Ivy bees

Posted: Wednesday 9 October 2013
by Richard Jones

I'm thinking of having a bit of a grump. I’ve checked all the ivy I can find in South London, but have not found a single ivy bee, not one. Harrumph.

I'm thinking of having a bit of a grump. I’ve checked all the ivy I can find in South London, but have not found a single ivy bee, not one. Harrumph.
The ivy bee, Colletes hederae, is almost impossible to overlook; it’s about the size and shape of a honeybee, but its abdomen is decorated by five neat bands of short thick velvety orange-beige hairs, particularly noticeable in the narrower and darker males. It’s a lovely thing, and the time to find it is now — as its name suggests — on ivy.
It’s not a secretive little thing, either. Where it does occur it nests in large aggregations, often with many hundreds (sometimes thousands) of bees making their burrows in the sandy soil. Colletes is one of the ‘solitary’ bees, so although they often make their nests close together (delightfully termed a ‘bee village’), each female works on her own, digging a burrow in the ground, provisioning it with cakes of pollen/nectar mix in a short series of cells off the main tunnel, inside each of which an egg is laid.
Unlike honeybees and bumbles, the ivy bee is almost wholly dependent upon just one species of flower for its entire life-cycle - quite a remarkable achievement when you consider that the flower with which it is associated is one of the last in the year to produce nectar and pollen. In actual fact, the bee does visit other flowers, but only on a tiny minority of occasions, and ivy is by far its most important foodplant.
What is also pretty amazing is that this large and spectacular bee only appeared in Britain in 2001, at Worth Matravers, in Dorset. Within a decade it had spread right along the South Coast of England and is now making serious headway inland too. The latest map shows that it has expanded through almost every county south of the Thames, and is moving into Essex, Gloucestershire and South Wales.
But there are none in London; or at least not in the bits of it where I’ve been looking. Apparently it turned up in Purfleet (Essex) a few years ago, then Carshalton (Croydon). The closest it’s got to me yet is Mitcham, where colleague and Facebook confederate Mick Massie photographed it last week. He’d been pointed there from the London Natural History Society’s message boards.
I’m going to keep looking in East Dulwich. Our ivy is not quite in full flower yet. There is still time.

Thanks to Mick Massie for kind permission to use his lovely image. View his Flickr account here.

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oldchippy 16/10/2013 at 14:16

Hi Richard I have seen some small bees around the ivy growing on the golf course but they are to high up to see if they Ivy bees,they are very small in size.

Outdoor girl 16/10/2013 at 14:49

Ivy has the last decent flower for many bees and other insects before winter. It is rich in pollen and nectar, so good for honeybees. Please do not chop down the ivy until the flowers have faded!

oldchippy 17/10/2013 at 18:01

I'm sorry to say what I saw was wasps not bees!!!

Forester2 17/10/2013 at 18:21

I have noticed these bees in the last two or three years - ivy really buzzing with them.  I live in Gloucestershire near the Welsh border and I believe these bees are slowly moving up the country.

nutcutlet 17/10/2013 at 18:54

the wasps love the ivy flowers oldchippy. so do the hoverflies. I don't think the ivy bees have got here yet, I've never seen one and I'm always bee watching

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