12 Oct 2020

The importance of flowering ivy (Hedera helix)

Ardd Fotaneg · Botanic Garden

First of all, it is an important source of pollen and nectar for pollinators in autumn.

When a lot of flowering plants are starting to die off in late summer, ivy starts to produce yellow/green, strong-smelling blooms, so pollinators that are still on the wing use it to forage.

Late-flying butterflies, such as Red admirals (Vanessa atalanta) and Commas (Polygonia c-album), can be found nectaring on the flowers on sunny days when it is warm enough for them to fly.

Also, it feeds different species of fly, including the Common drone fly (Eristalis tenax) and Blue bottle (Calliphoria vomitoria). Social wasps can be found on ivy in large numbers, as well as honey bees (Apis mellifera). Our own research on honey shows that ivy is an important source of pollen for honey bees in September.

Additionally, ivy is used by a species which is relatively new to the UK – the Ivy mining bee (Colletes hederae). It is a solitary bee which arrived in the UK in 2001, and it is predominantly found in the south. However, it is starting to spread northwards. They tend to nest in large aggregations and predominantly forage for nectar and pollen on ivy flowers, so it is an important plant in terms of survival and expansion of this species and its current populations. It’s definitely a species to look out for if you live within or just on the outside of its current range!

Flowering ivy also acts as a refuge for wildlife. Birds and small mammals use it to seek shelter from bad weather, like the Robin (Erithacus rubecula), and its berries are an important food source for birds such as Blackbirds (Turdus merula) in the winter months when insects are hard to find.

Females of the Holly blue butterfly (Celastrina argiolus) lay eggs on the leaves of flowering ivy, which produces a summer generation of caterpillars, so they are quite reliant on its presence. The caterpillars start off green, and then turn more beige in colour as they become full grown, so they might be quite tricky to spot at first. Females of the Swallow-tailed moth (Ourapteryx sambucaria), which is pale green/yellow in colour, also lay their eggs on flowering ivy, as well as on a number of other plants.

If you want to attract more wildlife to your garden, whether that be birds, mammals or insects, flowering ivy is a great plant to have. You might already have some in your garden, and if you do, let it spread a bit more. You’ll enjoy watching the abundance of pollinators feeding from the flowers in autumn, as well as birds eating the berries in winter.

Also, keep an eye out for it here in the Garden! It’s buzzing with life at the moment. There are particularly large sections of it in the Double Walled Garden, as you head towards the Japanese Garden.

Take a look and see how many different species you can spot on it!