Much maligned, ivy is, in fact, a wonderful source of food and shelter for many species, including the stunning ivy bee – a relative newcomer to these shores.
We sing about ivy at Christmas (The holly the ivy/When they are both full grown) – its glossy leaves providing some welcome greenery in the depths of winter. But, for me, late summer is when our wild ivy comes into its own.
A feature of the wonderful sunny days of September we have just experienced has been the ivy in flower, dripping with life as it clings to fences, walls and tree trunks, as seen at one sunspot next to the footbridge at the Old Bathing Place where a strand of ivy has established itself up a mature lime tree.
The ivy’s flowers were grouped together, forming fertile balls sprouting with pollen-laden stamen. It struck me their look was not dissimilar to the microscopic view of the coronavirus that we have unfortunately become all too familiar with. But, contrary to untrue myths about ivy suffocating trees, Hedera helix is a giver of life, not a threat – the Woodland Trust reporting that it supports more than 50 species.
Busying themselves around the flowers were all manner of insects, including hoverflies and bees. One species – the ivy bee stands out. It is like a honeybee but has an orangey-brown, hairy ‘fox-fur’ thorax, and pronounced black and yellow stripes on its abdomen.
As its name suggests, the insect feeds on the nectar of ivy flowers and can be seen in late summer and autumn when the plant is in bloom.
The ivy bee is a new arrival to the UK from continental Europe, first recorded here in 2001, and can now be found across much of southern England and Wales. It is said that that a lack competition for its niche is the main reason they have done so well in Britain – they do not have much competition for food or nesting sites, and do not suffer from parasites.
Ivy bees nest in sandy and light soils, the females tunnelling into the ground to lay their eggs among the gooey nectar-pollen mix, which the larvae feed on when they hatch before emerging this time next year to repeat the cycle. The female lines her underground chambers with a water-proof secretion designed to protect her young – the reason ivy bees are known as plasterer bees in the US.
At a time when many bees species in the UK are in decline, conservationists are celebrating the ivy bee’s success. There is no evidence of it having any negative impacts on native wildlife, as it is filling a niche that was previously empty.
Reluctant to sting
What’s more, studies have shown that ivy bees are virtually harmless to humans. Although the bees are solitary, they will dig their holes next to each other, so can gather in groups of thousands. Despite these numbers, researchers have assessed the risk of a sting by ivy bees and found it to be exceptionally low; during 10 hours of human activity (standing, walking and gardening) in the presence of the bees, they recorded only one sting.
The males do not have stings at all while the females have tiny ones, which are said to be like a weak nettle sting. This has been ascertained by using the wonderfully sounding Schmidt Sting Pain Index – a ratings scale devised by American entomologist Justin Schmidt who used his own experiences of being stung to describe the sensation they cause.
While the ivy bee’s sting is described as like a weak nettle sting, a sting from a honeybee is likened to dropping a flaming match head on your arm. In case you were wondering – the most painful sting is awarded to the bullet ant of Central America – described as walking over hot coals with a three-inch nail in your heel.
Thankfully, by contrast, our wildlife is benign, and many species use the ivy as a vital source of food and shelter. Another notable sight over the past month has been the red admirals nectaring on the ivy across the common lands.
The first wave of this beautiful red and black butterfly arrives each spring from North Africa and Europe. The immigrant females lay eggs and consequently there is an emergence of fresh butterflies from July onwards – and they keep flying into October, even November, helped in no short measure by the late source of nectar the wonderful ivy plant provides.
Ross Bentley, Trustee of the Sudbury Common Lands Charity