This large solitary bee looks similar to the honey bee (Apis mellifera) at a glance, but on closer inspection it is quite distinctive. Females are identified by their broad buff bands on the abdomen and a tuft of ginger hair on their thorax and, as the name suggests, they feed their brood exclusively with nectar and pollen from ivy flowers (Hedera helix). As they are solitary bees, this means the female bee creates her own nest, usually in loose (often sandy) soil, preferring south-facing banks and cliffs. However, like many solitary bee species, they may choose to nest next to each other, forming dense aggregations of thousands of nests. Male bees fly around at the entrance of nests to mate with females and sometimes numerous males can attempt to mate with a single female, which causes a mating cluster.
mating ball of ivy bees Colletes hederae – there is a female somewhere in there, Branscombe Devon pic.twitter.com/P4MoGN5yuQ
— John Walters (@JWentomologist) October 11, 2018
The ivy bee is the last solitary bee to emerge, appearing in mid-late September and flying until early November, which makes them pretty easy to spot. Most solitary bees are long gone by now, with some mining bees appearing as early as February in some regions.
Since its arrival, the ivy bee has spread throughout Southern England and has even made its way as far north as North Yorkshire (BWARS as of Dec 2017). In Wales it has mainly been found in coastal habitats such as the Gower, Pembrokeshire and Llandudno, probably due to its preference to nest on sandy banks. There are limited records of Colletes hederae in land (in Wales) however there was a sighting in September 2017 at Llandeilo (iRecord), some 6-8 miles further from the coast than the Garden. This leads me to believe that their perceived absence in parts of Wales may be due to lack of recording rather than their non-existence.
During my floral surveys of the Garden and surrounding area, I spent a lot of time throughout September and October sticking my head amongst ivy plants to see if I could spot some, however I was not successful. Most plants were covered in hornets, wasps, hoverflies and honey bees which gave me a false sense of hope from a distance as I spotted things flying around – but this was still lovely to see!
At the end of September I took a trip to South Devon and thought I might get the chance to see this mysterious species I had spent weeks looking out for. Sure enough, five minutes into our first long walk I spotted some ivy and wouldn’t you know it – it was covered in Colletes hederae! For the rest of the weekend I spotted some on nearly every patch of ivy I came across, which didn’t get old considering how many failed attempts I’d had previously. I’m going to keep my eye out next year too, as it could be seen more in Carmarthenshire looking at its success in the rest of the UK.
Arrived at a friends house in South Devon today and said “I really want to see some ivy bees this weekend”… 5 minutes into our walk and I’ve been successful ???????????????? pic.twitter.com/n357kdtC5y
— Abigail Lowe (@abigailjayne26) September 28, 2018
So, a plant many gardeners may deem a nuisance is actually extremely beneficial to not only the ivy bee, but swathes of other pollinators. Why not let a patch run free in your garden and see the visitors the flowers will bring next Autumn?
The Bees, Wasps & Ants Recording Society (BWARS) are working on a long-term mapping project in order to monitor the spread of Colletes hederae in Britain. If you have any records of this distinctive bee, please report your sightings to BWARS.