Tag Archives: flowering ivy

Ivy bee stories

For the past five weeks or so I have been watching the ivy bees (Colletes hederae) as they emerged from hibernation to mate and to build and equip their nests. South Devon is something of a hot spot for these insects and from my limited observations they can be seen all along the coast, at least wherever there is plentiful flowering ivy. They are by no means rare but I still get a thrill when I see them, especially if it’s in a new location (for me). There’s also something paradoxical about their frantic activity at a time of year when most of nature is shutting down.

Occasionally, something surprising happens when I am out observing, either because of people or because of the bees and here are two recent anecdotes.

Mansands and man’s hands

Last year I came across an impressive collection of ivy bee nests in the low cliffs at Mansands, an isolated beach near Brixham on the South Devon Coast (see featured image). There was plenty to see and the large number of nests was a surprise. The bees were mostly mated females so that the day I visited (October 3rd) might have been a bit late in the bees’ life cycle.

nest area
Part of the nest area in the crumbly cliffs

 

This year I decided to visit earlier with the hope of finding a mixture of males and females. We went to Mansands for the first time on September 15th; it was sunny and mild and not particularly windy but surprisingly I saw no ivy bees around the nest area. I did see a couple of ivy bees on a clump above the coastguard cottages but no others. There is quite a bit of ivy in the cliffs surrounding Mansands and in the approaching lanes but not much of it was in flower so perhaps I was too early.

I was keen to try again but life is rather busy at present and I didn’t have a chance until September 30th; that day we had an hour to spare and made a flying visit to Mansands. It was a sunny day and the temperature mild for the time of year (~16o). At the coast, there was a surprisingly strong and variable onshore wind which buffeted us as we walked down the steep stony path to the sea; on the way we saw plenty of ivy in flower. Under a clear blue sky, the sea was a uniform turquoise but the strong wind decorated its surface with white wavelets and created trains of foamy waves nearer the shore. The view was spectacular but given that I had come to see the ivy bees and Hazel to paint with watercolours, a little less wind might have been preferable.

Male ivy bee
A resting ivy bee, male I think

 

Female ivy bee 2
A pollen-loaded female ivy bee in the nest area

 

When we reached Mansands, I headed for the nest area, staggering slightly in the wind as I negotiated the stony beach. There were plenty of nest holes in the pinkish crumbly cliffs and a few, but not many, ivy bees about. It was so windy that they were finding it difficult to fly and difficult to land. Some of the bees were males patrolling hopefully, looking for females; from time to time they rested on the sand and grass. Females, their back legs dressed with yellow pollen-pantaloons, also arrived sporadically and, after resting, they made their way in to nest holes. The males paid no attention to these mated females.

Female ivy bee
Female ivy bee resting on my hand

 

As I watched, camera in right hand, a male approached the area and landed on one of the fingers of that hand. The camera was secured with a safety strap making it very difficult to manoeuvre and I failed completely to get a good shot of this trusting male bee. I was able to study this bee for some time by eye but in my experience a good photo reveals much more. Later, however, a female decided to land on my left hand. She seemed happy to stay there allowing me to get some rather nice photos from several angles.

This has never happened to me before and feels like uncharacteristic behaviour for solitary bees. They usually appear disturbed by my presence so, I assume, that on this windy day in their slightly dazed state they landed wherever they could.

watercolours
Some watercolours

For more of Hazel’s paintings see http://www.hazelstrange.net/


Lots of wasps about today!

Should anyone watch me on one of my ivy bee investigations they will see someone gazing in a slightly bemused manner at a clump of ivy, marvelling at the behaviour of these small creatures. Many of these clumps are found along the South West Coast Path, many in the urban sections around Torbay so there are plenty of passers by. I don’t know what they think but for the most part these people ignore me.

Above Hollicombe beach
Above Hollicombe Beach showing ivy on the cliffs

 

Ivy at Hollicombe bridge
Urban ivy at Hollicombe railway bridge

 

I recently discovered some particularly generous clumps of ivy cascading down one side of a railway bridge in Hollicombe. This is a Torbay district between Paignton and Torquay with a secluded cliff-enclosed beach. I have observed at Hollicombe several times and on the last two occasions, it was a very sunny, warm day and the ivy flower odour was particularly strong and cloying. I was transfixed by the energy expressed by the bees and other insects as they flew ceaselessly around the ivy flowers, and sometimes around my head! Even in this small area there must have been thousands of ivy bees. They were a mixed population of pollen-gathering females and nectaring males.

