Bees, wasps and ants belong (with sawflies) to the Hymenoptera order as they are all related in some way. The earliest known individual of this huge group, a stinging wasp, appeared perhaps 190 million years ago. The first ant was a wasp that lost its wings (about 100 million years ago), and the first bee was a wasp that forgot how to hunt (about 65 million years ago), thus becoming ‘vegetarian’, which may account for why – of the three groups of insects – we might feel more favourably disposed to bees than we do to wasps or ants. Indeed, bees have become the darlings of the Hymenoptera order, their stylised faces appearing on everything from greetings cards to lapel badges. Even if we don’t understand them fully, the whole world loves the busy bees.
With such time spans, we now see species variation on a grand scale. There are at least 22,000 different species of bee worldwide. In Britain, we have over 270 different species, 25 of these being bumblebees.
Our website groups insects by families, so it’s not completely straightforward to find which of the bees we’ve seen. They are grouped into different families: Bumble and Honey Bees, Mason bees, Mining bees and Plasterer bees. Let’s take a look at each family:
Plasterer bees (Colletidae) are bees that use secretions from their mouthparts to smooth the walls of their nest cells. There may be nine different types of British Plasterer bees.
Until we find more of these Plasterer bees, Heene shelters just the one species, the Ivy Bee. This bee is the last solitary bee to emerge each year, and is Britain’s only true autumn bee. As its name suggests, it finds nearly all its pollen and nectar from Common Ivy.
Mining bees are solitary, ground-nesting bees that have been on earth for more than 30 million years. They comprise the largest British genus of bees with perhaps 67 species.
Females of the Chocolate Mining Bee nest singly, although they often share a burrow entrance with several other females, as can be seen in one of the photographs below.
The Grey-patched Mining Bee, below, derives much but not all of its food from Dandelions.
Leafcutter and Mason bees
Leafcutter and Mason bees are mostly solitary bees. Several collect plant or animal hairs to assist in nest construction, whereas other collect plant resin for this purpose. All feed on pollen and nectar, although some of these feed on pollen collected by other bees (and so are called ‘cuckoo bees’).
The Leaf-cutter Bee and the Orange-vented Mason Bee chews up the edges of leaves to make a cement with which they seal their nests. Indeed, the Oranged-vented one, below, seems to be doing just that in this photograph.
There are other families and genera of solitary bees, all with beguiling names, such as Carpenter, Yellow-faced, Shaggy, Bristle-headed, Wool carder, Resin, Nomad, Variegated cuckoo and Sweat bees. Add them all up and the species variety just in Britain is eye-popping.
Bumblebees (and the Honey Bee) are social insects, where all other bees are solitary. Bumblebees live in small colonies, often underground. Most of those seen in Spring and early Summer will be females, males appearing in late Summer.
Bees in numbers
Our meagre efforts have so far shown that we’ve seen just 5 different types of solitary bee and 6 different types of bumblebee. To these, we can add the Honey Bee, making a total of a dozen different species of bee in Heene Cemetery’s one-acre, town-centre site. These numbers – and others – show up again later.
The Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) is an abundant species, seen from early Spring until late Autumn. Most flower foragers will be the female workers. The male drones appear in the Summer, and they have fatter bodies and longer antennae. Queens, which emerge in Spring to establish colonies, never leave the hive to forage, but feed on royal jelly produced by workers. But Honey bees, whatever their abundance, remain a single species.
There are two beehives in Heene Cemetery and, according to the hives’ keeper, Stuart, “the average beehive in the height of summer has around 50,000 bees!” That’s perhaps 100,000 bees sheltered under the trees of the cemetery’s south-east corner.
On average, bees forage for over a mile from their hive. A DNA analysis of honey samples that Stuart requested in the late summer of 2021 showed traces of 16 plants/flowers known to be in the Cemetery, alongside a further 43 varieties, many of them cultivated plants from gardens in the locality. No doubt, different honey samples at different times of the year would have shown Honey bees had visited different flowers/plants.
Anecdotally, a huge proportion of the photographs taken of bees on flowers in the cemetery have been of Honey Bees, rather than of other solitary bees. Of the 270 various species of bee found in Britain, 229 (*) species have been recorded in Sussex. Yet, to date, we’ve seen 12.
What’s going on?
We have – rightly – developed the view that Honey bees and beehives are ‘a good thing’. They are pollinators, essential for the pollination of crops that provide much of the food that we eat. They help sustain our orchards and gardens. Bees provide us with honey – and the honey that comes from Heene Cemetery’s hives is indeed delicious! Everything about them seems to merit the traditional ‘darling’ label.
