We perched on a stone wall overlooking the pebble beach and sea at Blackpool Sands to eat our sandwiches. Across the water, the Start Point peninsula was a moody, dark bluish grey outline while mobile pools of bright light wandered about Start Bay as gashes in the cloud cover opened and closed.
We had walked down the Blackpool Valley starting in bright autumn sunshine on the western edge of Dartmouth where a huge housebuilding project is now underway. Narrow country lanes took us away from the commotion into quieter places. Hedges were punctuated periodically with flushes of flowering ivy and the sun, following heavy rain, seemed to have brought the insects out. An elegant ichneumon wasp, largely black but with a few white markings and with reddish legs was cleaning its antennae, and nearby we spotted a mating pair of hoverflies. Their striped thorax reminded me of mid-20th century school blazers. A beautiful male wall butterfly basked briefly in the sunshine, its wings, the colour of paprika and cinnamon held the essence of the season changing around us. A few pollen-loaded female ivy bees joined the show while, on the road, two all black devil’s coach horse beetles wandered past giving us their scorpion-like, tale up, warning greeting.
At Venn Cross, we turned right along Blackpool Valley Road descending between dramatic hills and following the course of a stream in the valley bottom. Lane side hedges had avoided a vicious flailing this season; hazel and sycamore had grown prolifically together with a few sprigs of rowan and dog rose, giving the lane an enclosed feeling. Veteran beeches and oaks grew from the hedges and when the sun played across the beech leaves it accentuated their kaleidoscopic colour range of greens, yellows and browns. The lower trunk of one of the old beeches had become an impromptu local notice board including a carved declaration of love.
The water gathered force as we headed southwards with small streams joining the main flow from surrounding hills and, eventually we came to Riversbridge Farm, one of several old water mills situated along the valley. Altogether we counted five former mills before we reached the sea, each set in this landscape of trees, pastures and steep hillsides. Today it was a peaceful scene but I wondered how much it had changed over the years. The artist Lucien Pissarro worked and lived here a century ago producing a charming set of images of the valley, a record of country life in the first part of the 20th century and apart from the arrival of the motor car the landscape and buildings look very similar (see picture below). The mills, of course, are no longer used, they are mostly private dwellings but the buildings show signs of their former activity alongside 21st century incursions such as a small water driven hydro and a hot tub.
We left Blackpool Sands to complete the circuit back to our car. As we stopped to look back at the beach, as many as 30 house martins circled over the cove feeding, perhaps before leaving for warmer places.
We walked down the Blackpool Valley near Dartmouth in south Devon on October 8th 2020
Even before the recent storms there were signs of the changing season. Flushes of red berries had begun to appear in roadside hedges and subtle colour changes were permeating leaf canopies. One sign for me, though, that always heralds the arrival of autumn is the emergence of the ivy bees (Colletes hederae), the last species of solitary bee to appear in this country. It’s the time of year when I stand in front of clumps of flowering ivy gazing at these insects feasting on this final flush of food. So, here are two stories about my recent experiences with the ivy bees.
The first concerns a visit I made to Roundham Head, Paignton, south Devon in the second week of September:
Hidden away on one side of a residential street on Roundham Head is a curious area of rough grass and trees divided into rectangular spaces by old stone walls and loved nowadays by dog walkers. This was once the kitchen garden of a nearby Victorian villa, now a care home, set in a commanding position on the edge of the promontory overlooking Torbay. The kitchen garden is surplus to requirements but the land has not been developed and the old walls have been commandeered by ivy. At this time of year, this normally dark green and slightly sinister climber adopts a new persona covering itself with lime green globe flower heads creating a multi-sensory experience for anyone prepared to look.
I approach one of the old stone walls bathed in sunshine, and gradually I become aware of the sickly-sweet perfume emanating from the ivy flowers to pervade the surrounding air. This perfume attracts huge numbers of insects which move about the ivy flowers in all directions at high speed, occasionally pausing on a flower to sample the extraordinary, late-season canteen of pollen and nectar. This profusion of insect life means that a clearly audible buzz surrounds the ivy.
