Bee guide: how to identify, where to spot, and how to attract bees to your garden

The UK is home to more than 270 different species of bees – our bee guide explains how to identify, where to spot and which plants help attract bees to your garden

FRIEDENWEILER, BADEN-WüRTTEMBERG, GERMANY - 2017/08/28: A yellow sunflower (Helianthus annuus) with a honeybee (Apis mellifera carnica). (Photo by Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images)

British bee facts

Bees are vital in the life-cycle of a plant, due to pollination. This process is essential because it allows plants to reproduce, and many plants depend on bees or other pollinators to survive.

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A bee will collect nectar and pollen from the flower of a plant, as well as some from the stamens – the male reproductive organ of the plants. When the bee visits the next flower, the pollen is transported onto the stigma, or the tip of the pistil – the female reproductive organ of the flower. This is essential to the fertilisation process of plants, food and fruits. 

Honeybees live in a colony, although they don’t hibernate they do work industrially and cluster together to stay warm. They work together to create food (honey) which is created and stored throughout the summer.

Bees have been created honey for over one hundred and fifty million years. To make one pound of honey, bees fly over 55,000 miles, or in other terms, 2.2 times around the world.

England, UK
The UK is home to more than 260 different species of bees/Credit:Getty Images

How to identify common bee species

Honeybee

Honey Bee collecting pollen at a white flower
Pollinating honeybee/Credit: Getty Images

Though some colonies exist in the wild, the majority are domesticated, living in hives all year round. The colony consists of a queen, who can live to 3 years old, and many of her daughters. Honeybees have a short tongue length, meaning they are limited to certain pollen sources.

Bumblebee

Summer Macro bumblebee image on thistle,taken at Glan Oughterard Co Galway.
Bumblebee taking nectar/Credit: Getty Images

24 of the UK’s bee species are bumblebees. These are also social bees, though colonies are significantly smaller and vary slightly depending on the species. A well established colony could comprise of up to 400 bees. Tongue lengths vary so different species feed on different flowers.

Solitary bees

Beautiful nature with bee on daisy flower.
Solitary Bee/Credit: Getty Images

The majority of the UK’s bee species are solitary bees, of which we have around 250 species. Solitary bees exist only in the wild and are the most effective pollinators of all bee species. Their appearance can vary hugely and some species are often mistaken for wasps or flies. 

How do I save a struggling bee?

It’s not just us humans who are struggling with the heat this summer. If you come across a struggling bee, it could be suffering from exhaustion, have a parasite or simply been caught out in the rain. Eve Betts has rounded up a few things you can do to help perk your new stripy friend up. 

Place the bee somewhere warm

If a bee is suffering from an internal parasite, there’s nothing you can do. But if you think the bee is simply exhausted, slide a piece of paper beneath it and place it in warm, dry place. Bees can only fly if the temperature of their thorax remains above 30 degrees, so a greenhouse or your house is ideal. 

Honey Bee Drinking Water In Park
Bee drinking water/Credit: Getty Images

Feed the bee

A simple sugar and water solution is sufficient to get a bee buzzing again. One spoonful of water to two of organic sugar is perfect. Never feed a bee honey, though, even if it’s organic – bees can catch viruses if they eat honey from neighbouring hives.

Drop the sugar and water solution onto a paper towel in small amounts or place in a clean milk bottle lid. Leave it by the bee’s head. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to see the bee feeding with its long, reddish tongue.

Wait!

Many bees will recover in anything from a few minutes to an hour after feeding on a syrup solution. If it’s not raining, put the bee somewhere safe outside, such as in a plant pot where it can stretch its wings and fly away when it’s ready. Hopefully, it will back and buzzing about in no time!

How to attract bees to your garden

Stop using – or limit use of pesticides

Studies have found that pesticides can be harmful to insects and other wildlife, so where possible switch to more wildlife-friendly methods, such as using mulch around plants or simply regular weeding.

Plant for bees

wildflowers_0-2f5a8e5
If you have space, a patch of wildflowers or an overgrown lawn with dandelions and daisies is a big help to bees/Credit:Getty

Bees and other pollinators love plants such as dahlias, buddleia, lavender, clematis, foxglove, hosta and wildflowers. See our tips below for more detail on the types of plants bees do and don’t love. If you have space, a patch of wildflowers or an overgrown lawn with dandelions and daisies is a big help to bees.

Provide access to water

Bees need water to drink and to use in their hives. While they will often drink the droplets off a lawn or a flower, you can help by giving them access to a water source. Deep water will drown the bee so simply spray water over plants in dry seasons, allowing the odd pool of water to gather to give them a chance of a drink. 

Provide shelter

Bees – and many other insects, love a shady, sheltered spot. Allow, a spot in your garden to be a bit wilder with a couple of stacked logs or you could even treat the bees to a bespoke bee house. 

How to build a bee house

Several solitary bees flying near a bee hotel.
Bamboo bee house/Caption: Getty Images

Bee houses are fun and easy to make. Your bee house will be ideal for solitary bees, of which there are over 220 wild species in the UK. These solitary insects do not belong to hives like honey bees, but make their own individual nests for their larvae. 

To make your bee house you will need:

  • A wooden box or empty plastic bottle
  • A drill
  • Bamboo sticks
  • Secateurs, saw and screws
  • A hook

Step 1: Take a wooden box and remove one side, or alternatively cut the top off a large plastic bottle. An old bit of piping would also be ideal. This will become the container for your bamboo shoots. 

Step 2: Cut the bamboo sticks to the same length as the depth of your container. Using different widths of bamboo is ideal, as bees can then choose between the sizes. Alternatively, you can drill deep holes 2-10mm wide into the blocks of wood that fit into your container. Make sure the holes are clean and splinter-free, as bees won’t use untidy holes.

Step 3: Pack the bamboo sticks or blocks of wood tightly into the box, plastic bottle or pipe.

Step 4: Attach a hook to the back of your bee house. Hang or place in full sun, facing the south or south east. Your bee house must be at least a metre off the ground and free from surrounding foliage.

Now simply watch and wait! Make sure your bee house stays dry and consider moving it during the winter months to protect any nesting bees.

hotel for insects made of reed. a house of different kinds of insects in a garden.
Bee house/Credit: Getty Images

Which plants are bad for bees? 

The more diverse flowers and plants you have in your garden, the more pollinators you will attract, however not all plants are good for bees.

1. Rhododendron

Close-Up Of Bee On Pink Flowers
Bee pollinating a rhododendron/Credit: Getty Images

Spectacular and beautiful, not many people know the common rhododendron hides a poisonous secret – its nectar is toxic to bees. It’s common practice for beekeepers to keep their hives closed until the flowering season is over. The resulting honey from rhododendrons has also been known to contaminate honey, making it unsafe for humans to eat.

Good for bees alternative: Clematis have beautiful, wide flowers and are 100 per cent bee-friendly.

2. Azalea

Close-Up Of Bumblebee On Azalea Blooming Outdoors
Bumblebee on azalea/Credit: Getty Images

Rhododendron’s sister, azaleas are also toxic to bees.

Alternative: Foxgloves are a bee favourite and despite being poisonous if consumed by humans, they are both honey and bee safe.

3. Trumpet flower, or angel’s trumpet

Bumble-bee in flower
Bumblebee and Trumpet/Credit: Getty Images

Though ornamental and sweet smelling, the trumpet flower’s nectar can cause brood death in bees and is best avoided.

Good for bees alternative: Try honeysuckle instead for deliciously scented results.

You can find the full list of plants that are bad for bees here

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Main image: Honeybee pollinating a sunflower Credit: Getty Images