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.
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.
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.