Ivy bees and ivy flowers

Posted: Friday 24 October 2014
by Kate Bradbury

At last, I have found ivy bees. For the last three autumns I've routinely scoured ivy flowers in London to no avail. But last week I found what I was looking for.

At last, I have found ivy bees. For the last three autumns I've routinely scoured ivy flowers in London to no avail. But last week I finally found what I was looking for. In Cornwall.

The ivy bee, Colletes hederae, is one of around 240 species of ‘British’ solitary bee, but it’s the last to emerge and relies almost exclusively on the flowers of ivy. It’s a recent arrival to Britain from the Continent. First recorded in Dorset in 2001, it has spread along the south coast and up around the outskirts of London. The most northerly sightings to date have been Shrewsbury and north Norfolk. Last year a friend spotted one a few miles from me, in Peckham. At the time of writing, no sightings have been recorded in Hackney, where I live. 

But now I’ve seen one. Or rather, I’ve seen hundreds. Last week I spent a few days in Trevone, near Padstow, and naturally I checked the ivy flowers in the hedgerows. For the first two days I saw nothing but wasps and flies. But then, on a large patch of ivy just off Harlyn Bay I found my quarry, among honey bees, queen wasps, hoverflies and queen bumblebees.

Ivy bees are easy to tell apart from honey bees. Only slightly larger, they have a more pointed abdomen and fluffier thorax than honeybees, plus gorgeous Andy Pandy stripes. And, unlike the other insects buzzing in the late autumn sun, which were no doubt feasting on the last of the year’s nectar before dying or entering hibernation, the ivy bees were collecting pollen – a sure sign they were gathering food for their young.

A solitary mining bee, the ivy bee nests in aggregations in sandy banks. After mating, females dig a burrow and lay eggs in individual cells, which they leave with a small parcel of pollen and nectar for the emerging bee larva to eat. The females die as the ivy flowers become berries, and the larvae spend a year in their burrows eating the store of pollen and nectar before pupating into bees. Only the following autumn, when the ivy once again starts to flower, will these new bees emerge from their cells ready to start the whole process again.

I hope I don’t have to travel to Cornwall to see ivy bees next year – I still have high hopes of finding them in Hackney. Surely they can’t be too far away now.

If you've seen an ivy bee, the Bees, Wasps & Ants Recording Society (BWARS) would love to hear from you. Simply take a photo and upload it to their website to submit your record.

Discuss this blog post

Talkback: Ivy bees and ivy flowers
Your comment will appear after a quick registration step