Kent Bee-keepers' Association

Bees, Bumble Bees, Solitary Bees and Wasps

FAQ - Honeybees, Bumble Bees, Solitary Bees and Wasps by Peter Hutton.



From February the very large furry bees appear, you might notice the various colours and be amazed or you might well be alarmed by such animals which for a few people are scary. This is probably a reaction to a childhood encounter, threats by a cajoling mother, actually being stung or bitten by insects. Such phobias exist, often for the wrong reason, researching and finding out facts about the lifestyle and ecological importance of the insect that scares you will likely overcome your fear and indeed encourage you to see these insects in a different light.

I am plagued by telephone enquiries every Summer from well intentioned people asking the same or similar questions. Many questions can be answered by reference to a book, many can not, the following FAQ's are to assist you to understand, then make the appropriate enquiry to a beekeeper or entomologist without wasting yours or their time on lengthy explanations. I make reference to wasps as well.

Bees and Wasps are divided into three recognisable types;

1. Honeybees

Queen Worker Drone Bees

A permanent highly organised and communicating social insect having a fertile egg laying queen, between 10k & 90k infertile but highly skilled & organised female workers and some rather lazy males called drones per colony. A great deal of information is readily available from the Internet, libraries, bee research Institutes and Universities in the UK and world wide with an International library in Wales

Honey Bee
Foraging worker honeybee

2. Bumble bees

Firstly there are some three or four books published in the UK and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust
Bumble bee queens, (Bombus sp) live just about twelve months, they emerge as virgin queens from nests underground and above ground between the end of July to the middle of August, it may now be earlier due to climate change, they build up body fat ready for five months of hibernation, the queens vary a little in size dependant on breed and the quantity of larval food consumed. The largest are equivalent to the size of your thumb from it's tip to the first joint, colours vary from all black, black with white or orange abdominal tip to brilliant rusty or yellow bands and multi coloured dull rusty to primrose yellow bands. Finding good illustrated coloured plates is, I must say difficult, so why not take a photograph of some bumble bees and submit them to the webmaster!
The queens emerge in Spring from hibernation, they first search out nectar bearing flowers from which they feed on nectar and pollen at the same time pollinating those flowers causing seed to be set. When nice and plump and feeling the time is right they search out a suitable nest site, a disused mouse nest underground, thick grass tufts over ground and warm roofs above ground, commonly they are to be found in compost heaps which provide moist warm environment suitable to their needs.
The queen builds a saucepan like cell of wax and lays several eggs in it, she feeds and cares for the larvae. As these worker bees emerge they take over nursing and feeding, foraging for pollen and nectar amongst the flowers in your garden.

Bumble bees are no threat whatsoever, if you have young children then they are an ideal social insect to watch and learn about. Peg out four sticks around the nest area to indicate the nest position, say two foot by two foot or for the children 60cm by 60cm, now look through your natural history books with the children to identify which specie you have. Take the children to the library to search through more books if yours do not have sufficient information. See what colour pollen the bees carry on their legs, ask the children if they can see the same colour pollen on the flowers in your garden. Use a clock or stop watch so the children can count how many bees leave the nest in a minute, how many return in a minute repeat this three times during the day, aggregate the sums and divide up to find the average. Bumble bees leave the nest for thirty to sixty minutes; see if you can calculate how many bees might be in the nest. Bumble bees never swarm like honeybees and rarely reach more than seventy bees in a colony, that said I found three nests in 2001 with over 500 bees and four pounds of honey.

Bumble Bee
Bumble Bee collecting pollen and nectar

If you need to remove the bumble bees from your house, compost heap or garden for some compelling reason and remember they die out in August / September, providing it can be accessed it is a simple matter to collect up the nest by a honeybee keeper. The nest must be carefully exposed all round until it is above it's surroundings, a small shovel, spade or adequately thin strong tool is needed to slide below the nest lifting it as a whole, a cardboard box laid on it's side with flaps open ready to receive the nest, slide the nest carefully into the box, stand the box where the nest was until dark when it can be closed up with all the bees inside, tape the box shut, punch small ventilation holes through the box. Take the box over two miles away and lodge in a sheltered place under a shed or some sort of protective cover. Bumble bees are endangered, it is illegal to kill the bees, anyone found to have poisoned them risks prosecution, the maximum fine in the Magistrates Court is £25k, unlimited in Crown Court, average fine imposed at present is £1,5k. You can purchase a proper bumble bee home for £25. Bee keepers will charge to remove these nests when absolutely necessary, average cost £45.

