Friendly Gardening

BugLifeWildlifeGardening

I had an email this morning from Buglife, reminding me that I should be planning my garden for the coming spring and summer with due regard for our bees and other insects.

As my readers will surely know by now, I love insects and other invertebrates, and in particular I love hoverflies. I even have a soft spot for spiders, which my Other Half regards as a bit of a double edged sword, because though I will remove spiders from his vicinity and relocate them outdoors, I am also tolerant of their presence and seldom actually do so unless he asks me. Don’t tell him, but there’s an interesting little guy living in a pot in our conservatory, and I’m waiting at least until I can photograph and identify him before I want to even consider removing him. Besides, he eats the weevils that we managed to import with some bird food and which now appear to have colonised the conservatory1.

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Rice Weevil, Sitophilus oryzae

So I took a look at the Buglife page about wild-life gardening and took a screenshot to post on the Sparking Synapse Facebook page with a link to their site. It has some useful tips, and it’s well worth considering. A manicured garden is all very lovely – and fair enough, many people just want the pretty flowers and the smooth lawn – but it does little for wildlife, and since most farmers these days are also doing very little for wildlife2, those of us with gardens really need to think about taking up the slack.

What’s in it for you? Well, I’m willing to bet that you don’t much care for aphids, am I right? Inviting hoverflies into your garden will take care of that for you, because there are dozens of the little darlings whose larvae eat quite prodigious amounts of the blighters. My roses had a grand total of no aphids at all last year, not after the hoverflies found them. Providing a safe place for hedgehogs to hibernate, and water for them to drink, will help to rid your garden of snails and slugs. Allowing Leopard slugs to live peacefully on your property will also help to control these pests, because Leopard slugs will not destroy your plants, but do clean up decaying matter, and also eat other slugs.

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Hoverfly larva eating an aphid

So, how do you start? Well, if you grow vegetables, consider allowing a few of each to flower; many (eg carrots, fennel, and brassicas) are very attractive to insects, and if you have space for it, a single plant of angelica will feed huge numbers of bees and hoverflies. Perhaps you have ivy in your garden? It might be a pain when it gets out of control, but if you let it climb up a fence and retain some older strands when you clip it (twine them in or peg them back), the pollinators will love you for it in the autumn when little else is in flower. Also, a dense, intertwined layer of evergreen foliage like this is invaluable as a place to hibernate for insects like ladybirds – which also have larvae that are very keen on aphids for lunch – not to mention breakfast, dinner and supper. Wasps will also feed on ivy, but before you say anything, remember that wasps are valuable pollinators, too, and actually kill large numbers of insect pests, carrying them back to their nests to feed their young.

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An Eristalis sp hoverfly feeding on ivy

A source of water is useful for many creatures. Keep it clean for birds, but if you have an out-of-the-way corner, you can create a hoverfly lagoon with a small container of stagnant water full of decaying grass and leaves3.

You’d be surprised at what resources some beneficial insects need. There are hoverflies which love to feed on grass pollen and others which lay their eggs in rot holes in trees. There are bees which nest in bare earth and others which like to use old bird boxes. Some of our rare beetles need decaying wood lying around on the ground. And there are many tiny creatures which over-winter in drifts or piles of dead leaves – so it won’t surprise you to learn that having filled my garden incinerator with leaves and other combustible debris, I can’t bring myself to set light to it in case there are spiders, beetles, bees and so on living inside it.

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A small caterpillar found in leaf litter in January

There is also a hoverfly which lays its eggs in active wasps nests, but I’m not suggesting you keep one of those handy in your garden shed with the door left considerately open. All you need to remember is that a wild patch in your garden, dandelions left unmolested in your lawn and a little dead wood and garden litter left here and there, will help some of our most neglected wildlife survive and complete their life-cycles. If you can also dedicate some of your space to pollen-rich flowers, so much the better because many of the showier hybrid versions of old-fashioned flowers have virtually no nectar to give. Choose original versions or proven pollinator-friendly flowers and shrubs if you can, single flowers rather than double, etc. Chocolate-coloured primroses, PomPom dahlias or big, showy Spanish bluebells may look wonderful to you, but won’t be much visited by insects.

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A small solitary bee feeding on dandelion, Lassioglossum sp

1 I won’t use poisons if I can possibly help it. As far as I’m concerned, they are an unnecessary danger to other, more welcome, life-forms including my grandchildren and my dogs.

2 Wildflowers are disappearing from our countryside at an alarming rate as farmers feel the need to plough right up to the edges of their fields to maximise their crop yields. Not all farmers. Some are enlightened and considerate, and even if they do use pesticides (which are incredibly destructive to invertebrates – after all, that is their job) will leave an area wild to make up for it. Kudos to those people!

3 The Buzz Club’s Hoverfly Lagoon Project gives details on how to make one of these and if you are also willing to record the activity, that would be great! But they can smell a bit so you’ll need a site somewhere away from the house.

Pollinator Awareness Week: 13th – 19th July 2015

Bee-Wingbeats

This week is Pollinator Awareness Week!  Yes, you heard it here first1.

‘So what?’ I hear you say. Well, see, the thing is that without pollinators, we’d all be in the shit be in serious trouble, because an awful lot of food crops need to be pollinated somehow, and the way most of them get pollinated is by the transference of pollen from flower to flower by insects.

