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The bees in Heene Cemetery

Bees, wasps and ants belong (with sawflies) to the Hymenoptera order as they are all related in some way. The earliest known individual of this huge group, a stinging wasp, appeared perhaps 190 million years ago. The first ant was a wasp that lost its wings (about 100 million years ago), and the first bee was a wasp that forgot how to hunt (about 65 million years ago), thus becoming ‘vegetarian’, which may account for why – of the three groups of insects – we might feel more favourably disposed to bees than we do to wasps or ants. Indeed, bees have become the darlings of the Hymenoptera order, their stylised faces appearing on everything from greetings cards to lapel badges. Even if we don’t understand them fully, the whole world loves the busy bees.

With such time spans, we now see species variation on a grand scale. There are at least 22,000 different species of bee worldwide. In Britain, we have over 270 different species, 25 of these being bumblebees.

Our website groups insects by families, so it’s not completely straightforward to find which of the bees we’ve seen. They are grouped into different families: Bumble and Honey Bees, Mason bees, Mining bees and Plasterer bees. Let’s take a look at each family:

Plasterer bees

Plasterer bees (Colletidae) are bees that use secretions from their mouthparts to smooth the walls of their nest cells. There may be nine different types of British Plasterer bees.

Until we find more of these Plasterer bees, Heene shelters just the one species, the Ivy Bee. This bee is the last solitary bee to emerge each year, and is Britain’s only true autumn bee. As its name suggests, it finds nearly all its pollen and nectar from Common Ivy.

Ivy Bee (Colletes hederae), Heene Cemetery, September 2023

Mining bees

Mining bees are solitary, ground-nesting bees that have been on earth for more than 30 million years. They comprise the largest British genus of bees with perhaps 67 species.

Females of the Chocolate Mining Bee nest singly, although they often share a burrow entrance with several other females, as can be seen in one of the photographs below.

Chocolate Mining Bee (Andrena scotica), Heene Cemetery, March 2022
Chocolate Mining Bee (Andrena scotica), Heene Cemetery, March 2022

The Grey-patched Mining Bee, below, derives much but not all of its food from Dandelions.

Grey-patched Mining Bee (Andrena nitida), Heene Cemetery, April 2022
Grey-patched Mining Bee (Andrena nitida), Heene Cemetery, April 2022

Leafcutter and Mason bees

Leafcutter and Mason bees are mostly solitary bees. Several collect plant or animal hairs to assist in nest construction, whereas other collect plant resin for this purpose. All feed on pollen and nectar, although some of these feed on pollen collected by other bees (and so are called ‘cuckoo bees’).

Leaf-cutter bee (Megachile sp.), Heene Cemetery, July 2022
Leaf-cutter bee (Megachile sp.), Heene Cemetery, July 2022

The Leaf-cutter Bee and the Orange-vented Mason Bee chews up the edges of leaves to make a cement with which they seal their nests. Indeed, the Oranged-vented one, below, seems to be doing just that in this photograph.

Orange-vented Mason Bee (Osmia leaiana), Heene Cemetery, July 2022
Orange-vented Mason Bee (Osmia leaiana), Heene Cemetery, July 2022

Blood bees

The Sphecodes bees – or Blood bees – are usually black and red, although the red colour derives from cuticle pigment rather than blood. Their name stems from the Greek Phex (wasp) and odes (like), as they resemble wasps. They are small or medium-sized bees that are cleptoparasitic of ground-nesting bees. There are in the region of 17 different species in this family/genus of bees. They are also thought of as cuckoo bees, as females enter a host’s nest, force open a cell, destroy the egg or grub within before laying their own egg and then resealing the cell. Males are usually found on flowers, where they will seek nectar.

Each of the 17 different British species of Sphecodes bees – and which the one photographed here is, is unknown – will use different species of host bees in whose nest the female will lay its eggs. This degree of specialization is typical in the natural world – but no less fascinating.

Blood bee (Sphecodes sp.), Heene Cemetery, August 2023

Nomad bees

Nomad bees are small, relatively hairless bees that often resemble small wasps. They are between 4 and 9 millimetres in length. All Nomad bees steal from other species of bees. Females enter the host’s nest burrow to lay eggs before any cells have been sealed up. When its grub hatches from the egg, it will devour the host egg or grub with its large jaws before feeding on the food store that the host parent had provisioned the cells with. There are 34 species of British Nomad bees. Differentiating one from another requires considerable magnification – and knowledge.

This is a male Nomad bee that closely resembles a Fork-jawed Nomad Bee, judging from the angle of the one photograph we have. Exact identifications of this species from other in its family is almost impossible from a photograph. This individual was photographed in late-May, as it briefly settled on a Bramble leaf. Male Nomad bees do not sting, whereas females do.

Nomad bee (Nomada sp.), Heene Cemetery, May 2023

Sweat bees

Halictic bees are called either End-banded Furrow Bees or Sweat Bees, the latter in recognition of the fact that they drink perspiration. This family of bees is the second-largest wild bee family. They are a diverse group, varying in appearance. Typically, these bees mass-provision their young with pollen and nectar, rather than doing so progressively.

