Many of us have been enjoying wildlife in our own gardens this year with the restrictions that have been imposed on us. Perhaps you have found something unusual or uncommon in your garden that you were not aware of until now. We have been blessed with fantastic, settled weather in spring at the height of the Covid lockdown and again recently in September. For me, it was a sighting on 22nd September which has really caught my imagination.
We have a generous covering of ivy along our garden fence, and when it is in flower, as now, it attracts a wealth of bees, hoverflies, moths and other insects. Whilst having a tea break in the garden, once again in glorious autumn sunshine, a bee caught my eye as it busied itself on ivy flowers. A closer look allowed me to confirm it was the Ivy Bee (or Ivy Plasterer Bee) Colletes hederae a species which has colonised the UK in the past few years. A second one soon appeared which I netted, and chilled in the fridge to allow closer inspection! I quickly added my sightings to the database of BWARS (Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society).
C. hederae was first recorded in this country in 2001 in the Dorset village of Langton Matravers. Since then it has spread, initially along the coast but in the past 4-5 years it has colonised many inland counties, as far north as Merseyside. I first saw these attractive bees, in good numbers, at Durlston Country Park, Swanage in October 2016. For those of you who know Durlston, the clifftop ivy thickets beneath the Globe sculpture are the best place to look. It has just about the latest flight season of any British bee species, flying between September and early November. Superficially, this species and others in the genus Colletes do resemble the Honey Bee Apis mellifera and they are similar in size. However, a close look shows that it is brighter than a honey bee and the yellow and black bands are cleaner and more defined. Honey bees generally have darker bodies and the bands are somewhat indistinct. Fresh specimens of C. hederae show a bright orange, furry thorax. If you can distinguish this species from honey bee you can be fairly confident it is hederae as the other species in this genus are much smaller and generally confined to heathland and sandy habitats.
This mining bee can live in huge colonies of many tens of thousands and their mating behaviour can be quite alarming to behold, with many males mobbing unmated females in a frenzied attempt to mate with her. I have witnessed this in Dorset and it is quite a sight – and sound.
The specimens I found in our garden are the first I have seen in Milton Keynes and it is good to know that this species in now in our area. It may already be common. If you have flowering ivy in your garden or your local patch, do have a closer look at any honey bee sized insects buzzing around. They are not aggressive and are a welcome addition to any garden. Do let me know if you find it in our area.