Our small wildlife garden attracts insects wherever possible, and we hope that some of what we have learned about these creatures will encourage you to choose insect-friendly plants and avoid pesticides.
UK biodiversity has changed with the passage of time. As the human population expands and its needs are catered for, numbers of native bees and other pollinators have greatly declined. Their importance to us, to our own food and the food chain, is greater than most of us realise.
Shared Planet, a BBC Radio4 series on sustainability presented by journalist/author Monty Don (the nation’s most famous organic gardener) looked at the crunch point between human population and the natural world and found this crunch point happening all over the planet. The problem is not only the UK’s.
Listen to programmes from the Shared Planet series on BBC iPlayer.
When we are outdoors, we may be aware of only a blur of wings as something whizzes by. Some of these insects are tiny; we may find ourselves staring at a creature we have never seen before, wondering what it is.
One way to discover an insect’s identity is to turn to the Internet. The Open University‘s website ISPOT is worth a look. Browse through the photo galleries and you may recognise a creature you’ve seen in your area, or one that has piqued your curiosity.
ISPOT is free to join. If you have a camera or phonecam, by agreeing to share your wildlife photos and the location in which you took them, you will be adding to the overall picture of how the species is doing across the country. If you use a digital camera, the date of your photo will be automatically recorded along with other photo data.
This large, iridescent creature was being blown along the floor into the tunnel of Arsenal Underground Station. I picked it up and carried it carefully back to our garden. Soon it was revived by the warmth of the sun and flew away. The internet showed it to be an Elephant Hawkmoth.
After signing up with Open University ISPOT, I typed in the Hawkmoth’s details and downloaded its photo. A Google map is part of the ISPOT procedure. When the Arsenal Underground came up on the map as the rescue scene, it was clear how close it is to our local nature reserve, Gillespie Park. Elsewhere on the internet, “Elephant Hawkmoth foodplants” brought up Rosebay Willowherb, a tall magenta wildflower that grows in Lupin Meadow, on the lower level of Gillespie Park.
The sequence of events became obvious : the Hawkmoth had hatched in Lupin Meadow, fed on Rosebay Willowherb till it was an adult, and taken to the air. It would have flown south over gardens and houses on Gillespie, over the Arsenal Underground entrance.
Trains coming into or leaving the station pull air into the pedestrian walkway with such force it becomes a wind tunnel, and the Hawkmoth would have been sucked down into it. If humans have to brace themselves to stay upright, what chance did a Hawkmoth have?
the ISPOT category which includes insects calls them invertebrates. Here, in photos taken in our garden, are our invertebrates: creatures who flew here or grew from eggs laid by those who flew into the garden. They must be typical of North London, though most go unnoticed. Any number of them must have come from Gillespie Park.
Hoverfly /Episyrphus balteatus
It nectars on flat-topped flowers and rests on vegetation. There is often an influx of them from the continent, and at such times large gatherings may form.
(A to Z of a Wildlife Garden)
VIDEO – COMMA ON GROUND, THEN CAMOUFLAGE
These little insects have always lived in the garden. Their many thin wings tuck neatly under outer wings when they are at rest, with the insect forming a ‘T’. We had been calling them ‘T Bugs’. In flight, some look like a fan or a flamenco dancer’s skirt. They’ve not been easy to photograph – these four best digital photos from 2014 follow years of blurred snaps. When the hulking giant with the camera approaches, the tiny moths take evasive action. They fly to a leaf, roll over in midair and land upside down on its underside. Their flight is quirky: they may swirl about, zigzag, fly in tight corkscrews or do barrel rolls. At rest on twig or leaf they are camouflaged, looking like a bit of dried straw.
I described them to Richard Meyers, Conservation Ranger at the Ecology Centre, asking him what they might be. ‘Look on the Internet, under PLUME Moths’, he said. I did. Theirs is an international family, and some are pests.
In our North London garden we have had white Plume Moths, one species with pointy wingtips and another whose wingtips look like swirly sand sculptures. Our most plentiful Plume Moth, seen in the above photos, looks to be covered in a stencil pattern. Its name is Amblyptilia acanthadactyla.
