I received a phone call yesterday for someone who appeared to have a swarm in their conservatory: hundreds of bees, all crawling up the windows. They’d arrived that afternoon and the gentleman had rung pest control who said they’d be along in the morning to gas them (!) but thankfully the homeowners decided against that option and asked me to come and fetch the bees.
Having been sent a photo and seen that indeed the bees were covering the windows, I couldn’t quite work out why the bees weren’t clustering, and thought perhaps they were a swarm that had ended up in the room through an open window, and some had flown off with the queen leaving behind some orphaned and consequently disoriented workers without their all-important queen pheromone to keep them together as a unit.
This is what greeted me on arrival:
Listen to the hum. Completely different to honeybees at a much lower pitch, and they seemed far too stripy, and I then twigged: ivy bees! Colletes hederae. They look very similar to honeybees and occur in large aggregations so are often confused with late swarms, but they are in fact solitary bees who emerge in late August to early September to coincide with the ivy blossoms, and because they like dry soil on south facing slopes, often occur in rockeries or lavender beds in people’s gardens or on the banks by car parks and the like. They look like very smart, crisp honeybees and are particularly noticeable for me as most of my bees are looking pretty tattered and worn out by this stage in the year! The males are the same colour but slightly smaller, and both sexes have a much more tawny coating on their furry thorax compared to honeybees.
So, how to get them out? They don’t sting and are not at all aggressive but there were an awful lot of them, and hadn’t seemed to clock the open doors and windows we had helpfully provided for them. The warmth was beginning to wake them up nicely and they insisted on climbing up that corner pane and dropping back to the sill rather than moving an inch to the right and going out of the top window. I didn’t know if they responded to smoke, and wasn’t about to try given the soft furnishings, and nor did I want to tempt them with honey. I set to work with a dustpan and brush, gently scooping them in to the pan and holding them in place with the brush. The bristles kept them in place so I could deposit them outside on the shrubs, where they soon flew off in search of some much needed nectar.
You can see how similar they look to honeybees, although they behave in a completely different manner, and smell different too.
Why were they in the house? I haven’t heard of this happening before so I would welcome any suggestions, but the couple’s son had dug up a tired lavender bush that afternoon, and the windows had ben cleaned both inside and out. I wondered if there was something in the detergent used which attracted the bees? If they had been disturbed from their nesting holes – solitary bees navigate the same way as other bees, by landmarks and sunlight – they might have become attracted to something inside the house. Needless to say, the windows are going to need a good clean but I suggested water with a splash of vinegar!
The bees soon revived once outside, and we watched them bouncing around on the lawn and in the flowerbeds reorienting themselves and getting on with the important business of foraging, mating, and provisioning their burrows with pollen to feed their young, which will emerge next year. Here they are:
Ivy bees were first recorded in the UK in 1993, and have been gradually colonising the south east. Today’s exercise shows the worth in taking care when tidying up the garden, and how valuable our own and public spaces are for wildlife if we can accommodate them. Decking, lawns, borders, pots, sheds and compost heaps all provide habitat if we are willing to share them so as well as planting good pollinator plants, you can also help by considering the ground in which you plant them.