Let ivy create a buzz...

An ivy bee pictured by local wildlife photographer Tom Speller (@tomray31)

An ivy bee pictured by local wildlife photographer Tom Speller (@tomray31) - Credit: Archant

Rupert Evershed reflects on childhood memories of ivy, and explains its benefits to wildlife.

The shed that needs a haircut

The shed that needs a haircut - Credit: Archant

One of my enduring memories from my schooldays is of the walk to school every morning down a path that ran alongside an ivy-clad wall. At this time of year the morning walk would carry with it that damp scent and autumn chill as the late sun did battle with the dew of dawn.

The ivy-clad wall was silent, obscured by the busy thoughts of the day ahead and its own inherent obscurity. However, come the mid-afternoon walk back from school, the sun would have banished any lingering moisture and warmed the wall such that it sprang to life with the hum and buzz of a thousand or more insects.

In places the path was narrow and my friends and I couldn’t help notice that many of the insects were wasps of the stinging variety! Throughout September and into October we would walk hastily past this section of the wall, holding our breath, ready to run lest we became the subject of the swarming wasps’ attention. But we never did and this is because, at this time of year, something better is on offer: ivy flowers, with their irresistible nectar and pollen!

Ivy is one of the last plants to flower in the seasonal cycle and therefore provides a welcome source of sugar for a huge array of insects, even into November.

In our garden, we have an old potting shed that has, through neglect, become completely covered in ivy. We sometimes comment that the shed now needs a haircut as the ivy bushes over the roof completely hiding the tiled pitched roof. At some point we will have to renovate the shed, perhaps even take it down, but for now it remains a character-ful token of yesteryear and with that an incredible haven for wildlife.

Approaching the mountain of ivy on a sunny autumn afternoon and the humming of insects can be heard immediately. On closer inspection almost every cluster of ivy flowers is occupied with bumble and honey bees, solitary bees, wasps, blue bottles and other flies. Of particular delight are four red admiral butterflies that bask in the sunlight, fluttering from flower to flower, and feeding up before migrating south for the winter or maybe perhaps opting instead to hibernate in the shed itself.

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I love the natural abundance that this heap of ivy on the old shed brings. It is not just the ivy flowers that create a buzz but later in the winter months, woodpigeons will flap and fluster, feasting on the ivy berries. Come spring and summer the wrens and robins will nest in the ivy and find food on their doorstep in the form of a multitude of creepy crawlies living in amidst the clinging tendrils. Without this untidy mop the garden would be a lot less rich in wildlife and so it stays for the moment.

For me, it is a beacon in the midst of ‘tidying’ and sadly sterilizing development all around us in which ivy (and wasps for that matter) are often viewed with almost phobic dislike.

Surveyors’ reports have traditionally suggested that the presence of ivy is a potential threat to buildings and this of course can unduly worry homebuyers. However, more recently, studies by English Heritage with the National Trust and English Nature have challenged the perception that ivy is a building destroyer finding evidence that ivy on walls may actually offer a degree of weather-proofing.

Given the wealth of wildlife attracted by and accommodated by ivy in our gardens and on our buildings we would do well to manage its spread rather than simply eradicate it. In part, the reward of doing so will be the attraction and enjoyment of otherwise absent species such as the ivy bee – recently colonized from the continent – and the holly blue butterfly, that lays its eggs on ivy in the summer. In no less part, the reward is also in the knowledge that this small consent to nature (even with its much maligned ivy and associated wasps) is one step in the right direction, away from the ‘sterile planet’ predicted by Sir David Attenborough should we, as the human race, fail to act in favour of nature.