Wild Bees in Your Garden

Lavender with bee, planting design, herb, pollinator, ebvergreen herb

Are you wild about bees?

This week – 23rd – 29th October, 2017 – is Wild About Gardens Week in the UK.

The Royal Horticultural Society and The Wildlife Trusts have been encouraging us to focus on the wild bees in our gardens this year.

Wild about Bees is, of course, part of their ongoing joint initiative, Wild About Gardens. The National Pollinator Strategy, launched in 2014, is a 10-year plan to protect all the UK pollinators. With the collaboration of organisations like the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, the 2017 emphasis has been wild bees.

If all this is news to you, then read on for some explanations about bees and why making your garden more bee friendly is a good idea. For you, the bees and the planet.

And if you already knew, then perhaps we can give you some more inspiration for wildlife friendly gardening. A garden that suits you, your family, your pets and the wild bees.


What are the different kinds of bees you might find in your garden?

There are over 250 different species of bees in the UK and some 20,000 different kinds of bees worldwide. So I’m not going to list them all for you when there are better places to look for the information! Here’s a quick whizz through some of the differences between the species.

Domesticated Bees

Honey bees

There are wild honey bee populations but in the most common of the 10 or so species is the domesticated European honey bee, Apis mellifera. And the most likely honey bees you’ll find in a garden will be the domesticated honey bee. These are the ones cared for by bee-keepers. They live in managed bee hives and the honeycomb is collected by the beekeeper. This is separated, or turned into, honey and beeswax for us humans to eat. Or possibly to polish our oak furniture with in the case of the beeswax.

bee hives, shadows, pollinators, red house, bexley, kent, william morris

I was lucky enough to purchase some local, cold pressed honey this week. Delicious! More on the domesticated honey bee another time. Although you can find a local Beekeeper via the Beekeepers Association or checking out local group pages on social media.


Wild Bees

So, most of those 250 + different types of bees are actually wild bees. That may surprise you. We can sub-divide these bees into social bees, who live in communities, hive,  and work together. And solitary bees; who live in their own nests.

UK bee ident. wild bees, wild about bees, wild about gardens, pollinating insects, british wild bees, bumblebee, carder bee, mason bee, flower bee, leaf cutter bee, mining bee

photo courtesy of Wild about Gardens

Social Bees


Bumblebees, Bombus species, are probably the wild bee that first springs to mind when we think of bees in our gardens and parks. There are 24 species of Bumblebee in the UK and I admit I’m not able to recognise more than a handful.

However, the Bumblebee identification page on the Bumblebee Conservation Trust website will help you to identify these wild bees in your garden.

  • Buff-tailed Bumblebee
  • White tailed Bumblebee
  • Red tailed Bumblebee
  • Early Bumblebee

Like the Honey bee, the Bumblebee lives in colonies in hives. These could be in mouse holes, bird boxes and compost heaps. Don’t worry if you do find a Bumblebee nest or hive in your compost heap. They should only use it for a year and then you can use the compost!

Did you know? A Bumblebee, even with a full stomach, is only about 40 minutes away from starvation!

Fuchsia 'Star Wars', with bee, pollinators, flowering shrub

Solitary Bees

Solitary bees do not have a hive full of worker bees to help feed the bee larvae. The queen bee looks after her ‘babies’ herself. Although you will often find solitary bee nests in close proximity to each other; they’re not territorial in that sense.

  • Leafcutter Bee
  • Mason Bee
  • Carder Bee
  • Hairy-footed Flower Bee
  • Mining Bee

Are different types of solitary bee. Over 90% of UK bee species are solitary bees, so you are more likely to see a solitary bee than a bumblebee in your garden!

None of the solitary bees produce honey, so they are wild bees. What they do, however, is pollinate and cross pollinate in heroic fashion! For example, it takes 120 worker honey bees to pollinate the same amount of flowers as a single red mason bee. One of the reasons for this is that they do not have pollen baskets as bumblebees do. This means than when they visit flowers they are dropping pollen, hence pollinating.

As a garden designer, I encourage my clients to have plenty of plants for pollinators in the planting designs I create for their gardens. However, clients are sometimes concerned about bee stings and bees swarming if they have pets or small children. Solitary bees do not swarm as they do not live in colonies. They’re also even less aggressive than bumble bees and honey bees; which generally will only defend themselves rather than attack anyway.



