I know our native evergreen climbing ivy can be a pain in a garden, but at this time of year when it’s flowering it is a magnet to a wide variety of late-flying insects. To one particular little bee that has set up residency here in Great Britain in recent years, it is vital.
It’s always exciting to see a ‘new-to-you (or me) species on your own patch and this week I had my first sightings of a little solitary bee I have only recently become aware of. It is commonly named the Ivy bee, as its emergence is set to coincide with the flowering time of yes, you guessed, the common but invaluable to late flying insects Ivy or Hedera helix, on which it feeds.
Ivy bees are found in Austria, Belgium, Channel Islands, Croatia, Cyprus,France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain and Switzerland and are recent arrivals in Great Britain, but spreading and establishing fast.
BWARS – The Bees, Wasps & Ants Recording Society has been mapping the spread of the Ivy bee since its discovery in Britain 15 years ago. They say:
Colletes hederae was recorded as new to Britain in 2001 when Ian Cross discovered specimens at Langton Matravers in Dorset. Since then, the bee has spread across much of southern England (as far north as Shropshire, Staffordshire & Norfolk) and into south Wales. It is now extremely plentiful in some coastal localities, and increasingly, inland. Peak activity matches the flowering period of its key pollen forage plant, Ivy (Hedera helix), and the species is on the wing from early September until early November. This makes it the last solitary bee species to emerge each year.
Where to find them
Ivy bees like patches of flowering ivy in sunny spots, often in gardens.They look like small honeybees but have an orange-yellow striped abdomen and a furry ginger thorax, so they are quite noticeable as they bustle over the green balls of ivy blossom. If there is a nest site nearby you may see several of them on the flowers at any one time.
Unlike the larger honeybee, which is a social insect and has queens, drones and workers, the ivy bee is solitary. They are mining bees and after mating, a female Ivy bee digs out a burrow in loose earth or sand, and creates underground chambers. She then lays several eggs which she stocks with pollen to provide food for the larvae when they hatch. Although each female ivy bee digs her own burrow, tens or even hundreds of females nest close together in colonies, usually on sandy banks.
As with many insects, the mating process may be a brutal affair. Male bees wait by the burrows for females to return, then ambush them. Many males may attempt to mate with a single female in their quest to sire the next generation, forming a writhing mass – or mating ball. The female dies a few weeks after mating and laying her eggs, but the larvae pupate and become adults, staying underground until autumn, emerging to repeat the cycle.