Bees and wasps

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As pollinating insects, bees are very important for the health of wild flowers, and hence of the countryside in general. Because many visit flowers in gardens they are also easy to study and, since there are so many different species with different lifestyles, can be a source of great interest.

Honey bees are very important from an economic point of view as pollinators of agricultural crops such as oilseed rape or field beans, but bumblebees are more important for wild flowers, because they visit a wider range of plants and also forage in colder conditions than honey bees. Bumblebees are inoffensive creatures and rarely sting unprovoked, even near their nest.

Like honey bees and some wasps, bumblebees are social, living and raise their young in nests housing many worker bees under a single queen. Bumblebee colonies, however, are much smaller than those of honey bees or wasps, usually consisting of only a few dozen bees and rarely exceeding 100.

Many species of bee are solitary, however, laying their eggs in individual nests and never meeting their young, which hatch the following year. Many solitary bees forage or nest in gardens, including red mason bees and leafcutter bees.

Bees live on pollen and nectar that they collect from flowers, but wasps are meat-eaters, collecting caterpillars and grubs to eat themselves and feed to their young. The familiar yellow-and-black common wasps often found in gardens live in colonies, building their nests out of wood scrapings chewed into a pulp, but as for bees there are also many solitary species, nesting in holes or crevices.

Photo © Tony Gunton

More information

For a good general guide but with little detail on each species: "Collins Guide to the Insects of Britain and Eastern Europe". For everything about bumblebees: "The Bumblebees of Essex" by Ted Benton. Bumblebee Conservation Trust website