Honey bees are just one of almost 20K species of bees
Learn what you can do to save our bees by identifying which types live in your garden and providing them with the right space, shelter, and food. Includes information on bees of the Isle of Man and worldwide.
If I asked you to list all the types of bees that you know, how many could you name? Chances are that you’d say honey bees and bumblebees. Two is a good start but incredibly we have 75 different species of bees on the Isle of Man. You think that’s a lot? The United Kingdom has 272, the United States has around 4000, and worldwide there are almost 20,000 species.
The ‘Save the Bees’ movement is extremely important since all bees are threatened by human activities. However, it tends to focus mainly on honey bees, Apis melifera. We’re asked to support beekeepers, buy honey, plant nectar-rich flowers, and stop using neonicotinoid pesticides. As a beekeeper I think it’s a great step forward but I also think that it’s doing our other bee species an injustice. These thousands of species of wild bees are just as important in the eco-system as their rock star cousins. Fortunately, there are ways that we can help them too.
Before we move on to all those other types of bees let’s talk honey bees. They’re often confused with bumble bees, hover flies, and even wasps. Knowing what they look like can help you to help them in the garden, even if you’re not a beekeeper.
- About 15mm (half an inch) long
- Segmented bodies with fine hair covering their body
- Often spotted with yellow ‘pollen baskets’ on their legs
- Short tongue, so long flowers can be difficult for them to feed from
- Colouration tends to be warm to dark brown with honey to yellow coloured striations
- British black bees can appear almost black
Honey bees live in colonies that are up to 80,000 insects strong in the summer and reduce to 10,000 in the winter. They include a single queen bee, who lives in the colony, a few hundred drones, which are male bees, and the rest are female worker bees. They can be fiercely protective of their home.
Though most honey bees today live in man-made hives, the colony will often split into swarms in early summer. These swarms will fly away to set up a second colony and they seem very attracted to chimneys, roofs, attics, and sheds. They’re especially attracted to the scent of other bees so if you’d like your own colony, set up a used hive in the garden. Before long it may be filled with honey bees.
Thanks to honey labels and cartoons, many people think that fuzzy bumble bees are honey bees. They’re actually very different in both appearance and behavior.
- Big and fuzzy
- 19-38 mm (0.75-1.5 inches) long
- Loud buzzing
- Tongues of varying length depending on species. Short to long.
- Varying colours of black, yellow, white, and even blue
They have a queen that in temperate climates will lives for a year and hibernates during her first winter — the rest of the colony, including the old queen, die in early autumn. It’s a sad sight to see them sitting lifeless on late blooming flowers but it’s part of their natural rhythm. In more tropical places bumble bees can live more than a year.
After coming out of hibernation, a queen bumble bee will look for a desirable place to build her colony. It could be a vacated rodents nest, under a shed, an overgrown hedge, or even untidy places in the garden. Once she finds a place she’ll settle in to lay her eggs and raise young. They’re mainly workers until later in the season when the queen lays eggs for drones and baby queen bees. These new queens are the ones that will hibernate and found a new colony the next spring.
Bumble bees on the Isle of Man
Kate Hawkins, formerly of Manx National Heritage, is keenly interested in our fifteen species of bumblebees. They have delightful names such as the bilberry bumblebee, moss carder bee, and bohemian cuckoo bee. Some are very easy to spot and trying to ID the ones in your garden can help you to better serve them. She also has a top tip for tempting them into living in insect hotels.
It’s recently been discovered that bumblebees are attracted to the scent of old rodent burrows. If you find a mouse nest in your shed or attic, keep it and use the material in making an insect hotel. Bees will move in pronto.
Bumble bees and honey bees represent just a fraction of the world’s bees. Amazingly, 98% are solitary bees that most people wouldn’t notice or confuse with more well known bees. Harmless to people and pets, solitary bees are prolific pollinators and can be far better at that task than honey bees. Some say up to 100 times better.
Unlike their more social relatives, solitary bees don’t live in colonies. That’s probably why they aren’t aggressive, since they’re not defending a hive. Instead, up to 70% of them nest in the ground and the others find homes in nooks in crannies of trees, walls, buildings, and burrows and nests of other animals and insects. Solitary bees describe a bee’s behavior rather than how it looks. There are many types of solitary bee including:
- Leafcutter bees
- Mason bees
- Mining bees
- Carpenter bees
Identifying bees in your backyard
With thousands of species of bees out there, how can you find out which ones live in your garden? The best way is to spend time in the garden and watch the bees. Take photos and notes of where you spotted them, which flowers they were on, behavior, and their physical characteristics.
Use these notes and photos to compare against a guide such as A Guide to North America’s Bees. If you’d like to use online sources to try to ID bees in your backyard, there are quite a few photos of various bumblebees and solitary bees in Native Bees of North America.
