(Ivy) Bee Aware

DSC_1250Here is a short visual essay on a wonderful addition to our parish. It is ivy time again and the lane down from the house has a hedge smothered in it. I always love to stop and examine the plethora of insects, which are intoxicated by its pollen and nectar. Last autumn I found a gorgeous addition to the village community called ivy bee Colletes hederae. This week I find it is back in even greater numbers.

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It is recorded as larger than honey bee but it looks to my eye about the same size. What is distinctive is the pattern of five pale hoops around the abdomen. The precise colour varies depending on the state of the season, as you can see below.

In fresh condition – right now (early September) – they are a gorgeous warm bright ginger on the thorax and the lines on the abdomen are a citrus orange. Both the front, sides and top of the head, as well as the sides of the legs, are all covered in fine blond downy hairs. As the bee wears and bleaches, the creature is still strikingly bright and more distinctive than any other family members in the ivy hedge, but the colours fade to washed-out sandy beige.

Bizarrely no sooner had I found the insect for the first time ever, I then located a small breeding colony elsewhere in the village. Like many solitary bees they burrow in soft sandy earth, often many together. The females then presumably provision the eggs in the nest chamber with quantities of ivy goodies (nectar and pollen?). Their entire ecology is tied to ivy and they occur only during the time of hedera blossom. They are gone by early November.

Let’s take one small step back to look at the host plant itself, which is one of the miracles of the European hedgerow.¬† Here is a typical flower cluster that is in full blossom, but


begins as an unprepossessing raceme of minuscule fig-like lime-green balls (just visible below main flower head). Even these unopened flowers are hugely attractive to insects and I notice all manner of bees, wasps and flies, scrape and lick the surface of the incipient buds. What are they getting from them?

The unopened flower then develops into a triangular cone topped by a nipple, from which peel away the five sepals. Eventually the flower opens and out burst the five tiny, sepia serrated stamens. This whole unit has a magnetic effect for so many insects. Ivy’s only competitor as a concentrated source of food for invertebrates is probably sallow blossom in March and April. It is worth thinking about the importance of ivy, incidentally, when you plan your wildlife garden. But back to the main story.

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The ivy bee is, like the Greenland glaciers, the hurricane in the Bahamas and the 2019 hottest July temperatures on record, an expression of climate chaos. It is remarkable to contemplate that this insect was not known to science (I learn from the fabulous Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland, by Steven Falk and Richard Lewington) until 1993. Nor was it recorded on the British mainland until 2001.

Rather like the newly spread tree bumblebee Bombus hypnorum, the ivy bee has subsequently colonised large areas of southern England. In a year it has substantially increased here but the species is also passing northwards at a high rate (now in Anglesey). The Bee, Wasp and Ant Recording Society have a website with a mapping project for this species. If you find it yourself then perhaps pass on the record here.

Before closing I urge you to take a close look at the nearest patch of flowering ivy. It is a wonderful source of fascination. Our patches are presently smothered with bush crickets, butterflies, bumblebees but also some rather exciting predators. The most abundant is the field digger wasp Mellinus arvensis.


This rather flat-bodied wasp does seem to enjoy the vegetarian delights of the ivy but it also runs among the foliage and inner core of the hedge, manoeuvring about in the twigs and leaves with almost primate-like smoothness, to hunt stronger meat. Every now and then, amid the more even drone of busy insects, there is a shrill outburst as another poor victim succumbs to the digger wasps embrace. It too, like the ivy bee, is provisioning the nest chamber, but in this case with fresh flesh. Imagine having to face your assassin in this near-sexual embrace:DSC_1225

There is also at present a more striking killer in our hedge. It is another wasp called rather appropriately the bee wolf Philanthus triangulum. Here it is – notice the very distinctive facial pattern and orangy brown edges to jaws (and also at the back of head).



This species specialises, as the name suggests, in honey bees and can apparently have a substantial impact on whole hive populations. Mercifully, so far, in our village, it seems the lion and the lamb have found a way to lie down together (bee wolf and ivy bee feeding on ivy).