Inhabitants of bee and butterfly gardens


Honeybees belong to the genus Apis from the family of bees Apidae. They are social animals that form large colonies of up to 40,000 workers. A colony has one queen that lays the eggs. All workers and queen are female. There are also a few hundred drones, the males, which are only alive during the time of year that procreation must take place. The workers collect nectar, pollen and water and bring it to the nest. The nectar is full of sugar and is the main energy source for the bees. They process the nectar and turn it into honey. To provide for a meal they must visit hundreds of flowers, this makes them extremely effective pollinators. Pollen is also essential and is the source of proteins, fats, and vitamins for the bees. Those materials are essential, especially for the growth of the larvae. As early as the third day they have a need for pollen for their development. Pollen, resin and beeswax is also used by honeybees to make propolis. This material is used to repair their nest, close gaps, and as an extra layer on the walls to protect against the cold and diseases. Workers can fly up to 10km from the nest for a good meal, so it is not strange if you see lots of bees yet have no idea where the nest is. Honeybees are vital as pollinators of wild plants as well as plants in the agricultural sector, and of course for making honey and many other products. In the Netherlands, the bee is not found in the wild. Sometimes a group splits from a domestic colony kept by beekeepers and settles somewhere else, and can thus be found in your garden.



Bumblebees belong to the genus Bombus in the family Apidae. Similar to the honeybees, they are social animals with one queen and female workers. However, the colonies never reach the size of a honeybee colony. The size that they are able to reach depends on the species. Bumblebee colonies also do not live for years in succession. At the end of the season the workers die and new queens fly off after fertilization to hibernate somewhere alone. In the spring they fly out and eat their fill. A new queen will search for a suitable location such as an old mouse hole or other underground open space and starts making a nest and laying eggs. Bumblebees are also extremely important for pollination. There are plants which, due to the shape of the flower, are not pollinated well by other bees. The bumblebee can often throw its weight around to get deeper into the plant. The bumblebee also uses a different movement while visiting a flower which helps the pollination of certain plants. There are also plants in the agricultural sector that must be pollinated by bumblebees (tomatoes for example). Bumblebees will rarely sting unless they get stuck. Bumblebees are always a welcome guest to any garden. With their striking colours and plump, cute appearance, they always bring the feeling of summer.

In this video from National Geographic you can see the development of honeybees in their nest.


Solitary bees

Unlike bumblebees or honeybees, solitary bees, also known as wild bees, live alone. Everything from making a nest, the collection of food or the laying of eggs, they do on their own. Some species can work together if their nests are close to each other, but this is not necessarily so. Most species live only a short time, a few weeks to several months, and must mate during this time and collect enough food for themselves and their offspring. The female will look for a suitable nest site, fill it with pollen, and then lay an egg here. The pollen will feed the larva once it emerges from its egg. The bees sometimes hibernate as larvae, sometimes as pupa, and sometimes as an adult depending on the species. Solitary bees have a strong relationship with their environment, some species feed on only one type of plant. So when the plants they gather their food from are not in a specific area the species of bees that rely on them will not be to live there. The disappearance of native plant species in gardens has in this way a direct effect on the disappearance of solitary bee species. If you really want to help solitary bees it would be wise to take this into account. Solitary bees pollinate many plants that honey bees and other pollinators show no interest in. Solitary bees are extremely important for those plant species. If the bees were to disappear, the plants will follow. Solitary bees usually do not sting, most species don’t even have a stinger.

See here what a bumblebee colony looks like on the inside. Video: Cees van Hengstum.


A solitary bee (Builder bee, Osmia cornuta) drinking in the morning sun during spring.


When one thinks of nature with sunny weather, one quickly thinks of butterflies. With their beautiful colours and joyful fluttering they bring a feeling of tranquillity and beauty along. For this reason they are a welcome guest in every garden. Butterflies are often classified into butterflies and moths, both belong to the order Lepidoptera. Generally butterflies fly at daytime and moths at night. However, there are some moths that fly during the day. Therefore, it is not always easy to keep them apart. In general, the butterflies have large wings that fall next to the head or even higher than the head, and they have antennas with a ''button'' at the end. The moths mostly have wings that fold on their back. Butterflies drink nectar, like bees, but do not eat pollen. Plants that offer a large amount of pollen but no nectar offer no food for butterflies. For this reason you might see plants attract large amounts of bees, but no butterflies at all. Species such as roses and poppies are examples of such plants. Butterflies eat plant matter as caterpillars. Many species eat only one or a few plant species as a caterpillar, and cannot survive if these plants are not present. Especially the common nettle (Urtica dioica) is an extremely important host plant for many butterfly species. Unfortunately, this is often regarded as a weed and immediately removed from gardens, which can make it difficult for butterflies to settle in gardens. Butterflies need heat from the sun to fly. You can often see them sunbathe so they can heat up for flight. In cold weather or high winds they will often hide and wait it out. During the winter, the butterfly will hibernate or die. Some species hibernate as an adult, others as a caterpillar, egg, or pupa. They commonly hibernate in locations such as hollow trees, thick bushes or amongst dead plant matter such as leaf litter.


European Peacock (Aglais io) drinking from ground-ivy (Glechoma hederacea​).


Hoverflies (Syrphidae) are a family from the order of the dipterous (Diptera). They come in all shapes and sizes often look similar to bees, wasps or bumblebees, with yellow stripes and sometimes longer hair like a bumblebee. This is because they use a form of mimicry, they pretend to be more dangerous animals so they are less likely to be eaten by predators. However, they are entirely innocent and have no way to harm anyone. Hoverflies can be distinguished from bees mainly by their particular flight. They are extremely agile and can even hang completely still in the air, this '' hovering '' is where their name comes from. They also have no narrow ‘’waist’’ like wasps. The eyes are also clearly different. Hoverflies have round eyes that cover most of the head while the eyes of bees are elongated and fill a smaller area of the head. Hoverflies also eat nectar and pollen but are often attracted by different flowers. Apiaceae plants such as Queen Anne's Lace flowers are loved, but Asters are also very popular. Hoverflies are a great asset in the garden, and often welcomed in greenhouses and horticulture. This is because the larvae many species of hoverfly eat aphids, and thus protect the garden against these pests.


A hoverfly (Eristalis intricaria) drinking from hemp-agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum.

Solitary wasps

Solitary wasps live alone, and are therefore completely different from social wasps. There are a huge number of species in all shapes and sizes. Many species live similarly to solitary bees. After mating, the female looks for a suitable nest site where she will lay her eggs. What the larva eats is completely different however. These solitary wasps don’t eat pollen but are meat eaters. Different species of wasps eat different prey items. However,  common prey for many species are caterpillars, aphids and spiders. The female paralyses the prey, drags them alive to the nest, lays her eggs on the preyand then she closes the nest. The larvae hatch from the eggs and eat the prey alive. Other wasp species are parasitic and lay their eggs in the prey, and then let the prey go. The prey will continue to live like normal, but the larvae will slowly begin to eat their victim from within. Eventually the prey is killed and the adult wasp will emerge from the body. The adults are also primarily carnivores, although there are species that drink nectar. Solitary wasps are a huge asset in any garden. All day they hunt for pesky critters and keep the garden pest free. Solitary wasps do not sting, so you will have no problems with them.

Watch a solitary wasp lay her eggs on a paralized caterpillar and drag it to a nest. Video:SabiSabiReserve

All information provided is meant for the Netherlands, northwestern Europe. Habitats in other locations may be very different and the information provided here might not be useful for locations outside of northwestern Europe.



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