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  • Writer's pictureHarry

Ivy - not glamorous but great for wildlife

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

A place to live and lots to eat - coming to a wall near you!

A honeybee feeding on an ivy flower
A honeybee on an ivy flower - with a load of pollen

Even though it's getting colder and the garden is slowing down, I love autumn. But autumn is a challenging time for our pollinators. It's cold, it's wet and there are no flowers - or are there?

Ivy is all around us and it's easy to dismiss, dig up or cut down. This unsung wildlife hero deserves more love.

Ivy (Hedera helix) is one of the most common and widespread climbing plants in the UK. Apart from acid soils, it will grow almost anywhere. The small (and I have to say rather boring) green flowers appear really late in the year - from the end of September until frosts of November. In mild winters fresh flowers can appear right up until Christmas. They are the last important nectar source for honeybees and other pollinators such as hoverflies.

Just as importantly, once the flowers are done, grey berries appear. These are high in calories; gram for gram they contain as many calories as a Mars bar. They appeal to lots of our garden birds - including blackbirds, thrushes and redwings. Earlier in the year its leaves are the food plant for butterfly and moth caterpillars. Despite its name the Holly Blue butterfly caterpillar feeds on ivy leaves too. Ivy also provides shelter. It's a great nesting place for robins and it is a place for insects to hibernate. Whats not to like?


Honeybees gather nectar and pollen from ivy flowers - giving the colony a valuable autumn boost before winter. Buff tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) forage on it too. Mild winters mean that they can now sometimes raise a second generation of queens and ivy is really useful to them. The ivy bee (Colletes hederae) only gets pollen from ivy so it is essential for this little bee.

P.S. It's a myth that ivy kills trees and damages walls. It is not a parasite and so can't harm a tree by sucking its sap, say. It can though, grow really large. It can get heavy and the ivy's large surface area can act like a big sail - catching the wind and possibly helping to pull down an already weak tree. Whilst ivy may take advantage of holes in walls, research suggests that it actually protects the wall by acting as a thermal blanket - regulating moisture and locking in pollutants.

Rather than risk your tree, give the ivy a good haircut by cutting it close to the trunk. Admittedly, you'll have to cut it again in a few years time but I think that's better than cutting it down altogether. Trim it in February when all the berries have gone and before birds start nesting.

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