It is at this time of year when we all start thinking about hacking away at anything and everything in the garden in preparation for months of wet, semi-frozen sludge. A good candidate for the main brunt of the abuse is Ivy. It smothers our borders, clings to our houses, sheds and garages, it clambers over, under and even inside everything, it blocks out the low winter sun. Put down the garden sheers though at least for a couple of months.
We know the negatives but the reality is that Ivy is a true champion of wildlife friendly plants. For many reasons Ivy is a great resource for insects, birds and small mammals but at this time of the year (September to November) it really is invaluable to one particular insect. The Bee.
Mature Ivy flowers from September to mid-November and its inconspicuous umbels of tiny flowers are rich in sweet, potentially life saving nectar. Our native honey bees can still be on the wing well into November in mild autumns and whilst almost nothing else is in flower at this time of the year, Ivy springs into life blooming for a straight 8-12 weeks just as times become hard. Scientists now recognise Ivy as one of the most important sources of nectar for bees not only for the late flowering period but also the quality of nectar and its abundance on mature specimens.
If Ivy is ‘one’ of the most important flowering plants for our humble honey bee then it is ‘the’ most important plant for one of our more recent, welcome invaders. The Ivy bee Colletes hederae was first recorded on the shores of Dorset in 2001 and has since colonised most of the South of England, Wales and the Channel Islands and continues marching north to the Midlands and beyond.
The Ivy bee, as its common name suggests, depends entirely on Ivy and its rich nectar. Timing its emergence from underground burrows to perfection the Ivy bee is on the wing for a relatively short period of around 6 weeks between mid-September and November to coincide perfectly with the flowering Ivy. The photograph above, taken by a master of insect macro photography Ed Phillips (twitter @Ed_P_Wildlife) near his home in Shropshire shows a female feeding on Ivy – a great indicator of their rapid spread north through the country. With Shropshire to the level west of my home in South Leicestershire I have been on the look-out for the last couple of weeks but have yet to find one of these little amber beauties. I will of course keep looking until mid-November and I have been told they are here to be found so I’m remaining hopeful.
Take a good look at that photograph because to the untrained eye the Ivy bee is remarkably similar to our native Honey Bee. Similar in size, on closer inspection the Ivy bee harbours distinctly orange banding on the abdomen although this fades with age. The head and thorax are also a bright buff orange in colour. Looking closer still, take aim at the legs. While honey bees collect pollen in pollen sacs located on their hind legs the Ivy bee doesn’t have sacs, instead pollen can be seen spread along the length of the hind legs.
Whilst the honey bees nest and work in colonies living a very social life the Ivy bee is actually a solitary bee. After mating, the female ivy bee digs her burrow in loose earth or sandy substrate (or in your lawn if you are lucky enough to have quite loose soil) and bores underground chambers in which to lay several eggs. The females then die after a few short weeks whilst the grubs pupate and mature underground, emerging next autumn.
Although solitary and residing in their own distinct burrows females will nest together in loose colonies sometimes in quite significant number. It’s here that males can be found flying low to the ground waiting to ambush females returning to their burrows in an effort to mate. On occasion a group of males will attempt to mate with a single female forming a ‘mating ball’. It’s worth mentioning that only the females sting and will only do so if practically squeezed between fingers (so I’m told) so don’t be afraid to get up close if you (and you should) go out looking for them. Ivy can be the hunting ground of hornets at this time of year though so make sure you get your identification right!
I suppose the real magic here is that in a time when our native bees, especially bumblebees and honeybees are in such drastic decline due to changes in farming practices, the use of pesticides and the awful Varroa mite here is a foreigner happily colonising our green island for the first time. Usually the arrival of a non-native species is met with horror but on this occasion it is welcome news and something all of us with Ivy in our gardens or local open spaces can appreciate first hand.