Tag Archives: ivy bees

Autumn bees

You’d probably expect to see less bees flying as summer gives way to autumn, and it’s true that the leafcutters, wool carder bee and many mining bees have gone. But if you have late flowering blooms you may see plenty of bumblebee queens stocking up on nectar before searching for a cosy winter hideaway, and smaller common carder bee workers (many faded from the sun) are still out in force.

The star of the month has to be the ivy bee. Find a patch of flowering ivy (yes, mature ivy is smothered in tiny white flowers later this month) and observe. You’ll see lots o insects, including hover flies, wasps and honeybees, but if you’re patient you’re hopefully see Ivy bees too. This short-lived solitary bee emerges just before the ivy flowers and disappears shortly after. It was first recorded in the UK, just over 20 years ago.

We’ve included honeybees in our guide this month, despite the fact they are managed bees. There are two reasons:

1. You’ll see lots on flowers in your garden because it’s their last chance to collect nectar and turn it into their winter stores of honey.

2. It’s easy to confuse ivy bees and honeybees when they are both on the ivy flowers. So carefully examine the photos above and ID notes below to tell them apart.

Tips for IDing September bumblebees:

  • Tree bumblebees (Bombus hypnorum) – if you’ve been bee spotting all summer, you may be quite adept at identifying tree bumblebees by now with their ginger thorax, black abdomen and white tails. Perhaps you’ve even had them nesting in a bird box in your garden. However, I’ve not seen one all year! They seem to have disappeared from London but are doing well further north. Is it too hot for it down here now? They usually have two generations each summer so if you see any flying this month they will be new queens, workers and males from the second 150-strong colony. The only difference in appearance between the queen, males and workers (known as the three castes) is their size. Queens are a larger 15mm, males 13mm and workers 11mm.
  • Buff-tailed bumblebee(Bombus terrestris) our most common bumblebee, has two generations in the summer and even a third which flies during the winter in the south of England. However at this time of year, I find them much less ubiquitous than common carder bees. This may be because only the huge mated queens (18mm) are flying, stocking up on nectar and looking for a suitable nesting site to raise a new colony in the south, or further north, the queens are stocking up on nectar and looking for a suitable place to overwinter.
  • Red-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lapidarius) – increasingly rare in London, but easily recognisable when you do get a glimpse. The males, (12mm) which are flying now are one of our prettiest bees with their yellow facial hair and red bottoms. The queens are much more dramatic, dressed in black with a fiery red butt. In the south, queens can produce a second colony of up to 300 bees, so it’s this second generation there are now flying. The queen is one of our biggest bumblebees: measuring 17mm. Workers are a smaller version of the queen(12mm). The only plant I’ve seen them on this year is the yellow flowers of Bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) on the 11th floor of an office block in central London!

Other bumblebees you’re likely to see this month are Common carder bees (Bombus pascuorum) seem even more common at this time of year. Queens that began producing worker bees in April are now producing new queens and males so they are flying too . The castes all have the same ginger pile on their thorax, but their fluffy bodies can vary in colour from light to dark brown as they fade with age. They are the smallest bumblebees flying in September.

How to ID September solitary bees:

  • Large-headed resin bees (Heriades truncorum) – a small (5mm), black robust bee often seen at this time of year in the south of England on yellow composite flowers like sunflowers. The easiest way to distinguish it from other small, black bees is that it carries pollen on the underside of its abdomen (like a leafcutter). And it make its nest in a pre-existing cavity in wood. After she has laid her eggs in the cavity, she plugs it with tiny bits of grit and stone that she collects and then glues it all together with resin collected from nearby trees. You can help this bee by drilling holes into wooden logs and attaching them to a wall. See how to make a nest for this bee. Fascinating fact: She is found in Europe and the east coast of the United States and is thought to have possibly been introduced in the UK by Victorians in imported wood )
  • Ivy bee (Colletes hederae) – one of the highlights of autumn is being able to spot an ivy mining bee. To the untrained eye, they can look deceptively like a honeybee, especially as they are both found on mass buzzing around nectar-rich ivy flowers in the south of England and Wales. However, look closely and you’ll see the ivy bee sports a quiff of orange hair on its thorax and its body has much more defined and shiny segmented bands in buff and brown alternate colours. Ivy bees are also a little smaller (10mm) than honeybees (14mm). Ivy bees are the last solitary bee to emerge in the UK. The males first, in late August, or early September, and females a couple of weeks later. They can gather nectar (and the females pollen) from a variety of late flowers before the ivy flowers, but the easiest way to see them is to inspect the tiny white ivy flowers. Ivy bees belongs to the Colletes family, which mine into the ground to make their nests – often next door to each other in very large numbers – and they line their nest with a cellophane-like waterproof and fungus-resistant substance, which is why Colletes are also called plasterer bees. If you have a south-facing slope with light soil you may see hundreds, even thousands, of these bees emerging from their individual nests. It is easy to forget that they are solitary bees. As you can see on this great video from the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. Fascinating fact – the Ivy bee was only described as a separate species in 1993 and wasn’t discovered in the UK until 2001 in Dorset. Unlike the other newcomer, the Tree bumblebee, Ivy bees aren’t thought to have spread to the north of England. But if you see one beyond the Midlands, please report your sighting to BWARS (Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society).
  • Pantaloon bee (Dasypoda hirtipes) – I always associate this sand-loving mining bee (9-11mm in length) with beaches because of the way she uses her large, rather comical oversized pollen brushes on her hind legs, known as ;pantaloons’ to dig a hole for nesting in coastal dunes. But she is just as happy on sandy brownfield sites in mainly southern England and Wales. Her nest can be distinguished from other burrowing bees by the large fan of sandy spoil she leaves to one of side of the hole. You can see how making her nest in this great video.
  • Common furrow bee (Lasioglossum calceatum) – these small solitary bees (9mm) with an elongated black shiny body have been flying since early spring. So there is no excuse for not recognising them in daisies and geranium flowers. The ones you will be seeing now are males and females that were born in July and can fly until October. They makes nests in the ground.
  • Green furrow bee (Lasioglossum morio) – another small (5mm), black solitary bee, but this one has a green metallic hue. But you can only really see this if you have a net to catch the bee and put it into a glass tube and then study it with an eye glass. I’m not confident catching bees in a net, but I was fortunate enough to go out a few times this summer with an ecologist who was. And I got to see some of these bees close up in a tube and could clearly see the green. They are widespread and we found them eight floors up on London rooftops foraging on hebes and a wildflower called Hoary willowherb (Epilobium parviflorum).
  • Fascinating fact: Both of these burrowing, furrow bees can display primitively eusocial behaviour, which means the early flying females in warm climates are actually queen bees that in early summer produce workers. These worker bees will collect nectar and pollen for the new females and males that are born later in the summer.

