There are some 250 species of bee in the British Isles. But only one of these is the honeybee. That’s right – one honeybee, 249 other bee species. A arresting thought – so let’s take a step back to consider the evidence. We all have a nodding acquaintance with the 17 different “bumblebee” species which, taken together with the honeybee, are the only bee species in the U.K. which inhabit social colonies (ie hives). So when we are think “bee” our image of “the usual suspects” captures less than 20 out of 250 species – while the remaining 92% of bees in the line-up are all solitary species of bee.
Honeybees: These are the blog-worthy creatures which inspire beekeepers to get dressed up in white smocks and veils and spend a lot of money on providing them with acceptable accommodation (literally at Her Majesty’s pleasure) and a certain standard of care. These indefatigable pollinators live in hives and pollinate many crops. As you might suspect, they produce honey (and beeswax!) and are also the only type of bee which reproduces by swarming.
Bumblebees: Bigger, louder and hairier than the honeybee, the bumblebee looks a bit of a bruiser, but really is just a gentle giant. We know them well for those characteristics, but we also recognise them as the first bees of the year, since they can tolerate colder foraging temperatures – and the hibernated Queen needs to get her hive going as soon as possible, since otherwise, she would be on her own and will be unable to cope with producing eggs, foraging and caring for the brood in the nest. A bumblebee nest might be found in the ground or in a bird nesting box (as was the case for one of my allotment neighbours, Bill, who called me out to “deal with the bees”, but who ended up living in close harmony with his colony in the end).
Having no clue about those 232 solitary bee-species, I will defer to the late Dave Cushman for his descriptions of the broad groupings of these solitary bees:
Mining Bee: “These vary considerably as there are well over 200 types in the UK alone, they like sandy soils and excavate a tunnel in which they lay a single egg on a mound of pollen. The holes are usually 3 mm, 5 mm or 8 mm in diameter. Little can be done to deter them other than altering the texture of the soil by incorporating large amounts of peat, coir or other compost (but not sand)”.
Masonry Bee: “Masonry bees have no connection with the “da Vinci Code”, but can be described as a type of ground bee that normally lives in the sandy banks of streams. If this type of bee finds soft and decaying mortar in a brick wall it is unable to distinguish between that and it’s natural habitat. This has given rise to many horrific stories, but if they have ever been the cause of a building falling down I would be surprised. It is much more likely to be due to lack of maintenance by the owner”.
Leaf Cutter Bee: “The ones that I have seen are hairy and look similar to other types of solitary bee. They cut semicircular pieces from the leaves of some plants, (notably roses), They then line a tunnel shaped cavity with these pieces of leaf. They collect pollen, lay their egg on the pollen, seal up the tube to form a chamber (using more pieces of leaf) and then repeat the whole process several times. There are some species that use mud to form chambers instead of cut leaves”.
Cuckoo Bee: “These lay their eggs in the nest burrows of the solitary bees… The cuckoo bee larva then eats the pollen intended for the original occupant”.
So this little identity parade shows you the broad categories of bee which you might be able to pick out – as long as you keep your eyes peeled and your antennae switched on. I would be interested to hear your tip-offs on any sightings of one of the “other 92%” of bee species in the bad-lands of Bermondsey. All information treated in the strictest confidence, of course…..by the Flying Squad.