In 2011/12 the Capital Growth campaign for 50 community bee-keeping projects in London trained 4 members of the Friends as bee-keepers. From Spring 2012 they started to look after bees in our apiary on the north side of the cemetery. Bees feed on pollen and nectar and pollinate plants, fruit, vegetables and flowers in the area. The Friends have liaised with Lambeth Council to cut grass selectively which will encourage bee-friendly forage. We are planting lavender, rosemary and honeysuckle for the bees.

Of 100 crop species that provide 90% of food worldwide, 71 are bee-pollinated, according to the United Nations. Of great concern is the fact that honey bees and other bees are now in decline.

Caring for bees creates a community spirit and we have a lot to learn from them.

The friends of Streatham Cemetery are members of Wimbledon Beekeepers’ Association and look forward to participating in London's annual Honey Festival.

What types of bees live in the Cemetery and what is the basic differences between bees?

The Friends have recorded and photographed bumblebees and solitary bees either resident or visiting the Cemetery. This is to be expected given the current types of habitat present. Please see our bee poster for examples.  As well as these wild bees,  European Honey Bees live in hives in the apiary. 

The principal species of solitary and bumblebees that are recorded regularly in local parks, cemeteries and other open spaces include, but are not exclusive to:

Bumblebees - 

Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris),

White-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum),

Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum), 

Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum),

Garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum), 

Red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidaries), 

Heath bumblebee (Bombus jonellus) and 

Tree bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum).

Solitary bees – 

There are numerous solitary bee species and it’s often difficult to identify them easily, but the main common species would be 

Red Mason bee (Osmia bicornis), 

Blue Mason bee (Osmia caerulescens), 

Leaf-cutter bees (Megachile centuncularis &  M. willugbiella) and 

Ivy bee (Colletes hederae).

Bumblebees are normally identified by their relatively large and rounded body profile, with comparatively small wings – solitary bees tend to be smaller and look like honey bees although they are often ‘fuzzier’. Solitary bees also tend to have much shorter tongues than honey bees and bumblebees, so that means they prefer flowers that don’t require the feeding insect to have long tongues, eg species like clover, knapweed and daisy. However, they are active pollen collectors and will forage on a very wide variety of plants.

What’s the difference between bees, wasps and hornets?

Wasps and hornets are members of the same group of insects that includes bees – the Hymenoptera (‘membrane winged’); they share a wide range of similar characteristics, but wasps and hornets tend to be carnivorous, feeding on living or dead animal matter – although as we know they also love sugary things like jam and sweet drinks if they get a chance!

Unlike honey bees, wasps and hornets can be bolder and more willing to approach and investigate human activity; unlike honey bees they can also repeatedly sting if provoked – their stings don’t have barbs on them and so they can insert, remove and re-insert the sting again and again if they want to. Interestingly bumblebees and many solitary bees also have barbless stings and can repeatedly sting (but it often takes a lot to provoke either type of bee to sting somebody in the first place – you really have to seriously annoy the animal for it to do so).

However, we must remember that wasps and hornets play a very important role in the wider environment; they are known to be active predators sometimes taking other living insects like bees and butterflies of course, but they also scavenge on a wide variety of dead, dying or discarded organic matter, including dead insects, birds and mice, and feed these to their developing grubs in their nests as well as to feed themselves.

In doing so they are superb ‘recyclers’, clearing many places of debris that would rot and foul up the ground, putting it all to good use. The sheer numbers of wasps and hornets across the globe, never mind just the UK, means they play a crucial role in a healthy ecosystem, and we should acknowledge them for the valuable work they do; we just have to try and understand and respect them a bit more for what they do so well.

What do the bees eat and drink?

Bees are primarily pollen and nectar feeders, so they forage around their nests for plants that have ample supplies of pollen or nectar – most bees get sufficient water from their nectar and the metabolism of any nectar and pollen they digest, but they are often seen, especially in warm and dry weather, congregating around sources of clean water, e.g. pools, ponds and stream edges, to ‘sip’ water to supplement what they get from their food.

This is why having an accessible and reliable source of water is quite important in encouraging and supporting healthy bee populations, as well as benefiting many other wildlife species.

How can a big bumblebee fly with such small wings?

The answer is people don’t really have a full explanation. However, aerodynamic studies with living bees and modern computer modelling suggest that although they have relatively small wings compared to their body size, their wings are very well designed and they have plenty of muscle power to sustain normal flight.

It also seems that through evolution bumblebees have developed a way of flying that created air currents and vortices around their wings and bodies that gives them plenty of ‘lift’, rather like an aeroplane’s wings, so they can comfortably carry their own body mass and fly just as well as other flying insects that have much bigger wings or lighter bodies.

Where do our honey bees live?

Long before they were first domesticated by humans in the distant past, honey bees were originally found in cavities in trees, cliff faces/underhangs and certain buildings – places where they could safely form and develop a colony. It seems that our ancestors realised they could mimic these habitats by offering the bees artificial cavities or holes, in the form of primitive hives, and gradually gathered up wild colonies and domesticated them.

This ancestral ‘wildness’ can be seen in domestic honey bees when they swarm – they fly off and like to congregate in trees, under buildings and in cavities, places which probably resemble what their wild ancestors would have used when they were free to move about the countryside.

There are still many examples of wild honey bee species around the world, which haven’t been domesticated and live in colonies in trees, in cliffs and even in the ground – many cultures throughout the world actively search for wild honey bee colonies to obtain honey and wax for food and domestic uses.

How do the honey bees communicate with each other?

Honey bees are well known for their ‘waggle dance’ which is the complicated set of movements they make in their hive or colony to indicate to other bees where suitable sources of food are to be found relative to the sun and the hive. However, honey bees also communicate with each other through a complex series of touch, visual and sound signals, and they also emit pheromones which send out important signals about hierarchy and instructions in the colony.

Honey bees also emit pheromones when they are in distress or injured, such as when they sting and pull out their barbed stings, which attracts other honey bees to help out, including defending the hive from predators like wasps and inquisitive humans!

How can we help the bees?

The best thing people can do is to protect and improve the places bees use to not only find their food but also to live: simply installing new or extending the number of bee hives or bee homes won’t be successful if there’s not enough food and other places of shelter for them.

This means first ensuring they have enough places and suitable plants to forage for nectar and pollen. For example, creating or planting out areas of wildflower-rich meadow or flowering shrubs, herbs and ground cover – especially species which together will produce sufficient pollen and nectar throughout as much of the year as possible.  Having a monoculture of one plant species that only produces flowers for a very short period of time won’t help bees as they will have insufficient food for the rest of their active season.

Any existing areas of flower-rich habitat should be protected and suitably maintained – if these can’t be kept, then look to create new areas as near to the original site as possible, and try to improve the species/flower diversity as far as possible.

Many native UK bees don’t use artificial hives as domesticated honey bees do. Instead bumblebees often exploit existing cavities or holes for nests in walls or in  ground, or they create their own nests by excavating out small cavities,

as solitary bees also do. In such cases the best solution is to install some artificial ‘bee hotels’ – structures made of wood, bricks or stones, which the bees can either burrow into and make their own nests, or which contain pre-drilled holes which the bees can use. Bee hotels can be small or large,

Where to find further information?

Bumblebee Conservation

London Beekeeper’s Association

London Wildlife Trust

Urban Bees

Bee Friendly Trust

This text was kindly provided by Dr Iain Boulton (Environmental Compliance Officer ) and reproduced with permission in June 2020