Female ivy bee
Female ivy bee

 

Ivy bees on ivy flower head
Ivy flower head with ivy bees

 

Ivy at Hollicombe bridge close up
How many ivy bees can you spot?

 

On my most recent visit (October 2nd), I was standing by the ivy enjoying the bees and the warm sunshine when a man stopped to chat:

“Lots of wasps about today!” he began cheerily.

“They’re not wasps, they’re ivy bees” I tried to make my reply as helpful as possible.

“Horrible smell” he continued “what’s that plant with the smell?”

“It’s the ivy” I replied, again trying to be helpful.

“I hate it”, there was some anxiety in his voice, “it smells horrible”

“I find it sickly sweet but I don’t dislike it.” I replied, “Some people like the smell, some hate it. You know, like Marmite”

“What, you mean they use it to make Marmite?” he sounded shocked.

“No, no, no”, I couldn’t help sounding a little irritated, “what I meant was that people either like Marmite or they hate it and the same is true about the smell of ivy.”

“Oh,” he didn’t sound convinced.

“Would you like me to show you the ivy bees?” I offered.

“No thanks!” he said accelerating away down the path. He still thought they were wasps!

…………………..

There are many species of wasp in the UK but the species known and feared by many people are usually either the common wasp (Vespula vulgaris) or the germanic wasp (Vespula germanica). These are the familiar black and yellow striped insects which make such a negative impression on people. I remember in August this year, a hot midsummer’s day, when tea in an outdoor cafe was seriously disrupted by the creatures. I didn’t suffer any stings but I have in the past and it’s something you don’t forget. Many others have had similar experiences and given the passing resemblance between common wasps and ivy bees it’s possible that a really busy clump of ivy reminds people of these stinging insects.

The problem is compounded by the lack of knowledge among the general population about solitary bees. Most people don’t even know that solitary bees exist; the bees themselves are very reticent so that most humans rarely knowingly encounter them.

So, it’s no surprise that the man who accosted me mistook the ivy bees for wasps. Education is what is needed so I shall have to continue to offer to show the ivy bees to anyone who passes.

Oh I do like the bees beside the seaside!

Sea, surf, sand and sunshine: this is the exotic scene a few days ago at Bantham in South Devon. Here the River Avon ends its journey from Dartmoor to the sea giving rise to South Devon’s top surfing beach. The green, rocky outcrop in the estuary is Burgh Island providing a surreal setting for its art deco hotel which has, over the years, welcomed the rich and famous as well as inspiring two of Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries. The views are spectacular and this is a frequently painted and frequently photographed spot.

Bantham enjoys a mild climate and I had come here to see what flowers were still showing and what insects were about. In Totnes, about 15 miles inland, there are few flowers left for the bees and other insects. Globe thistle has been very popular with bumblebees but is almost over, sedum is still thronged with honeybees and there is Himalayan balsam by the river but that’s about it. The huge banks of ivy dotted around the town promise food but don’t yet deliver. They may be covered with their grey-green lollipop flower heads but in Totnes these stay firmly closed.

Burgh Island over cliffs
Burgh Island from the cliffs showing the art deco hotel

 

At Bantham, I follow the coast path up the cliff where there are good views of the bay. There are a few flowers about and I notice a solitary bee and a few small flies on a tall dandelion-like plant that I think is Hawkweed. Some yellow vetch lights up the grass but few other flowers are showing.

Bee on Hawkweed 1
Solitary bee on dandelion-like flower, possibly Hawkweed

 

Soapwort at Bantham
Soapwort (double flowered)

 

adders
You have been warned!

 

Behind the beach there are marram grass-clothed sand dunes dotted with flowers of evening primrose and soapwort. I see a stonechat twitching its tale but I don’t see any insects. We walk cautiously here, chastened by the many signs warning us of adders. I jump when I almost tread on a slow worm but, judging from the speed of its disappearance, it also gets a fright.

