HomeTypes Of Bees: Bee Identification Guide
SEO_heroImg_bee

BEEIDENTIFICATIONGUIDE

When spring arrives and more flowers pop up, it’s a clear sign that our favourite pollinators are also about to make an appearance – bees!

These incredible insects are so important to the eco system and we shouldn’t underestimate them; a third of the food we eat relies on the pollination work of bees. Without them it would be much more difficult to get a lot of the food we like on to our plates.

Now we all recognise those fantastic, fluffy bumblebees we see buzzing merrily over our flowers in the summer months. However, not all bees are made the same and in fact bumblebees only make up a very small proportion of our striped friends.

Let us explain a bit more about the different types of bees and some tips on how to recognise them.

Types of bees in the UK

Amazingly, there are actually 20,000 different species of bee around the world. That’s a lot of buzzing.

We have roughly 270 different types of bees here in the UK. Of this, only 24 of these species are bumblebees and astonishingly we only have one type of honeybee. The rest are made up of solitary bees.

Not sure which is which? Our bee identification guide will help.

ff_bumblebee

Bumblebees

When you think of a bee, we’re pretty sure the first image that comes to mind is the gloriously bumbling bumblebee. They really seem to have captured our hearts and minds. Bumblebees are social insects and live in wild colonies with anything from 20 bees all the way to 1700 individuals. A queen bee (she’s the boss) forms the colony. Female workers do all the work by heading out to find the food while the males are only there to help reproduce.

You’ll find bumblebees living in a whole host of places such as abandoned rodent holes, compost heaps or even nesting under your shed!

These bees are instantly recognisable for their large, fluffy looking bodies with yellow and black stripes. Some species appear as early as March and as late as the autumn months. The most common species in this group include garden, buff-tailed, white-tailed, early and common carder.

Here are some facts about bumblebees:

  • They do collect nectar which they use for food but unlike honeybees they don’t really convert it into honey.

  • They have really fast metabolisms and have to eat constantly and are only ever 40 minutes away from starvation. A good reason to provide them with plenty of flowers.

  • They are masters at pollinating plants and fruit trees and have a super clever trick up their sleeves. Bumblebees can contract their flight muscles to produce a strong vibration that forces even the most stubborn of flower to release its pollen in an explosion. The bee then hoovers this up on its fur. It’s known as buzz pollination.

  • They beat their wings up to 200 times a second. That’s pretty fast when you consider a hummingbird can only manage about 50 flaps a second.

  • Forget the idea that bees only sting once and then die. Bumblebees can sting repeatedly. Don’t worry, they are incredibly friendly and don’t really want to bother us as long as we leave them alone.

  • They have smelly footprints which helps them to distinguish the scent of a relative and that of a stranger. It helps in their success to find food.

ff_honeybee

Honeybees

When you next reach for that jar of honey, remember there's only one species for the job honeybees. This lot are largely domesticated and you'll mostly find them living in hives. It must get pretty cramped in a honeybee colony because you’ll easily find up to 50,000 bees living in there at one time. At the top of the clan is a single queen who lays all the eggs (an amazing 2,500 a day during summer). Thousands of female workers go out to get the pollen while the male drones mate with the queen.

Amazingly, honeybees do not hibernate and keep their colony going all year round. However, to help them survive when winter arrives they reduce the size of the colony (aka they kick out the males).

Honeybees are smaller than bumblebees with black and amber coloured stripes and you'll find them buzzing around when the spring weather arrives, all the way through to October. Despite working so hard to make all that honey, these bees aren’t actually the best pollinators. This is down to the fact they have a short tongue and need open flowers to get to the pollen. If you want to help them out, plant some sunflowers, michaelmas daisies or heathers which have easy-to-reach pollen.

Here are some fun facts about honeybees:

  • When they return to the hive, honeybees do a little dance for their friends called the waggle dance. It’s not just for show either, the dance communicates with the hive on where to find the best food.

  • Honey bees fly around 55,000 miles to make just one pound of honey – that’s over twice around the world.

  • Honey bees are pretty good at flying. They can go at speeds of up to 20mph when out looking for food.

  • The forager bees fly as far as three miles away from the hive to find food.

  • They don’t sleep - ever!! They will remain motionless to preserve their energy but that’s all.

  • These bees can see colour and they particularly like blue and purple but they can’t see red. Good to know when planting flowers to help out the bees.

ff_solitary_bee

Solitary bees

This group are often overlooked yet they make up an amazing 90% of the bee population. They also win the award for being some of the best pollinators around - it's down to their size which lets them get pollen from flowers their larger cousins can’t reach. They also collect pollen from a wide variety of plants and don’t mix it with the nectar. As a result, the pollen is powdery and easily transfer from flower to flower.

