2022 Highlights – The ‘Bee Garden’

As we wave goodbye to another year and welcome in 2023, it’s the time to look back once again at my own personal highlights from the last twelve months.

Top of this list just had to be the success of my ‘bee garden’, a small patch of garden which I transformed into a mini wildflower meadow to provide a home and food for bees and other tiny creatures.

With a few square meters of lawn dug out and sown with a generous sprinkling of wildflower seeds it was time to sit back and wait for nature to take it’s course. The garden needed little encouragement and after little patience and lots of sunshine, the first young green shoots began to emerge from the bare soil. Once plants started blooming there was no holding stopping it and within just a few weeks the bee garden had truly burst into life, every inch of available ground occupied by vibrant, pollinator friendly flowers.

Toadflax – Linaria vulgaris
Viper’s bugloss – Echium vulgare
Blue flax – Linum narbonense
Cornflower – Centaurea cyanus, one my personal favourites
Another species of flax? I haven’t been able to ID this one accurately.
Corn cockle – Agrostemma githago

With an array of tempting flowers to choose from it wasn’t long before the wildflower garden was swarming with bees of many different species just as I had hoped. On particularly warm and sunny days the garden became really rather crowded with bees jostling for space, the sound of their humming wingbeats all around.

A honeybee intercepting a buff tailed bumblebee as she feeds on bugloss nectar
Carder bee (left) and buff-tailed bumblebee (right) on blue cornflowers
The ‘bee garden’ in full bloom. How many bees can you spot?

One of the first bees to appear in the bee garden was the fluffy gingery brown carder bee, a common and widespread species that are found in almost any habitat. The carder bee is one of the earliest bees to emerge in spring and they can be seen on the wing right through until late autumn as long as the weather is warm enough and there are flowers to feed on.

Carder bee among the bugloss
Carder bee on cornflower
Feeding from the blue flax flowers
Carder bee with it’s distinctive gingery body
Clinging on to the blue flax
Carder bee with orange pollen baskets

They may have been the most abundant visitor to the garden, but their small size and speedy flight meant photographing these little bees wasn’t always easy!

Catch me if you can!
Landing gear down!
Lift off

With their long tongues, the carder bees are able to access pollen from many tubular flowers which other shorter tongued bees are unable to reach. They seemed particularly partial to the hairy bugloss flowers and could often be found with their heads buried deep among the petals.

Reaching deep inside this narrow bugloss flower
Carder bee revealing it’s long tongue

Next to the garden came the instantly recognisable honeybee, sleek and streamlined with gorgeous golden stripes on the tail. All of the honeybees seen in the bee garden were female workers, industriously collecting pollen and nectar to take back to their hive, which could be as far as several miles away!

Honeybee in flight
Honeybee in bugloss
Collecting nectar
Honeybee on a cornflower bud with another in the background
Leaping between flower heads
Honeybee from above
Worker honeybee

The diminutive carder bee and honeybee were dwarfed in comparison to the bee garden’s largest visitor, the buff tailed bumblebee. The queen buff tail is particularly striking, large in size with two yellow bands on the body and a distinctive buff coloured tail which gives this species it’s name.

A huge queen with distinctive buff coloured tail
The buff tailed bumblebee’s two dull yellow bands

Male and worker (female) buff tailed bumblebees are considerably smaller than the queens and, rather confusingly have white tails although a thin line of buff colour hairs is often visible at the margin between the body and tail.

Worker buff tailed bumblebee on a wilted mallow flower
Landing in the bugloss flowers
Buff tailed bumblebee foraging on a cornflower
The faint buff hairs on the tail are just visible on this worker bee

The buff tailed bumblebee is often confused with another large species of bumblebee, the white tailed bumblebee. All sexes of this species have completely white tails, and like the buff-tailed bumblebee, two yellow stripes on the collar and body. These stripes tend to be more of a bright, lemon yellow colour in the white tailed bumblebee, although to confuse matters further this is not always the case!!

Accurate ID of these two species is difficult (queens aside) and so below is a selection of photos which may (or may not be) white tailed bumblebees…

Feeding on flax
Foraging on a blue cornflower
This one appears to have a hitchhiker, a tiny bee mite

Both buff and white tailed bumblebees have short tongues and so favour more open topped flowers like these vibrant orange California poppies where the nectar is easy to reach. Only blooming for a couple of days, the poppies provided a fleeting splash of new colour to the garden at the height of summer.

Bumblebee clambering into California poppy
Tongue extended in flight

The final species of bee discovered in the bee garden is the red tailed bumblebee, which fortunately is much easier to identify than the aforementioned buff and white tails. Queen and female workers are jet black in colour with an almost velvety appearance and an unmistakable flame red tail which gives the species it’s name.

Female with flame red tail

The male red tailed bumblebee is smaller and more vibrant with bright yellow stripes on the head and body and like the females, a flame red tail, although these colours tend to fade with age. Whilst sightings of males of the other species of bumblebee were scarce, the male red tails more than made up for this with their abundance.

The vibrant colour of a male red tailed bumblebee
This male has more muted colours
Resting inside a mallow flower

Male red tailed bumblebees also have distinctive yellow faces which I think makes them really rather endearing and perhaps my favourite of all the bees to photograph among the wildflower garden.

Among the flowers
Male bumblebee cleaning his tongue

You can see just how much pollen this patch provides by the colourful pollen baskets adorning many of the female bees rear legs. Pollen baskets are specialised hairs on the legs which enable a female (worker) bee to carry large quantities of pollen back to her nest in a single trip. It is possible to tell which flowers a bee has been foraging on by the colour of these pollen loads.

Honeybee with blue pollen baskets collected from this cornflower
Carder bee with orange pollen baskets collected from the california poppies.
Yellow pollen, not from this cornflower but likely collected from the nearby dandelions on the lawn
Purple pollen from vipers bugloss

Some of the bees’ legs were so laden down with pollen, like this large buff tailed bumblebee, it’s a wonder they could still lift into the air. These are the most enormous pollen baskets I’ve ever seen!

Buff tailed bumblebee with huge pollen baskets!
There’s certainly no shortage of pollen on offer in the bee garden

I’ve lost count of the amount of hours I’ve spent watching and taking photos in this tiny patch over the year, but is their a finer way to while away the time? I don’t think so… and I plan to do the same all over again in 2023!

In the meantime, here are a final few photos of some of the garden’s other inhabitants.

A tiny furrow bee
Unidentified wasp species
Marmalade hoverfly on alyssum
Tiny flies on a dishevelled daisy
Hoverfly collecting bugloss pollen
Moth caterpillar – exact species unknown
Flesh fly in the undergrowth
Small white butterfly probing for nectar
This california poppy seemed to be a magnet for these tiny flies
Large hoverfly on corn cockle
Yet another miniscule fly
Potter wasp on a wilted cornflower
Dung fly

Photographs copyright of Claire Stott/Grey Feather Photography © 2022

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