Did you know - according to the 2019 State of Nature report, 41% of UK species studied have declined and 133 species have already been lost since 1970. What can we do to help insects who are vital components of our ecosystem? With the continuing loss of greenfield sites to housing and industrial uses and the inability of modern farmland to support wildlife, pockets of wild habitat are real strongholds for so much of our native flora and fauna.
To some eyes, especially those who like a sense of control in their lives, such sites may appear to be an overgrown mess, maybe even an eyesore. They’re often termed "wastelands" which need clearing, landscaping and replanting with pretty shrubs and flowers. Please don’t!
Comma butterfly, one of four common species whose caterpillars feed on nettles
The neglected patch of ground alongside the Burnside Path in Kinghorn comprises a jungle of hogweed (not to be confused with giant hogweed), cow parsley, bramble, nettle, dog-rose, thistle, willowherb, red campion, honeysuckle, greater birds-foot trefoil, hop trefoil, hedge woundwort, mugwort, bush vetch, ox-eye daisy, white clover, field-speedwell, colt's foot and hedge bindweed. Bushes and trees include hawthorn, elder, sycamore, gorse and wych elm. All these plants grow there because they’re the native vegetation most suited to the environment and each one supports its own assemblage of invertebrate life. It’s a real haven for wildlife!
Common carder bee on coltsfoot
What can we do to help insects? Gardens can be extremely important habitats, especially in urban environments and even in the countryside, where they can be important oases in a sterile agricultural landscape. If you want to leave a patch of ground in the garden to go wild, that’s great. But you can still do a lot to help in the more managed areas. The conclusions of Plants for Bugs, a study by the Royal Horticultural Society, has some other useful pointers for gardeners and other land managers.
The best way to support a range of invertebrates in gardens and promote a healthy ecosystem is to choose plantings biased towards British native plants and encourage dense vegetation, while leaving some patches of bare soil.
Scaeva pyrastri, a hoverfly which visits from the Continent, sometimes in large numbers, seen here pollinating a fennel flower
To support a maximum number of pollinators such as bees and hoverflies, it's recommended to include a mixture of plants from different regions, with a focus on growing native plants but using exotic plants to extend the flowering season. There are often bees around in early Spring, but precious few sources of nectar for them.
Or you could just clear a patch of ground and sprinkle some wildflower seeds. There are lots of different mixes available – look for one that’s marked as good for pollinators. I cleared some grass from my garden and now sow wildflower seeds every Spring. In three years I’ve counted 30 different species of hoverfly, plus bees, butterflies, moths and lots of other insects. The more flowers a garden can offer, the greater the number of pollinating insects it will attract.
Garden Tiger moth, attracted to a wide range of garden plants
Cheer yourself up during these dark days of winter by making plans to welcome more wildlife into your gardens this year!