Well, it has been pouring here in my Sussex garden much of the week. The pond has been very grateful, but the bird feeders have been really quiet in the downpours. If this was an Indian Summer there'd still be Red Admiral and Speckled Wood butterflies and Common Darter dragonflies on the wing, but instead there has been a dearth of insects...

...except, that is on the Ivy. What a miracle plant it is, to burst into such an abundance of flower right at the end of the season. I have a particularly impressive 'lump' of Ivy cloaking a dead tree stump that is 20 foot high, and it is a Mecca for all sorts of pollinating insects.

In particular, my Ivy has been full of the Ivy Bee. It is astonishing to think that it was only found for the first time in the UK in 2001, but has now reached North Wales and Yorkshire, and surely will soon be found in Scotland if indeed it hasn't already.

This is a bee you won't see at any other time of year except when the Ivy is flowering, because it times its emergence specifically to take advantage of the feast. Although many of our 225 or so species of solitary bee are quite difficult to identify, this one is easy. It has a ginger thorax (the middle bit) and then the most gorgeously striped abdomen in yellow and black, as if it has slipped into a stripy stocking.

The Honeybee (below) is of course rather stripy itself, but the bands on the abdomen aren't so even, the black ones tending to be thicker, and the intervening bands tend to be orange at the front fading to pale brown near the rear. The Honeybee is also somewhat larger and more robust...

...whereas the Ivy Bee appears much more pointed, in this following photo MUCH larger than life size. 

There are so many Ivy Bees on my Ivy that I presume they must be nesting nearby. They dig burrows in soft, sandy soil, and even though they are termed a 'solitary' bee, they actually nest in dense clusters, each female tending her own nest but with many a neighbour for company. My garden is on a thin band of clay, which may be why they haven't taken to nesting here, so I presume they are nesting up the hill from me where the soil is much more chalky.

Of course, the big question is why are they expanding their range so quickly, especially as Ivy has been abundant in the UK countryside for many a century? Well, it may seem an easy explanation, but there is compelling evidence that our warming climate is an important factor. It is allowing Ivy in more northerly latitudes to flower more readily, and to bloom for longer. However, there may be an added part of the equation - down in southern Europe where the Ivy Bee originates, it has to cope with a couple of types of insect that parasitise it, but as the Ivy Bee began to expand its range northwards, it 'escaped' them. Its populations could boom unhindered.

Last week the latest State of Nature report was released, charting the fortunes of our wildlife, and highlighting how many are in decline. The rise of the Ivy Bee and other species such as the Little Egret, Clifden Nonpareil moth and Willow Emerald damselfly are in some ways beacons of hope in an otherwise gloomy story, but we need to remain clear-sighted - a changing climate WILL produce winners, those species that are able to exploit the changing conditions, but so much wildlife, and in particular the plant-based habitats on which they depend, are far less likely to cope. In fact, what the Ivy Bee tells us more than anything is that change is upon us already.

  • Oh! I was out in the sunshine in North Wales today, and thought "well there's a lot of late wasps on that ivy..." I've never heard of Ivy Bees!! I will check them out properly, with photos, next sunny day we get (approx 2020). 

    Great article, thank you!