Bees, Wasps and other Pollinators

Bees, Wasps and other Pollinators




The Remarkable World of Bees

Bees, fascinating members of the order Hymenoptera, share similarities with wasps but exhibit distinctive features that set them apart. With a robust and hairy body, bees are well-suited for pollen collection and distribution. They boast two pairs of wings, six legs, and specialized mouthparts known as a proboscis, which they use to sip nectar from flowers. Their compound eyes and antennae are crucial for navigation and detecting floral resources.

Bees are renowned for their complex social structures, although not all bee species are social. In fact, most species of bee lead solitary lives. For those that do live in colonies the nature of these societies varies. Bee colonies typically consist of a queen, female workers, and male drones. The queen assumes the role of egg-laying, while workers engage in nest-building, foraging for food, and nurturing the brood. Male drones have a singular purpose, which is to mate with new queens during the mating season.

Nesting Habits: A World of Wonders

The world of bee nesting is as diverse as the species themselves. It’s essential to recognize that not all bee species create hives or nests resembling those of honeybees. The diversity in nesting habits among bees underscores their adaptability and the intricate relationship between these insects and their environments.

While bumblebees and honey bees often command the spotlight, the world of bees extends far beyond these familiar faces. There are over 200 species of solitary bees in the UK alone, each with its own nesting behaviours and preferences.

Solitary Bees: Architects of Independence

Solitary bees, often overshadowed by their social relatives, are remarkable architects of independence. Unlike bumblebees and honey bees, solitary bees lead solitary lives. Each female constructs her nest without the aid of worker bees. However, many solitary females may nest in close proximity to each other.

Solitary bee species exhibit varying nesting preferences and materials. For instance, the red mason bee meticulously constructs nests in hollow stems, cliff holes, or the gaps in exterior walls. They create cells along the length of the cavity which are separated by thin mud walls, offering a safe haven for their offspring. Their name “mason” arises from their skill in shaping mud for nest construction, while their distinct ginger hair earns them the moniker “red.”

Meanwhile, leafcutter bees showcase their craftiness by cutting circular pieces from plants and gluing them together with sticky saliva in a cylindrical “cigar” shape. Keep an eye out for their characteristic holes in garden leaves, especially on roses.

Bumblebees: Unconventional Nest Builders

Bumblebees have distinctive nesting habits. Unlike honey bees, which create neat and elaborate combs, bumblebees construct irregular, messy-looking nests. These nests are often found in unexpected locations, such as old mouse holes underground, loft spaces, compost heaps, or bird boxes. These nests are non-damaging and remain active for only one season.

Once a queen bumblebee identifies a suitable spot, she collects nectar and pollen, creating a small mound on which she lays her initial batch of eggs. Nectar storage structures are placed in front of the pollen mound. The queen incubates the eggs by shivering her muscles After three days, larvae emerge from the eggs. The larvae remain under the wax cover, which expands as the larvae rapidly grow spin cocoons and pupate, emerging as adult worker bees.

These workers assume the roles of foraging and larval rearing. Males and new queens are produced later in the season. In some warmer regions, buff-tailed bumblebee queens may occasionally support two generations of nests per year.

The Value of Understanding Bee Nesting

Understanding bee nesting behaviours is pivotal for bee conservation. Providing suitable nesting sites in gardens and green spaces can support solitary and bumblebee populations alike. As we become more attuned to the nesting habits of these incredible insects we can take better steps to protect them, ensuring the continued pollination of our beloved kingdom of plants and the preservation of our natural world.

To attract and support bees in gardens, cultivating a diverse array of flowering plants is essential. Aim for an array of plants that flower at different times, delivering continuous bloom throughout the growing season to provide year-round food for bees. Native plants often attract local bee populations. Avoiding pesticide use is crucial, as bees are susceptible to these chemicals, which can harm bee populations. Providing water sources, such as shallow dishes with stones, can also benefit thirsty bees. You can learn more about planting for pollinators on our ‘Gardening for Pollinators‘ page.