Today, I see honeybees, hoverflies, a speckled wood butterfly and a buff tailed bumblebee together with many, many ivy bees. These insects must have emerged very recently and with their pale chestnut-haired thorax and yellow and black-hooped abdomen they look very fresh. The slimmer, slighter males (about two thirds the size of a honeybee) outnumber the chunkier females who collect lumps of bright yellow pollen on their back legs. The pulsating movement of so many insects implies a huge kinetic energy fuelled by the sugary nectar provided by the ivy flowers.
Wherever there is ivy and sunshine there are ivy bees on the old walls and the same is true when I walk through the nearby public gardens built on the cliffs overlooking Goodrington Sands. The gentle microenvironment offered by this seaside garden supports succulents, palms and other tender plants and today the agapanthus are providing flashes of a bright steely blue. Ivy has also insinuated its way into the gardens growing along old walls and railings overlooking the sea.
At one end of the gardens is a partly concealed path leading downwards to the beach below and along one side of the path I find a long grassy bank. The grass has not been cut this summer, a result of the pandemic, but beneath the grass cover I can see bare red soil with open holes and many more male ivy bees. This is the main nest site for the ivy bees at Roundham Head. The males are even more excited here, dancing above the grass, flying backwards and forwards rapidly and from side to side in a tick tock movement. They occasionally explore the holes but emerge disappointed and fly off. Sometimes there is a little joshing between the males who seem overexcited but they are waiting for females to emerge so that they can mate.
Today, though, I don’t witness any matings but I do see a few females returning to the nest area carrying bright yellow pollen so some couplings have occurred. These mated females enter the nest holes and leave pollen as food for their larvae. It does feel, however, as though the main emergence of female ivy bees has not yet occurred here. The males will go on waiting by the nest site for that chance to mate, visiting the ivy occasionally for a top up of sugary nectar.
My second story comes from a visit we made to West Sussex in the third week of September to deliver our daughter to University. We had a few days walking in the county including this visit to the coast:
Autumn had arrived with a vengeance in West Sussex, the temperature had dropped by nearly ten degrees overnight and there were heavy squally showers at West Wittering where we had planned to walk. Rain fell as we made our way along quiet lanes between houses to access the track along the water’s edge leading to East Head a huge sand spit projecting into Chichester Harbour. Long views across the flat watery surroundings made approaching storms easy to spot adding an elemental feel to the day. East Head is coated in marram grass which must help to stabilise its structure but, as we walked along the beach, there were signs of erosion at the sides of the spit and much of it is cordoned off to prevent further damage. Near the tip, it was possible to look at plants growing away from the edge such as sea holly, its prickly blue flowers faded to grey, sea rocket with its pale violet flowers and sea spurge its grey green leaf-covered stems tipped with greenish yellow complex flowers.
Behind East Head is a lagoon with salt marshes and the path along this side eventually curves round to meet shingle beaches on the edge of the harbour. Oaks grew along the edge and a few generous clumps of ivy overhung the beach. Much was in flower and here I saw the first ivy bees of the day, all males with clear yellow and black hoops moving backwards and forwards with high speed despite the lack of sun.
This kind of watery environment with extensive salt marshes should also favour the close relative of the ivy bee, the rare Colletes halophilus which Steven Falk refers to as the sea aster bee owing to its preference for the flower. I looked around for sea aster and found some, rather pale and faded but I saw no insects on the flowers. Then we came to a grassy open area by the side of the water. Large stands of gorse were growing by the edge and one of these was smothered by Russian vine, an invasive scrambling climber with many racemes of small white flowers. I have seen this used by ivy bees in Devon, even when flowering ivy is abundant and the same was true here, or so I thought. Insects that looked like ivy bee males were moving about the flowers rapidly, barely resting to feed but I managed a few photos as it was otherwise difficult to see the details of the insects. In the photos, to my surprise, all of the bees I captured on camera had black and white hoops.
The sea aster bee looks very similar to the ivy bee only its hoops are white compared to the ivy bee’s yellow hoops. So, could I have seen the rare sea aster bee here? The environment is certainly right for the insect and it has been recorded at this site before but it is impossible to draw a firm conclusion based on colouration. Male ivy bees can fade, losing their yellow colour and microscopic analysis of the mouth parts is required to distinguish males of the two species unequivocally but that is beyond my capability.