So far we have seen two Sweat bees, the Green Furrow Bee (Lasioglossum morio) and an unidentified Sweat bee in the Lasioglossum family.

Green Furrow Bee (Lasioglossum morio), Heene Cemetery, August 2023
Sweat bee (Lasioglossum sp.), Heene Cemetery, August 2023

Yellow-faced bees

Yellow-faced bees are small to very small bees that are predominantly black. Yellow markings on the face, antennae, legs and thorax allow for identification. Nearly all these bees carry pollen back to their nest in their crop, regurgitating it upon arrival. This is unusual for bees. Nests are made in hollow plant stems or pre-existing holes. There are 12 species of Yellow-faced Bee in the British Isles.

So far, we have seen one species of Yellow-faced bee:

Common Yellow Face Bee (Hylaeus communis), Heene Cemetery, August 2023

There are other families and genera of solitary bees, all with beguiling names, such as Carpenter, Yellow-faced, Shaggy, Bristle-headed, Wool carder, Resin and Variegated cuckoo bees. Add them all up and the species variety just in Britain is eye-popping.

Bumblebees

Bumblebees (and the Honey Bee) are social insects, where all other bees are solitary. Bumblebees live in small colonies, often underground. Most of those seen in Spring and early Summer will be females, males appearing in late Summer.

White-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lucorum), Heene Cemetery, July 2022
White-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lucorum), Heene Cemetery, July 2022
Vestal Cuckoo Bumblebee (Bombus vestalis), Heene Cemetery, July 2022
Vestal Cuckoo Bumblebee (Bombus vestalis), Heene Cemetery, July 2022
Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum), Heene Cemetery, June 2022
Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum), Heene Cemetery, June 2022
Red-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius), Heene Cemetery, July 2022
Red-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius), Heene Cemetery, July 2022
Common Carder Bee (Bombus pascuorum), Heene Cemetery, August 2020
Common Carder Bee (Bombus pascuorum), Heene Cemetery, August 2020
Buff-tailed Bumblebee or Large Earth Bumble-bee (Bombus terrestris), Heene Cemetery, April 2020
Buff-tailed Bumblebee or Large Earth Bumble-bee (Bombus terrestris), Heene Cemetery, April 2020

Bees in numbers

Our meagre efforts have so far shown that we’ve seen just 10 different types of solitary bee and 6 different types of bumblebee. To these, we can add the Honey Bee, making a total of a dozen different species of bee in Heene Cemetery’s one-acre, town-centre site. These numbers – and others – show up again later.

Honey bees

The Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) is an abundant species, seen from early Spring until late Autumn. Most flower foragers will be the female workers. The male drones appear in the Summer, and they have fatter bodies and longer antennae. Queens, which emerge in Spring to establish colonies, never leave the hive to forage, but feed on royal jelly produced by workers. But Honey bees, whatever their abundance, remain a single species.

Honey Bee (Apis mellifera), Heene Cemetery, July 2022
Bee hives being introduced into Heene Cemetery, March 2016
Bee hives being introduced into Heene Cemetery, March 2016

There are two beehives in Heene Cemetery and, according to the hives’ keeper, Stuart, “the average beehive in the height of summer has around 50,000 bees!” That’s perhaps 100,000 bees sheltered under the trees of the cemetery’s south-east corner.

On average, bees forage for over a mile from their hive. A DNA analysis of honey samples that Stuart requested in the late summer of 2021 showed traces of 16 plants/flowers known to be in the Cemetery, alongside a further 43 varieties, many of them cultivated plants from gardens in the locality. No doubt, different honey samples at different times of the year would have shown Honey bees had visited different flowers/plants.

Anecdotally, a huge proportion of the photographs taken of bees on flowers in the cemetery have been of Honey Bees, rather than of other solitary bees. Of the 270 various species of bee found in Britain, 229 (*) species have been recorded in Sussex. Yet, to date, we’ve seen 12.

What’s going on?

Changing times

We have – rightly – developed the view that Honey bees and beehives are ‘a good thing’. They are pollinators, essential for the pollination of crops that provide much of the food that we eat. They help sustain our orchards and gardens. Bees provide us with honey – and the honey that comes from Heene Cemetery’s hives is indeed delicious! Everything about them seems to merit the traditional ‘darling’ label.

Yet there’s another story starting to be told, and it comes from respected institutions like the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and the Natural History Museum. This tells us of the potential unsustainability of urban beekeeping, of an insufficient nectar and pollen supply to support beehive numbers, of honeybees outcompeting wild bee populations. In the words of Kew’s Professor Phil Stevenson:

This revelation will surprise many who think that keeping bees is a great thing for the environment. Unfortunately, it isn’t always the case. The public need to be much more aware of the importance of pollinator diversity and how organisms interact, so that we can conserve all urban wildlife more effectively.

