Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Nectar in November

Insect numbers have plummeted since the first hard frosts arrived about a week ago, but ivy provides an almost unlimited supply of food for those few that are still active. The flowers continue to open well into December, although many of them will never be pollinated and produce berries. 

The first ivy flowers that open in September are almost all pollinated and produce berries that ripen in March, like those on the right of the picture above, whereas those that open after the first frosts, after insect numbers decline, are much less likely to be fruitful - like those on the left in the image above.

If you take a close look at ivy flowers on humid autumn mornings you can see the glistening drops of nectar on the surface of the exposed nectary ....

.... that are easily accessible to all insect visitors, including this small fly - one of the few insects that's still active. Although it can reach the nectar reward it doesn't make effective contact with the stamens and isn't well equipped with body hairs to transport pollen to that stubby stigma in the centre of the flower.

A few years ago observations on the vast range of insects that visit ivy flowers - including bees, wasps, flies and butterflies - prompted a group of researchers to investigate which of these was the most effective pollinator (see details of source publication at the end of this post). 

This is an ecologically interesting question because successful pollination in autumn leads to prolifically berry production in spring, providing an important food resource for migratory birds at a time when they need it most. The survival of some berry-eating birds in spring could hinge on the performance of insect pollinators of ivy in the previous autumn 

The researchers found that the most effective ivy pollinators were wasps. 

You can see here that a wasp is more hairy than is often supposed and it's just the right size to collect pollen as it feeds. It acts as a brush, picking up pollen and distributing it was it crawls across the flower surface, indulging in its taste for sweet nectar. 

So maybe we should rethink our attitude to those pesky, drowsy wasps that can be a painful nuisance once they abandon their nests in autumn and set out in search of anything sweet. Their late-season activity may well be playing a significant role in the lives of migratory birds..........

Source: Jacobs, J.H., Clark, S., Denholm, I., Goulson, D., Stoate, C. And Osborne, J.L. (2010).  Pollinator effectiveness and fruit set in common ivy, Hedera helix (Araliaceae). Arthropod-Plant Interactions 4 (1), 19-28.

For more on wasps, click here.


  1. My front hedge Ivy attracted quite a range of insects. At one time an Asda delivery driver moaned about the number of wasps attracted. It did at least keep them pretty placid as there was plenty of nectar to go round.

    1. On the few occasions when I've been stung it has usually been because I've done something that threatened the wasp - I've always found that they're not aggressive as long as they're left to feed in peace..........

  2. Ivy is a very useful plant altogether, isn't it?

    1. Couldn't agree more - those waterproof evergreen leaves provide good cover for hibernating insects too............


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