As their name suggests, they don’t live in large colonies and prefer to be alone. They’re resourceful too and quite happily build in a nest in all sorts of nooks and crannies. The female solitary bee will mate with the male and then build her nest and lay her eggs. She then seals everything up ready for the new bees to emerge the following year.

Some of the most common solitary groups are mining, leafcutter, mason, sweat, wool-carding and carpenter bees.

Here’s some facts about solitary bees:

  • They have a frantic life and only live for about six weeks.

  • Most solitary bees nest in the ground and the female will dig out her own nest. She then heads out to collect pollen to line the nest. She then lays an egg in each chamber and seals everything up.

  • You can normally tell which bee has made their nest by the materials they use. Mason bees used mud, leaf cutters use leaves and wool carder prefer fine plant hairs.

  • A female solitary bee will lay up to 30 eggs during her lifetime

  • This lot aren’t aggressive and the females will only sting in extreme circumstances. The males don’t usually have a sting.

ff_mason_bee

Mason bees

In the UK you normally only see the red mason bee who are recognised by their bristly bodies with black and orange stripes. It’ll come as no surprise mason bees are named from the fact they like to nest in cavities between brickwork. They are prone to a bit of sunbathing and you often find them nesting in south-facing spots. You’ll have to be quick to spot this lot as they are only around between March and June.

Here's some fun facts about mason bees:

  • It has been estimated that the pollination work of a single mason bee is equivalent to the work by 120 worker honeybees.
  • These are some of the first solitary bees to appear in the year
  • Females tend to nest close to where they emerge
ff_mining_bee

Mining bees

You can probably guess from their name where they like to nest - underground! You can normally spot where they’ve been because they leave soil piles behind at the entrance to their nest. This lot really do vary in size and range anywhere from 5mm up to the same size as bumblebees and you’ll normally see them from March until July. Common types include tawny, ashy, hawthorn and early mining bees.

Here are some mining bee facts for you:

  • They are the largest group in the solitary species with around 67 different types of mining bees.

  • Each mining bee home is unique to the owner (even though they all look the same from the outside).

  • Even though they are solitary, mining bees occur in a bit of commune style by living in the same location, they are closely related and share resources including food locations.

bee-booklet

BEE A SUPERHEROACTIVITY PACK

If you are a parent, grandparent or someone who cares for a child, we have created a smaller version of the fun activity pack which you can use at home. It's time to find their capes, become a superhero and help save the bees!

Wasp, bee or hornet?

So, one of our little yellow and black striped friends has come buzzing into your living room. Is it a wasp, a bee or a hornet? How on earth can you tell the difference? They certainly look similar but there are some key differences. If you dare to look close enough, we'll help you to identify which is which!

ff_wasps

Let’s start with the wasps.

This lot are the grumpy stingers in the group, although it’s only the females who will sting and if left alone they won’t sting on purpose. You can spot a wasp because they have very bright, distinctive yellow and black stripes and a tiny waist. They are not furry (these ones are hairless) and their bodies slims down towards a point on their bottom. They also let their legs dangle down when flying!
ff_hornet

Next, how to spot a hornet

They are actually a specific type of wasp. Also, their stings are much more painful to humans (it’s all to do with the chemical found in their venom). Fortunately, hornets tend to be a bit more relaxed around people than their wasp cousins - as long as you don’t provoke them! Hornets are larger (up to 5.5cm in length) and slightly rounder than wasps. They also have more of a reddish-brown colouring on their heads with yellow and thin black stripes on the body.
iStock-1080366118

Now, onto the bees.

They're the chilled out lot of the group and pretty much want to get on with their business. Although there is no mistaking the rounded bumblebee, it's much easier to confuse the honey and solitary bees with wasps. Each one can look very different with a number having much slimmer bodies. On the whole, bees are easy to spot because their colouring is more golden. They also have tiny hairs over their body and their stripes look fuzzy.

What to do if you find a bee in your home

The first thing to remember is that the bee doesn’t want to be there. No doubt you’ll hear them frantically buzzing against the window pane before you even see them.

Letting them escape as quickly as possible is a priority so they don’t end up exhausted. If your bee looks like it’s in trouble, here’s some essential first aid tips for bees.

If the bee is still flying around, open a window and gently persuade the bee to find a way out. If it’s not flying, it’s probably tired. Place a glass on top and very carefully slide some thin card underneath, be careful not to damage its legs. Move it outside but leave a mixture of sugar and water on the ground so the bee can revive itself.

iStock-1295725679
BEE INSPIRED
Looking for more information about how you can help save the bees? Visit our Beehive and get involved in helping your local bees.