few years about 'non-native invasive species' and wondering whether some might actually be more 'friend' than 'foe'.

Species like the Asian hornet are clearly a great threat to diversity because if they establish a foothold in the UK, they have the potential to wreak havoc on our bee population which, as well as being a concern in its own right, will of course have a knock on effect on the plants our native bees currently pollinate and the eco systems these plants support.

But what about other recent arrivals? What about Ivy bees and Tree bumblebees? Unlike the Asian hornet these species are not 'predators' nor have they arrived via human agency. But could they be competing with our existing population of bees (and other insects) for foraging and habitat? Do we know yet if this is the case? Does it matter? If not, why not? Maybe these and other new species arriving from Northern Europe will prove better equipped to deal with an ever changing landscape and climate that our existing bee species might struggle with in the future. 

And then there's Himalayan balsam. This plant is vilified by most, but having established itself is now providing much needed late season nectar and pollen for our native pollinators. Maybe, in time, it will turn out to have other benefits that we don't yet know about? Perhaps it will be better able to cope with climate change, rising temperatures and flooding than some of our native plants? And what would be the consequences to the eco systems it now helps to support if we were to pull it all up and completely eliminate it? I don't know the answers to these questions, but can't help wondering.

Food for thought.... and as an aside, I think we would do well to remember that we, the human race, cause more damage to biodiversity than all the invasive plants put together. When human beings talk about 'invasive species', the expression 'pots and kettles' springs to mind.

Against this backdrop of our (innate?) fear of non native invasive species taking over our countryside, is the current trend for more and more people to keep honeybees in towns and cities. I find myself unable to reconcile the fear of the former with the acceptance and encouragement of the latter.  Do those who set up new hives plant more pollen and nectar rich plants to help sustain their increasing honeybee populations? If not, and if natural resources are limited, do these hives then need to be routinely fed on sugar water over winter? And how do native bumblebees, solitary bees and other pollinators cope when tens of thousands of extra (managed) honeybees are suddenly introduced to an area where the existing floral resources are already depleted?

I ask these last questions (about bees) because where I live in Shaftesbury, North Dorset, I have seen a huge increase in the number of honeybee hive being kept by local beekeepers over the last couple of years. Where these colonies are at their most dense I am now noticing that bumblebees are conspicuous by their absence on sedum and other plants popular with the honeybees, whereas further out of Shaftesbury, in surrounding villages where there are not so many beehives, the sedum, at least, is covered in bumblebees and butterflies in the autumn. 

So many questions, but not many answers.  On balance, I have to say I am no longer sure what to think, per se, about non-native invasive species.... especially when I am noticing, first hand, our native wild bees being outcompeted on some flowering plants by the increase in popularity for keeping honeybees.

If you are interested in exploring these questions further, you might like to read The New Wild by Fred Pearce. A very thought provoking book!

Also, check out this post on Biff Vernon's Blogspot.

With many thanks to twitter friend @dolly_and_dj for allowing me to use her beautiful photograph x

P.S. I should add (in case it appears that I am picking on beekeepers) that my partner and I have a few hives ourselves and are fortunate enough to be able to keep our bees out of town in an area where there are very few other beekeepers.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Have you seen this bee?!

Ivy bee Colletes hederae
It's Sunday 9th October. The sky is blue, the sun is shining and the Ivy is in full flower.

Common Ivy Hedera helix provides an abundance of autumn pollen and nectar for bees and other pollinators. So sweet and powerful is its scent that you can usually locate flowering ivy by smell alone, but if your sense of smell fails you, just close your eyes and listen.... for, on a day like this, it is literally alive with the buzzing and humming of insects.

If you find a patch of flowering ivy, perhaps you might consider taking a little time out to stop and look more closely at the myriad insect species feasting upon its rewards. On a warm day like this you are likely to see honeybees, bumblebees, butterflies, wasps, flies, hoverflies AND - depending on where in the country you live - Ivy bees

Ivy bees Colletes hederae are relatively new to the UK. They were first recorded in Dorset in the early 2000's, but have since been recorded in other southern counties. They are now expanding their range north and have, this week, been recorded for the first time in Heysham, Lancashire.