Females are easier to distinguish from photographs as there are yellow furry patches, like epaulettes, at the top of the abdomen of the ivy bee that are lacking in the sea aster bee. You can see these furry patches in the picture of the ivy bee at the end of this post. Unfortunately, I saw no females that day but it provides a good reason to return to this fascinating place with its mosaic of environments.
A large stand of flowering ivy in the early autumn sunshine is an impressive sight. The many pale green globe flower heads give off their distinctive sickly-sweet smell and insects throng to the flowers to take advantage of the sudden abundance of pollen and nectar. Movement is constant and the entire bush buzzes audibly. Among the insects gorging themselves, there may be red admiral butterflies, plump stripy bumblebees, also good numbers of honeybees and wasps. Sometimes, especially near the sea in the south of the UK, these are outnumbered by beautiful honeybee-sized insects with a distinctive yellow and black banded abdomen and russet coloured thorax. These are ivy bees, the last of our solitary bees to emerge and it’s a delight to watch them each year in September and October.
Ivy bees are relative newcomers to the UK having arrived from mainland Europe eighteen years ago. Since then, they have prospered, spreading across the entire southern half of England and northwards as far as Cumbria As their name suggests, the species prefers pollen and nectar collected from flowering ivy and part of their success must reflect the large amounts of this climber that grow around the UK.
Each year I look out for the ivy bees; for me they signify the changing season, the movement of the year. September 2019 began very mild and dry where I live but, by the fourth week, temperatures dipped and intermittent wet and sometimes very wet weather set in and stayed with us during October and into November. In spite of the weather, I saw ivy bees in several places and here are some highlights of my 2019 observations:
A grassy bank in Sussex
In late September we spent a few days holiday in Sussex, a county in the south east of the UK. We had delivered our daughter to the University of Sussex to begin her degree and were keen to do some country walking. The weather was less than cooperative but on the 25th, our last day, we decided to walk up to the massive iron age hill fort at Cissbury Ring, high on the South Downs. We parked in the village of Findon not far from the 15th century pub, the Gun Inn, and as we passed the traditional butcher’s shop the butcher himself was standing outside wearing his blue and white striped apron.
We left the car and walked up through the village past some private houses where my attention was taken by movement in a grassy bank alongside one of the driveways. I was delighted to realise that this was a large colony of ivy bees. I hope the owner of the house is equally delighted, and I hope they know these are not wasps. Many male ivy bees were dancing about just above the surface of the grassy bank waiting for females to emerge. They occasionally coalesced into a mating cluster when a newly emerged female appeared and after a short time the cluster dissolved and the female and her chosen suitor were left alone. The incessant movement of the colony even on a dull day was very impressive. Here are two short videos which capture this movement.
We left the ivy bees and continued uphill to reach Cissbury Ring. Today this was an elemental place: clouds scudded about driven by the strong blustery wind that was now also peppering us with raindrops and, when the clouds parted, the sun broke through leaving transient pools of light on the surrounding countryside. We kept to the eastern rampart to afford protection from the wind and from the highest point we saw the sea to the south and a second hill fort, Chanctonbury Ring to the north across rolling tea-coloured fields. A few hardy bees were braving the conditions to take advantage of the scattering of wild flowers across the chalk hillside.
On our way back down the hill we passed banks of ivy in flower where, despite the intermittent drizzle, ivy bees were collecting nectar and pollen to take back to their nests.
Heath potter wasps, no – ivy bees, yes
Bovey Heathfield is a nature reserve, about half an hour’s drive from where I live with several claims to fame. It is a surviving scrap of lowland heath, a fragment of the large area of heathland that once covered this part of Devon. Even though it is small, the heath provides a unique environment with unique wildlife and in August and September it bursts into life as the heather blooms covering the land with a pinkish purple sheen. It’s also the site of one of the more important battles of the English Civil War, The Battle of Bovey Heath 1646 and on the reserve, there are memorials to the conflict.
I went to Bovey Heathfield on a windy Saturday afternoon (September 28th) under partly cloudy skies to meet John Walters, a local naturalist and wildlife expert. John knows more than anyone else about a species of solitary wasp that frequents sandy heaths. This is the heath potter wasp and the plan was for John to show me these insects. Unfortunately, the weather was not sunny enough to tempt the wasps out but he did show me one of the pots constructed from muddy clay by mated females that give them their name. They attach these pots to stalks of heather and gorse and then lay their eggs in the pot, equipping it with caterpillars as food before sealing. These are mini-marvels of engineering and John has some wonderful video showing the wasps constructing clay pots (see here).