Of the wild bees in your garden, the three solitary bees you’re most likely to see are the red mason bee, the leaf cutter bee and the wool carder bee.

Red mason bee

Red mason bee, Osmia bicornis, Osmia rufa
With her ginger hair and horned head, the queen Red mason bee is quite distinctive. One of the early bees, March – July, the Mason bees are critical for fruit tree pollination.

Leaf cutter bee

Leaf cutter bee, Megachile willugbiella
Fond of rose leaves to use to build her nest! The plants won’t be overly damaged, and it’s worth it to know you have one of these pollinating insects in your garden. You’ll see this wild bee from May – September.

Wool carder bee

Wool carder bee, Anthidium manicatum
The distinctive yellow and black markings on this bee sometimes get it mistaken for a wasp. However, the bee’s abdomen is not striped black and yellow. You’ll see the Wool carder bee during June – August.

bee, purple flowered comfrey, iden croft herbs

What could you do to encourage wild bees in to your garden?

You could provide food and breeding sites. Bees forage for their food, so putting out sugar isn’t helpful. Planting bee friendly plants is. And providing places for them to nest will encourage them to stay.


Plants for Wild Bees in Your Garden

The list is long. Which is good. The majority of plants I put into planting schemes are pollinator friendly.
Yes, I did say majority not all, for good reasons: –

  • One, they might be gymnosperms, non-flowering plants, such as conifers.
  • Or they may be toxic for bees, such as the Lime tree, Tillia. I’ll return to this subject in another blog.
  • The flower shape may not suit any pollinator – some of the fancy, double flowered plants provide little or no nectar.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t grow any of these plants (as if!) Just ensure that what you are growing to encourage wild bees into your garden is good for them.
Plus, be aware! You might buy plants may be bought as bee friendly or pollinator friendly, but the plants may be contaminated with insecticides and fungicides.

Routinely sprayed during their production, over 70% of plants bought at garden centres as part of a recent study contained neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids are one of the most controversial chemicals in use in the horticultural industry. Now I don’t want to digress into a discussion about pesticide use just now. What I will say, is to check with the plant nursery or garden centre that the plants they are promoting as good for pollinators are organically grown.

geranium macrorrhizum with bee, herbaceous perennial, pollinating insect, wildlife friendly garden, wildlife friendly planting

Back to the good plants for wild bees. What should you bear in mind when choosing flowering plants?

  • Simple flower shapes, such as single blooms and open flowers
  • Have flowering plants all year round if you can
  • Choose pollen and nectar rich species
  • Plant a range of flowering plant species as different bees like different types of flower

Check out the blog suggestions below for planting inspiration. And do get in touch for a planting design to suit you, your family, your garden and the wild bees.


Nesting sites for Wild Bees in Your Garden

Providing artificial nest sites for bumble bees does not seem to be as effective as for solitary bees. Apart from leaving rolls of old carpet or a broken lawnmower ready to be disposed of with no intention of it being a bumblebee nest. Then the bees will move in just when you’re ready to have a clear out!

However, solitary bees can most definitely be helped with artificial breeding habitats. Luckily theses can be relatively simple. Different types of bee like different sorts of nesting sites, so you may wish to offer a selection. For example: –

  • Drilling holes in to fence posts
  • Sections of bamboo canes placed together, lain on their sides and put into a plastic bottle with the top cut off
  • A wooden block drilled with different sized holes
  • Leave some loose mortar in a garden wall rather than repairing it (this one for masonry bees)

And of course there are a range of shop bought bee houses and bug hotels which you can buy.


What else?

Have another cup of tea I should think! You’ve a lot to think about, but Plews is here to help with conservation and wildlife gardening advice and garden designs.

A last little bee fact for you. Wild bees are found everywhere in the world, except in the continent of Antarctica.

Most of all, enjoy your garden and have fun being wild about bees during Wild about Gardens Week!


Some related Gardening Blogs you may enjoy

Bees Needs, National Pollinator Week and Your Garden
Plants for Bugs – Wildlife Gardening
Creating Small Wildlife Habitats in Your Garden
Wild about Gardens – Design Ideas for Humans and Wildlife
Ten Winter Flowering Shrubs – Planting Ideas for your Garden
Summer Gardens, Ten Herbaceous Perennials for Pollinating Insects

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