There are lots of different types of bees in the UK – around 250 species in fact. There are 24 species of bumblebees, around 225 species of solitary bee and just a single honeybee species.
So how we tell these bees apart?
Bumblebees in particular are perhaps the easiest to differentiate, as they look quite different from honeybees and solitary bees. The most reliable difference is that bumblebees are usually larger, and are always covered with dense hair. However knowing which bumblebee you’ve spotted out of the 24 different species is the hard part. Not all bumblebee species have the same colours of hair or markings which is a good place to start when trying to spot who is who.
Bumble Bee - Banded white-tailed bumblebees
When to see them: March-November (sometimes year-round in the south).
Nesting habits: Old burrows and cavities.
ID tips: Distinctive yellow and black bands and a white tail.
Description: The classic stripy bumblebees. Several species of bumblebee have this colour pattern.
What colour is its tail?
Our common bumblebees have tails that are either white, red, buff or brown. Some colours may fade as the bee gets older, so ‘red’ tails may begin to appear buff or orange in late summer. Bee workers and queens collect pollen, so they always have a back leg that has a broad shiny surface, or has a ball of pollen stuck to it. This surface is called the ‘pollen basket’.
Is it a male or a female?
There are several useful clues: Males of some species have yellow hair on their head and faces. The antennae of males are longer, thicker and tend to be curved. Female antennae are shorter, narrower and tend to be elbowed.
Behaviour can be useful too: because males do not have to collect pollen for the nest, they tend to sit lazily on flowers and then fly off again. They often patrol the same area for a while, so you may see the same bee repeating the circuit over and over again. In contrast, females tend to be much busier, flying quickly from flower to flower, and rarely wasting time by resting on flowers.
Illustrations by Zsa Zsa Bellagio
When to see them: March-October.
Nesting habits: Beehives or cavities above ground.
ID tips: Abdomen with amber bands or completely black. Buff-haired thorax. Rear legs bare and shiny.
Description: Most honeybees in the UK live in hives managed by beekeepers. Each hive can contain over 20,000 bees. Only worker honeybees make delicious honey, using nectar gathered from flowers.
Solitary Bee - Red Mason Bee, probably the most familiar solitary bee to many people.
When to see them: March-June.
Nesting habits: Aerial nester including bee hotels.
ID tips: Bristly orange hair with dark head and thorax showing through. Males have white face hairs. Female collects pollen under abdomen.
Description: A common resident of bee hotels and stone walls. Females gather mud to build their nest cells and are efficient pollinators of fruit-tree blossoms. Smaller males hover around nest sites.
Photograph from Bee Care
Most solitary bees collect pollen on their legs on specialised hairs called the scopa, however these hairs do not form a basket like we find in honey bees. Pollen may be moistened with nectar to allow it to stick more readily to these hairs when pollen is being actively collected by the female bee. Some other species, such as leafcutter and mason bee species, collect pollen on specialised hairs on the underneath of their abdomen. Finally some yellow faced bees don't have pollen collecting apparatus at all so swallow the pollen, regurgitating it when back at the nest.
Most solitary bees are polylectic, meaning that they collect pollen from a wide variety of plant species. They carry out the majority of pollination in Britain, in particular they focus on a family of plants with the most common pollen, such as the daisy and pea families. You will also find Solitary bees pollinating in gardens and on farms where there are a number of crops flowering all at once.
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