In the absence of these insects, John showed me the large colony of ivy bees that has built nests in the south facing sandy paths on the heath. The ivy bees were not deterred by the cool conditions; the males were very active and a number of newly emerged females were mobbed by them. I saw one mating cluster develop around a female resting on a heather stalk and wondered how they all clung on.
Ivy bees in a local cemetery
The river Dart drives a picturesque, watery wedge through the town of Totnes dividing it into two unequal parts. The eastern part, across the river, goes by the name of Bridgetown, a mixture of old and mostly new houses. Buried in the old part, behind the early nineteenth century St John’s Church is the cemetery. I rather like the cemetery, it is slightly unkempt with rough grass, trees, flowers and several large clumps of ivy. Most of the graves date from the 19th and 20th centuries and the place has a peaceful calm atmosphere. Last year I found ivy bees here for the first time, it was also the first time I had seen the species in Totnes. This year the ivy in the cemetery was late in flowering but finally on the last day of September some ivy bees appeared on a few of the open flowers. I saw males and pollen-carrying females, but not many of either gender. I wondered if they might be nesting in the cemetery but was unable to find any evidence. Somewhere nearby there must a nest aggregation.
As I was poking about looking for ivy bee nests, one grave stone, for Edwin Jordain, caught my attention. It was late Victorian, dating from 1893 and had fine carvings of flowers along the top edge unlike most of the other graves. I wondered whether the flowers were symbolic or just decorative and did a little research.
The flowers on the left side are most likely blue passion flowers. I learnt that these were very popular adornments to Victorian graves, representing the suffering of Christ. I feel less comfortable about my identification of the flowers on the right but I think they are lilies, linked with purity and innocence by the Victorians, especially after death. Many of the flowers depicted are open, apparently symbolising the prime of life; Mr Jordain was only 36 when he died. His epitaph perhaps sums this up: “Brief life is here our portion”.
Towards the end of October, I spent a day at Cogden Beach, just east of Burton Bradstock in west Dorset. It’s a beautiful, natural spot, a rich concoction of sea, sky and shingle where wildlife prospers despite the sometimes harsh conditions. It’s becoming increasingly difficult, however, to ignore the scatter of plastic pollution on the beach and the potential effects of this manmade material on marine life.
It felt unseasonably warm as I walked downhill from the car park, more like a late summer’s day, although the blood-red rose hips and smoky-black sloes decorating the leafless scrub spoke of a different season. The vast shingle bank of Chesil Beach dominated the long view, a yellowish-brown convexity edged with white waves sweeping eastwards towards a mistily mysterious Isle of Portland. The sea was calm and a steely grey except where the low sun’s rays highlighted individual wavelets whose reflections merged in to a broad, silvery band of light.
When I reached the shingle bank I found traces of the special beach plants that grow so profusely here in spring and summer. Well weathered, blue-green and brownish-grey leaves were all that remained of the sea kale that dominates in May whereas, beneath the brown remnants of this season’s vegetation, fresh glaucous leaves were showing from the yellow horned-poppies. Small flocks of starlings skittered about puddles at the back of the beach like children in a school playground and, in a low sandy cliff, I was surprised to find bees busily filling nests. These were ivy bees (Colletes hederae), the last of our solitary bees to emerge, the females collecting chrome-yellow pollen from nearby clumps of flowering ivy. To the west, there were spectacular views of Burton Bradstock’s yellow cliffs and the distinctive flat top of Golden Cap.
It seemed like the perfect natural spot. But was it? Almost all the clumps of beach plants contained plastic waste including pieces of plastic wrap, colourful plastic rope or plastic fishing line. On the shingle between the clumps, I saw the occasional plastic drink bottle, some were intact, some in pieces. The prominent strandline about half way up the beach contained dark, dry seaweed and small pieces of wood mixed liberally with shards of plastic as though objects had shattered in their continual buffeting by the sea. Plastic drink bottles or their fragments also appeared at regular intervals along the strandline. This beach is no longer a completely natural, wild place, it has been contaminated by our throwaway plastic culture. Perhaps the most poignant symbol of this tension was a chunk of expanded polystyrene covered with pale grey goose barnacles.
