If you look at any ivy during the autumn there is a good chance that you will see bees on the flowers. They may look like honey bees but they are more likely to be the Ivy Mining Bee (Colletes hederae), which has a very different way of living.
Ivy Mining Bees can be seen feeding on ivy in late summer and early autumn, when it is in flower. Large numbers of these bees are attracted to the flowers and, because the females look very like honey bees, people sometimes think that they are all sisters from the same hive. In fact, the Ivy Mining Bee is quite different type of bee. They are a solitary species and each bee will have come from from its own individual nest.
Ivy Mining Bees are the last of the solitary bees to emerge each year, right at the end of summer when ivy is flowering. If you live in Southern England, they will probably be a familiar sight. You may not have seen them if you live further north because this bee is a relative newcomer to the UK. They were first seen on the south coast in 2001 and have since spread northward throughout England and Wales.
These bees build their nests underground, preferring to burrow into bare ground on south-facing slopes, which is how they get the ‘mining’ part of their name. They like patches of bear earth but may also nest in garden lawns and vegetable patches. Although solitary, they like to build their nests together, so the ground can be pockmarked with dozens or even hundreds of tiny volcano-like burrow entrances.
The males emerge first and compete with each other to mate with female bees. Often several males will cluster round a single female bee. Females excavate underground burrows. In the video, you can see a female bee carrying soil out of the burrow and moving it away from the entrance with her legs.
The female bees then lay their eggs in the burrows they have made. They overwinter in these burrows, protected from the coldest temperatures. The new generation will then emerge the following year
Identifying the Ivy Mining Bee
Female bees are about the same size as honey bees and can be slightly larger. They also have similar colouration to honey bees but have dense ginger hairs on their thorax and very distinctive orange/yellow stripes on their abdomen. The males are smaller and are very similar to other closely-related Colletes species. This makes them difficult to tell apart from other species, but if you spot a bee on ivy in early autumn, it’s probably the Ivy Mining Bee.