The Secret Lives of Garden Bees- Book Review


Hardback 191 pages

RRP £25

ISBN 978 1 52671 186 1

Published by Pen and Sword/ White Owl Books. Foreword by Brigit Strawbridge Howard

Photo from my garden. White-tailed bumble bee on Echinacea White Swan.

Last spring and early summer, we woke every morning to the glorious sound of bees. From dawn till dusk, bumble bees buzzed around the bedroom windows – flung open to welcome warm weather. There is nothing more soothing that waking up to the low hum of bees. We revelled in the sound. We lay there and just listened. There seemed to be nothing more important in the world than listening to ‘our’ bees. And we watched them too. We tried to count them. There were too many to count. Our bees made a nest in the eaves of the house. And they thrived. At one stage we thought we had a swarm. Their fairly relaxed comings and goings suddenly turned frantic. We fretted. What was wrong. Had we read Jean Vernon’s new book – The Secret Lives of Garden Bees – we would have realised our colony was the Tree Bumble Bee, (Bombus hypnorum). And we would have realised their behaviour was perfect normal. They were not under attack, or ill, or annoyed! The sudden frantic behaviour with bees apparently “boiling” out of the nest was perfectly natural. The sudden melee was caused by hundreds of hopeful male bees looking to mate with the newly-hatched queens. Jean’s beautiful book would have been a reassurance. If our bees return again this year we will be armed with more knowledge and will be able to enjoy them all the more.

In Jean’s book we learn that the Tree Bumblebee is a relative newcomer to the British Isles, first appearing here in 2001. It’s a common bee now, making nests under house eaves and in garden bird boxes. It’s an early-emerging bee, with overwintering queens first appearing in February. If nests are disturbed, the Tree Bumblebee can create a real buzz and bees can sting anyone nearby, giving them a bit of a reputation for being aggressive. We had no trouble with ours, but, on the other hand, we didn’t interfere with them, respecting their space and keeping away. Occasionally some would get stuck on this side of the glass, but they were easy to shoo out of the window.

Photo: my i-phone pic of Jean’s photo in her book. The lovely Tree Bumblebee. A relative newcomer to the UK.

Jean’s book gives tips on identifying our garden bees. There are, apparently “cuckoo bees” that look just like the bee species they affect. Cuckoo bees lay eggs in their host bee’s nest, who unsuspectingly raise the cuckoo bee’s young. Luckily, our Tree Bumblebee doesn’t seem to have a cuckoo species that affects it in the UK, but in Europe there is one, Bombus norvegicus.

Hints and tips on helping bees include which plants to grow; plenty of summer flowering varieties, and not forgetting plants that flower in late winter and autumn too. For our Tree Bumblebee, Jean suggests putting up a nest box about 3 metres high in a sheltered place.

Photo: Bumble bees can be trapped in acanthus flowers. Photo from the book by Jean Vernon.

Jean’s book is split in to eight chapters, covering types of bees, bee behaviour, bee food, good plants to grow, and also plants that are deadly for bees. I had no idea acanthus flowers can become a trap. Bees climb inside the flower attracted by the nectar flow, and cannot escape. Late-emerging queen bumblebees caught in this way will deprive the garden of a whole generation of bees. A sobering thought.

Generally speaking ‘good plants’ to grow would be vipers bugloss (echium vulgare) lavender, foxgloves, and other long tubular flowers such as penstemons, comfrey and salvias. Members of the pea family, vetches and birds foot trefoil are also recommended.

Photo: perennial borage loaded with nectar. Photo in the book is by Martin Mulchinock.

Photo: bee look-alike, common drone fly. Original photo by Martin Mulchinock.

There’s plenty of surprises in Jean’s book, including news that we have a bumble bee that looks like a panda – the black and white Ashy Mining Bee (Andrena cineraria). Who knew?

We have tiny bee mimicks called bee flies (Bombylius discolor), which look totally adorable. I’ve been very fond of these fluffy creatures all these years. There’s a thriving colony of them in the garden. However, I am horrified to read they flick their eggs into the nests of poor unsuspecting Ashy mining bee and parasitise them. How could anything so cute be so deadly. I shall look at them in quite a different light from now on!

Meanwhile, I’ll read and enjoy the detailed growing section focusing on phacelia, cosmos, marjoram, rosemary, thyme, currants, borage etc. Luckily I have all those growing this summer for my enjoyment, and now I’ll also be reassured I’m looking after bees as well.

Do you see many bumble bees in your gardens at all? Please leave a comment below and the publishers will randomly select a name to send out a free copy of Jean’s book. I enjoyed every page. It’s a joy to have something as wonderful as bees to focus on. It’s a beautifully-written and well-illustrated book. And there was a message for me. Bees are under attack from poisons, predators, disease. And us- destroying their natural nesting sites. And yet they persist. We must do the same. Thank you for reading the blog. Please keep in touch. Karen.