Plastic is, of course, both versatile and cheap. It has transformed our lives but its very ubiquity and ease of use means that we don’t value it enough. Think how much you throw away each week: plastic wrap or bags from supermarket produce, drink containers and lids, plastic trays, pots and so on. We have embraced a “disposable” lifestyle where about half of the plastic we produce is used once and thrown away. Some countries manage to recycle or energy-recover a large proportion of their plastic waste but the UK is not one of them. In this country, more than 60% of plastic waste ends up in landfill where it does not break down and is effectively lost. We are squandering resources and energy on a massive scale, an appalling indictment of our way of life.
But what about the plastic waste I found on Cogden Beach, how does it get there? It comes from the sea and is left behind by the retreating tide. We have turned our oceans into a “plastic soup” composed of plastic bottles and bags, plastic fragments formed by breakdown of these larger items, also microplastics (5 mm or less in size) such as industrial pellets, small fragments and very small fibres from clothing or from car tyres. This is a huge global problem and shows no sign of abating. A staggering 12 million tons of plastic waste enters the oceans each year. All countries contribute but a large proportion comes from several in the Far East with poor waste management systems.
The consequences for marine wildlife are alarming. Consider, for example, the Northern Fulmar, a bird that forages exclusively at sea. A study in the North Atlantic showed that 91% of dead Fulmars found on beaches had plastic in their gut, having mistaken the plastic for food, reducing their ability to feed and sometimes damaging their digestive tract. At the other end of the food chain, zooplankton have been shown to ingest tiny microplastic fragments that may end up in fish and perhaps in humans. Plastic fragments also attract toxic chemicals that may affect the creatures consuming them. Our throwaway lifestyle is disturbing the entire global marine ecosystem. The problem is just as serious as climate change.
What can be done? First, we must reduce the amount of plastic in circulation by moving away from single-use items such as plastic bottles, takeaway cups, plastic cutlery, plastic wrap and plastic packaging. The introduction of the 5p charge on plastic bags led to an 85% reduction in use, so a levy on single-use takeaway cups and plastic cutlery may also be effective. Second, we need to encourage a “circular economy” where as much plastic as possible is recovered and recycled and none goes to landfill. A deposit return scheme for plastic drink bottles would increase recovery but greater recycling of other plastic containers must also be achieved. It is encouraging that some government ministers are now talking about the problems of plastic waste, but their words must be translated into actions.
Individual decisions can also bring about change. We can refuse to use plastic cutlery. We can choose to drink only from reusable cups. We can use and reuse our own shopping bag. We can recycle all plastic bottles and containers. We can pressurise local businesses to reduce plastic waste. We can participate in beach cleans. If we love our beaches and our seas we must do this.
Here is an account of a visit I made to Paignton about eight weeks ago, seaching for ivy bees.
Ice cream and chips, not together of course, but that’s what people are eating. The sun is shining, the sea an intense blue, the air gently warm and sun loungers have been dragged unexpectedly out of pastel-coloured beach huts. Couples stroll along the promenade arm in arm and one or two children shriek with delight as they run in and out of the waves washing over the long sandy beach. This is Goodrington Sands near Paignton in south Devon and it’s the end of September.
At one end of the beach, the ground rises steeply to Roundham Head, a cliff-lined, grass-topped promontory that interrupts the otherwise smooth sweep of Torbay. The south-facing side of the headland is home to the Cliff Gardens with its terraced flower beds, zigzag paths and mild microclimate supporting many tender sub-tropical plants. A colony of winter bumblebees also flourishes here, nurtured by the almost year round supply of pollen and nectar.
The flat, grassy surface of the promontory eventually gives way to residential streets but before suburbia takes over completely, there is a transitional region, a mosaic of green rectangular spaces and tall, red-brick walls. Nowadays, the area is popular with dog walkers but, in one wall, there is an intriguing, curved-top gateway, hinting at older usages. These walls, now mostly covered with ivy, are the remnants of the kitchen gardens of a nearby Victorian villa.
