I am following the 72 microseasons in Nature’s Calendar as inspiration for the next twelve months – let’s see what we can find!
Dear Readers, I spotted my first Ivy Mining Bee in 2019, on some mature ivy in the gardens of the National Archives in Kew. How exciting it was! These little bees first arrived in the UK in 2001 and have made themselves very much at home. Although they look rather like honeybees, ivy bees have a much clearer set of yellow and black stripes on the abdomen and ginger hairs on their thorax. I took the photo above with my phone (and this is an indication that you should always have your proper camera handy – you never know when something exciting is going to pop by)
Here is a much better photo. If you have ivy, and if it ever stops raining, have a look and see if you can spot some Ivy Mining Bees. They are currently only found in Southern England, but are travelling further north every year.
When you notice ivy bees, you can be sure that autumn is underway: this species is the very last to emerge from the nest each year, and the adults will only live for about six weeks. As the name suggests, they feed almost exclusively on ivy flowers, and use the pollen to feed their larvae. Ivy Mining Bees are solitary, with each female bee making a tunnel in soft or sandy soil, and laying a single egg in each one, which will be provisioned with the pollen. Once complete, each tunnel is sealed and the female, her job done, will die. Although the bees are solitary (inasmuch as they don’t make a communal nest) there can be many individual tunnels at a suitable site.
In August, the larvae start to hatch as adult bees, with the males hatching first. The males hang around waiting for the females to emerge a few weeks later (they time their emergence for when the ivy is starting to flower). When the females appear they produce a pheromone so overwhelming that many lust-crazed males may pounce upon a female, forming a mating ball. This reminds me of the frogs in my pond, where again the males emerge (this time from hibernation) first, and hang around waiting for the females (who seem to hibernate elsewhere in the garden) to turn up. Again, a number of males may try to mate with a single female.
I’ve written before about how invaluable ivy is, in spite of its reputation as a destroyer of trees and buildings. There is a clump of it in a front garden just up the road from me, and I noted 6 species of insect feeding from it even on a blustery day like today. So I wanted to mention another insect that, if you’re lucky, you might see on ivy flowers: the golden hoverfly (Callicera spinolae).
This is a very handsome fly, and sadly rare too, so you will be lucky to see one – in the UK it’s mainly confined to East Anglia. The adults feed on ivy, as the name suggests, but the problem is that the larvae (like the larvae of so many hoverflies) need wet rot holes – areas of damaged and decaying wood that hold water. The larvae develop in these miniature pools, feeding on bacteria. This kind of habitat is found largely in ancient deciduous woodland, where fallen trees are allowed to remain, and where there isn’t an urge to cut things down and tidy things up. As we all know, these places are becoming rare in the UK. The Golden Hoverfly has only been seen in four locations in the past ten years, but it could be that it is under reported because it spends most of its time either in the canopy or trying to find places to lay eggs. Your best chance of seeing one is to keep an eye on those ivy flowers. Fingers crossed! And if you don’t see a Golden Hoverfly, there are a whole host of other pollinators (including Red Admiral and Holly Blue butterflies) that make good use of the late pollen and nectar that ivy provides. It’s always worth stopping at flowering ivy to have a look.