We are taught from childhood that bees produce honey and live in hives, so perhaps it is no surprise that the best-known bees in the UK are those that live in colonies – our honey and bumble bees. But, over 90% of UK bees, covering some 250 species, are actually solitary. With help from the experts at Wildlife World, we offer a brief guide to solitary bees.

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What Are Solitary Bees?

Solitary is the term for the large number of bee species that do not work together as a group. Solitary bees also do not produce honey and generally do not have a queen bee. They are, however, a vital part of the ecosystem. Many of the species are prolific pollinators, carrying out the majority of pollination in Britain. Better still, they have an extremely weak or ineffective sting – even more reason to welcome them into your garden.

Many solitary bees are quite small in size and are not always in the infamous black and yellow colours usually attributed to bees. This means they can easily be mistaken for another insect. If you spot unknown insect visitors in the garden, it is always worth trying to identify them from a safe distance first to determine if they are friend or foe!

Solitary Bee Species

Mining Bees

In the UK, the majority of solitary bees are species of the Mining Bee (Andrena genus). As the name suggests, mining bees create holes in the ground to nest in. You may even be fortunate enough to spot a collection of these holes in your lawns and borders.

Tawny Mining Bee

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Daniel Villafruela. Shared under license.

Tawny mining bees (Andrea fulva) are one of the most commonly spotted solitary bee species. You can usually see them from early spring through the start of summer. They can be clearly distinguished by their vibrant russet-orange colour giving rise to the name.

Flower Bees

You can only find a handful of flower bee species (Anthophora species) in the UK. These are all larger than mining bees, although they also nest in the soil as well as in high-up nesting sites.

Hairy Footed Flower Bee

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Gail Hampshire. Shared under license.

One of the first solitary bee species to emerge in spring and one of the most recognisably distinctive is the hairy footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes). You can spot it hovering around plants in our gardens from March into early summer, using its extremely long tongue to probe plants for nectar. Females are black all over with yellow legs, while males are a browny-yellow shade.

Sweat Bees

Sweat bees (Halictus and Lasioglossum species) are so-called because they are known to be attracted to perspiration on human skin, which is more common in tropical climates than in the UK. There are about 60 different species across the UK. Some, in defiance of the ‘solitary bee’ tag, do create semi-communal nest tunnels.

Orange Legged Furrow Bee (Halictus rubicundus)

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Lins patron. Shared under license.

The orange legged furrow bee (Halictus rubicundus) is one of the largest British sweet bees and distinctive thanks to the white bands across the abdomen and yellow-orange legs. You can find it throughout Britain, often making its nest in areas of warm, sloping ground. The females emerge from hibernation around April each year.

Mason Bees

Mason bees (Osmia species) include some of the most easily recognisable species of solitary bee. Bees from this species create nests in a range of natural cavities, such as those found in walls, chalk banks and hollow plant stems among, other things and are some of the prime species that will use bee hotels, whether you make one yourself or buy a ready made bee habitat.

Red Mason Bee (Osmia bicornis)

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Sandy. Shared under license.

You can find this common species of mason bee throughout Britain; spot them from late March to early summer. It is easily identified by the two horn-like features on its face, as well as its bright orange tufted coat. 

If you’ve spotted a bee in your garden and would like help identifying it, the UK Bees, Wasps and Ants Facebook Group is extremely helpful and knowledgeable.

Solitary Bees in Spring

The diverse species of solitary bee nest in a wide variety of locations, from nests in the ground to ones that nest at height in holes and seal their nests with mud, chewed leaves or a saliva-like substance. It is these aerial nesters who are most likely to use artificial bee homes positioned in the garden.

Solitary bees emerge from their winter hibernation as the temperature rises, usually in April and May. The females are the pollinators, and the male role is solely for breeding. In the spring, the males are the first to emerge, waiting near the nests for the females and fighting to determine the sole survivor. 

Once the females emerge, the winning male mates with them and dies. As the females go on to lay their eggs in nesting holes, they mix in some pollen and nectar, which acts as a first food source for the pupating larvae, giving it energy to break through the following spring.

Caring for Solitary Bees

Best Plants for Solitary Bees

The majority of solitary bees will collect pollen from a wide range of pollen-rich garden plants. It is invaluable to have a garden full of plants loved by these pollinators. This is particularly important in spring when the majority are active, e.g., Alliums, astrantia, bluebells, deutzia, erysimum, lavender, myositis (forget-me-nots), pulmonaria and rhododendrons. Discover more in our guide to the best plants for bees.

Some solitary bee species will only collect pollen from a narrow range of plants, such as one genus. It is clear to see, then, how any loss of solitary bee populations could have terrible repercussions on some of our crops.

Solitary Bee Habitats

Extra support for solitary bees can come in the form of bee bars, barrels and hives. Position these in sunny, sheltered spots in the garden to provide a safe home and nesting spot.

Discover the interactive solitary bee hive.

Wildlife World Bee Barrel

Solitary Bees FAQ

Do solitary bees sting?

Solitary bees are usually very calm and non-aggressive. The female bees do have the capability of stinging, however this is usually only if they are handled violently. The male bees do not have a sting.

Do solitary bees make honey?

Solitary bees are different from honey bees and bumblebees. They will not swarm together and create large groups and they will also not produce any honey.

What is the life cycle of a solitary bee?

The life cycle of a solitary bee with depend on its variety, however all solitary bees do go through the metamorphosis process. The four life stages of a solitary bee are:

  • Egg – the eggs are laid on top of pollen so that each egg with have instant access to a food source
  • Larval – the juvenile and immature form (resembling small, white maggots)
  • Pupal – the midpoint between immature and mature form (resemble young bees in white colouration)
  • Adult – fully matured

The lifespan of a solitary bee is usually around 4-6 weeks.

What do solitary bees eat?

Solitary bees live on a diet of nectar and pollen that they gain direct from a flower.

Why are solitary bees important?

We need solitary bees for pollination. They are actually more helpful within the pollination process than honey bees are. They are a vital point in our ecosystem, encouraging healthy and fruitful plantings.

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