Frequently Asked Questions

Q: There is a swarm of bees in my garden. What should I do?

A: Swarming bees may look spectacular, but they are not usually aggressive. It is, however, best to keep children and pets safely indoors. Do not try to scare the bees away by waving your arms wildly at them or throwing water at them, as this is liable to aggravate them. Swarms that have settled in the open, for example in a bush or hanging from a branch, usually move off to a permanent site within a few hours. If the bees are easily accessible, a local beekeeper may be willing to remove the swarm. A search on the internet can often locate a telephone number of a local beekeeping association. In the UK, the British Beekeepers Association maintains lists of the secretaries of local beekeeping associations. You could also contact your local Council or police to recommend someone who can deal with swarms. IBRA is an information provider and does not have the capacity to deal with live bees.

Q: What should I do if I am stung by a bee?

A: Honey bees leave their sting behind in your skin, and this continues to pump venom into you for a few minutes. You should therefore immediately scrape it out with your finger nail, a blunt knife, or even the edge of a credit card. If the sting is on or near your hands, remove any rings straight away in case of swelling. Stings hurt for a while and may itch for a few days, and result in local swelling, but usually there are no serious effects. Some people, however, can suffer an allergic reaction, which can lead to anaphylactic shock, which though rare, is extremely serious. If you have any symptoms away from the site of the sting or are concerned, particularly if you are having difficulty breathing, seek immediate medical advice. A small booklet with advice on how to prevent and treat insect bites and stings, which could be invaluable in an emergency, is available from our online shop. Bumble bees and solitary bees rarely sting unless provoked, and the sting does not remain in the skin.

Q: Are the bees really disappearing?

A: In 2006, beekeepers in the USA reported that their honey bees were unexpectedly dying in large numbers, and this led to worldwide concern and talk of a new condition called “Colony Collapse Disorder”. Massive losses of various bee species have, however, been reported in the past at various times from various places. There is now good evidence that many bee species, as well as other pollinating insects, have suffered declines, in many cases serious, in their distribution and abundance, especially since the middle of the 20th century. Paradoxically, a number of bee species seem to be under no threat and may even have expanded their range or abundance. There is scientific consensus that there is no single cause of these declines, but many factors are interacting, and different factors may be important for certain species and in certain places, but not important in others. It is agreed that the major driver of long-term declines has been changes in land use, leading to reduced forage and next sites. Other factors that may interact with these and cause short term fluctuations include the weather, pests and diseases, and environmental factors including pesticides. Click here for a free information leaflet.

Q: I have seen little mounds of earth and small bees tunnelling in my garden lawn. What are they?

A: These are probably solitary mining bees. There are many species of mining bee throughout the world. In Europe and North America, the commonest ones belong to the genus Andrena. In the UK and Europe they may be Andrena fulva, or in the USA Andrena erythronii. Every spring the females excavate tunnels as nests in which they lay eggs. Each egg is laid in a cell and is provisioned with a ball of pollen mixed with nectar. At the top of the tunnel, there is a mound of excavated soil, somewhat like a worm cast, and sometimes you can see the females sitting on the mound sunning themselves. These bees will not harm you and help pollination. Click here for a free download offering more information on all types of solitary bee.

Q: I have seen lots of very small bees flying together close to the ground. What are they?

A: These are most likely to be solitary mining bees. Every spring, the males congregate together in the hope of attracting females. There are many species of mining bee throughout the world. In Europe and North America, the commonest ones belong to the genus Andrena, e.g. in Europe they may be Andrena armata, or in the USA Andrena erythronii.

Q: Are honey bees the only bees important for pollination?

A: No. There are many other bees and other types of insect that are important for pollinating our orchards and crops and wild flowers. These include bumble bees (Bombus species) and solitary bees, but hoverflies, wasps and butterflies are also pollinators, and other creatures, such as humming birds and bats may pollinate certain plants. 

The very first insect pollinators were probably flies and beetles (and some species still pollinate flowers today) but the evolution of bees is closely tied to the evolution of flowering plants. There are over 25,000 different species of bee worldwide, and many of them are under threat. In the UK, of the 254 species of wild bee (solitary and bumble bees), 25% are in the Red Data Book of endangered species.

Q: Didn’t Albert Einstein once say: “If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live. No more bees, no more pollination … no more men!”

A: Albert Einstein was a physicist, not a biologist, and there is no evidence that he ever made this widely quoted statement. Many of the world’s staple crops such as rice, wheat and maize are wind pollinated and therefore do not require insect pollination, so if bees disappeared, the world would not starve. However, insects are required for the pollination of foods such as fruits and nuts, and many of the foods that make eating a pleasure. Furthermore, many vegetables where the foodstuff is produced using tubers or cuttings, require insect pollination to produce fresh seed. Without bees, therefore, the range of foods available to us would be very limited and eating would be very dull.

