World Bee Day - The amazing diversity of British Bees!

Suzanne Burgess ,
20 May 2020

Buglife Scotland Manager Suzanne Burgess shares a number of interesting facts about bees throughout the United Kingdom, their importance to the ecosystem and the work being done to combat declining populations.

There are over 250 species of bee in the UK. This Honey beeincludes the single species of domesticated honeybee, 24 species of bumblebee and a further 230 species of solitary bee.

Most people have heard of the honeybee with large colonies kept and managed in hives to produce tasty honey. Our wild bumblebees are also often well recognised, especially emerging queens that herald the arrival of spring. Both the honeybee and most of our bumblebees are social insects with only a single queen for each hive or nest able to lay eggs. There can be up to 60,000 female worker honeybees in a managed beehive, compared with 400 female worker bees in a wild bumblebee nest!

Our solitary bees are less familiar to people. Female solitary bees all lay eggs and make nests, with some species nesting in huge aggregations and others sharing a nest hole entrance. Depending on the species, she may nest in cracks in walls, use hollow bamboo canes in bee hotels, or burrow into bare sandy ground or on a steep bank.

Bee species diversity – ©Suzanne Burgess
Bee species diversity – ©Suzanne Burgess

Bees collect pollen to take back to their nests in different ways. Honeybees and bumblebees have pollen baskets on their hind legs, which they use to transport large piles of wet pollen to their nests. Solitary bees have pollen brushes that are either on their hind legs or on the underside of their abdomen or sides of their body, depending on the species. The pollen collected by solitary bees is stored dry on their pollen brushes meaning that when they go from flower to flower, this transfers much more efficiently making them excellent pollinators!

Bees also have different length of tongue that allows them to exploit the diverse mix of flowers in our countryside. Garden bumblebees (Bombus hortorum) with their long tongues love the long flowers of Foxglove and White dead nettle, whereas Davies’ colletes (Colletes daviesanus) solitary bee has a short tongue and loves the open flowers of Oxeye daisies.

Other bee facts:

  • All females of our 250 plus species have a sting, but most are weak and cannot penetrate our skin!
  • Male bees are important for reproduction but unlike female workers they are not integral to the survival and success of the nest.
  • Some male bees have moustaches!
  • About a quarter of our bees lay their eggs in the nests of other bees, these are called cuckoos (or cleptoparasites)!

Tree bumblebeeIt is the diversity of our bees in Scotland, the way they forage with their different tongue lengths and pollen collecting devices, that is important for the pollination of our crops and wild plants. Insect pollinators (which also include butterflies, moths, beetles and many flies) are responsible for pollinating at least 70% of our crops and 90% of wild plants - worth approximately £690 million to the UK economy each year.

Recent research highlights that the abundance of our pollinators is in drastic decline and several species are now threatened with extinction in the UK! Buglife is working to address pollinator declines through our B-Lines initiative. B-Lines provide continuous routes that weave across the countryside connecting the best sites for pollinators. For more information on Buglife’s B-Lines initiative is available on our website.


Suzanne Burgess

Buglife Scotland Manager


Want to learn more about the diversity of Scottish bees, identification of some of the commonly seen species and how to survey and monitor them? Why not sign up for the collaborative online Workshop: Bees! with Buglife & Wildlife Estates Scotland.