Types of bee - and other bee facts

Bee on flower
Look out for different types of bees (Photo: North East Wildlife)

A bee buzzing around newly opened flowers is a sure sign that spring has arrived. You’re likely to spot your first one any time now so we’ve put together some fascinating facts about these amazing creatures.

Types of bee

Did you know there are more than 250 types of bee in the UK? Let’s start by looking at the most common ones.

Some bees are very sociable and live in big groups.

Bumblebees are fat and fuzzy. They live in nests with up to 400 other bees. These nests could be in hidey holes in the ground, under garden sheds, in tree holes, or even in bird boxes!

Bee on willow catkin
Spot fat and fuzzy bumblebees (Photo: Northeastwildlife)

Honey bees are slimmer and look more like wasps. They’re mostly domesticated nowadays – that means they live in hives with up to 20,000 other bees and are looked after by a beekeeper.

Honey bee on blackthorn blossom
Honey bees make honey! (Photo: Northeastwildlife)

Hives and nests (also called colonies) contain three kinds of bee.

  • The queen bee rules the nest and lays all the eggs.
  • Workers are females who don’t lay eggs. They gather food and guard the colony.
  • Drones are males, and it’s their job to mate with a newly hatched queen bee. She then goes on to set up a colony of her own.

Solitary bees live on their own, although lots of bees will often live close to each other so it may seem like there’s a nest. They emerge early in the year, so it’s very likely the first bee you spot this spring will be a solitary bee. Some of the common types have names that tell us where they like to live.

Tawny mining bee
Look out for solitary bees like this mining bee (Photo: Northeastwildlife)
  • Mason bees nest in holes in walls.
  • Carpenter bees like to burrow into dead wood.
  • Mining bees – you’ve guessed it – dig a hole in the ground. There’s often a tell-tale little pile of earth nearby.

What do bees eat?

Bees mostly eat pollen, which is full of protein, and drink nectar (a sugary liquid) from flowers. Honey bees also eat the honey they’ve made.

How do bees make honey?

Honey bee drinking nectar
Bees use nectar to make honey (Photo: Northeastwildlife)

The bees chew the nectar that’s been brought back to the hive – they have a special enzyme (type of protein) in their mouth that turns it into honey. Then they store it in the little holes in a honeycomb and fan it with their wings to dry it out and thicken it up. The honey is food for the hive, but luckily they make more than they need so there’s some left over for us.

The bee life cycle

A bee starts out as an egg. It then hatches into a larva, which looks like a little worm. The larva is fed by adult bees until it spins a silky case called a cocoon, which protects it as it develops. Inside the cocoon, it develops into a pupa, a sort of halfway stage between larva and adult, and then into an adult bee.

Do bees hibernate?

Honey bees live through the winter in their hives, whereas most bumblebees in a nest die when winter approaches – only the young queen bees survive. They find a hole in the ground to sleep in until spring, then they wake up and fly off to find a nest, lay their eggs and start a new colony.

Female solitary bees die after laying their eggs in their winter nest. The eggs develop into young bees, which emerge in the spring.

Do bees sleep?

Bees are very busy so they need a good kip just like humans! And scientists have recently discovered that sleep is as important for bees as it is for us as it helps them memorise things they’ve learnt during the day, such as the way to the best food sources.

Do bees have knees?

You’ve probably heard the saying: ‘it’s the bees’ knees’ – it means that something is really great. No one really knows where the saying comes from, but bees do have knees. Well, sort of. Their legs are made up of six sections connected by joints, so you could say the bees have five knees on each leg!

Why are bees important?

Along with other insects, bees play an important part in pollination. Flowering plants need to be fertilised with pollen before they can make seeds and produce new plants. Bees transfer pollen between plants and so help with fertilisation. Without this process, we’d soon run out of food to eat!

Are bees endangered?

Many species of bee are under threat from things like pollution, climate change and pesticides (chemicals used on crops to kill insects). Habitat loss is one of the biggest threats - we've lost 97% of wildflower meadows in the UK since the 1930s because of the way we use land for farming and building.

How can we help bees?

Minibugs Bertie's Bee House
Bertie's Bee House makes a great gift for nature-loving kids. (Photo: Wildlife World)

The best way is to plant bee-friendly flowers and herbs in your garden or window box. Their favourites include foxglove, bluebell, clover, honeysuckle, lavender, rosemary, thyme and chives. These have lots of pollen and nectar for the bees to feed on.

You can also make sure they have somewhere to hide or lay their eggs in winter. Take a look at the bee house in our online shop. It makes a great gift for nature-loving kids.

Have you planted some flowers to help bees, or put a bee house in your garden? Tell us about it below, or post your pictures on social media using #NatureDetectives.

How have you helped bees?

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