About a year ago, I discovered these old walls covered in full-flowering ivy with many ivy bees taking advantage of their preferred food. The ivy bee (Colletes hederae) is the last solitary bee to emerge each year and is very distinctive with its yellow and black-striped abdomen and chestnut-haired thorax. I looked for the nest area but, although I found a few small nest aggregations, I was unable to find anywhere large enough to support the number of bees I had seen.
Today, I park in a street bordering the old kitchen garden. Ivy cascades over the wall by the car, its many pale green flower heads scenting the air with their sickly-sweet smell. Insects move about the ivy constantly, flying to and fro, ignoring me to the extent that we sometimes collide. I see hoverflies, wasps, one or two bumblebees and honey bees, and hundreds of ivy bees. The male ivy bees fly about edgily, sometimes stopping to feed, sometimes pausing on a leaf to preen and rest. The females, noticeably larger than the males, carry chunks of chrome yellow pollen on their back legs and abdominal hairs but continue feeding. Sometimes a hopeful male disturbs them, attempting to mate, but they show no interest in their new suitors. Movement is constant, there is an insistent low buzz and this liquid energy steps up in the sunshine. The same liquid energy abounds wherever the ivy is in flower on these old walls. There is a lot of ivy here and that means many ivy bees.
But where are the nests? Last year I found one small nest area in some exposed red soil along the cliff-side path descending from Roundham Head to Goodrington so that’s where I begin today. Sure enough there are still holes in the cliff face together with crumbly soil suggesting active nests. Around these holes there are hundreds of ivy bee males performing what my friend Susan Taylor has christened the “sun dance”. They fly about incessantly, swinging from side to side, occasionally stopping to look into one of the holes but emerging unsuccessfully. It’s an impressive sight along a two metre stretch but what is lacking are any females and anyway it doesn’t feel like a big enough area to account for all the bees on the ivy so I decide to walk down to Goodrington to look at the sea.
As I stand by the beach, I see someone walking down another steep path from Roundham Head. I hadn’t noticed this paved path before: it runs parallel to the cliff-side path but about three metres inland and is partly hidden behind a low hedge. I decide to take a look. The path is bordered on one side by a low bank covered in short, rough grass and hundreds of ivy bee males fly about, skimming the surface, “sun dancing”. When I get closer, I see that the red soil in the bank is peppered with many holes and crumbly soil is spilling out showing that the bank contains active nests.
The males here seem particularly edgy, they constantly investigate the burrows, presumably looking for females and sometimes they even try to mate with one another, not a clever move. On several occasions I notice the males suddenly congregating to form a rough ball. Other males soon join the melee rather like rugby players in a ruck. Somewhere in the middle there must be a female who has just emerged from one of the burrows. The males are trying frantically to mate with her but only one will be successful and I see one copulating couple fly off together, still attached.
There is also a slow but steady stream of females returning to the nest area loaded with yellow pollen. They have come to deposit food in their burrow for their larvae, but finding their nest looks a bit hit and miss. Some approach the area and fly around for a short time before landing and making their way on foot. Others seem to crash land and then pull themselves together after a short rest. The males show no interest in these already-mated females.
The aggregation covers an area about ten metres by half a metre and there must be hundreds of nests. This is a large, very active, nest site and looks big enough to support a huge number of ivy bees. I can’t say whether there are other nest aggregations in the area but this one goes some way to explaining the large number of ivy bees seen at Roundham Head.
I am completely absorbed watching these creatures go about their lives; it’s like being allowed through a door into another world. But then I look up and see, no more than 20 metres below me, an ice cream kiosk with people enjoying their Devon Farmhouse ice cream. Dogs dash along the hard sand splashing in the water. A steam train struggles up the bank hauling vintage chocolate and cream coaches towards Kingswear.
Steep steps descend from a narrow passageway off Salcombe’s Fore Street. At water level there is a stone jetty, the Ferry Pier, and above and to the right the Ferry Inn enjoys almost perfect views across the estuary. A clinker-built motor boat, with the skipper standing up, is already making its way across the water to pick up the few waiting passengers. Once we are all safely on board, he backs out and turns before heading across the estuary to East Portlemouth; it’s a calm day so this is an easy crossing. The view from the boat always impresses me, low in the water, a cormorant’s perspective. Looking towards the mouth of the estuary, the sea is a dark blue but, in the light breeze, ripples caught in the low sunshine cast a dancing light across the water.
