If I asked you to tell me two things about bees, what would you say? If you are reading my blog, you are probably interested in wildlife, so may know more than the average person…. but when I ask it to school pupils, they always say the same things… ‘They make honey’ and ‘They can sting you’. In fact, many are actually speaking about one species… the honey bee, when they say this. The vast majority of the hundreds of different bees living in the uk are very unlikely to sting you or actually incapable of doing so as they don’t even have a sting!
There are several hundred different types of bee resident in the British Isles. Basically, there are two different groups: social bees and solitary bees.
As their name suggests, social bees live in groups. Honeybees are particularly sociable and can live in groups of up to 50,000 together in a single hive. These are the bees most likely to sting but really only if you threaten their hive. Bumblebees are also social, but live in smaller groups of 50-150. Both types depend on queen bees who lay all of the eggs for the group. The rest of the social group then rend, feed and care for the eggs and larvae to raise the next generation of bees.
In contrast, solitary bees live on their own. There are over 250 kinds of solitary bee and they are the bees that use bee ‘hotels’ that are now easy to purchase from garden centres or even supermarkets! Different species like to nest in different locations. They can make burrows underground, in bare faces of rock, soil or sand, old wood, stems, holes and even masonry. A female solitary bee builds her nest and provides food for her young without the help of any worker bees. Despite this some solitary bees may appear to live in colonies, with many bees making their nests close to each other in a suitable piece of habitat, such as bee hotels or bare patches of soil or banks. These solitary bees rarely sting. In fact, the males don’t have a sting and the females rarely sting. This means you can have bee hotels in your garden and watch them at close quarters without fear of being stung… and I certainly do that both at home and at school, where I teach.
I love having these solitary bees in the garden… they are our primary pollinators and range in size from tiny fly-like bees, up to a more ‘traditional’ looking bee. I add to my bee ‘Plaza’ each year. I have a mixture of bought, adapted and home made bee ‘hotels’ that provide a range of holes for bees to nest in. Some are bamboo, others are holes drilled in untreated wood or logs.