It’s the last day of September, the sun is shining from an almost cloud-free sky and the air enfolds us in its gentle warmth. Sun loungers have been dragged unexpectedly out of pastel-coloured beach huts, couples stroll along the promenade arm in arm and one or two children shriek with delight as they run in and out of the waves washing over the long sandy beach. This is Goodrington Sands near Paignton in south Devon.
At one end of the promenade, the ground rises steeply to Roundham Head, a grass-topped promontory lined by red cliffs that interrupts the otherwise smooth, semi-circular sweep of Torbay. The south-facing side of the headland is home to the Cliff Gardens with its terraced flower beds, zigzag paths and mild microclimate supporting many tender sub-tropical plants. Even at the lowest time of the year, there are colourful flowers to be seen and a colony of winter bumblebees flourishes, nurtured by the almost year-round supply of pollen and nectar.
The flat grassy surface of the promontory eventually gives way to residential streets but before suburbia takes over completely, there is an unkempt transitional zone of rough vegetation, trees and tall, red-brick walls, mostly covered in dark green ivy. The old walls define a mosaic of grassy rectangular spaces and, nowadays, the area is popular with dog walkers but there is an intriguing, curved-top gateway in one wall, hinting at older usages. These walls are, in fact, the remnants of kitchen gardens once associated with a nearby Victorian villa. The house is still there, now a care home with panoramic views across Torbay, having turned its back on its former kitchen garden.
About a year ago, I visited Roundham Head and found the old walls with their ivy covering in full flower and, among the many insects feeding there, I saw a large number of ivy bees. The ivy bee (Colletes hederae) is the last solitary bee to emerge each year in the UK. It is a very distinctive insect with its yellow and black-striped pointy abdomen and chestnut-haired thorax and its presence is a clear sign that the seasons are changing. I looked for the main nest area and was unable to find it but I promised myself that I would return in 12 months’ time to look more .
Today I park in a street bordering the old kitchen garden. Ivy cascades over the wall by the car and, for a few weeks at this time of year, it assumes a different guise, concealing its dark green mystery beneath a frothy coat of hundreds of spherical yellowish-green flower heads. A closer look reveals that the flower heads consist of up to twenty small greenish flowers, each resembling miniature ice cream cones and topped with five yellow-tipped stamens. The flowers are rich sources of late season nectar and pollen and they advertise their wares via a sickly-sweet scent that fills the surrounding air. I find the scent a bit cloying but the insects love it; they follow the scent’s siren call and, in today’s strong sunshine, the ivy is thronged with constantly moving insects flying to and fro, ignoring me to the extent that we sometimes collide. An insistent low buzz comes from the ivy and with all this movement the air seems to be suffused with a liquid energy. This same energy abounds wherever the ivy is in flower on these old walls.
Among the insects enjoying the ivy, I notice flies, hoverflies, common wasps, one or two bumblebees and honey bees, one red admiral butterfly and hundreds of ivy bees. The male ivy bees move around edgily, mostly flying about the site but sometimes stopping to feed on nectar, sometimes pausing on a leaf in the sun to preen and rest. They are slightly smaller than honeybees and superficially similar to common wasps although their black and yellow patterning is quite different. The females, noticeably larger than the males, carry chunks of chrome yellow ivy pollen on their back legs and abdominal hairs but continue feeding as they scramble about the flowers. Sometimes their feeding is disturbed by a hopeful male attempting to mate, but they show no interest in these new suitors. There are huge banks of ivy here and also in the nearby Cliff Gardens and that means many, many ivy bees.
But where are the nests? In previous visits, I had found only one small nest area in some exposed red soil along the cliff-side path descending from Roundham Head to Goodrington so that’s where I begin today. Sure enough there are still holes in the cliff face together with crumbly soil suggesting active nests. Around these holes there are many ivy bee males “dancing” in the sunshine. They fly about incessantly, swinging from side to side, occasionally stopping to look into one of the holes but emerging unsuccessfully. While it’s a memorable sight, I can find no females and the nest seems to be too small to account for all the bees on the ivy so I decide to walk down to the beach at Goodrington to take stock.
There’s a light breeze now, playing across the sea creating a gentle swell, and the view across the water towards Brixham and its breakwater is crystal clear. As I turn away from the beach, I see a steep path leading down from the headland which I had missed before – I decide to take a look. The path is bordered on one side by a low bank covered in short, rough grass and the red soil in the bank is peppered with many holes; a slew of crumbly soil spills out of some of them showing that these are active burrows. There are many hundreds of male ivy bees “dancing” above the bank and checking out the holes. The area covers about ten metres by half a metre and there must be hundreds of nests. This is what I had been looking for, a large, very active, aggregation of nests which looks big enough to support a huge number of ivy bees. I am transfixed by the sight, but it gets better.
The males seem particularly edgy and I’ve come to realise that this is an expression of a pent-up sexual energy. They “dance” about the nest area waiting to mate with a female and sometimes they get so excited they even try to mate with one another, not a clever move. Then on several occasions I notice the males suddenly congregating to form a rough ball. Other males soon rush to join the melee rather like rugby players in a ruck. Somewhere in the middle there must be a new female who has just emerged from one of the burrows. The males are trying frantically to mate with her but only one will be successful and I notice one copulating couple fly off together, still attached.
There is also a slow but steady stream of females returning to the nest area loaded with yellow pollen collected from the ivy. They have come to deposit the pollen in their burrow as food for their larvae but finding their nest looks a bit hit and miss. Some approach the nest area and fly around for a short time before landing and making their way on foot. Others seem to crash land and then pull themselves together after a short rest. The males show no interest in these females as they have already mated. All this activity will continue for several more weeks until this year’s ivy bees die, leaving their larvae to develop into new bees in their burrows ready to emerge in 12 months’ time when the ivy again covers itself in flowers.
I am completely absorbed by watching these bees and it’s like being in another world: smaller than ours but with its own rules and rituals. But suddenly I look up – just twenty metres below me, people are crowding around a kiosk selling Devon Farmhouse ice-cream. Dogs dash along the hard sand and splash in the water. A steam train struggles up the bank towards Kingswear hauling chocolate and cream coaches filled with late season holidaymakers. It’s time for me to leave the bees to their important work and go in search of an ice-cream.
Philip Strange is a writer, scientist and naturalist who lives in south Devon. His writing has been published in The Curlew, The Canary, Resurgence and Ecologist Magazine and in Guardian blogs.
He may be found searching for unusual plants on Chesil Beach, or looking for rare bees by the south west coast path, or chasing up a story about science in everyday life in the west country. Or you can look at his blog: https://philipstrange.wordpress.com/
The header image to this essay is a male ivy bee. All photographs in this piece are by Philip Strange.