Ivy bees are 'solitary bees'. They do not live in social colonies like honey bees or bumblebees, but nest alongside each other in large aggregations, usually in banks of compacted sandy soil.

BWARS (Bees, Wasps & Ants recording Society) are mapping and monitoring the spread of this bee, but need our help to do this. All they ask, is that you take photos of any Ivy bees you see and submit them on line to the BWARS mapping project or on iRecord . Either will do.

I shall add a couple of photos below of other insects that people often mistake for Ivy bees, but if you're still not sure, upload your photo to iRecord and someone in the know will help you identify it.

iRecord is SO worth signing up to anyway, because it is a wonderful way to manage all your wildlife sightings.

So, have an adventure! Make some sandwiches, dig out a flask, get your walking boots on, stick your camera in your bag and become a citizen scientist!  Of course you may have ivy growing and flowering in your back garden, in which case I suggest you grab a cup of tea and a deck chair instead of your walking boots and rucksack. Either way, today might be the day you find and identify your first Ivy.... and if you live up North you might just be the first to record an Ivy bee in your neck of the woods.

Here's the link for iRecord again - iRecord

A fact sheet about Ivy bees - Fact sheet

Submit sightings here - BWARS mapping project

And finally, some photographs of insects that are NOT Ivy bees.....

N.B You can easily tell the wasps apart because they are predominantly yellow, but hoverflies can sometimes be quite confusing. The hoverfly in the photo below behaves for all the world as though it were a bee, but check out its large 'fly eyes' and short antennae and you will see they are very different to those of a bee. Bees have more oval shaped eyes and long antennae.

If it is carrying pollen on its legs then it is definitely either a honeybee, a bumblebee or a solitary bee. Other insects do not carry pollen. However, if it's not carrying pollen it could still be a bee because bees also forage for nectar.

Honey bee Apis mellifera
Bumblebee Bombus terrestris photo by Gordon England 

Hoverfly Eristalis pertinax

Common wasp Vespula vulgaris

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Asian Hornets and Human Beings: what do they have in common?

Asian hornet Vespa velutina (Image from Wildlife Trusts)
I've been thinking a great deal about the Asian hornet, Vespa velutina, which could wreak havoc on honeybees and native wild bees in the UK if left unchecked.

For those who are unaware, an Asian hornet nest was found recently near Tetbury, Gloucestershire. It has now been destroyed; hopefully before any new queens had a chance to emerge and disperse.

The discovery of this non-native invasive species has understandably caused great alarm and concern- especially amongst the beekeeping community- and the response from the authorities has been to act swiftly to try and prevent this species from colonising.

None of the responses in the mainstream media or social media 
to the potential invasion of the Asian hornet surprise me. Indeed most have been entirely appropriate. However they have left me wondering what it is in human beings that make us (seemingly) oblivious to our own impact on the natural world; or at least unwilling to do what is needed to check that impact.  

The damage to native eco systems caused by non-native invasive species - no matter how serious and how huge - pales into insignificance compared with the damage we, as a race, cause to the planet as a whole.
If there is a higher intelligence out there, watching our progress as we explore space and other planets, I should think they are probably on red alert by now. I can just imagine the headlines if we ever managed to colonise one of these planets.....
"Alert! Human colony found on planet xMy$7z! Individuals and groups of this (highly intelligent and social) species have been spotted building structures on the mountains above &^^^%. Humans vary in temperament. Some forms are mild, respectful, thoughtful and gentle; wishing only to share our resources and work alongside local native inhabitants for the greater good of the whole. These forms may not pose a threat and could even contribute and add ecological value to the existing community of flora and fauna. Other forms however can be extremely aggressive, demanding and controlling, even when unprovoked.

Collectively this species poses one of the biggest threats in the solar system to an unprotected planet. Their voraciousness knows no bounds. They have already colonised and destroyed Planet Earth. Approach with care and please notify the intergalactic authorities if you see one of these individuals or groups in your zone. Etc, etc....."

An interesting and balanced article about the Asian hornet from a beekeeper in France who has first hand experience of this species - Asian Hornet

Useful identification guide here - Wildlife Trusts: Asian hornet