Another solitary bee you may still see this month is the tiny Common yellow-faced bee (Hylaeus communis) – these small (5mm) predominately black bees with tiny yellow spots or a triangle on their face has been a familiar sight in gardens since mid summer (if you’ve been able to spot such a diminutive bee). They plaster their nests, but unlike other bees collect pollen in a special stomach, called a crop, and regurgitate it to make a semi-liquid mixed with pollen to feed the larvae. Fascinating fact: They have been observed blowing bubbles of nectar to evaporate the water. This is known as water homeostasis and it concentrates and thickens the nectar/pollen mixture making it tacky like honey. The bees eggs and larvae ‘stick’ to its surface, unlike many other solitary bee larvae which ‘sit’ on top of the more solid pollen mixture. Here is a video of the bubble blowing. (Thanks to Nurturing Nature and Api:Cultural for the info and footage).

How to help bees in September

  1. Plant flowers that bloom this month to provide important late sources of nectar and pollen. Sedum, Michaelmas daisy, dahlia, fuchsia, Devil’s bit scabious, Coreopsis (Tickseed) Perovskia Blue Spire, commonly known as Russian sage, and wild marjoram (Origanum) are all good, and don’t forget Common sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), the solitary bees favourite, according to Rosybee nursery’s fantastically helpful research . A particular fav in our garden is Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ a slug-proof sunflower, and of course, the Geranium Rozanne is still going strong! For the long-tongued bumblebees, black horehound, salvias, buddleia and hemp agrimony are still flowering.
  2. The best late forage for short-tongued honeybees and Ivy bees without a doubt is ivy. But ivy only flowers when it is mature and that can take 11 years! So if you have any sprawling ivy that needs a trim, please don’t cut it back until after it’s flowered this month.
  3. If you only have a window box, Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus), trailing nasturtium and bird’s-foot trefoil are still flowering. Add sedum and annuals such as cosmos and snap dragons. If you grow herbs in pots and window boxes, let the mint and oregano keep flowering.
  4. Gather seeds Store them in labelled paper bags in a cool, dry place for sowing or scattering next spring. Or, just scatter them around your garden now while the soil is still warm. Lightly rake the soil, scatter the seeds, cover them with fine soil and firm down.
  5. Leave parts of the garden undisturbed, as ground nesting bumblebee queens may be looking for a snug place to overwinter and don’t chop down old, dead stems that solitary bees may have laid eggs in.
  6. Boost your wildflower meadow . If you haven’t already done your summer cut, do it now, scarify the cut meadow to expose bare soil where seeds can grown, then add yellow rattle seeds to suppress grasses taking over next year. Finally, add perennial plug plants of wild flowers that will grow well in the soil and feed bees.
  7. Ditch the weed killers and pesticides. 
  8. Take semi-ripe cuttings if you are patient and want to propagate heathers, ivy, Mahonia, Escallonia, flowering-currents, verbena, penstemon and salvias. The cuttings should be ready to pot on next spring.
  9. Create a bank of sand mixed with some clay soil against a south facing wall, or a free-standing mound, for mining bees which like to burrow into sand. It needs to be about 400mm deep. Create steps in the sand as some bees like to nest vertically and others horizontally. The clay will help the bank to keeps its shape after the bees have tunnelled into it. If you’re lucky you may get ivy mining bees nesting in it this autumn next door to each other in large neighbourhoods.
  10. Drill holes in blocks of wood – 10mm, 8mm, 6mm and 4mm diameters and up to 30 cm deep (although some bees only need a depth of a few centimetres to nest in) – and screw them to a sturdy support. Drill holes in existing structures such as fence posts, or dead trees. Large-headed resin bees, scissor bees and yellow-faced bees may take up residence, but probably not until next year.
  11. Keep a look out for Asian hornets which are now in the south of the UK and could have a severe impact on our wild bee populations. Report any sightings using the Asian Hornet Watch App.

For information on IDing and helping bees earlier in the year see my Bees to See in August blog here,  Bees to See in July blog hereBees to See in June blog here,  Bees to See in May blog here and Bees to See in April blog hereBees to See in March blog here.