The diversity of bees

(c) Emma Beeston

As spring bursts into life, it is easy to overlook the smaller species that are waking up all around us. Pollinating insects are crucial to the survival of all species on earth, humans included!

Around three quarters of the crops we grow require pollination by insects, as well 80% of European wildflowers. Pollinating insects play vital roles in every ecosystem on our planet, but many species are declining at an alarming rate. Even more worryingly, because we don’t have as much data on insects as larger animals, we don’t really know how bad the situation is for most species. As a general trend, more common generalist species are stable, while rarer specialist species are rapidly declining.

Let’s take a closer look at one group of fascinating creatures that we share our land with. Bees are often represented by the round, fluffy bumblebees we all know and love. What you may not know, however, are that bumblebees only make up 24 of the approximately 270 species of bees that live in the UK. Even more surprisingly, only one of these 270 species produces honey! The honeybee has been domesticated for centuries and it is now rare to find a truly wild colony.

Bees living in the UK can be split into two groups – solitary bees and social bees. Most bumblebees and the honeybee both fall into the latter category, with honeybees being particularly keen on sticking together; 50,000 can live in one hive! Bumblebees in comparison tend to live in groups of 50-150. Social bees are reliant on one queen bee, who lays all the eggs for the group. Some examples of social bee species you might see in your garden are common carder bumblebees, a fluffy ginger bee, the white-tailed bumblebee, which is black and yellow with a white tail, and the red-tailed bumblebee, which has a red tail and black body.

Solitary bees live on their own, although many species appear to live in colonies as they nest close together in suitable habitat. Some solitary bees make burrows underground, while others live in quarry faces, old wood or masonry. One of our most distinctive spring flying solitary bees is the ashy mining bee. They excavate small tunnels in the earth to nest in, creating what can look like tiny volcanoes in your garden! They have a glossy black abdomen, two bands of light grey hair on the thorax (the part of the body that’s between the neck and the abdomen) and white hair on the face. Red mason bees are common in the UK and set up home in gaps in brickwork. They have distinctive, inward turned horns on the top of their black head. The hairy-footed flower bee, named after the hairy feet of the males, is one of the first to emerge in the spring, and for this reason can be confused with the early bumblebee. However, they don’t have the pale yellow bands or orange tail of the latter species, so after a closer look are easy to tell apart.

It is crucial that we protect the diversity of bees that we have in this country, as they each play unique roles within our natural world. Pollinators are not just pollinators; they have evolved to have special relationships with the plants that they pollinate. For example, early bumblebees are small and agile, so can get into drooping flowers such as comfrey while other garden bumblebees have long tongues that are perfect for pollinating the deep flowers of a foxglove. Research has found the red mason bees are 120 times more effective at pollinating apple trees than honeybees; the right kind of bee can hugely increase the success of a crop!

If you’re interested in helping bees and other pollinating insects in the UK check out the Action for Insects campaign. You can also adopt a bumblebee with us. You'll receive an adoption pack - the perfect enrichment material for children at home.