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Ivy: an autumnal magnet for pollinators

24th September 2020

While most wildflowers have finished for the year, Autumn is the time when Ivy bursts into life. Explore the value of this underappreciated plant for flower-visiting insects in a new article by Charlotte Rankin

Ivy © Charlotte Rankin

Green Shieldbug © Ryan Clark

While most wildflowers have finished flowering for the year, Autumn is the time of year when Ivy comes to life and blooms. Often a victim of bad press, the huge wildlife value of Ivy is largely under-appreciated. As an abundant and widespread flowering plant across the North East and Britain, Ivy is an invaluable food source for flower-visiting insects. In turn, the berries that are produced provide an important winter food supply for birds.

From late summer through to late autumn, Ivy produces small globes of nectar- and pollen-rich flowers that can occur in their masses. Whilst not the showiest of flowers, hundreds of insects are drawn to Ivy flowers on warmer autumnal days. Flowering late in the year when most wildflowers are no longer in flower, Ivy is an invaluable late-season food source for pollinating insects. A huge array of species can be observed including butterflies, moths, flies, wasps and bees either foraging on its flowers, basking on its warm leaves or feeding on the invertebrates visiting it. Ivy also serves as a final bounty for those insects building up their reserves to overwinter such as queen bumblebees and wasps. Over 70 insect species have been recorded to feed on Ivy flowers in previous studies and this figure is likely an underestimate.

Other insect species may visit Ivy while in bloom, not for the plant itself, but for the invertebrate prey attracted to the flowers. Many invertebrate species also feed on other parts such as the leaves and buds. For instance, nine species of butterfly and moth in the region feed on Ivy as caterpillars including the Holly Blue butterfly and Swallow-tailed moth. Ivy supports an interconnected network of species and, as the most abundant and widespread late-flowering species, Ivy is considered a ‘keystone’ species for flower-visiting insects in the autumn.

Ivy visitors to observe this autumn

There are a number of distinctive species that can be observed visiting Ivy flowers. Common Wasps (Vespula vulgaris) are generally the most abundant visitors and are considered key pollinators of Ivy, but there are a wide range of insect species that can be observed.

Butterflies and moths

On sunny days, late-season butterflies such as the familiar Red Admiral and Comma can be found nectaring on its flowers. In the evening, look out for moths visiting its flowers such as Angle Shades and other autumnal species.

Red Admiral © Charlotte Rankin

Hoverflies

Over 30 species of hoverfly can be recorded feeding on Ivy flowers. The Batman Hoverfly (Myathropa florea) is particularly abundant, named after the ‘batman logo’ marking on its thorax. The Hornet Hoverfly (Volucella zonaria), an impressive and uncommon species in the region, can also be observed feeding on its flowers.

Bees

Honeybees (Apis mellifera) and bumblebees forage on Ivy for both nectar and pollen. The Ivy Bee (Colletes hederae), a solitary bee that first arrived in the region in 2019, times its emergence with the flowering of Ivy. With Ivy as its main pollen and nectar source, the availability of Ivy is key to this species’ survival. The first regional record of this species was from Whitburn (County Durham) in 2019 and is a species that will likely increase its distribution quickly across the region. Do lookout for these gingery and striped bees on Ivy across the North East and submit your sightings to map the spread of this species in the region.

Ivy Bee © Ryan Clark

The berries produced as result of pollination provides berry-laden bushes for birds throughout the winter months. At least 15 bird species in Britain are known to feed on its berries including winter-visiting thrushes such as Redwing and Fieldfare. Even Roe Deer are recorded to feed on its berries alongside its leaves during winter. Providing both late-season flowers and the resulting berries, Ivy provides an invaluable source of food throughout the more difficult months of the year. As forage, shelter and nesting habitat, Ivy supports a wide range of species from the invertebrates to the birds and larger mammals.

This autumn, look out for insects visiting your local ivy patches and please share your sightings with us via email at nhsn@ncl.ac.uk or via our social media platforms.