3. Solitary bees

There are over two hundred different types in the UK most do not sting, any that could do not because their stings are too weak to penetrate us. If your garden, house or outbuildings present the right accommodation requirements then you may be blessed with solitary bees, which come in all sizes and shapes and colours. The adult bees are visible only for 6-8 weeks during their breeding cycle which coincides with the flowering period of those flowers that produce pollen and nectar suitable for their particular needs. This flowering period often coincides with the honeybee swarming period thus causing confusion as to what bees they are. Although no danger exists it is a fact that some people are terrified because they do not understand the bees. To remove solitary bees to a different location is impossible and it is illegal to poison them just as with bumble bees. There is a method to relocate them if done at the right time, that is to deny them access to the nest site they emerged from with the use of a screen, use one of the artificial nest blocks that you can purchase or make, site this in front of the screen. When the bees have disappeared after a few weeks remove the nest block to a new location in the garden in a sunny South facing area. You may have to erect the screen in successive years as well as providing artificial nest sites. It would be easier to learn exactly which specie of bee you have, study its lifestyle in depth then ignore the problem you currently perceive.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. I have bees coming in my house, what shall I do?

A. First identify them, consult natural history books, if necessary consult a bee keeper or entomologist.

Q. They are not wasps I know what wasps look like, and bumble bees are large, these are honeybees.

A. If they are in the ground or a compost heap and there are a number coming and going on a regular basis they are probably worker bumble bees which are a smaller version of the queen bumble bee. Bumble bees vary in size quite remarkably. To distinguish between a bee and a wasp look for the pollen baskets on their legs or for some solitary bees a big patch of pollen under their belly.

Q. I have honeybees in my compost bin what shall I do?

A. Honeybees are often found hanging their comb under the lids of compost bins provided the compost does not smell, a beekeeper should be called and can easily remove the bees together with the comb. If they are in the compost then they are bumble bees and should be left to the end of their days in September. Do not kill them, they are an endangered species, if necessary they can be relocated over three miles away, this could cost you between £45 and £75 pounds.

Q. I am a keen gardener, I need bees to pollinate my fruit, there is swarm of bees hanging in my apple tree, are they dangerous?

A. No they are not at all dangerous, swarming bees rarely sting as there are so many immature juveniles in a swarm, bees rarely sting without provocation anyway. Keep about a yard away from the swarm and inform a beekeeper who will collect them.

Q. I have just bought an old period house, I am horrified, I have just come home from work to find bees in the bedrooms and dining room. They are crawling all over the floor, up the curtains and at the windows please help me.

A. It sounds as if a swarm has gone into the chimney to form it's nest (Combs) as the flues are dusty and there is no comb to hold onto a lot of young bees have fallen down both the flue to be occupied and the adjacent flues. (Flues are the voids from fireplace to the top of the chimneystack.) They cannot take off vertically like a helicopter although they seem to hover like a jump jet. The flue is 9" square (225mm) once at the bottom they are like trapped potholes and must either climb back or feel air coming in from the fireplace or ventilator, they do the latter and emerge into the room. You have a simple solution, either open the windows and let them out or vacuum them up. Lay in a fire as soon as and fuel with as much grass cuttings as possible to create smoke this will drive the bees out. Where no fireplace exists remove the ventilator and pump in smoke with a beekeepers smoker to drive out the bees, this can take up to three hours and is best done on the day the bees go in, after the third day of occupation it is almost impossible to get the bees out, they have to be lifted out together with their comb from the chimney top thereafter.

Q. I have bees behind the tile hanging of my house, I had them poisoned last year but they have come back, what can I do to stop them.

A. Yes and so they will for ever, firstly the pest man did not do his job properly, he killed the bees OK but he left poisoned honey for other bees to steal, that caused the local bee keepers bees to die and poisoned the honey in his hive so he could not sell it. Perhaps he did not know his bees had been poisoned and sold the honey quite innocently. The solution is simple and does not require the bees to be killed. If the tiles are in sound order then remove the plaster from inside the wall, take out the honeycomb and stored in closed buckets, take out the bees on the brood combs and put in a hive which can be kept in your garden, this will deter other bees from living in your wall, more importantly, deny bees access to your walls by filling the voids with rockwool or fibreglass and seal up the access points used by the bees. An alternative is to cover the wall temporarily with a tarpaulin and hanging a bait hive in front of it into which the swarm will go, this needs to be in place from the beginning of April till the end of August. There will be a hire charge and a charge for taking away each swarm.

Q. Can I stop bees and wasps from occupying my roof.

A. No, not with any certainty, current building regulations require roofs to be ventilated and yet insulated, water tanks in your roof have to be covered and overflow pipes must have insect proof screens in them. Clearly contamination prevention was in the minds of the legislators, but not wasps or bees both of which need only a quarter inch (6mm) access hole to your roof. The builders would have obliged with this hole had not the legislators. 3mm 1/8 " mesh is required to prevent bees and wasps, flies as well entering your roof space. Beyond this there is little you can do other that becoming a beekeeper and having a hive in the garden. If builders need to repair your house the bees can be removed first.

