Bees are familiar insects in the garden. To many people the sound of bees buzzing from flower to flower is part of the sound of summer. Sadly, changes to farming and land management practices have not been kind to any of our bee species. In the last 70 years or so two species have become extinct and others have declined dramatically. Further extinctions of our native bee species are inevitable unless we act quickly to help them. The reason for these declines is simple; bees feed on pollen and nectar which they collect from flowers, and there are now far fewer flowers in the countryside. Hedges have been removed and marshes drained. Traditionally managed flower-rich grasslands (hay meadows and chalk downland) have been almost entirely swept away and replaced by silage and cereal fields. Over 97% of flower-rich meadows have been lost from the UK!
Bees are one of the most useful insects found in the garden. As they move from plant to plant they pick up and transfer pollen, and this is vital to the fertilisation and growth of plants. Although other insects also help fertilise plants, the work of bees is essential and without them the variety and yield of the plants we grow for food and pleasure would be much reduced. The honey bee also produces honey in hives, either in the wild, or in hives made for it by the beekeeper. European honey bees have been introduced to nearly all parts of the world by humans, but they are thought to have originated in India. Their colonies may be very large and last for many years.
The risk from bees in the house or garden is small - an occasional sting, and only if the bee is provoked. Unlike wasps, which can sting repeatedly, a sting from a bee causes fatal damage to the bee itself because the sting and part of the abdomen is removed during the stinging process causing death to the bee. The only danger from bees is the extremely rare occurrence of being attacked and stung by large numbers, and this is only likely to affect beekeepers or someone who approaches a swarm of honey bees.
Everyone is familiar with the loud buzzing and the "bumbling" flight of the bumble bee. Even in the bumble bee family there are many different species (white-tailed, red-tailed and garden bumble bee) to name but a few. Many people instantly recognise the striped colours of the bumblebee, but not all bees are so brightly marked. As she trundles around the garden collecting pollen and nectar the bumble bee is quite different to her streamlined relative the honey bee (see below) who dashes about everywhere. Even her body shape is different as you can see from pictures of the two species. The bumble bee is round and furry and not at all like her wasp shaped cousin. Only the queen and the worker bees have a sting.
Bumble bees make small nests which vary in size, from about that of a tennis ball, to the size of a football. The nest is often in the ground or in a compost heap.
The queen hibernates over the winter then, in spring, very large bumble bees (the queens), can be seen in the garden. The worker bees seen through the summer are smaller, but as the autumn approaches some new queens appear, and these will go into hibernation to come out the following spring, and start the cycle over again.
By comparison with the bumble bee, the honey bee is dull - the body is black, the stripes are barely visible and the whole body is much more slender than its bulky bumble bee cousin. The life cycle is also different; very large numbers of honey bees live in a single hive, where the queen lays her eggs. Almost all the other bees are sterile female workers. They gather pollen and nectar, which they bring back to the nest to feed young grubs. The surplus nectar is turned into honey and, when winter approaches, the numbers of bees diminish, but the hive will live through the winter, feeding on its store of honey.
There is only one queen in each hive, but sometimes if the hive becomes too crowded a new queen will emerge and the original queen will leave the hive, accompanied by perhaps half of the workers. This is a "swarm" of bees, a large, frightening buzzing mass of insects. The swarm is looking for a new home; a hollow tree trunk, a chimney pot, etc.
While the scouts are exploring, the queen and the swarm will hang on a fence or the branch of a tree. Beekeepers can handle and collect swarms, but it is not a job for the inexperienced. The bees in a swarm are normally placid but can become very bad tempered, and may attack in large numbers anyone who approaches them.
Masonry bees live in holes which they dig in soft mortar on sunny south-east facing walls. Although a number of bees may infest a wall, there is no central nest - each bee digs its own tunnel in the mortar. The cure for masonry bees is to rake out the soft mortar and repoint the brickwork with a harder mortar that the bees cannot excavate. Spraying the wall with pesticide is not a cure - when the pesticide wears off the bees may return. Masonry bees do not sting.
Whilst all bee numbers are now in such decline Ants Pests try to refer customers to local bee keepers, however if you have approached a bee keeper and they cannot remove the nest as it is within a cavity wall or other unreachable location in that instance Ants Pests will carry out a bee treatment in accordance with the current legislation.
Never attempt to approach a swarm of bees or try to handle bees.
Always contact a professional beekeeper