My Love Affair with Bees
Many of you that follow my photography know I have a passion for all things “Bee”. I have this admiration of these hard working flying insects and their vital role on our planet in pollination. There are so many species of Bees, over 16,000 known species to be exact. They are found in seven recognized biological families. Some species, including Honeybees, Bumblebees, and stingless bees, live socially in colonies, whilst other species, including Mason bees, Carpenter bees, Leafcutter bees, and Sweat bees, are solitary.
Bees are part of a monophyletic lineage within the superfamily Apoidea. Monophyletic means that they come from the same taxon (species) and share the same recent ancestor, in the case of the Bee, the Queen Bee.
Providing a habitat for Bees:
I don’t have the biggest garden in the world, in fact it is relatively small by most people’s standards, however, I have made it a haven for all types of wildlife. There are natural water sources, these are rudimentary such as a bowl filled with water with large cobbles in, to a small natural pond and a bird water bath. It has been wonderful to see an array of varied insects, birds and frogs and demonstrates that you can create a wonderful haven even in the smallest of spaces.
I have put time and effort into what I have planted in my garden. I have made sure that for all seasons of the year that there are plenty of places for the wildlife to use. I have a range of different shrubs, trees, flowers, I have an abundance of sheltered spaces, shrubs that not only have flowers but also berries as well. I have put aside small wood piles for insects to use and for solitary bees to use. I have some shrubs that have varied foliage that attracts the Leafcutter bee. My garden is south facing and through most of the day there is an abundance of sunshine and light. I have planted shrubs and plants that thrive in a variety of different conditions, from direct sunlight to shaded or dappled light areas.
Bees also can get tired on very hot days so I do have little areas where Bees can get access to water and on particularly hot days I do put out little milk bottle caps with some sugary water to revive an exhausted Bee.
I have purposely planted flowers and shrubs that appeal to pollinators such as Lavender, Penstemons, Borage, Salvia, Heather, Rudbeckia, Cornflowers, Toadflax, Buddleia, Heuchera, Jasmine, Honeysuckle, Ranunculus, Sunflowers, Yarrow, Hellebores, Verbena, Coreopsis, Forget me Nots, Phlox, Roses, a wide range of herbs, Garlic, Nandina Domestica, Fuschia, and Alliums to name just a few.
The photos above are some of the many plants that I have in my garden. All photos by Karen Brammer.
The photo above is of a Honeybee, this is collecting nectar from a Purple Salvia. I was awarded a High Bronze award from the Guild of Photographers in their monthly Image of the Month competition.
These Heather plants or Erica darleyensis as they are more formerly known, provide excellent evergreen ground cover, and bright flower colour in the dullest months of the year, from Autumn to Spring.
Full of buds and colouring up nicely right now to provide a long period of garden interest, Heathers are one of the easiest to grow evergreens, perfect for planters or a carpet of colour in the garden.
The dark green foliage is literally smothered with blooms in season. Spreading mounds of neat evergreen foliage smother out the weeds, making them a superb choice for ground cover. Starting in late Autumn and early Winter and continuing in to Spring, Heathers really come into their own in the coldest months, becoming completely covered in little spikes of bell-shaped flowers, which the bees adore.
Bee Fact 1:
A little fact for you all, the most likely colours to attract Bees, according to scientists, are purple, violet and blue. Bees also have the ability to see colour much faster than humans. Their colour vision is the fastest in the animal world, five times faster than humans. This is something that I have always considered and when planting out in my garden I always try and get purple, violet and blue flowers in the garden that provide the perfect habitat for attracting the Bees.
So what is the difference between a Honeybee and a Bumblebee?
The first big difference to note is their appearance:
Bumblebees are much bigger and more robust looking, they are large in girth, have more hairs on their body and are coloured with yellow, orange and black. Their wings can be easily seen since they are darkish in colour. The tip of their abdomen is rounded.
Honeybees are more slender in body appearance, have fewer body hairs and wings that are more translucent. The tip of their abdomen is more pointed.
The photo on the left shows the more slender, less hairy, less bulky Honeybee, and the image on the right shows the Bumblebee.
The next difference is in their aggression or ways that they defend themselves and their nest:
In general, Honeybees and Bumblebees are not overly aggressive when protecting their nest. However, both will readily sting to defend themselves or their colony. The primary difference in their stinging behavior relates to the greater number of Honeybees that sting when compared to Bumblebees. While a Honeybee only stings once, a Bumblebee is capable of stinging multiple times.
The third difference is in how long they live for:
The Bumblebee queen lives for one year and overwinters at the nest site. Other members live for only a few months.
The Honeybee queen and her offspring live in the hive all year round. The queen may survive for three or more years.
Where they live is different:
Bumblebees typically make their nest underground, but some species will nest above ground, whereas, Honeybees typically make their nest above ground in sheltered locations.
The size of the population also varies:
Bumblebee colonies tend to be much smaller with a normal population of less than a few hundred individuals, whereas Honeybee nests may number into the tens of thousands.
