Nature Notes October 2021

Ivy – a real winner in the garden

Ivy has everything including a bad reputation!

Here is a reminder of its virtues:

Ivy is a welcome late food source for pollinators. Photo taken November 2021
  • Evergreen.
  • Grows in the shade where few other plants grow.
  • Provides shelter for insects especially butterflies.
  • Provides shelter for small birds such as wrens when deciduous trees are bare.
  • An overwintering place for butterflies especially the Brimstone.
  • Flowers very late in the year-November/December. Therefore provides pollen and nectar for pollinating insects especially honey bees and late flying butterflies… Honey bees store some pollen in their hive as a source of protein for their young in the spring.
  • Berries provide winter food for blackbirds, thrushes and even fieldfares and redwings. The berries ripen when most other fruits have been eaten.
  • Flower buds provide food for the Holly Blue butterfly.

The brimstone butterfly Loves Ivy.

   The first butterfly to emerge and give us hope of spring with a new warmth in the air is the brimstone butterfly. This is because it is the only British butterfly to over winter as an adult rather than as a larva or caterpillar. Thus it needs to find a place to hibernate, a place that is sheltered and protected from predators and inclement weather. Of course ivy just fits the bill and that is where many brimstone butterflies hide.

The male brimstone is a bright yellow colour whilst the female is white.

A male brimstone taking nectar from one of its favourite early food sources –  the bluebell

To encourage brimstones in your garden it is important to have plants that flower and produce nectar early and in an accessible way. Spring flowering bulbs are very suitable. They are relatively cheap to buy, perennial and sometimes they naturalise. Examples are the tulip and the crocus,

Crocus with easy open access for gathering nectar       
The tulip has guide lines to indicate nectaries

   Adults spend much of their time feeding showing a preference for purple flowers especially thistles ( try cirsium rivulare purpurea that do not spread instead) Other nectar sources include betony, bugle, devil’s- bit  scabious, knapweeds, teasels, self-heal, vetches and marjoram.

   Female brimstones are very choosy about where to lay their eggs. In fact there is only one choice and that is Buckthorn on alkaline soils and alder buckthorn on acidic soils. Nature just caters for all!  The brimstone chooses buckthorn because its leaves are the only food that her caterpillar will eat. Even when a buckthorn is found she prefers and selects those that are isolated, sheltered and in full sun.

Buckthorn flowers and berries

The Brimstone only raises one brood each year. She lays eggs singly on the youngest buckthorn leaves and they hatch after one or two weeks. Now the hatched larva will go through five stages of growth called instars. After the fifth stage the larva pupates for about two weeks and then it emerges as an adult butterfly the whole process can take up to two months and that is why we see a welcome number of new brimstones in June or July which fly until it is time to hibernate and with good fortune the whole cycle begins again.

Autumn Plants as a Food Source to Attract Late Flying Pollinators

   In my garden these are the top 5 plants that have been attracting flying insects:

  1. Michaelmas daisies.(especially Little Carlow)
  2.  Caryopteris ( a late flowering shrub)
  3. Verbena bonariensisis
  4. Dahlia merkii (easily grown from saved seed)
  5. Echinaceae

Book Recommendation

The Wood for the Trees.The Long Vew of Nature from a Small Wood by Richard Forty.

   This is the sort of book where the amount read needs to be rationed because the reader does not want it to end. After a long working life spent in the Natural History Museum Richard Fortey felt that the time had come for him to escape into the open air. He and his wife bought a 4 acre wood ‘Grimm’s Dyke Wood ‘in the Chiltern Hills and this is his story of the wildlife in the wood no matter how small or large. He also links it with human life over centuries – the charcoal burners and the ‘bodgers’ (furniture makers.) The detail is quite remarkable and his love for and commitment to nature comes shining through and makes the reader also become much more aware of nature in all its aspects and to go out and really observe and get involved.

Old Man’s Beard (Clematis vitalba)

Old Man’s Beard or Traveller’s Joy sprawling and scrambling  up and up hedges

   This is the only native clematis to be found in the British Isles and it particularly likes the alkaline soils of our locality. Thus it can be seen festooned and sprawling all over hedges, trees and walls at this time of the year. The flowers are small, white, white and needle like but much loved by pollinators. In fact it is the seed heads that form in a massed tangle that look almost more like flowers.

Needle like flowers
Seed heads looking more like flowers.

End Piece

   Sadly it is the time for swallows to leave us and begin their arduous journey back to Africa and we must anticipate their return next spring.

   I hadn’t seen many swallows in Sandford this year because sadly and inexplicably some people do not like the mess left in their barns or sheds so they are excluded. I know of 2 traditional swallow homes that have been so treated.

    Anyway I found this group in Helen’s Way. Maybe they were preparing to leave as alot of preening was going on.

Apparently the longer the tail the more attractive males are to the female though I believe that they then mate for life. Young swallows are recognisable because they do not have long, forked tails yet.

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