The journey takes only a few minutes but it’s transformative. Salcombe is all cafes and posh clothing shops but across the water we find peaceful long beaches with fine sand. The tide is very low so we follow the strandline, leaving a record of our footsteps in the soft sand. Beachside houses cast long shadows in the low sunshine but, where the sun reaches the beach, it creates pale blues and greens in the seawater, shallow over golden sand, and I imagine the Mediterranean.
Eventually, we reach Mill Bay, a football pitch-sized expanse of undulating, pale sand stretching from the sea to the coast road. Very popular for family holidays in summer, today it is all but deserted. On one side of the beach, the low tide has exposed a long, green, seaweed-covered slipway with prominent metal rails and stone teeth. This was built in 1943 by the US navy to support landing craft during the Normandy landings. It’s hard to imagine the beaches and the estuary filled with ships awaiting the assault on occupied France.
The rear of the beach is fringed with sand dunes bound together with scrubby grass. One exposed vertical face is peppered with holes, burrows for insects, and several black and yellow striped wasps are moving about the nest area in a proprietorial manner. Longer and sleeker than the better known common wasp, these are field digger wasps, solitary insects that dig tunnels in the sand and provision them with dead flies as food for their larvae. A large buff-tailed bumblebee queen is scrabbling in the sand wall as if she is trying to burrow. She looks in good condition but behaves as if something is wrong.
The path leaves the beach to head gently upwards through coastal woodland in the direction of the estuary mouth. The autumn leaf-strewn track meanders through the woods with tantalising views of beaches below. In today’s light, the colours of the sand and water glimpsed through the trees look more southern European than south Devon. We emerge from woodland cover into brilliant sunshine and spectacular but slightly hazy views across the mouth of the estuary to the vast green headland of Bolt Head and the sandy beach at South Sands with its boutique hotels. A red, yellow and blue boat passes by purposefully; it may look like a toy, but it is the Ferry that links South Sands with Salcombe town.
The path turns gradually eastwards seemingly cut into the hillside so that we walk with the land falling away to the sea below us and, on the landward side, rising steeply to rocky outcrops. There is much bracken in evidence, already showing the effects of autumn; bright sparks of yellow gorse shoot upwards. We pass a single spike of mullein, a few yellow toadflax and clumps of sheep’s bit with their unruly mops of blue petals. Several stonechats entertain us, fluttering up and down, tail flicking, chatting.
The sea is calm today. From this vantage point, it is a deep blue but where it meets the rocky coastline, the surface shatters into bright fragments in the sunshine. I scan the coastal waters for seals but get a surprise when I see what looks like a person standing on a rock just above the sea. A closer look reveals a large cormorant, sunning itself. Further away, sailing boats take advantage of the good weather and a fishing boat moors close enough for us to read its name through our binoculars.
Eventually, ahead of us we see a curious, white-painted, cylindrical hut, topped with a thatched roof and perched high above the path upon one of the rocky outcrops. Far below the hut is a secluded stretch of sandy beach and in the distance lies another headland, Gammon Head. The thatched hut is the former coastguard lookout at Gara Rock and we leave the coast path to head up to investigate. Behind the lookout there is a new resort/hotel/apartment complex with people sitting in the sunshine enjoying a drink. A row of coastguard cottages was built here in the 19th century and converted into a popular hotel early in the 20th century. Laurence Olivier, John Betjeman and Margaret Rutherford are said to have stayed here, not necessarily at the same time. The old building was knocked down in the last ten years and rebuilt as the new complex.
The old coastguard lookout has glorious views across the sea and coast and it is surrounded by huge banks of ivy. Much of the ivy is in full flower, filling the air with its distinctive sickly-sweet smell. Perhaps it is something to do with the light today but the flower heads on these clumps of ivy appear as almost perfect globes. Multiple pale green lollipops extend from the centre of each flower head in perfect symmetry, like pins in a pin cushion. Each lollipop is decorated with a frieze of pale yellow-headed stamens, creating, from a distance, a sunny halo around the green globe. The ivy flowers attract many insects including more field digger wasps but it is the ivy bees that I am looking for and I am not disappointed. Many of the elegant yellow and black striped-females move quickly about the flowers together with a few hopeful males. The females are carrying large amounts of bright yellow pollen but still feeding.
