Nature at Home: Bees and Wasps

This Nature at Home post continues our look at the miniature world of insect life during lockdown.

Bees are one of the most prominent insects flying around at the moment. Queen bumblebees are emerging and looking for nest sites, so spring is the perfect time to spot them. They are large enough to see from a window when you’re inside, though identifying them to species level may be more challenging, as there are over 20 different species in the UK. If you’re out on a walk, pay attention to the ground and the sounds around you. Bumblebees are very noisy in flight and the force of their wingbeats even moves the vegetation. If you see leaves moving very close to the ground, it could be a queen bumblebee looking for the best place to start her colony.

As well as bumblebees, you’ve probably heard of honeybees, which can easily be distinguished from wasps. Have you heard of solitary bees? There are nearly 250 species in the UK. Mining bees place their eggs in the ground, so try leaving bare patches of soil if you have a garden or look for the same if you’re out in a grassy area. Mason bees use holes in walls to raise their young and bee hotels are a popular garden feature. Leafcutter bees may be seen taking pieces of leaves, especially from roses. And cuckoo bees use the nests of other bees to raise their young. By observing flowers, you’ll get to know which ones are favoured by bees. If you’re patient and able to hang around long enough you might even get some good photos.

Honeybee (Apis mellifera) (taken on DSLR camera with 50-500 mm telephoto lens) © Lee Ismail.
Willughby’s leafcutter bee (Megachile willughbiella) (taken on a smartphone) © Lee Ismail.

In more impressive numbers than the bees, there are over 7000 species of wasp in the UK. Even the most hated common wasp (Vespula vulgaris) provides pest control, and is a useful pollinator, as it searches for a sweet nectar drink among flowers. As long as you don’t have a sugary drink, you’ll be fine to observe wasps from a foot away. You may also see hornets (Vespa crabro) flying around or feeding on fallen fruit. Lots of people aren’t keen, as they are much larger than common wasps and may be seen grabbing honeybees in mid-air. However, as another insect predator, the hornet is useful in regulating insect numbers. They are no threat to healthy honeybee hives or to you, if you leave them alone. One of the most visually exciting wasps is the tiny ruby-tailed wasp (Chrysis sp.) with a bright blue upper half and a shining red abdomen, they are also known as jewel wasps. This wasp parasitises mason bees and hangs around the entrances of their homes, giving you a chance to catch a glimpse.

Hornet (taken on DSLR camera with 50-500 mm telephoto lens) © Lee Ismail.
A ruby-tailed wasp temporarily held for viewing (taken on a point and shoot

Get Involved

Don’t forget to join in with the City Nature Challenge (24th – 27th April 2020) to spot and upload your nature sightings.

The Field Studies Council (FSC) has excellent guides for insects, which are often very easy to use. 

The Woodland Trust produces handy guides too:

Hornets

Bees and wasps

Solitary bees

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust has a Bumblebee ID guide

The Big Wasp Survey has all about wasps

Discover More

Read other posts in the Nature at Home series

Kerrie Curzon, Collections Assistant

2 Responses

  1. SilverTiger

    Growing up during and after WWII, I was taught that wasps were pests and to deal with them with a rolled-up newspaper. I now hate to think how many I thus slew for no very good reason.

    One day as a adult, sitting in a pub garden, I watched as a wasp flew inside my empty glass which still had patches of foam from the fizzy fruit drink it had contained. I watched entranced as the wasp moved from patch to patch sucked “hoovering them up”. I went out and bought a magnifying glass and have followed the antics of bees and wasps with interest ever since.

    I particular like the close-up photo of the bumblebee. Bumblebees are one of my favourites.

  2. Kerrie Curzon

    Thank you for sharing your story! How wonderful to have an example of your own changing attitude. I’m very glad you have such an appreciation for wasps now. Bumblebees are endlessly appealing, I can see why they are your favourites.

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