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Two Bees or Not Two Bees? (Well 9 Bees actually!)

Being in lockdown gives everyone time to watch wildlife in their gardens, and one group of insects that is always there and relatively easy to identify are bees. At least, it is easy to know that they are bees but, hopefully with a bit of effort, and this article, you can take that ID a step further. Bees are an essential part of all ecosystems, they are the pollinators that allow all the World’s crops to be grown, and to keep us supplied with food to enable us to survive. All gardens, large or small, as long as they have a few flowering plants will attract bees, and bees need our help. So plant more flowers, leave ’weeds’ to flower and help these precious insects to survive; the health of our planet and us depends on them.

All the pictures are taken in and around my small Cheshire garden, but it is ‘managed’ for wildlife and so does a great job of attracting insects aplenty. The first species shown is a relative newcomer to the UK, coming over from the near continent and first found in 2001 in Wiltshire. It has now spread throughout England, Wales and Southern Scotland and is a common bee where present. Part of its success is the ability to use man-made structures for nests, such a bird nest-boxes or eaves of houses. Also, in times of flood, whilst ground nesting bees are washed out, the Tree Bumblebees survive. It is a striking species with a tan front end, black middle section and white tail, It is easily identified, and so is a good ‘starters’ bee. Picture A shows these colours as the bee nectars on a bramble flower. They have a typical ‘bumblebee’ rotund shape, with a slow, buzzy flight; ID the bee into its type first then try to be more specific later.

The bumblebee theme is continued with two more species. Picture B shows a Garden Bumblebee, one of the large bumbles, that shows similar colouration to many others, namely black and yellow stripes with a white tail. ID is best done from a picture, easily taken with a mobile phone. The yellow band at the base of the abdomen is what you are looking for to clinch ID. This is another very common bee, but making a positive ID will still make you feel good in finding it. Picture C is another bumble with a similar pattern, White-tailed Bumblebee. The photo shows a male, possibly easier to ID than the workers, but again taking a picture and looking at bumblebee ID info on the web should help. Again, this is a widespread, common bee that should be found in your garden.

The next two bumbles are scarcer species, but should still be looked for as they are locally abundant. Photo D shows a Red-tailed Bumblebee which, as its name suggests has a red tail! This makes it easy to ID, most (not males) are jet black with a red tail and are quite a big bee; not as big as the previous two species usually though. In contrast, photo E shows a small, active bumble, the Early Bumblebee. It has the black and yellow stripes of some species, and a red/orange tail; a unique combination that should make ID pretty straightforward. It is typically seen in April and May, so any small bumble at that time could well be this species.

The next bee of note is in photo G (missing out F for the moment!). This is one of the family of bumbles called Carder bees and, in this case, is the most common and the one most likely to be seen in your garden, Common Carder Bee. A medium sized bee, and one of the most variably coloured, so a picture and a web search may be needed to clinch ID. Most carder bees I encounter are Common Carder Bee, and you would be quite lucky to find one of the other species in your garden. Going back to photo F, this is the first of the mining bees that I will feature here. This is the hardest to ID of the three shown, and any found looking like this may be best left as unidentified down to a species and just called a ‘mining bee’ instead. The one shown is Andrena scotica sometimes called the Chocolate Mining Bee or Hawthorn Mining Bee, which is a common bee and a late-emerger in spring. Other similar looking bees are a rarer but not impossible to find. Forums of experts exist on the internet, so post pictures there for extra opinions on ID.

The next two mining bees are relatively easy to ID and both are quite common in the UK. The first shown in photo H is the Tawny Mining Bee, identified by the rich orange hairs on the bee’s thorax and sometimes on the abdomen too. They are colonial nesters and can be found going in and out of holes on bare mud/sand banks. Watch out around these colonies for parasitic bees and wasps too; waiting to enter the holes and lay their own eggs on the host’s ones. Finally photo I is another colonial mining bee that can be found in the same area as the previous species, the Ashy Mining Bee. This again is distinctive with two pale grey bands of hairs across the thorax. This colouration makes it look pale in flight and it is a strikingly pretty little bee, always a nice find.

So, that is a quick and simple introduction into bees that may be found in your garden - watch out too for honey bees as these are common and widely kept. Remember a picture may help and there are lots of experts out there willing to assist in any ID problems; find them on the internet and especially on Facebook. The next step is to wait for some sunshine and get out and find a bee or two.... or maybe even nine!!

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