River Avon at Bantham
The River Avon as it meanders along the edge of the Ham where much of the ivy is found

 

Back from the dunes is a large tongue of land bordered on one side by the river Avon as it makes one final meander before meeting the sea. This is the Ham where there are huge banks of ivy and this is where I get my next surprise. The first stand of ivy that we encounter has a small but noisy cloud of insects above it showing us that at least the top of the bush is in flower. Large parts of the bush are still waiting to blossom so this must be a very recent flowering. Among the insects enjoying the ivy flower cafe, I notice many small flies and some chunky hoverflies. I also see, and this is the big surprise given that we are still early September, many large, crescent-shaped ivy bees (Colletes hederae) jostling for position on the few ivy flower heads available. The bees look very fresh, each with its black and yellow-striped abdomen, russet-haired thorax and prominent antennae. I assume these are recently emerged males, now feeding and getting ready to mate once the females appear.

Ivy Bee 4
Ivy bees on ivy

 

Walking round the Ham we come across more ivy and more ivy bees. There must be thousands of bees here and that implies a large aggregation of nests. Although I look in all the likely places, the nests prove elusive and I can’t locate them; there are large tracts of land that I can’t access, so I assume they nest there.

Ivy Bee 3
Jostling for position

 

Ivy bee and red admiral
Ivy bee with red admiral

 

I hadn’t expected to see ivy bees on September 10th; I hadn’t expected to find ivy in flower. The mild seaside climate must encourage the ivy flowers and the bees synchronise their cycle accordingly. I felt quite smug for a while having made such “early” observations of Colletes hederae but then I read a report on the BWARS Facebook page of ivy bees a few miles west of Bantham dated September 1st !

Bantham boat house figure
Lady Franklin’s figurehead

 

During my nest-searching, I drop down to Bantham quay by the river where there is a boat house, built in 1937 to commemorate the coronation of George VI. Two striking figureheads adorn the corners of this building; one of these is of Lady Jane Franklin, looking wistfully out to sea. Her figurehead is Victorian, coming from a ship she financed in memory of her husband, Sir John Franklin who died attempting to navigate the Northwest Passage.

Bantham boat house plaque
The story of Lady Franklin’s figurehead

 

With the retreat of the arctic ice cap and global climate change, the Northwest Passage will probably now become navigable for some months each year. Although this may open new trade routes it also increases the danger of damage to the pristine arctic environment.

The title of this post comes from a song, well known in the UK, here is a video clip:

More ivy, more Ivy Bees !

Last Sunday, we enjoyed a walk around the small Devon seaside town of Salcombe. It’s a pleasant place now that the season is over and we relished the views over the estuary on this cooler but dry day. I don’t know whether I am looking more carefully or perhaps I haven’t previously visited Salcombe at this time of year? I didn’t remember the profusion of flowering ivy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The Salcombe estuary on a sunnier day, viewed from the cliffs (Photo by Hazel Strange)

 

A narrow coast road links the town to its two beaches, North Sands and South Sands. On one side of this road there are low cliffs dropping to the sea and all along the cliff tops were huge banks of ivy. Given my recent experience, I now search any stand of flowering ivy for Ivy Bees and the Salcombe cliffs did not disappoint.

Ivy bee on ivy Salcombe 3

Wasps were the predominant insect on the ivy flowers but there were also quite a few of the sleek, slender, yellow and black-banded Ivy Bees (Colletes hederae) with their characteristic russet hairs. The wasps mostly tolerated their company although I did see one attack an Ivy Bee. The bee fell away but I could not be sure if it died or just sloped off.

Ivy bee on ivy Salcombe 2

The Ivy Bees at this site seemed to be moving about less than when I had seen them before. Once they had found a suitable flower head they spent some time exhaustively probing its flowers. Perhaps there was more pollen and nectar available? Perhaps it was cooler? I looked for colonies but did not locate any; I presume the nests are in nearby cliffs but as these are mostly private land they are out of bounds to Ivy Bee-nerds like me.

Ivy bees on ivy Salcombe

What I am beginning to realise is that, in this part of Devon, Colletes hederae is doing rather well with large colonies and large numbers. They also don’t seem to mind the cooler damper weather we have been experiencing.

It’s good to have a positive bee story to tell.

We visited Salcombe on October 12th 2014.

For those interested in Ivy Bees, they featured in the Guardian Country Diary this week