Yet there’s another story starting to be told, and it comes from respected institutions like the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and the Natural History Museum. This tells us of the potential unsustainability of urban beekeeping, of an insufficient nectar and pollen supply to support beehive numbers, of honeybees outcompeting wild bee populations. In the words of Kew’s Professor Phil Stevenson:
This revelation will surprise many who think that keeping bees is a great thing for the environment. Unfortunately, it isn’t always the case. The public need to be much more aware of the importance of pollinator diversity and how organisms interact, so that we can conserve all urban wildlife more effectively.Failure to tap into the myriad uses of plants and fungi is costing people and planet, says new report, 30th September 2020
It’s said that a single beehive might need 32 acres of green space.
It is widely acknowledged that Britain’s countryside has become nature-depleted and that there is – perhaps surprisingly – greater floral biodiversity in our cities, towns and villages. Until hedgerows and verges are brought back to the varied glory of former times, the countryside remains largely the theatre for crop monocultures.
Unlike honeybees that seem able to feed on a wide range of plants, solitary, wild bees usually have preferred habitats, ones where specific pollen and nectar providers can be found. Where these locations provide a changing diet throughout the seasons, bees (more than most insects) will flourish. But this does mean that a wide range of different seasonal plant food is needed to support these wild, native bees – and Heene Cemetery should be just right for many of them.
Even on their own, the numbers in the cemetery seem somewhat skew-wiff:
270 known bee species in Britain
229 bee species have been recorded in Sussex (*)
5 solitary bee species recorded in Heene Cemetery
7 social bee species recorded in Heene Cemetery (bumblebees and the Honey bee)
2 beehives in Heene Cemetery
100,000 honeybees in Heene Cemetery at the height of summer
* Bees in Sussex
This blog post initially stated that “at least 44 bee species [can be] expected in Sussex”. It transpires that this was a substantial underestimate. Issue 192 of Wildlife, the magazine of the Sussex Wildlife Trust (Spring/Summer 2023), has an article by James Power, author of The Bees of Sussex, in which he says that “there are an impressive 229 species of bee recorded in Sussex”. Ten new species have been recorded here since 2000.
According to the author, Sussex is one of the warmest and driest counties in the country, making it ideal for bees. Its proximity to the European mainland is a further factor that aids bee species numbers.
This adds impetus to the argument that we should be seeing a broader range of solitary bees in Heene Cemetery than appears to be the case.
Books and websites
Field Guide to the Bumblebees of Great Britain and Ireland by Mike Edwards and Martin Jenner; Ocelli; revised edition, 2012.
This is a standard text on identifying bumblebees, providing photographs, maps, habitat descriptors of where each species can be found, along with a colour key that helps distinguish species based upon colour bands that one can see with the naked eye.
Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland by Steven Falk; Bloomsbury, 2016.
A comprehensive guide to the solitary bees of our islands, this is an authoritative and wonderfully-illustrated guide, packed with photographs.
The Hidden Universe Adventures in Biodiversity by Alexandre Antonelli, Director of Science, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; Witness Books, 2022.
This is a short and lucid primer on biodiversity that aims to explain a complex subject in terms that most of us can understand. This volume explains what damage habitat loss is doing and how we can all face up to it in practical, daily.
Silent Earth – Averting the Insect Apocalypse by Professor Dave Goulson; Jonathon Cape, 2021.
Professor Goulson – from our local university at Sussex in Brighton – played a huge role in establishing the link between neonicotinoids and damage to bees. In this volume, he sets out the science and moves on to explain how we can all help avert an ‘insect apocalypse’.
The Insect Crisis – The Fall of Tiny Empires that Run the World by Oliver Milman; Atlantic Books, 2022.
In this volume, Oliver Milman, journalist rather than scientist, explains why we need insects more than they need us. You will find this a motivating read.
The Bee Keepers Association FAQ.
Beekeeping in cities is harming other wildlife, study finds; Katie Pavid on the Natural History Museum website, 30th September 2020.
Kew’s State of the World’s Plants and Fungi 2020 report released; The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, 30th September 2020.
State of the Worlds Plants and Fungi 2020, the full PDF report, The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.
‘Honeybees are voracious’: is it time to put the brakes on the boom in beekeeping?, The Guardian, 24 July 2021.
Written by Rob Tomlinson