Wasp Anatomy and Characteristics

Wasps, members of the Hymenoptera order along with bees and ants, come in a variety of colours, shapes and sizes, ranging from large, black and yellow striped species to tiny metallic red and green species like the rub-tailed wasp.

There are approximately 9,000 species of wasp in the UK. These include the parasitic wasps, some of which are so tiny they can barely visible to the naked eye (in fact, the smallest insect in the world is the ‘fairyfly’ wasp). 250 of these are the larger wasps which have a stinger. Only nine of these are social wasps which form large nests.

Social wasps

There are only nine species of social wasp. These include the hornet and ‘jam pot’ wasps, that are among the most familiar of all our British insects. Hornets are the ‘gentle giant’ of the wasp world. They are brilliant pest-controllers, amazing architects and great recyclers – eating up rotten fruit that has fallen to the ground.

Solitary wasps

There are around 260 species of solitary wasp (do not live in social groups, and even though some live close together there is no social structure). Some of these wasps are excellent pollinators and play an important role in the web of life. Many solitary wasps specialise on a single species or group insects. The female paralyses the prey with her sting and places it in the nest as food for her larva.

Pest Control and Pollination

Wasps act as natural pest controllers, capturing approximately 14 million kilograms of insect prey each UK summer, including caterpillars and greenflies. Their presence prevents the overabundance of spiders and insects, making them valuable allies for gardeners.

Adult wasps primarily feed on sugars obtained from flower nectar, honeydew produced by aphids, and sugary secretions from their larvae. When in pursuit of nectar, wasps inadvertently become pollinators by travelling between plants and carrying pollen. While their contribution to pollination may not rival that of bees, wasps still play a valuable role in supporting plant reproduction.

It’s possible to cater to their sweet-tooth; offering sugar sources like overripe fruit can reduce their inclination to scavenge at human gatherings.

Wasps in the Food Chain

Wasps serve as a food source for various animals, including other wasps. Their life cycles are closely tied to seasons, with worker wasps dying off in late autumn, while newly emerged queens hibernate in sheltered areas until spring, when they form new colonies.

Despite their occasional stings, wasps use their venomous stingers for prey capture and nest defense. Unlike honey bees, they don’t lose their stingers when they sting, allowing them to strike multiple times.

In the UK, common wasps and German wasps are the most frequently encountered species, while other types like the red wasp, tree wasp, and European hornet are also present. The European hornet is the largest social wasp species in the UK, known for its painful stings.

Catering to Wasps in Gardens 

To encourage the presence of wasps in gardens, providing suitable nesting sites and shelter is essential. These insects may nest in the ground, tree cavities, or even buildings, so preserving undisturbed areas for nest construction is beneficial.



Butterflies belong to the order Lepidoptera and are characterized by their distinct life cycle with four stages: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult (butterfly). They have a similar body structure to beetles, with a three-part body and six legs. Their most distinguishing feature is their large, colorful wings covered in tiny scales. These scales give butterflies their vibrant patterns and hues, which play a crucial role in mate attraction and camouflage. Butterflies have a proboscis, a long, coiled mouthpart that allows them to sip nectar from flowers.

Butterflies generally do not exhibit social hierarchies. They are mostly solitary insects, with individuals engaging in individual behaviors like foraging, mating, and laying eggs. However, some species show limited aggregations during migration or while overwintering in specific areas.

Adult butterflies primarily feed on nectar from flowers using their proboscis. They are important pollinators for various plant species, contributing to plant reproduction and genetic diversity. In contrast, caterpillars have different dietary preferences depending on the species. Some feed on specific host plants, while others are more generalist feeders, consuming a wide range of plants.

Butterflies hold great ecological and aesthetic value in society. As pollinators, they play a crucial role in maintaining plant biodiversity and supporting crop yields. Their presence in gardens and natural landscapes adds beauty and joy to people’s lives, with butterfly-watching becoming a popular recreational activity. Moreover, butterflies are indicators of environmental health, as their population trends can reflect changes in habitat quality and ecosystem stability.

