Not only are bees and wasps fascinating social creatures, they are also vital pollinators. Without them Suffolk’s orchards would have little fruit, arable crops would produce little yield, and many of our garden fruit, vegetables and flowers would not flourish.
With a little bit of effort you should be able to attract at least six of the 24 species of bumblebee to your Suffolk garden, along with honeybees and solitary bees.
The importance of gardens for bees
Bees thrive on nectar and pollen collected from wildflowers and hedgerows, including those in your garden. But the intensification of farming practices over the last century has contributed to the disappearance of 97% of our flower-rich grassland since the 1930s, while many hedgerows have also been scrubbed.
Along with the loss of habitat and food sources, cold, damp summers, the varroa mite and pesticides have also hit bee populations hard with most UK species declining greatly in recent years and two becoming extinct since 1940.
Suffolk Wildlife Trust has been working with landowners to provide habitat for bees. Communities have planted wildflower meadows with support from the Trust and some farmers have made a few simple changes to their techniques, which have meant more flowers and as a result more insect life. If the habitat is right for bees, other threatened species also stand to benefit.
By providing bees with somewhere to feed and nest in your garden, window box or school ground, you can help build up the mosaic of suitable habitats necessary to make sure Suffolk keeps buzzing.
Plants for bees
Bees need flowers throughout spring and summer to provide them and their young with nectar and pollen. But not all flowers can provide these vital energy sources.
Exotic and highly cultivated garden flowers are largely unsuitable, as they either produce little pollen and nectar or keep it really well hidden from the bees. Most annual bedding plants also have little nectar to offer bees or other wildlife.
The best plants for bees and other wildlife in your garden are often cottage garden flowers and native species. Such flowers can look fantastic in a garden setting as they are easy to grow and are pretty resistant to disease and pests.
By planting a selection of the flowers from each group listed below, you can ensure that your garden will be a source of nectar throughout the year. It is important to include a variety of plants that have flowers of different shapes and sizes as different bees have tongues of different sizes. Of course, other wildlife, including bee flies, butterflies, hoverflies, beetles and moths will also benefit.
Flowering in March and April
Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta)
Red dead nettle
White dead nettle
Flowering in May and June
|Birds foot trefoil
Flowering in July and August
Wherever possible try to use native plants. This list is not exhaustive but is intended to help you with ideas of what to plant in your garden. You can find other suggestions from the RHS here and here.
No room for a wildflower meadow?
Although a wildflower meadow is a great addition to a Living Garden, it is not always feasible. A hanging basket on a balcony or pots of native wildflowers on the patio can still make a huge difference for bees and other insects. Try making use of all the space you have by using trellis to grow up vertical surfaces, or by installing a green roof.
Although there are many more species found across the UK, there are six species you’re most likely to see in your garden in Suffolk:
• Common carder bee - our only common all brown species.
• Early bumblebee - rather small, short lived and often found nesting in tit-boxes.
• Red-tailed bumblebee - mostly black apart from its dark red tail.
• White-tailed bumblebee - yellow and black with a white tail.
• Buff-tailed bumblebee - yellow and black with a buff tail.
• Garden bumblebee - has a long face for feeding on deeper flowers
Different species have different nesting preferences, but basically they require dry, concealed cavities, often underground. Bumblebees cannot dig so they use disused burrows made by small rodent. It is thought that some species can faintly smell the mice that once lived there and use this scent as a cue.
A shortage of rodent burrows in gardens (due to cats and foxes) is likely to make this situation worse. It has been estimated that up to 80% of newly-emerged queens die without successfully founding a nest.
Some bumblebees will nest above the ground, in piles of dead leaves, dry tussocky long grass, or in abandoned birds’ nests, while other use banks of soil that catch the sun. By keeping patches of your lawn long and resisting the urge to over-tidy your garden you are more likely to attract bees and other wildlife.
Protecting bumblebees’ nests
Bumblebees are the most placid of bees and will not sting unless absolutely necessary - eg if stood on. They have small nests in comparison to honey bees or wasps and it’s not in their nature to swarm. The nest is only used for one season and at the end of summer the bees will disperse. All adults will die over winter except the new queen who hibernates and emerges the following spring to start a new nest.
If a nest is destroyed before the next generation of queens has been produced, the original queen and all the bumblebees of that nest will die over winter. No bumblebees from that individual nest will survive to reproduce another year.
Suffolk Wildlife Trust advise against moving a bumblebee nest because the chances of the colony surviving are slim. Bumblebees rely on landscape features surrounding their nest to find food and locate their nest. If moved they may leave the nest to forage for food to feed their larvae and be unable to find the nest again. Attempting to move a bumblebee nest should be a last resort. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust provides further advice.
Solitary bees are wild bees that don’t build communal nests. There are more than 200 species of solitary bee in the UK.
There are a few species that you may see and they are generally quite different in their habitats. One of the most obvious species is the tawny mining bee, named after the female’s orange/brown hair. It will make its nest in loose soil and is fond of garden lawns.
Look out for a tell tale ‘cone’ of mounded up soil made when it tunnels underground.
The red mason bee nests in all kinds of holes and cavities, often with a number of other individual bees. But their nests are most commonly found in brickwork and stone. The female constructs nest cells from mud.
Carpenter bees have very powerful jaws that they use to tunnel into wood, while the hairy footed flower bee is best recognised by its darting flight from flower to flower. The female resembles a black bumblebee with yellowish hairs on the legs, whereas the male is more gingery brown with cream areas around the face. They tend to nest in soft mortar joints and occasionally underground.
Leafcutter bees are known for their habit of chewing off neat round circles from leaves, which they use to section off their nests. They will nest anywhere they can find a suitable home, whether it is in the ground or above.
Despite being labelled ‘solitary’, these bees will often nest communally or in large aggregations. You could be deceived into thinking that a group of solitary mining bees was actually a colony of honey bees. This is because the group will often share a single entrance hole.
Artificial nests really do work for solitary bees and are simple and cheap to make. Drill some holes into dry wood or bundle bamboo and hollow plant stems together and put them in an old pipe to keep dry. Different species of bees use different size holes so it is worth having varying diameters. The best place to hang a bee home is on a south facing wall between 30cm and 100cm off the ground and in full sunlight. Make sure the home is tilted slightly to make sure rain cannot get in.
If you are using a pipe that is open at both ends, make sure one of them is against a wall.
March and April are generally the best time to hang up bee homes. You can tell if you have been lucky because the ends will be closed up by the bee.
For cavity nesting bees, you could try drilling holes into an old fencepost or standing piece of timber. Again it is best to give a range of different sizes between 5-10mm.
Many solitary bees nest in the ground. Try leaving patches of bare earth in places that catch the sunshine. If you have sandy banks you can leave them undisturbed or poke a few inviting holes in them with a pencil.
As well as being good ‘pest’ controllers in the garden, feeding on caterpillars that may otherwise feast on your veggies, common wasps are also important pollinators. Despite this, they can be a pest when nesting in houses. If you find a nest in and are unsure what to do contact one of our advisors on the number below.
If it's not in a place that's bothering you, try simply leaving it alone - it'll be empty by autumn and just might help your gardening in the meantime.
• Speak to one of our advisors on 01473 890089