Insect mass extinction
We are in the midst of a major alarm at the drop in insects’ numbers, with headlines saying we face the extinction of all insect life within decades. That’s serious stuff, let’s not kid ourselves here no insects = no us.
Estimates vary but most experts say that insects have declined between 40% and 80% in recent years. Many blame intensive agriculture and pesticide use, but for a variety of reasons we can’t look anytime soon to agriculture to solve this problem. So, what can we do now? We can, in the words of Voltaire, tend our own garden.
I’ve only got a modest urban garden, what difference can I make?
It’s true that urban gardens account for a tiny amount of land in the UK, something like 2%, but what we lack in volume we more than make up in one massively important way – variety. Farmland accounts for about 70% of the UK land area but this is substantially monoculture, there is very little else other than grass and crops. In our domestic gardens it’s another story altogether, they are hugely varied habitats with a high density of plants, capable of supporting a wide range of insect species.
What will an insect friendly garden look like?
An iconic garden moth, the Tiger Moth. One day you could see one of these, or its charming caterpillar, the ‘woolly bear’, in your garden.
Of course flowers are important for many insects, so there will be plenty of those and there will be other plants that meet other insect needs, such as shelter and food. Some of the lawn may be given over to a wildflower meadow (less mowing – get in there!). There will be a large variety of plants, heights and habitats. There might even be a pond, and, finally, it’ll be a bit untidy (less chores – yes!).
Flowers and insects
We automatically think of the pollinating insects, and so we turn to flowers. After all we’ve all seen butterflies on buddleia, or thrilled to the sight of a ceanothus simply humming with a thick layer of bees on a warm summer day. This is all good and it is important. But the truth is many pollinators don’t use flowers, at least not the ones that look like flowers to us, in fact trees support more pollinators than flowers do. On top of that most garden insects aren’t pollinators at all. So, whilst a good stock of native flowering plants is fine, we need to cast our net wider.
A local garden for local insects
Insects depend on plants for food and shelter. They have evolved over thousands of years in a complex evolutionary dance with their local plant life. In that vast stretch of time they have developed complex and sometimes highly specialised relationships with their plant food and hosts.
The small tortoiseshell, just loves your nettles.
Many insects only feed on one species of plant, for example the small tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies (and a host of other small creatures) only feed on nettles.
An insect friendly garden needs to be stocked with a good variety of plants. Insect populations vary across the UK so local plants are important. So, look around at what is growing on in your area, in verges, hedgerows and the edges of woods, even wasteland. Enjoy some rambles with a plant identification book and see what is thriving locally. You can bet that every one of those plants will have an insect predator, some of which can only survive with that one food source.
Say hi to the trees
How many insect species are associated with the Oak? 284! Willow? 266. Birch? 229. These are the big hitters, and not every garden can accommodate such a large tree, but even the Holly, at the very bottom of the table can claim to 7 species. I had an office once that looked out over a single solitary birch tree on a lawn, it was close enough that on a warm sunny afternoon I could see it was surrounded by a busy buzzing swarm of insects; wasps, many different flies and beetles, it was like schools of tropical fish around a reef.
Sarah at North Leeds Garden Design has recently become a beekeeper because she is so fascinated by how bees and other insects ‘work’ our gardens. This is a lovely and iconic thing to do. But to be honest we aren’t all cut out for that level of dedication so here’s some good news. There’s over 250 species of types of bee and it’s easy to attract them. Here’s some of the top plants for bees;
Small scabious, a pretty food plant for bees
Scabious, cerinthe major, catmint, chives, beans – broad, runner, French, crocus, mint, buddleia, ceanothus, alliums, heather, perennial geraniums, sunflowers, lavender, poached egg plant, pulmonaria, sedums, wisteria, marjoram
And here are some wildflowers that bees love;
Ivy, bluebell, foxglove, comfrey, clover, greater knapweed, hellebore, honeysuckle, vipers bugloss, wood anemone, rosemary, hyssop, thyme,
Variety, and going with the grain
These can be our watchwords. As long as plants thrive locally, and are not highly bred (for example few bedding plants are useful to insects), they are in, if in doubt, check out the RHS list of ‘plants for pollinators’, which are specially chosen to offer a good food source for insects. Insects want a variety of plants and habitats. That damp corner? Go with it, don’t fight it. We’ve lost so much wetland, ponds and marshes, let a little dampness back into the world. We are also looking for many levels and types of plant, ground hugging, evergreen, shrubs, trees, ferns.
Insects are found in every type of environment and when you see the effect they can have on the life of your garden you will treasure those parts that until now you may have overlooked.
An insect garden is a thriving garden
It kind of goes without saying but anyway – once you’ve got insects you got birds. You’ve also got hedgehogs, frogs, toads. And you get a host of predators to keep slugs, aphids, snails and any number of traditional garden ‘pests’ at bay. Free!
Hey, take it easy, kind of
We’re looking at a different type of gardening here. But it’s definitely not simply neglect! It’s more thoughtful and planned than that, and your garden doesn’t have to look a complete mess. In fact, an insect friendly garden needs careful design more than ever. It will almost certainly have more variety and more types of habitat. You’ll be thinking about flowering seasons – looking out for early and late flowering plants to ensure there’s food for as long as possible. You’ll be allowing some tucked away corners where a woodpile, some nettles or a heap of leaves, can sit quietly providing homes and shelter for myriads of insects. You’ll be thinking about edible plants like apples, strawberries and beans, that are all excellent for pollinators. You might even decide to have a pond, or cultivate a damp patch rather than trying to drain it.
There’s a huge amount to think about and we’d be happy to help you transform your garden into a vibrant insect mecca, but there’s plenty you can start with straightaway. We spoke to Catherine Jones of the excellent website Buglife;
“We know that numbers of insects are declining massively. Although UK gardens only make up a tiny percentage of total land area, they are very important because of the variety of plants we can grow in our gardens. So, when you are selecting plants at the garden centre, look for a ‘plants for pollinators’ label. And don’t forget to leave an untidy corner or a small log pile for insect habitat. We can make a difference!”
Here’s a lovely leaflet for some more inspiration;
Here’s a link to the Buglife website
And here’s a link to the RHS ‘plants for pollinators’ list. In your local garden centre, check out the plant labels and you will see that many have the ‘plants for pollinators’ logo.