Failure to tap into the myriad uses of plants and fungi is costing people and planet, says new report, 30th September 2020

It’s said that a single beehive might need 32 acres of green space.

It is widely acknowledged that Britain’s countryside has become nature-depleted and that there is – perhaps surprisingly – greater floral biodiversity in our cities, towns and villages. Until hedgerows and verges are brought back to the varied glory of former times, the countryside remains largely the theatre for crop monocultures.

Unlike honeybees that seem able to feed on a wide range of plants, solitary, wild bees usually have preferred habitats, ones where specific pollen and nectar providers can be found. Where these locations provide a changing diet throughout the seasons, bees (more than most insects) will flourish. But this does mean that a wide range of different seasonal plant food is needed to support these wild, native bees – and Heene Cemetery should be just right for many of them.

Even on their own, the numbers in the cemetery seem somewhat skew-wiff:

~ 0

known bee species in Britain

0

bee species have been recorded in Sussex (*)

0

solitary bee species recorded in Heene Cemetery

0

social bee species recorded in Heene Cemetery (bumblebees and the Honey bee)

0

beehives in Heene Cemetery

~ 0

honeybees in Heene Cemetery at the height of summer

Without designing it this way, we seem to have been very substantially discriminating in favour of just one species of bee. It’s something we’d not support if it applied to flowering plants (of which there are 203 different species at the time of writing) or butterflies and moths (currently 47 different species) – even if one could control these numbers.

A discussion amongst the Friends of Heene at the start of the year considered the question of the impact of having hives in the cemetery, and it was agreed that we’d ask the apiarist to take one hive out of the cemetery for this year. For the moment, this is a compromise, subject to review. We shall miss the honey that has been generously donated; to date, this has raised useful funds.

This apparent incompatibility between a long-standing tradition and our (slow) understanding of its impact upon biodiversity will no doubt be followed by others as all of us face the uncertain future advancing upon us.

* Bees in Sussex

This blog post initially stated that “at least 44 bee species [can be] expected in Sussex”. It transpires that this was a substantial underestimate. Issue 192 of Wildlife, the magazine of the Sussex Wildlife Trust (Spring/Summer 2023), has an article by James Power, author of The Bees of Sussex, in which he says that “there are an impressive 229 species of bee recorded in Sussex”. Ten new species have been recorded here since 2000.

According to the author, Sussex is one of the warmest and driest counties in the country, making it ideal for bees. Its proximity to the European mainland is a further factor that aids bee species numbers.

This adds impetus to the argument that we should be seeing a broader range of solitary bees in Heene Cemetery than appears to be the case.


If you wish to contribute to this debate, please feel free to email us using the form below.

Books and websites

Field Guide to the Bumblebees of Great Britain and Ireland by Mike Edwards and Martin Jenner; Ocelli; revised edition, 2012.

Field Guide to the Bumblebees of Great Britain and Ireland by Mike Edwards and Martin Jenner; Ocelli; revised edition, 2012.

This is a standard text on identifying bumblebees, providing photographs, maps, habitat descriptors of where each species can be found, along with a colour key that helps distinguish species based upon colour bands that one can see with the naked eye.

Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland by Steven Falk; Bloomsbury, 2016.

Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland by Steven Falk; Bloomsbury, 2016.

A comprehensive guide to the solitary bees of our islands, this is an authoritative and wonderfully-illustrated guide, packed with photographs.

The Hidden Universe Adventures in Biodiversity by Alexandre Antonelli, Director of Science, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; Witness Books, 2022.

The Hidden Universe Adventures in Biodiversity by Alexandre Antonelli, Director of Science, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; Witness Books, 2022.

This is a short and lucid primer on biodiversity that aims to explain a complex subject in terms that most of us can understand. This volume explains what damage habitat loss is doing and how we can all face up to it in practical, daily.

Silent Earth – Averting the Insect Apocalypse by Professor Dave Goulson; Jonathon Cape, 2021.

Silent Earth – Averting the Insect Apocalypse by Professor Dave Goulson; Jonathon Cape, 2021.

Professor Goulson – from our local university at Sussex in Brighton – played a huge role in establishing the link between neonicotinoids and damage to bees. In this volume, he sets out the science and moves on to explain how we can all help avert an ‘insect apocalypse’.

The Insect Crisis – The Fall of Tiny Empires that Run the World by Oliver Milman; Atlantic Books, 2022.

The Insect Crisis – The Fall of Tiny Empires that Run the World by Oliver Milman; Atlantic Books, 2022.

In this volume, Oliver Milman, journalist rather than scientist, explains why we need insects more than they need us. You will find this a motivating read.

Beekeeping in cities is harming other wildlife, study finds; Katie Pavid on the Natural History Museum website, 30th September 2020.

Kew’s State of the World’s Plants and Fungi 2020 report released; The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, 30th September 2020.

[This post was last updated on 23rd August 2023.]

Written by Rob Tomlinson