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Ivy: the last nectar feed before winter...



What's on the Ivy?

Some of you may have seen some people hanging about with clipboards in hand near the wall next to the tunnel at the entrance to the University. This is all to do with a research project looking at how flower visitors speed from one flower to another in a given time frame feeding on/or collecting a valuable sugary energy source. This is called nectar and is produced by plants to attract insects. These insects whilst feeding, will pick up pollen particles from the stamen and transfer the pollen from one flower to another, and so help the plant to reproduce. Some insects also feed on the pollen.

 A feeding wasp by John Kimbler

Now ivy is a common and widespread native British plant that flowers in the autumn. It is in fact the main autumn source of pollen and nectar for flower-visiting insects. Flowers are only produced on mature ivy, which has oval leaves. The well-known five pointed leaves are found on immature ivy, which does not have flowers. The flowers are not showy, and many people are unaware that ivy even has flowers.

This slide show 'Identifying Insects on Ivy Flowers' will help you identify the main types of insects that visit ivy flowers. The most abundant are generally honey bees, social wasps, hover flies, and flies. Bumble bees, other bees, solitary wasps, butterflies generally occur in smaller numbers, or not at all. In southern England you may also see the beautiful ivy bee, which has recently colonized Britain from Europe. It does not live in colonies. Each female builds a small nest in the soil.

 Wasp by John Kimbler

We have also produced a pamphlet with photos of the main types of insects that you can download here and print - Appreciating Ivy and Its Insects

The Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects, LASI, is hoping to get the public involved in identifying insects on ivy as a way of monitoring pollinating insects in the UK. 

LASI has been doing research on ivy and the insects that visit its flowers:

In 2011 and 2012 LASI PhD student Mihail Garbuzov and Professor Francis Ratnieks carried out a project in Sussex on ivy and ivy flowers. Ivy blooms in the autumn. This project was published on-line in Insect Conservation & Diversity in April 2013. Although ivy flowers are small and green and not attractive to humans, they produce a lot of pollen and nectar and are very attractive to pollinating insects and attract a wide range of insect types including honey bees, other bees, hover flies, other flies, late season butterflies like the Red Admiral, and wasps. One reason why ivy is so important for pollinating insects is that it is abundant and widespread. We surveyed 20 areas, each 200m by 200m. Flowering ivy was present in 10/10 of the urban areas and 6/10 of the rural areas. At a national scale, ivy is found throughout the UK. The project showed that nearly 90% of the pollen collected by honey bees in the autumn was from ivy. It is also an important source of nectar, and 80% of the honey bee foragers we saw on ivy flowers were collecting nectar not pollen, as they did not have pollen in their baskets.     


Garbuzov, M., Ratnieks, F. L. W. 2013. Ivy: an underappreciated key resource to flower-visiting insects in autumn. Insect Conservation & Diversity (published on line April 2013).

Photo credit: John Kimbler