The final big difference is in the amount of honey they produce:
Although both produce honey, Bumblebees do not produce a surplus of honey like Honeybees. This is why beekeepers do not collect Bumblebee honey for consumption.
How do Bees collect Pollen and Nectar?
The bees collect pollen and nectar in different ways. The nectar is collected by the proboscis, which is an elongated sucking mouthpart that is typically tubular and flexible. The two photos below show the proboscis. The Bee in flight has its proboscis extended ready to insert into the centre of the flower of the Toadflax to suck up the nectar.
The photo above left, shows the lapping mouthparts of a Honeybee, showing the labium and maxillae. The mouthparts are adapted for both chewing and sucking by having both a pair of mandibles and a long proboscis for sucking up nectar.
Bumblebees and Honeybees have a very unique system for storing and collecting pollen,
Pollen is collected by the hairs that you can see on both the Bumblebee and Honeybees. Nature is amazing and as bees fly through the air, their bodies become positively charged with static electricity, so much such so that when the bee lands on a flower, it knocks the pollen from the delicate anthers, this is the part of the stamen of the flower that contains the pollen. Some of the pollen particles stick to the static-charged hair covering the bee’s body, it also sticks to their antennae, their legs, and their faces.
As Bees are very fuzzy animals, this helps the pollen stick to them every time they visit flowers and they become one giant pollen magnet.
As the bee becomes covered in pollen, it uses its legs to wipe the pollen from its body down to stiff hairs on the abdomen or back legs. These tufts of stiff hair are called scopa, but on the back legs, they are sometimes referred to as pollen baskets or ‘corbiculae’ on Bumblebees and Honeybees (‘corbicula’ if singular). Once the bee returns to its hive or nest, the pollen is stored to be eaten by developing larvae.
Note that Bumblebee workers and queens collect pollen and transfer it to the nests, however, males and Cuckoo Bumblebee species do not collect pollen, and have no pollen baskets.
The photo above won a rare Gold Bar Award with the Guild of Photographers and made the top twelve in the International Image of the Year Final out of 13,000 images. The Bee is a Honeybee, collecting nectar from a Rudbeckia Flower. I used a Canon 5D Mark III body with a Canon 100mm F/2.8L USM Macro Lens, 1/100 at f/8.0, ISO 100 with ring flash attached to the front of the lens. The photo was taken in my back garden.
There is a bit of a technique when photographing Bees that I would recommend you do as because they move around very quickly and are always very busy. I tend to spend a bit of time just watching them. They fly quite erratically and often the light can be very variable. So with that in mind I do not use a tripod or monopod, I shoot handheld. I shoot with a shallow depth of field also. The ring flash that I use doesn’t seem to interfere or bother the Bees at all.
There are some people when shooting photos of insects, who don’t want to put the time in to wait and watch their behaviour, or aren’t as patient. For me, that is part of the pleasure of photographing not only Bees but other insects. You can fully immerse yourself in the moment and watching these busy insects flying to different plants and flowers to collect nectar is mesmerising.
You will see in a lot of my photos I tend to capture Bees from a side profile, this is because I like to get the flowers that they are landing on in the photo too. I find it also help to make that connection with their eye and by ensuring that is in full focus it will engage the person viewing the photo. I do also shoot from directly in front or shooting slightly upwards as well.
How not to photograph Bees:
One method, I am totally against is the freezing or refrigerating of insects to take photos of them. There are so many other ways to take photos of insects and I always appalled when I hear that someone has done this just to get that shot. Most insects will be more lethargic earlier in the day or in colder temperatures but this is their environment not being placed in a false one simply to stop them moving.
Compose your shot and consider what’s in the background:
I try when I am photographing Bees and insects to make sure that the background is not too distracting. There are times when there are distracting elements in the background. I use a couple of different techniques to get around this, I look carefully at my position and composition prior to taking the photo to see what is in my background. If it is impossible to not get around that then here’s another couple of ways to try:
I have in the photo below, hung a tea towel on the clothes line which has acted nicely as a make do backdrop. You can have pieces of coloured card also or use walls, wooden fences or other outbuildings as backdrops. Another way to do this is to shoot with your aperture wide open which will create a great bokeh.
Does the time of day affect when you should photograph Bees?
I would say a definite yes on this. My garden is South facing so in the morning, through to the late afternoon/early evening I have full sun in my garden. As the Sun naturally moves throughout the day it then casts shadows from some of the bushes, small trees, and shrubs growing in the garden. The light it casts can be quite variable throughout the day as a result, so where you started early in the morning, in the late afternoon that same area may now be in dappled or full shade so do bear that in mind when you go to take your photos. Think also about where the sun is in the sky as you also don’t want to be casting a shadow over your subject.
Insects in general tend to be more lethargic in the morning and as the temperature increases and they start to wake they then become more and more active as the day goes on.
When there is a lot of bright sunlight, you may end up blowing the highlights on either the Bee or if it’s a white or light coloured flower, leaf, wall, shrub etc… that can also cause you to blow highlights or reflect light too much onto your subject.
