Introduction to bees wasps and hoverflies

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Pollinating insects such as bees and hoverflies 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.

One of the commoner bumblebee species that visits and sometimes nests in gardens is the white-tailed bumblebee. Other species favour wilder conditions and sadly some of these are in severe decline. The brown-banded carder bee, for example, is now nationally scarce, but relatively common in Essex along the Thames estuary.

Like honey bees and common wasps, bumblebees live and raise their young in colonies, although bumblebee colonies 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. Examples that are often found in gardens are the leafcutter bee and the wool carder bee.

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 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.

There are many different species of hoverfly, often looking like bees or wasps for self-protection. Unlike bees and wasps which have two pairs of wings and a distinct 'waist' where their thorax meets their abdomen, hoverflies only have one pair of wings and no waist. Adults feed on nectar like bees, but their young feed on aphids, so it is a good idea to try to attract them into your garden. Try growing annuals like candytuft or poached-egg plant or perennial verbenas.

Hoverflies vary considerably in size. The largest, from the volucella family, are as big as bumblebees, whereas the smallest, like this one from the sphaerophoria family are only a few mm long.

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