Q: I have heard that solitary bees and bumble bees are good pollinators for my garden. How can I encourage them to nest in my garden?

A: Just as you put out nest boxes for birds, you can put out nest boxes for bees. Many species of solitary bee live in tunnels in old wood or in the hollowed out stems of plants. We sell a selection of nest boxes that we sell in our online bookshop. Ideally these boxes should be placed in a sunny spot, and the bug box for example can be hung at eye-level, (e.g. under the eaves of a garden shed is ideal). You could also try making your own nestboxes for bumble bees. A small book explaining how to make nest boxes for bumble bees is available from our online shop. Bumble bees often nest underground in old mouse nests or compost heaps.

Q: What can I plant in my garden to attract bees?

A. Many families of plants are good for bees. Unfortunately many highly bred varieties of plants grown for their attractive appearance may be useless for bees, producing neither pollen nor nectar. Garden centres often feature labels indicating good bee plants, but simply observing which flowers are attracting bees is a good guide. Because climatic conditions and soil types vary from place to place, there can be no definitive list of suitable plants, and gardeners have to do a certain amount of trial and error. IBRA publishes the invaluable book Plants for bees.

Q: I have seen small bees making holes in my wall. Should I worry?

A: These are solitary bees and they are unlikely to damage the wall. Most mason bees (e.g. Osmia rufa) nest only in pre-existing cavities and do not harm the walls. However, ‘true’ masonry bees, e.g. Colletes daviesanus, can tunnel into soft mortar, especially in old walls. In general, if the mortar is soft enough for the bees to excavate, your wall needs repointing anyway. If you have bees in your wall you could tempt them away from the wall by putting out artificial nests for them – they often prefer these nice clean tubes. For more information on solitary bees, click here.

Q: Do solitary bees sting?

A: Like almost all female bees, solitary bees do have a sting, but they are not aggressive and are very unlikely to sting unless you handle them very roughly. Honey bees have a large store of honey to protect, which is why they sting to defend their homes; solitary bees do not have these stores.

Q: Do bumble bees make honey?

A: Bumble bees collect nectar, and store it in cells known as “honey pots”, but this is not true honey; it will not keep for long, and is never in collectable quantities. Bumble bees have annual colonies, a queen starting afresh each spring, so there is no need for them to store large amounts of honey over winter. Click here for a free information leaflet on bumble bees. 

Q: I think I’ve seen a bumble bee flying in winter?

A: In the last few years, mostly in English towns and cities, queen buff-tailed bumble bees (Bombis terrestris) have started establishing colonies in the late autumn. New workers forage for pollen and what nectar they can find (nectar supplies are limited in winter). They fly out on warm winter days. By February, young queens and males emerge ready to establish new colonies once spring comes. Winter forage helpful to bees include Mahonia, winter flowering heathers and honeysuckles. This is a new phenomenon.  

Q: Honey bees die after stinging. Do bumble bees die also?

A: No. Honey bee workers (non-reproducing females) have barbs on the sting that get stuck in the victim’s skin. As the bee struggles to free itself, the sting and venom sac are pulled out of the bee, resulting in death. Bumble bees do not have barbed stings and can sting many times if they want to. However, bumble bees are not aggressive and only sting if provoked

Q: What are cuckoo bumble bees?

A: Just like cuckoo birds, bumble bees have cuckoo bees that look very similar to bumble bees and take over their nests. Cuckoo bumble bees are a sub group of Bombus (true bumble bees) formerly a separate genus called Psithyrus. In some species the Psithyrus female cohabits with the true bumble bee queen, but in other the host queen is killed by the Psithyrus female. When a Psithyrus female enters the bumble bee nest, she hides in the nest material for several hours until she picks up the nest smell and is accepted by the bumble bees when she emerges from hiding. The Psithyrus bee follows the bumble bee queen around eating any eggs she lays, before laying her own eggs.

Q: I saw a large bumble bee covered with mites or parasites. What are they and do they harm the bee?

A: In early spring, queen bumble bees are often seen with large numbers of mites, often the species Parasitellus fucorum. These mites live on the queen when she hibernates over winter and stay with her until she founds her new nest in spring. Here they scavenge on food debris, bee faeces and possibly stored pollen. Some mites drop off the queen when she is foraging on a flower to wait for another bumble bee to hitch a ride to a nest. The mite does not actually feed on the bee itself, and so apart from the extra load carried by the bee, it is thought to do no harm. These are different from the varroa mites that infest honey bees. Bumble bees are also parasitized by other mites that suck their haemolymph (blood) and nematode worms that do harm the bees.

Q: How many species of bumble bee are there?