43 thoughts on “The Secret Lives of Garden Bees- Book Review

  1. Pingback: Six on Saturday. A walk around my garden 11 July 20209 | Bramble Garden

    • I’m really enjoying being able to identify some of the bees in my garden. I stood up in the vegetable plot yesterday, and there were lots of solitary bees just hovering above my head looking at me. I looked at them, they looked at me. It was a fascinating moment while they summed me up! All the best. Karen


  2. Thank you. I think you’ve helped me to identify the bees that took up residence in an unused bird box last year. They did not stay long but were very busy during the time they were there. The book looks really interesting and I’d love to win a copy. C

    Liked by 1 person

    • They are enormous, some of them. And we spotted a fly bee today. Did not ooh and Ahh over them as I usually do. How can anything so pretty be so deadly to bees! Good luck in the draw


  3. Karen is a wonderful way to wake up to the buzz of bees. With the fabulous book “The Secret Life of Bees” by Jean Vernon you have become an expert on bees and who they claim to be. Now you know it was a bumble bee (Bombus hypnorum). It is a very complete and interesting book. Talk about the types of bees and their behavior, the bad plants for them and the good plants that we have to plant in our gardens for bees. The photos in the book are magnificent and I love them, because I love bees and especially bumblebees who love the little flowers of Parthenocissus quinquefolia that covers the pergola in my garden. In the summer that is when the flower comes out it is crowded with bees and especially with bumble bees and I am sitting quietly underneath reading or eating that they don’t even listen to me. We all have to help the bees in our gardens and I think this book would help us a lot in doing so. Karen fantastic blog. Health, strength, encouragement, hope, positive thinking and a lot of love for all your family, Mr B and for yourself. Take good care of yourself and stay safe. All the best. Loving greetings from Margarita Xxx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Margarita. The bank of cherry trees is in full flower today. Such a humming sound from the bees! A wonderful and a joy at this difficult time. Thinking and staying positive. Lots of love karen xxx

      Liked by 1 person

      • Karen thank you very much. The cherry blossoms must be divine full of buzzing bees. I’m so glad you’re so excited. Loving caresses to Grace and Meg. Much love for everyone and positive thoughts. Take care. Very affectionate greetings from Margarita xxx

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you Margarita. Hope it’s sunny where you are. We are just walking Meg whilst we are still allowed to. The government is thinking of stopping exercise out doors. Just as the weather is getting lovely. Sending loving greetings in return xxx

        Liked by 1 person

      • Karen, I’m so glad you’re out walking with Meg and in the sun. Here it will rain all week and weekend: water is needed and as we are confined at home it does not matter. I sincerely wish that the sun and the good weather continue so that you can enjoy your wonderful garden in the company of Meg. Much love to all. Positive thoughts. Take care. Very affectionate greetings from Margarita xxx

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  4. Bumblebees nested under the hay pallets last year. When I moved a hay, bale I stirred up what seemed to be 30 of them and they were stinging though my clothing. And kept trying to sting when they couldn’t connect. Interesting but painful. I won’t disturb the nest this year that is for sure..

    I have a bit of old carpet down to stop me disturbing the nest should they return. The nest seemed to die out fairly early though, so who knows.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The book sounds interesting, love bees 😭.

    Seen a few this year not sure in type, guessing bumble bees. We only have a few flowers though at the moment 😭, I’ve got lots of seeds germinating though very exciting!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The book sounds fascinating, Karen, and the photographs are fantastic. We had bees appearing very early on this year and I am pleased to be able to offer them a wide selection of winter and early spring flowering blooms! We are mason bee ‘guardians’ and our new cocoons arrived recently and have begun to hatch – without seeing them hatch one would be hard pressed to recognise them as bees! I showed pictures last Sunday here

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Noelle. It’s my latest favourite book. I’ve learned so much from reading it. I can now identify a bumble bee from a fly-pretending-to be- a-bee. Surprising how many of these mimics we have here in the garden. You are right, they have been out and about all winter. I was inundated with them on the winter-flowering shrubs and crocus. A good sign. Thanks for your links. Will catch up later 🙂👍


  7. I have never heard of tree bumble bees! We have a lot in our garden, and we grow most of the flowers you mentioned. There are only 4 varieties of bumble here in NZ – I think they were brought here years ago to pollinate pink clover with their long tongues. I have lots of messy piles of branches and cut grass, and they seem to find these to be good places to make nests. I learned this from accidentally blundering into one of them while weeding, and learned they can sting many times at the same time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for getting in touch Cath. We have 276 species of bee in the uk (says Jean in the book). There is one honeybee. Of the 276, 24 or 25 are bumblebees. The rest are solitary bees – and there are 250 different species of them too. All of these bees feed on pollen and nectar and act as pollinators. Amazing isn’t it. Our gardens here make up 270,000 hectares or 2,700 square kilometres of privately owned gardens which would make wonderful places for bees to thrive, if people don’t use chemicals, and leave messy corners, wildflowers and fallen logs for bees to nest and forage in. Thanks for reading the blog.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Hmmm, yet another good reason to grow lavender. 🙂

    No bees around our current house, but the years is small and we have minimalist landscaping. I imagine all the bees are at the two parks across the street and down the road a ways.

    Next house, we’ll have a garden 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. You can grow everything in pots. I’ve lavender in pots and wild flowers in a window box on legs. Good luck with your yard. It can be a haven for wildlife such as bees. Thanks for reading the blog.

      Liked by 1 person

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