Q. I have some bees in the eaves of my house, what should I do?

A. Identify exactly what they are, some bumble bees nest in the eaves, in 2001 three house in the same road had bumble bees in the eaves also there were over 800 bees present in each, they do no harm are very docile and come to an end about September time, leave them alone. Honeybees are different, they will store up to 150lbs of honey, if your house is a bungalow then certainly have them taken out and put in a hive, if a two storey or more high house then leave them unless you need building work done, this is the time to remove the bees at a sensible cost, scaffolding will be needed and so that cost is defrayed. If a chimney is to be rebuilt or demolished then that is the time to remove bees.

Q. I have some insects flying from my eaves, they must be bees because I have not seen them before.

A. You could be right, you could be wrong especially if it is June, wasps will have been there since May but so few you would have to be lucky to notice them, in June they build up numbers dramatically so you see them. You know they are bright yellow and black but honestly can you see the colours against the skyline when you are on the ground? I can see which they are as they fly differently to each other especially on landing. Bees have hind legs that hang down like the undercarriage of an aircraft, wasps do not, bees slow up and move side to side if there is congestion at the entrance, wasps do not they either plough straight in or go round for another try. Wasps are also slightly but discernibly smaller than bees.

Q. I have a swarm of bees in my hedge. Can you take them away?

A. Yes, but are they bees? Can you see the insects if not then they are probably European wasps. This applies in houses to wasps and bees as well. If the insects are visible but not the combs then they are likely to be bees, if the nest is seen with the insects coming out then suspect wasps.

Q. I have a swarm of bees gone into my chimney, if I leave them will they go away?

A. Unlikely, it is very rare for the bees to go unless they find they have made a serious mistake, such as moving into a roof space where the temperature rises too high for them to control, or a chimney where the reaction between lime and sulphuric acid from old soot is so active as to cause them to leave.

Q. What can I do, bees come every year into my house, I have them killed and in some years it happens three or four times, each time the pest man comes it costs £90.

A. Very simply deny the bees access by filling the voids with rockwool or fibreglass in the case of external walls and seal the entrances with a proprietary building mastic. In the case of chimneys insert stainless steel woven mesh of 3mm squares maximum size, no greater, no smaller, bed it into mortar under the pots, ventilation will continue but no insects will get through. Put a bird cage over the pots to prevent nests being built, ensure following owners are made aware as monoxide poisoning will result if a gas fire were fitted subsequently. This answer presumes honeybee occupation.

Q. There are bees going into the wall of my house, I have young children for whose safety I am concerned, I need to get rid of them but do not want them killed. The bees go into different holes along the South facing wall.

A. First it would be illegal to kill these bees, secondly totally unnecessary as they do not sting and are no danger whatsoever nor do they damage your house. They are one of some fifty specie of solitary bee that construct cells within holes in brickwork, locks, hard sunny earth or sandstone banks. They provision the cells with nectar and pollen, lay an egg, seal the cell and depart. They may construct the cells in a tunnel one in front of the next, side by side or whatever. Despite being described as solitary many are gregarious reaching the high fifties or in the right spot the low hundreds. They are only around for a few weeks after which they depart.

You say you have children, here is a splendid opportunity both for you and the children, do make the most of it!


Look through your natural history books with your children, find as many pictures of bees as possible for the youngest, help the older to read the descriptions, ask them if any are the same as those in your wall. Take them to the public library, show them where to find the natural history section even the museum as well can help. Use the computer via the Internet to look up information. This applies to bumble bee nests as well. Mark out an area with sticks or chalk around the nest. Tell the children, "that is their space" have a time piece with a minute sweep hand, teach them to count how many bees "in" in a minute and "out" in a minute, do this at different times of the day, add up and subtract the differences. For the older children make a chart, work out averages and such like. Note the different pollen colours, observe flowers in your garden, in the park, what colour pollen do flowers have, the same or different? Can you see your bees working there, if not then where? There is so much for you and your children to learn TOGETHER.

This will overcome any phobias you might have. NEVER THREATEN YOUR CHILDREN BY SCARING THEM ABOUT BITING AND STINGING INSECTS AND ANIMALS or they will grow with unreal phobias, TEACH THEM WHICH INSECTS BITE AND STING, WHICH ANIMALS KICK AND BITE AND WHY THAT IS SO. If you don't know why because you were never taught then it is generally a defensive action or an action needed in their feeding or reproduction regime.

Remember, killing bees is selfish, unnecessary and ultimately will contribute to the general destruction of the planet and the future generations of yours and my offspring. Help the planet produce food for us all, keep the bees, turn your engines off when sitting waiting in traffic jams and at traffic lights, it will save you money and harm the planet ozone less.

Peter Hutton

Related pages: Swarm Collectors and FAQs