We get a number of calls coming into Wildlife Enquiries about bees taking over nest boxes with people wanting to know what can be done to remove them. Well, the best thing to do is to leave them where they are and enjoy watching these industrious creatures. You could put another nest box up for the birds (which is unlikely to be taken over by the bees), but in the autumn you’ll be able to clean the box out as you would have done if a bird had nested in there. The bees that have taken over the box are likely to be Tree Bumble Bees Bombus hypnorum. These bees are relatively new to the UK and have arrived from mainland Europe.
The queen bee will have overwintered, probably in the ground, and in the spring will be on the look out for a suitable site to start a new colony. In the spring you can often see queen bees flying in a zig-zag pattern, either low to the ground or in higher areas as they search for a potential nest site. In higher areas they may select nest boxes or sites near the roof line, depending on the species. The nests can be either underground or above ground in a variety of places; rodent holes, thick grass, holes in trees, roofs and some in nestboxes, which have a convenient entrance hole and is dark and dry inside. Like birds, bees don’t like their nest to be in full sun as it can overheat, so they’ll look for somewhere that’s in partial shade. The bees you see flying around the nest are males and are waiting for the chance to mate with the queen. So just keep your distance and enjoy watching them and they won’t be bothered by you.
I’ve been very lucky this year as I have a Bumble Bee nest in my compost bin. They are fascinating to watch and aren’t at all bothered by us when we need to go to the greenhouse. The compost bin is the plastic kind with slits in the side and it’s in partial shade so it’s ideal for them. I’m looking forward to the end of the year when the queen has left to overwinter and I can take a look inside. It won’t look like the inside of a bee hive, with the uniform hexagonal chambers, but will be a random mass of chambers, probably with some dead bees near the entrance, where they’ve been removed to keep the nest free from disease.
Bees on Globe thistle - Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
How you can help
Provide plenty of food for the bees by adding flowering plants to your garden. Try to have plants which flower over the spring and summer, so as some fade when others come into bloom. Single blooms are more accessible than double blooms for the bees and other insects. For more information on how to help the bees and insects in your garden, take a look at our web page for gardening tips and how to create an insect hotel, or take a look at our online shop for seeds and bug boxes (see links).