Which solitary bees am I most likely to see in my garden?

Solitary bees fall into four main groups: miner, mason, carpenter and leafcutter:

  • Mining bees dig holes in loose soil, often in paths, south facing banks and in lawns
  • Masonry bees tend to prefer brickwork and stone, often digging into loose crumbling mortar
  • Carpenter bees have powerful jaws that they use to dig tunnels in wood
  • Leafcutter bees nest in a variety of places including the ground, under stones and in dead wood, however they all cut out sections of leaves and then use the segments to line their nest

Solitary bees are hard to describe because they vary so much in size, shape and colouration. Some species resemble small honeybees, others small bumblebees, whilst others could be mistaken for small wasps. However, there are a few species that you may see in your garden and luckily they all have quite different habits...

The first solitary bees to appear, as early as March, are the miner bees. They look quite similar to honeybees but don't have pollen baskets on their hind legs. One of our most obvious species is the Tawny Mining Bee, which is named after the female's orangey-brown hair. She makes her nest in loose soil and has a particular fondness for garden lawns. You can easily recognise the little volcano-like mound of soil left around the mouth of her burrow.

The Red Mason Bee is also seen in early spring. It nests in all kinds of holes and cavities, sometimes with a number of other individuals, but is most often found in brickwork and stone. The female is covered in dense gingery hair and will construct her nest cells from mud.

The early-emerging Hairy Footed Flower Bee has a characteristic darting flight as it flies from flower to flower. The female resembles an all-black bumblebee with yellowish hairs on the legs, whereas the male is more gingery-brown with a creamy face. They nest in old cob walls, in soft mortar joints and occasionally underground.

A bit later in the season are the leaf-cutter bees such as the Megachile species. These bees resemble honeybees but can be distinguished by the bright orange pollen brushes under their abdomens. They cut neat circles out of leaves and petals, gluing them together with saliva to use to build their nest. They are particularly fond of roses but don't worry, they don't cause permanent damage to plants.

One distinctive carpenter bee is the Harebell Carpenter Bee, a small slender black bee that can be seen in gardens from mid-June to mid-August. Only 7 mm long, this bee likes to feed on Bellflowers (Campanula spp.) but has also been found on Geraniums. It nests high up in old beetle holes in wood or the exposed ends of thatch.

Most solitary bees are seen in early spring and summer but there is one distinctive species seen much later in the year. The Ivy Bee emerges in September to coincide with ivy plants flowering. This bee was first recorded in the UK in 2001 and now it can be found in much of southern England. It likes to nest in loose, sandy soil on southern facing banks and when conditions are good they can congregate in their thousands. It has broad stripes on its abdomen and is the only miner bee around at this time of year.

None of these bees will damage your property or lawn and are harmless to people and pets. All solitary bees are excellent pollinators and should be encouraged into your garden.

Posted in: Bees on 07 May 2015

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