I will alter the shutter speed depending on the time of day as the Bees may be moving around faster as the day goes on and in order to get a sharp exposure I may need to use a much faster shutter speed.
In the photos above I have used my Telephoto lens, Canon EF 70-200mm. This was taken at about 1pm in the afternoon and so the sun and light were very bright. On the photo on the left you can see the lighter parts of the bells shaped flowers are very bright as is a section of the Bee’s abdomen in the photo on the left.
Top tip for photographing Bees, identify them:
Identifying your different bees will help when it comes to photographing them. Okay it may seem fairly obvious that you can tell a Bumblebee from a Honeybee, but can you distinguish between a Bumblebee and a Solitary Bee.
I have already mentioned how you can tell a Honeybee and a Bumblebee apart, but even within their different species there are ways to identify them.
With some of the Bees it is their size, markings, colours, and shape. Bees tend to have the following colours black, yellow, white, and orange.
A Honeybee on a Borage flower. Photo by Karen Brammer.
A Honeybee tends to be less bulky and less furry than a Bumblebee.
The Honeybee’s abdomen tends to be less bulky and has a pointed tip as you can clearly see in this photo.
This early Queen Bumblebee is mainly black and as you can see the abdomen is wider and rounder. The yellow ruff and orange tipped bottom are other distinguishing things to look for as well as the fact she doesn’t have the pollen baskets (corbiculae) or the stiff hair on their abdomen called scopa.
This is the Common Carder Bumblebee easily identifiable by the large yellow extended ruff, it’s abdomen tends to be lighter in colour as well. There is some banding present too. Fortunately it is still a fairly common bee, and is very valuable for pollinating the more “difficult” flowers such as antirrhinum, where an inexperienced forager hesitates before plunging into the gullet of the flower allowing the top petal to fully enclose her. Only a heavy and strong insect such as a bumblebee can get into such flowers.
They tend to have medium length tongues which helps them get into certain flowers to obtain the nectar that other species would not be able to get to.
The biggest Bumblebees are the Buff-tailed Bumblebees and they emerge in early spring. They are named after the buff-coloured tail of their queen, as the worker bees have almost white tails, which makes them easy to mistake for white-tailed bumblebees! They love all types of flowers but especially like open daisy-like flowers, where they can more easily reach the nectar with their short tongues. They nest underground in large groups of up to 600 bees often using old mammal nests.
The Buff-tailed bumblebee has a yellow collar near the head and another on the abdomen. The queen has a buff-coloured ‘tail’, while the workers have white ‘tails’ with a faint buff line separating them from the rest of the abdomen. Males have buff-tinged tails and also have black hair on their faces.
Leafcutter bees are solitary bees that use leaf sections to make nests. They are amazing pollinators, and are able to take sections from plants to make nests creating intriguing patterns and cause no serious harm.
There are seven species of leaf-cutting bees in Britain. They have a wingspan of 8-14mm and are dark brown bees covered in lighter brown or orange hairs.
Females are similar in size to honeybees, with light brownish hair around the sides of the thorax and between the abdominal segments. Aside from their leaf-cutting and carrying behaviour, their most distinctive feature is a bright orange pollen brush on the underside of their abdomen. From overhead this can look like a sort of orange halo around the abdomen.
Mason bee is a name now commonly used for species of bees in the genus Osmia, of the family Megachilidae. Mason bees are named for their habit of using mud or other “masonry” products in constructing their nests, which are made in naturally occurring gaps such as between cracks in stones or other small dark cavities. When available, some species preferentially use hollow stems or holes in wood made by wood-boring insects.
I believe that the Brassy Mining Bee belongs to a group of small black mining bees. They are very similar and only experts can tell them apart after examining the genitals. These bees are thought to be to be a subgenus: Micrandrena. The best common name for this group would probably be Miniature Mining Bee, or Pygmy Mining Bees. They are similar to a group of small black leaf cutting bees. These are strict solitary creatures.
Tree bumblebees (Bombus hypnorum) may be more sensitive to vibrations and are on occasion a little feisty. Tree bumblebees have a distinctive white rump and ginger furry back and often like to nest in bird boxes. However they usually only fly for a few weeks so should be left alone.
The Ruderal Bumblebee is quite a rare find and has only been seen in very small numbers in certain parts of the UK, typically Norfolk and Cambridgeshire. I am based in Bedfordshire so I border Cambridgeshire, and I am delighted to see this beautiful unusual Bee in my garden.
More Bees, insects and other garden visitors to write about:
I hope that you all have enjoyed this blog and the introduction into my love of Bees. I have tried to include something for everyone in this blog as well being able to showcase the many photos I have taken of these stunning insects. It’s fascinating what you can find and create in a small space such as I have.
I will be writing more blogs about the other visitors that I have had to my garden.
Learning about the different types of Bees and what attracts them to our gardens, window boxes etc… means that we can all play our part collectively in doing doing our bit to help these insects to continue and thrive as there has been a big decline due to the use of pesticides, fewer meadows and just generally less flowers and shrubs being around.
I will be doing some live streams where if you want to ask me more questions in depth, I will happily answer them or please leave a comment below.