Here in Britain there’s a wonderful book called Field Guide to Bees of Great Britain and Ireland that many will find useful. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust also has detailed information on identifying British bumblebees. You can also find photos of British solitary bees, on the Friends of the Earth website.
Australia has over 1 500 bee species too — many unique to the region. Interestingly, they have no native bumble bees and only primitive types of native social bees. The honey they produce tastes more tangy than the honey produced by the European honey bee. It’s also more difficult to harvest without harming the bees so isn’t commonly available. Here’s more information on bees in Australia and New Zealand.
Bees on the Isle of Man
The bees here on the Isle of Man include some very interesting individuals, as I found out from Richard Selman at DEFA. We have cuckoo bees, whose queens sneakily lay eggs in other bees’ nests. Then the fluffy ginger carder bee that lives in colonies of up to 200 individuals – you’ll notice it as one of the first bees flying around in spring.
We have five types of plasterer bees on the Island too. These solitary bees waterproof their underground nests with a cellophane like material that they make themselves. There are immigrants in the bee world too. The tree bumblebee was first identified on the Island in 2005 and was most likely blown over the sea from England.
Bees need food for nine months of the year
Our bees are active and looking for food from March until November. Andree Dubbeldam, conservation officer at the Manx Wildlife Trust, says that 80% of the nectar they collect in early autumn comes from ivy. In spring, some of the most important sources of food are willow catkins, bluebells, wild garlic, and dandelions. So instead of planting flowers for bees, it might be better to allow more ‘weeds’ to grow and flower.
The same goes for other regions. Allow weeds to have their place and more wildlife will have food.
Grow plants and shrubs that flower in the ‘June Gap’
If you do want to grow flowers specifically for bees, focus on types that flower during the June gap. There’s a lot of wild forage in spring and late summer but June can surprisingly be a difficult time for bees. There are many garden flowers that they’ll thank you for but trees and shrubs have so much more to offer wildlife. It’s said that one blossoming tree has more nectar than an entire field of flowers.
While you might not have space for trees, a shrub is a different matter. Two in particular, cotoneaster and pyracantha, are be ideal for feeding bees during the June gap. They’ll be buzzing as loudly as the fuschia hedges do later in summer. Not only do these shrubs provide nectar for bees but they’ll be loaded with nutritious autumn berries. Just this November I watched as black birds stripped my cotoneaster within a few days. Three or four at a time systematically plucked red berries with bright yellow beaks as I enjoyed my morning cuppas.
Providing bees with shelter
The next most important thing after food is shelter. You don’t need to take up beekeeping to give bees a place to live. You’ll be amazed to find them living all over your garden, in tall grass, under hedges, in holes of trees, piles of garden waste, stacks of logs, and even under the ground. Keep that in mind if you ever see mini volcanos in your lawn and wonder what they are.
You’ll be happy to hear that being a somewhat lazy gardener can help. Even if you like things neat, leave an unseen corner a little messy with garden waste and wood. Hold off on tidying too. Getting a head start on your spring cleaning might leave bees and other wildlife homeless when they need shelter the most.
Help bees with insect hotels
In early spring, build insect hotels for bees to both nest and hibernate in. They let you play host to many other insects and invertebrates too. You can purchase small types ready-made but bigger ones are more attractive to wildlife. Begin by stacking 5-8 heat-treated wood pallets together.
Always look for the stamp on the side of the pallet and look to see if you can see HT, meaning heat treated. If you see MB instead, avoid it at all costs as it stands for Methyl bromide, an insecticide. Fill the empty spaces with bamboo canes, wood, straw, bricks, twigs, terracotta pots, and other natural materials. A shady situation is best.
Give Bees a Drink
All animals need water, including bees. In the wild they’ll perch on stones or vegetation close to the water’s edge and drink. Water sources in the garden can be a little more tricky for them. Though they’ll be drawn to water in buckets, there’s no place for them to land. If they attempt to drink from vessels like this, they can drown.
Instead, fill shallow dishes with pebbles and water and set them in the garden. Bees and other insects will appreciate the safe drink.
Save our bees
Saving the bees isn’t just about honey bees. Get to know the other buzzers in your garden by identifying who they are and what their needs are. Plan to have flowers blooming not just in summer but from early spring on to early autumn. Create space for them to live, a source of water, and try not to use chemicals in the soil or on your plants. After all, they’re not just good for pollinating our veg, but they’re an important player in the eco-system. For even more have a watch of the video below.
 Manx Bee List — RGSelman Nov 2018, adapted and updated from list of Steve Crellin
 Wikipedia Honey bee
 Wikipedia Bumblebee
 The Bumblebee Conservation: The differences between bumblebees and honeybees