Bees and Wasps

This page is credited in full to Dave Cushman who created it. His voice is expressed in black colour text and any additions or comments in blue belong to myself. Credit: Dave Cushman’s website.

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There are about 19,000 known species of bee, a similar number of species of wasps and a good many more of each that we have yet to discover and catalogue.

Many of these insects are solitary in habit, but some of them are social and live in colonies varying in size from a few dozen up to many thousands. All in all, we humans are outnumbered by bees on this planet by an estimated 20,000 to 1. There are also many thousands of other insects that are equipped with stings, yet incidence of any insect stinging a human being are very rare. Bees are in fact very gentle creatures if left undisturbed.

Fear of Bees

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries almost half the households in the UK kept two or three hives of bees and as a result most people considered that they were just part of everyday life. The total number of bees kept is smaller now, (but not by much). There are fewer beekeepers now, but they mostly keep a larger number of hives. Most people seem to have a totally irrational fear of bees, mainly due to a gap in the education system and scare stories propagated by the press and other ‘news’ media. Bees are not “dangerous”, they are equipped with a sting, but they will not use it unless they feel threatened or are attacked.
What to do if you see some bees… and you do not understand what they are doing.
The first thing that you must do is to stay calm and review what you are looking at objectively. Ask yourself the following questions:-

How many are there?
A few dozen?… A few Hundred?… Several thousands?

What size are they? (compared to a blue bottle fly).
Larger?… The same?… Smaller?

Where are they situated?
Coming out of holes in the ground?… On flowering plants?… Coming out of a hole or cavity above ground or in a tree?… Flying in the air in a large cloud?… Hanging from a bush or other object like a bunch of grapes or a rugby football?

Precise answers are impossible to give in a text of this nature, but some basic principles may help you to decide what is happening.

If the bees are a little larger than a fly and are coming from several holes in the ground, (usually 8 mm or 9 mm in diameter) and they are hairy then they are likely to be solitary bees. It is possible for large numbers of solitary bees to nest in the same piece of earth, but each is an individual and not related to or concerned about its neighbors.

Larger, furry bees coming from a single larger hole in the ground are probably bumble bees.

Bees of any size that are hairy and come out of holes in the mortar of brick work are most likely to be masonry bees.

Bees that are the size of a fly, but are not hairy may be coming out of holes above ground or in trees, maybe flying in a dense cloud or clustering in large numbers like a bunch of grapes. These are our precious honey bees.

Bees on flowering plants may be of any type, they are there collecting pollen and nectar and should be ignored unless there are many thousands of them.

If you are concerned by what you see, then contact a beekeeper… Who will be able to advise you of the options available. Do NOT attempt to move or destroy bees of any type as you may end up with more trouble than you bargained for.

Educate your Children

Please tell your children to observe bees, but not to interfere or try to harm them. If they are curious they can ask their schoolteacher to tell them more (the subject is now part of the national curriculum). Educational classes are held by most beekeeping associations. We could do with some new recruits to our wonderful hobby as the average age of beekeepers seems to increase year by year.
Bees in the UK

There are about 260 species of bee in the United Kingdom. These contain one honey bee specie and about 17 Bumble Bee species these are all types of social bee and live as colonies rather than as the solitary individuals that the rest of the 230 odd types are. There are six species of Cuckoo Bees within this group.
Honey Bees

These are the bees that beekeepers keep in hives, they pollinate most of our crops and help to keep the cost of food production down. They produce honey and beeswax and have been unchanged for something like 50 million years. I find them fascinating and I have been passionately fond of them for most of my life.

These are the only type of bee which forms a swarm. Unfortunately owing to poor understanding and a general lack of knowledge, this tends to frighten people. If you find a swarm, contact a local beekeeper and he or she will tell you what to do about it. You should not be alarmed, it is a natural process that helps the bees to find a new home.

Bumble Bees

The bumble bee nest could be one of two types either like a grapefruit although more orange in colour or the other version which is more like an enclosed bird’s nest. You may find them nesting in loose earth or a bird nesting box, under a compost heap, or underneath a garden shed, especially if a mouse might have previously nested there.

The nests of bumble bees will be empty by October/November and may then be removed without fear of being stung. If you remove such a nest place the remains in a polythene bag and seal it, then put it in the dustbin do not be tempted to put it on the compost heap unless you desire to have a dozen or so nests next year.
Ground or Mining Bees
These vary considerably as there are well over 200 types in the UK alone, they like sandy soils and excavate a tunnel in which they lay a single egg on a mound of pollen. The holes are usually 3 mm, 5 mm or 8 mm in diameter.

Little can be done to deter them other than altering the texture of the soil by incorporating large amounts of peat, coir or other compost (but not sand).
Masonry Bees
Are really a type of ground bee that normally lives in the sandy banks of streams. If this type of bee finds soft and decaying mortar in a brick wall it is unable to distinguish between that and it’s natural habitat. This has given rise to many horrific stories, but if they have ever been the cause of a building falling down I would be surprised. It is much more likely to be due to lack of maintenance by the owner.

Leaf Cutter Bees

The ones that I have seen are hairy and look similar to other types of solitary bee. They cut semicircular pieces from the leaves of some plants, (notably roses), They then line a tunnel shaped cavity with these pieces of leaf. They collect pollen, lay their egg on the pollen, seal up the tube to form a chamber (using more pieces of leaf) and then repeat the whole process several times.

There are some species that use mud to form chambers instead of cut leaves.

Cuckoo Bees

These lay their eggs in the nest burrows of the solitary bees… The cuckoo bee larva then eats the pollen intended for the original occupant.

Wasps (common)


Are much disliked, but if the truth be told they have no greater propensity to sting than a bee does. Their nests are made from paper that they prepare by chewing fibres from old wood. Wasps are actually quite beneficial to gardeners as each wasp nest will consume about 110,000 caterpillars and grubs during the early part of the season
The nests of wasps will be abandoned late in the year, and may then be removed without fear of being stung.

Wasps (German)

These look like a common wasp, but are a slightly larger and with red/brown patches where the common wasp has dark khaki markings.
Hornets

Live in hollow trees and are quite rare in Britain they look like a very large version of a wasp, but with red/brown markings. They actually eat honeybees (and many other insects), but I do not have a grudge against them for that, as it may be that they take the weaker or diseased bees and by so doing help to keep the rest of the bees healthy.
The picture on the right shows a large hornets nest bulging from a hole in a tree trunk.

I wrote this page in the hope that I can promote a better understanding of bees and their ways… And allay some of the irrational fears of bees that some people have.

There is a very good 3 part FAQ about bees and another FAQ for beekeeping beginners, on Graham Law’s site, there is a link for this top left of this page.

This link may be helpful for bumblebees.

A very comprehensive page on bee stings has been written by Allen Dick (a Canadian large scale beekeeper who is now retired).