Gardeners can attract butterflies to their gardens by cultivating a variety of nectar-rich flowers. Planting native species is especially beneficial, as they are well-adapted to local butterfly populations. Providing host plants for caterpillars is essential, as each butterfly species has specific plant preferences for laying their eggs and supporting their caterpillars’ development. Avoiding the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides is crucial, as these chemicals can harm butterflies and their caterpillars. Creating sheltered areas and adding water sources can also enhance the garden’s appeal to butterflies.



Beetles are a diverse group of insects belonging to the order Coleoptera, with more than 4,000 species found in the UK. Their anatomy is characterized by a hard exoskeleton made of chitin, which provides protection and support for their bodies. Beetles have three main body segments: head, thorax, and abdomen. They possess a pair of compound eyes and antennae, which are important sensory organs for detecting environmental cues and potential mates. Their mouthparts can vary depending on their diet, with some having chewing mouthparts for consuming plant material, while others have specialized mouthparts for predation.

Most beetles in the UK do not exhibit complex social hierarchies like bees or ants. They are primarily solitary creatures, though some species can be found in loose aggregations or colonies. However, these interactions are not comparable to the sophisticated social structures seen in other insect groups. The mating behavior of beetles often involves elaborate courtship rituals and displays to attract potential mates.

Beetles have diverse foraging habits, depending on their species. Some are herbivorous and feed on plants, either as larvae or adults, while others are predatory and hunt other insects for food. There are also scavenger beetles that feed on decaying organic matter, playing a crucial role in decomposition and nutrient cycling within ecosystems.

Beetles play an essential role in various ecological processes, making them valuable to society. As decomposers, they help break down dead plant and animal matter, contributing to nutrient recycling and soil health. Additionally, beetles are important pollinators for many flowering plants, ensuring plant reproduction and diversity. Some species also serve as biological control agents, preying on agricultural pests and helping to manage insect populations.

Gardeners can take several steps to cater to beetles in their gardens. First, creating a diverse garden with a variety of plants will attract different beetle species with various dietary preferences. Leaving some areas of the garden wild and incorporating log piles or leaf litter provides shelter and breeding sites for beetles. Avoiding the excessive use of pesticides is crucial, as many beetle species are sensitive to chemical substances and may be harmed by them. Encouraging natural predators of pests, such as birds and other beneficial insects, can help maintain a balanced ecosystem and support beetle populations.


Flies belong to the order Diptera, and they are highly diverse, with more than 7,000 species found in the UK. They have two wings, which is the characteristic feature of the order (Diptera means “two wings”). Their body size, shape, and coloration can vary significantly depending on the species. Flies have large compound eyes, antennae, and mouthparts designed for sponging or sucking up liquids.

Unlike bees and wasps, flies are generally not social insects. Most fly species are solitary and do not form colonies. They lead independent lives, mating as individuals and laying eggs in various habitats, depending on the species.

Flies have diverse foraging habits, which depend on their species. Many flies are scavengers, feeding on decaying organic matter, dung, or other decomposing material. They play a vital role in the process of decomposition, breaking down organic material and recycling nutrients. Some fly species are also pollinators, particularly for plants that produce foul-smelling or saprophytic flowers.

Flies, despite their unappealing reputation, play essential roles in ecosystems and have value to society. As scavengers, they help clean up the environment by consuming decaying matter, preventing the buildup of organic waste. Flies also contribute to pollination, supporting some plant species’ reproduction. Additionally, flies serve as an essential food source for many other animals, including birds and bats.

To attract flies to gardens, it’s important to provide suitable habitats and food sources. Having compost piles can attract fly species that aid in decomposition. Some flies, like hoverflies, are beneficial pollinators, so planting flowers that they find attractive can be beneficial. Including a variety of plant species can attract different fly species, as they have diverse dietary preferences. Reducing pesticide use and maintaining a balanced ecosystem will ensure that fly populations can thrive naturally.

While many individuals recognize the significance of bees as crucial pollinators for flowering plants, it’s essential to acknowledge that bees are just one portion of the broader pollination ecosystem.

A diverse range of other creatures also play vital roles in facilitating plant pollination. Click on the images behind this popup, or scroll down the page, to discover more about the different kinds of pollinators we have in the UK.