A: Bumble bees are temperate climate insects and there are about 300 species in the temperate zones of the world. The UK has about 25 species, but 3 are already thought to be extinct and many more are threatened. An additional species,the tree bumble bee Bombus hypnorum, common in mainland Europe, was found in Britain for the first time in the 1980s and is now widespread and common. 

Q: When did we start keeping bees for honey?

A: The first record of humans harvesting honey from bees dates back to 6,000 BC. In these early days (and in some parts of the world still today), humans were honey hunters, harvesting honey from wild nests, not beekeepers.

Q: How many species of bee are there in the world?

A: There are over 25,000 different species of bee in the world, including truly social honey bees and stingless bees, semi social bumble bees, and a vast range of solitary species. In Great Britain, of the 254 species of bee, there is one species of honey bee Apis mellifera, about 25 species of bumble bee, and all of the rest are solitary bees.

Q: How many honey bees are there in a colony?

A: At the height of the season a large colony may contain 50, 000 bees. Click here for our free information leaflet about honey bees.

Q: How far does a honey bee fly to get food?

A: Honey bee foragers may fly up to 6.5 km from their nest to collect nectar and pollen from flowers, and can potentially cover 50,000 acres (20,000 hectares), but often forage closer to home. It is estimated that it takes 10 million foraging trips to make the equivalent of one jar of honey (1lb or 454 g).

Q: I have a honey bee nest in my cavity wall. What can I do about it?

A: The bees won’t do any harm to your walls, so if they are not causing problems leave them alone and enjoy your new neighbours. However, if they are a nuisance you may have to get rid of them. It is not easy to remove them, and pesticides need to be used with care. The entrance to the cavity must be sealed afterwards to avoid other bees robbing out honey contaminated with pesticide. Many poisoning incidents have occurred in this way.

Q: How long does a honey bee live?

A: This depends on the time of year and the caste (worker, drone or queen) of bee. During the summer when foragers are working hard, their lifespan can be just a few weeks. Workers emerging (hatching) at the end of the summer will, however, overwinter in the hive and can live several months into the next season. The drones only have a short lifespan in the summer, and once they are no longer needed for mating with queens, they are evicted from the hive and die soon after as they can’t feed themselves. Queens live much longer, for two or three years, but beekeepers usually only keep their queens for one or two years, the period when they are laying most eggs.

Q: Do bees fly at night?

A: Not usually, especially in temperate zones as it is too cold. Bees are ‘cold blooded’ (poikilothermic = they do not maintain a constant body temperature; it varies with external conditions) and need to be warm for their flight muscles to work, and need light for navigation. Some tropical bees have been reported to fly at night.

Q: Do some bees only pollinate certain plants?

A: Yes. Some plants, such as some orchids, are very specialized and are only pollinated by one species of insect. Some plants, e.g. tomatoes, are better pollinated by bumble bees than honey bees, because bumble bees have longer tongues and also are adept at ‘buzz’ pollination where the bee vibrates its body to shake pollen from the anthers.

Q: Can bees see in colour?

A: Yes. Bees see many of the same colours as we do, except at the red end of the spectrum. Bees can’t see red as a colour. But they can see more at the other end of the spectrum and can see ultraviolet light as a colour. This is often called ‘bee purple’, but we really don’t know what this colour is like. When you look at a white flower, the petals just look white. But, when a bee looks at a white flower it also may see lines that guide it down to the nectar – these lines reflect UV light and are invisible to us, but to the bee they are ‘bee purple’.

Q: How can I find out more about the structure of bees?

Our publication ‘Form and function in the honey bee‘ will answer all your questions about honey bee anatomy.

Q: I have heard that honey and other bee products are good for our health. Is this true?

A: The antibacterial activity of honey is well established and is becoming recognized, again, as a useful wound dressing for ulcers and burns, promoting tissue regrowth and attacking deep-seated infections, often those caused by antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria (“superbugs”). It is also effective against the bacteria Helicobacter pylori that cause stomach ulcers. Propolis (bee glue) is a substance made by the bees from tree resins and wax. It contains phenols and flavonoids that have antibacterial properties. Some popular propolis products are mouth-washes and sore throat pastels. (Caution: some people are allergic to propolis). Two other bee products are pollen and royal jelly, but the health giving properties of these are less well documented in the scientific literature. Lastly bee venom / sting therapy is gaining popularity for many health problems such as arthritis and MS, but it should be treated with caution as it has not been proven to be effective and people can suffer an allergic reaction. Unfortunately the area of hive products and their use is often subject to unsubstantiated claims, and in many areas there have been limited scientific studies. An informative book on this subject, called Honey and Healing  is available from our online shop. The research on the therapeutic properties of hive products can be found in the Journal of ApiProduct and ApiMedical Science and the Journal of Apicultural Research.