Posted 10th Jul 2014
Set aside some time to bask in the sun this Wildlife Trusts: Our Garden Wildlife Weekend, from 12th to 13th July, and it’s likely your soundtrack will be the buzz of insects. This is no bad thing. By adopting a ‘live and let live’ philosophy, we allow equal measure of ‘guest’ and ‘pest’ insects into our gardens that come with all kinds of benefits
These creatures will determine what thrives, survives, deteriorates or dies in our garden. Any hasty action from us will affect this delicate and all-important equilibrium.
Despite some insects having a decidedly dodgy reputation, they are not all bad. Here are some you should certainly consider inviting to your garden party this summer.
Come on in…
Wasps might be considered to be pests by some – particularly at picnics – but the truth is the social wasp is of great use around the garden. Despite their reputation as fruit blemishing, stinging pests, they are good controllers of many garden pests, including flies and grubs. They are useful pollinators of flowers and, by the end of the summer, a nest may have consumed up to 250,000 insects. Solitary wasps also feed their young on flies, aphids and caterpillars and, therefore, should also be on our garden guest list.
Hoverflies are great garden ‘pest-catchers’ and in abundance this month. The adult mimics the wasp, with black and yellow stripes, but is completely harmless. Its maggot-like larva munches aphids by the dozen before emerging as an adult. Plants to attract hoverflies include the Michaelmas daisy, Phacelia, Sedum, Teasel, Angelica and Scabious.
Ladybirds are invaluable in the garden, both adult and larvae feed on destructive pests such as aphids, mealy bugs and mites. A ladybird can consume 5,000 aphids during its adult life.
Another 'must-have' insect is the lacewing, which also offers the wildlife gardener two for the price of one. Both the adult and ferocious looking larvae eat aphids, mites, leafhoppers and scale insects. Plant bright flowers, particularly yellows and purples, as these attract many beneficial insects.
Whilst watching pond skaters and water boatmen searching for food on the surface of our pond, the jewel in the crown of pest-controllers have to be the damselflies and dragonflies which are out in abundance.
As adults, they are big eaters and consume around 20 per cent of their bodyweight each day. They devour flying insects on our garden pest list, including flies, midges and mosquitoes. And with such beauty and the most stunning visual displays!
This is their breeding season, and you may see them mating in mid-air, or laying their eggs around the pond. They are most active in the middle of the day and on bright, sunny days.
Distinguish between dragonflies and damselflies by how they rest; dragonflies perch with their wings held out, while damselflies hold them alongside their body. If you get close enough to one at rest, you’ll notice dragonflies have a large spherical head, almost covered by its large eyes, while damselflies have far smaller eyes on either side of its rectangular head. In flight, dragonflies take a fast and direct path compared to the damselflies more lazy, zig-zagging pattern.
If your pond is fairly new, look out for the blue-tailed damselfly, it may be one of the first species to colonise new ponds. To attract these prehistoric beauties, your pond should be in a sunny and sheltered location. Use a mix of native aquatic vegetation such as pond weeds and crowfoot (submerged plants) and water-lilies and frogbit (floating leaved plants). Around the shallow margins, consider brooklime and water forget-me-not and taller emergent plants such as flowering rush and water mint.
The common blue damselfly is one of the most common species in the UK. Adult males are predominantly blue, spotted with black stripey markings. Adult females have larger areas of black and usually a green background, although they too can be blue! Whichever species you spot, it’s certainly a great way to pass the time as you relax in the sunshine.
Tips and things to do...
Bear fruit for bees
Although the best remaining places for bumblebees are where there are still large expanses of wild flower grassland, we can all do our bit to help bees by providing the right sort of food and shelter in our own backyards, gardens and neighbourhoods.
Many bumblebees, of which there are 24 species, now rely heavily on gardens which provide an abundance of flowers through the season. If we ensure we plant bee-friendly flowers we may attract as many as six or seven different types. Their preferred food plants depend on the length of their tongues.
Short-tongued bees, such as the buff-tailed bee, favour shallow flowers while long-tongued varieties, like the garden bumblebee Bombus hortorum, take advantage of the deeper blooms. So it is important to grow a range of different things throughout the bumblebee season from March to mid-September. A mix of native wildflowers and traditional cottage garden flowers are best.
In early spring, plants like lungwort or small comfreys may see the hairy-footed flower bee darting from bloom to bloom. Many bees are limited to particular habitats or even particular wild flowers, for example, a mining bee called Colletes halophilus is only found on saltmarsh, where it collects pollen only from sea aster.
There’s no place like home
Most bees nest in hollows in the ground, burrow into cliffs or masonry, or use holes in wood.
It doesn’t take long to provide a ‘des res’ for solitary bees – the installation of a tin can with straws inside may prove successful. What is important is to ensure the positioning is right – it needs to be south-facing and hanging at chest height or higher. (Nick Baker, The Wildlife Trusts’ Vice President, shows you how here
Each bee species has its own preference, though a large number dig burrows in patches of bare ground. Some bumblebee species like to nest in old mouse burrows, which they may be able to find by the smell. The attractive red and black bee, known as Osmia bicolor, makes its nests in old snail shells on grassland, laying eggs in a series of cells which it builds inside the shell. The hairy-footed flower bee likes to nest in old walls or dry, sandy banks and the fairly common red mason bee, a friend in the garden as it is particularly important in pollinating fruit trees, gets its name because it often nests in old walls.
Images courtesy of The Wildlife Trusts Jon Dunkelman, Richard Bowler, Jamie Hall, Penny Frith