We drag ourselves away from this extraordinary spot and head back down the inland valley to Mill Bay following an ancient, slightly sunken green lane with farmland either side. This is a green tunnel with muted light, formed by overhanging trees including a long stretch of very old lime trees with dark, gnarled bark and multiple branching trunks. When we reach Mill Bay, we take the coast road back to the jetty. Many of the houses here are closed up; more than 40% of the houses in the Salcombe area are second homes. The chimney of one of these homes is swarming with bees, probably honeybees. The owner will be in for a shock when they next visit!
For a map and further information on this walk click here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 !
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We picked our way carefully down the steep, stony path to the beach at Mansands, one of the many small coves dotted along the South Devon Coast. At this time of year, the banks lining the path celebrate the season with silky draperies of “Old man’s beard” punctuated by bonfire-sparks of red rose hips and great outbursts of flowering ivy. Pale sunshine coaxed a sickly sweet perfume from the ivy flowers and encouraged a busy profusion of wasps, hoverflies and honeybees but we were hoping to spot another kind of insect. Suddenly my attention was grabbed by a different shape and there it was: marginally longer than a honeybee, its abdomen slender and pointed with clearly defined regular stripes of black and yellow. This sleek insect was an Ivy Bee (Colletes hederae), with a fringe of russet hairs around the thorax and its manner of browsing the ivy flowers in a crescent shape. We saw a few more but they were elusive and moved about quickly. It didn’t matter, we had seen our first Ivy Bees!
I was pretty sure that if there were Ivy Bees about, there must also be nests nearby but the conundrum was how to find them. At other sites in Devon, the nests are said to be near the beach so that seemed a good place to start the search. Ivy Bees generally choose soft friable soils to build the tunnels that form their nests. The beach at Mansands is book-ended by south-facing cliffs containing buff-coloured sandy soil, some shale and some rock. Scrubby grass provides cover in places. This is probably an ideal environment for these bees and, when I looked, I saw many small holes pock-marking the cliffs. Numerous bees were buzzing around and based on their patterning and shape these were probably Ivy Bees. Rather like commuters at a busy rush-hour railway station, some bees were going in and out of the holes and some were moving about, occasionally colliding with others. The nests were distributed along a stretch of cliff about 50 metres wide; there must be thousands of bees here. It seemed too easy but, almost by accident, I had stumbled across a massive Ivy Bee settlement, a truly impressive natural phenomenon.
When I looked more closely, I noticed that the female bees returning to their nests carried chrome-yellow pollen along their legs, looking as if they were wearing bright yellow lycra cycling shorts. They mostly disappeared in to the holes presumably to unload the pollen to provide food for their larvae. A few returning females rested on blades of grass before entering their nests. As they cleaned themselves, they were bombarded by other bees. These may have been hopeful males but the females showed no interest at all, having probably already mated.
The Ivy Bee is a relative newcomer to the UK having been first identified on mainland Britain in Dorset in 2001. Since then it has colonised many sites along the south coast and is also spreading north. It is the last solitary bee to emerge, flying between early September and early November. It shows a strong preference for pollen and nectar from ivy although it will feed from other sources. Some call it a mining bee as it digs tunnels for its nests but others refer to it as a plasterer bee from its habit of lining the nest with a protective cellophane-like coating. Although it is a solitary bee in that it does not form cooperative colonies, many Ivy Bees tend to nest in the same area.
There are two other solitary bees that are on the wing around this time and which could be confused with Ivy Bees. The sea aster mining bee (Colletes halophilus) looks very similar but it is confined to salt marshland on the East and South East coasts of the UK. Another look-alike is Colletes succinctus but this is a bee of heather moorland. The Mansands bees are unlikely to be either of these species, especially as there are large banks of ivy in the area.
These Colletes hederae are the last solitary bees I shall see until next spring and I can’t help marvelling at their behaviour. Ivy Bees spend a frantic period of roughly eight weeks on the wing when they have to mate and build nests. They must also lay eggs and provide them with supplies of pollen and nectar, helping to pollinate the ivy along the way. During the next ten months the miraculous transformation of egg to larva to pupa to bee occurs but we don’t see any evidence of this until the new bees emerge next year and the cycle starts again.
We visited Mansands on October 3rd 2014; the photos were taken by Hazel Strange.