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Our main pollinators – as I’m sure you all know – are bees. The trouble is, our honeybees are struggling and nobody really seems to know why. Some blame neonicotinoids (‘neonics’) and other pesticides. Some blame pollution. Some blame modern farming practices and/or the horrible tendency government agencies have for ‘tidying up’ our verges and footpaths and parks, etc2. Some blame honeybee diseases spread by mites. Some say it’s a combination of factors.  And some freely admit that they don’t know.

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The result, in America, has been the growth of the practice of renting out colonies which are hawked around the farms to pollinate crops. This has its own problems, apparently, from stressing the bees and laying them open to opportunistic infections to bee-rustling.

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Now, there are also a lot of native bumblebees, but not only are they in trouble too,  it seems that in some countries they are not managing to relocate themselves from areas which have grown too warm for them due to climate change, and are dying out locally.

So what are we left with? Well, there are many, many solitary bees which do a sterling job, and many people don’t even know about them because they tend to be quite small compared to honeybees and bumbles and can easily be overlooked.

And there are hoverflies3.

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You may not know this, but hoverflies are considered by many authorities to be the second most important pollinators after bees, and it’s a sad fact that an awful lot of people don’t know how to tell the difference, and so fear them both equally. This leads to a lot of untimely insect deaths4

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So, dotted throughout this post are some pictures. Some are bees, and some are hoverflies. Some of the hoverflies look quite a lot like bees, but you will notice a difference in their faces, their eye shape and their antennae (and if you’re extra-observant and look closely, their wings). I’m beginning to learn more about hoverflies and how to identify them, and I am by no means an expert, so I reckon if I can do it, so can you.

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What can we do, though, about the pollination problem? Well, unless you want to see an era where thousands of poorly-paid people are put to back-breaking work pollinating flowers with a paintbrush, perhaps it would be a good idea to plant some ‘bee-friendly’ flowers in the garden, for a start, and to go easy on the insecticides?

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After all, what’s more important: preventing a famine or having a pretty lawn?

Okay, so that’s a little bit tongue-in-cheek.  You should all know by now that I don’t really do scaremongering.  But seriously, we would all be in serious trouble without insect pollinators, and we should all take time to think about that.

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For those interested, here are a few links for further reading.  If you do nothing else, please listen to the podcast. It’s very accessible and easy to understand:

Hoverflies are effective pollinators of oilseed rape

The trouble with bee-keeping

The touble with bees (nice podcast on this page)

Almond pollination in 2012

Planting for pollinators – RHS

1 – Or maybe you didn’t, but it sounds good, doesn’t it?

2 – For ‘tidying up’ read ‘mowing down everything in sight, including the useful – and pretty – wildflowers and grasses on which our insects depend, and leaving behind a brown stubbly mess.

3 – Well, alright, a considerable number of other insects contribute to pollination, but generally in a smaller or less effective way, according to what I’ve read.

4 – And even fewer pollinators.

So many things …

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You know how it is. There are so many things to do, so many places to go, and so many blog posts you mean to write. The last is particularly true, and I’ve made a lot of notes, and then .. the ‘so many things to do’ and the ‘so many places to go’ went and got in the way.

I really want to start blogging properly again, but it seems I don’t have much time to craft the sort of posts I used to do, so for now, I’m going to be putting up brief snippets of this and that, starting with something I usually get into at this time of year; macro photography of wildlife.

The little creature up at the top is a tiny bee, less than a centimetre in length, which at first I thought was a wasp on account of its tiny waist. It’s called Hylaeus communis, which I’d never have known if it weren’t for the freely offered expertise of a Swedish guy called Göran Holmström, who belongs to the same ‘bee and wasp’ group as I do. Facebook can be a wonderful thing, when used wisely.

This next picture is one of our commonest hoverflies, and one of the most frequently photographed. I adore hoverflies, but these little guys annoy the hell out of me because when I’m trying to get a picture, they hover motionless about half a metre in front of me, poking their tongues out and taunting me, then when I slowly raise the camera to their level, they dart out of sight – only to return seconds later in a slightly different spot!

Episyrphus balteatus (also known as the Marmalade Fly) meet your public.

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While I was out photographing bees and hoverflies a week or so ago, I noticed this day-flying moth on a daisy. It’s called ‘Mother Shipton’ because it has a little witch’s face on each wing.

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Now, you all love ladybirds, right? Can’t get enough of them, I bet. Even people who hate ‘bugs’ and ‘creepy-crawlies’ like ladybirds – I mean, they’re not really beetles are they?1

How about this then?

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That’s the larva of a Seven-Spot Ladybird, in the process of pupating. Only its mother could love it. Well, it’s mother and me, and lots of other insect fans, actually.

Okay, let’s finish with something cute. Here is a Mullein moth caterpillar eating my buddleia. Considering the number of them, and the size of them, it’s amazing there isn’t more damage, but in fact I can hardly see where they’ve been!

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You don’t think that’s cute? Oh, well. Can’t please you all .. but try this.

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That’s the Seven Spot Ladybird that the weird-looking larva you saw up there will one day turn into. Well, one like it, anyway!

If you’re interested in insects, no matter if you know very little, try joining one of the Facebook groups. The people there are lovely and willingly identify things for anyone who asks. I am a member of UK Hoverflies, Insects of Britain and Northern Europe, and UK Bees, Wasps and Ants.

1 Actually, yes. Yes, they are. They are absolutely 100% beetles.