At home in Preston I would have smiled, enjoyed it and gone back inside with no idea what type of bee it was; but being at my parents means there is a field guide to everything on hand and within a minute we had Bumblebees (3rd Edition) open and were discussing possible options.
We quite quickly decided that what we could see was a Bombus hypnorum, more commonly know as a Tree Bee. It's quite distinct with a white bottom, orange/red head and upper part and black lower body. After a bit more reading we discovered that it is an introduced (either by accident or on purpose) species and has been recorded in the UK since 2001. During the last 11 years it has spread across the country and is now commonly found throughout south east and central England. It is native to mainland Europe and has a wide range including parts of Arctic Russia!
|Bombus hypnorum by André Karwath, via Wikimedia Commons|
It seems likely that the bee we saw was a queen as they are the first to emerge in February and early March with others appearing throughout spring. With a range of habitats from woodland to gardens and scrubby grasslands this species is very adaptable but currently seems to be living in harmony with other native bee species.
It's amazing what you can find and learn in only a few minutes if you really pay attention to the world around you. I would have walked straight passed the bee if it hadn't been pointed out to me. And the bee seemed quite oblivious to us too, buzzing around the ivy and enjoying the warm sunshine. I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for the nature around me more in future!