In 1993 the Ivy Bee Colletes hederae was described as a new species to science from specimens found in southern Europe, with the first British records reported from Dorset September 2001.
The ivy bee has been spreading north and is now found in Norfolk, where I found the 5th site for Norfolk at Bradwell 14th September 2015 whilst looking for insects attracted to Ivy flowers Hedera helix. At the time, I knew very little about this species or for that matter, solitary bees in general. It was my interest in ‘all things great and small’ and the inclination to photograph different species, for both identification purposes and as a learning curve to further my understanding of ecology that led to finding and identifying this species (confirmation from the county recorder Tim Strudwick).
The ivy bee is a Colletes species aka plasterer bee and times its emergence with the flowering of the ivy (late August onwards), which is its principal forage plant and the only plant I have seen them on, but is said to visit other species of flowers e.g. members of the Asteraceae Daisy family, when ivy flowers are not available.
The males emerge first followed by the females both have ‘wide’ whitish bands on the abdomen with an orange hue, particularly the females which have orange-brown hairs on the thorax. The females are about the size of a Honey Bee, with ‘relatively short’ antennas and collect pollen on their hind legs, unlike honey bees, which have a discrete pollen ‘basket’. The males are smaller with long antennas.
Nesting aggregations can occur on bare or slightly vegetated light soils, which face predominantly south. The first nesting colony I found was at Burgh Castle (2017) on a south-facing, lightly vegetated hedgerow bank alongside an access road.
There is two other ‘late appearing’ species of Colletes, which the ivy bee could possibly be confused with. The first is Colletes halophilus aka Sea Aster Bee (which C. hederae was first thought to be) and secondly Colletes succinctus aka Heather Mining Bee. As their common names suggests, sea aster and heather, respectively are the primary foraging plants for each of the species and the flower species these bees are visiting can aid identification. However, there are always exceptions to ‘the rule’, especially when a preferred food source is unavailable. Two examples of this (2017) concern C. halophilus at Morston, which I only found foraging on yellow thistle species and C. succinctus, which were visiting ivy flowers (pers com Nick Owens).
The importance of ivy flowers as a source of food for autumn insects is fairly well known, but now it has even more significance as the primary food source, for this attractive and relatively recent addition to the fauna in the UK.