Ivy: An insect's lifeline

18 October 2016 | Posted in Insects , Plants
Ivy: An insect's lifeline
Red admiral on ivy / Bob Foreman

by Bob Foreman

Biodiversity Technical Officer

Although autumn is seen as the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, to many of our pollinating insect species it is a barren time. However, there is one incredibly familiar plant whose flowers become a lifeline to bees, wasps, hoverflies and butterflies - it is, of course, ivy.

Ivy is a rather bizarre plant. When young, it has deeply lobed leaves and its stems have aerial roots which attach themselves to more or less any surface to support the plant as it climbs. Once established, the ivy plant changes and it starts producing glossy, less lobed leaves on rootless stems and it is this growth that produces the plant’s invaluable flowers.

Individually, ivy flowers don’t look much, each one, on the end of a slender stem, being small, green and not very flower-like but they do produce copious amounts of nectar. On any warm sunny day in late autumn take a look at the activity around these flowers which will be alive with insects, especially the beautiful red admiral butterfly as well as its close relatives comma and painted lady. For some of these butterflies it is their last chance to feed before they find a sheltered spot in a garage or garden shed to overwinter. For others it’s an opportunity to refuel before migrating south to the warmer climes of continental Europe. The plant itself provides valuable shelter for overwintering butterflies and is particularly used by brimstone butterflies.

Ivy has an unfortunate reputation as a strangler of trees, this is completely unfounded. Okay, so it does have a tendency to increase a tree’s susceptibility to the wind but a healthy tree is more than capable of supporting vigorous ivy growth. I find it very sad when I see ivy-clad trees which have had the ivy stems cut and left to die. If you have an unruly ivy plant in your garden that needs cutting back, please consider the insects that are dependent on it first and wait until November at the earliest before getting out your shears.

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