Website www.gardensafari.net/english/weird-winged moths.htm says its foodplants include Herb Robert, Hedge Woundwort and Mints. No wonder they come to us. We offer food and a home. They feed on wildflowers and we have never found them making pests of themselves on other flowers. As we use no chemicals, they have been able to raise their tiny families. They overwinter as adults; our garden walls of evergreen Ivy provide winter homes for them.
* There are a number of Plume Moth websites on the Internet, with many photos; specify UK Plume Moths to see which of them live here.
Biodiversity includes spiders; they are part of the food chain. Some birds use spiderwebs as nesting material, while others eat the spiders. They are rich in amino acids and greatly favoured by Wrens and Great Tits.
Even the smallest flying creature is welcome here. They bring movement to the garden. On a calm, cold day in winter there may be a mid-air performance of figure-8’s by tiny wisps just hatched from eggs laid somewhere in the Ivy…
Insects pollinate flowers and fruit, and we need to encourage them. House Sparrows and other birds need the protein provided by insects to feed their fledgelings. There is no shortage of spiders to match the decline in bird or bee numbers, and they are relocated wherever possible.
There are humans who like spiders. One day, as we sawed tree stumps behind the main pond in Gillespie Park, a young volunteer shouted ‘Stop! Spider!’ Everyone stopped work as the lucky spider was plucked from the danger zone and moved to a place of safety by its protector.
My housemates, and their guests, also like spiders. “I like the way they set up their stall, without knowing what might drop into it…” But we have no balance of nature in our tiny Highbury garden. If spiders want to take it over, they will succeed unless someone intervenes. There were days when I came out to water RF’s garden and found it decked with spiderwebs; husks of sucked victims hung in the webs like so many Christmas ornaments.
Arachnids of Highbury
* Our smallest spiders are dots the size of a grain of sand. They blow into the garden on the breeze, trailing a single strand of web behind them.
* Our largest spider, also found in many local front gardens in autumn, is the GARDEN or CROSS SPIDER (Araneus diadematus). Its elegant web hangs vertically, with its creator often dangling in the centre like a large patterned jewel. Every few days it devours its old web, along with the husks of its victims, and spins a new one. The web’s strands are strong: I have found bumblebees, honeybees, and a butterfly caught in the Cross Spiders’ web. They set up shop along our sunny southern border, stretching their webs between Meadowsweet, Clematis and Rose stems.
Some spiders resist the move. As we walk, the spider on the cane tip will attach a strand of web to it and abseil down, letting out more web as it goes… When it nears the ground, it rushes back up its abseil line to the cane tip. It will do this once or perhaps twice before making its choice: remain on the cane and accept its new home, or drop to the ground and hide in the vegetation.
After moving a spider, I twirl the tip of the cane round the vacated web, picking up every sticky strand I can see. Any of it can trap a passing insect, even when the web’s designer has been moved elsewhere.
* Also in residence here are small grey MONEY SPIDERS (from the Linyphiidae family). They like to put their triangular webs high up in the ivy, where they look like soft grey trampolines. The little spiders hang beneath them, waiting for an unsuspecting winged creature to land. Money Spiders drop down into the undergrowth when they see the cane approaching; they wait till I’ve gone to climb back and spin another one.
* The longest legs belong to the HARVESTMAN (Phalangium opilio), who looks like an orange lentil with legs of starched black sewing thread and is not really a spider. They have no fangs with which to bite, but rather stink glands on either side of their eyes.
Harvestmen live among the Mints and Hardy Geraniums, only breaking cover when I deadhead the flowers or deploy the watering can. I try to avoid those impossibly fragile-looking legs. The photos, of two Harvestmen on a leaf of Himalayan Knotweed, were taken at what seemed a rather private moment, with one tickling the other. I left them to it.
LEARN MORE ABOUT CREATURES ON THE INTERNET
BUMBLEBEE CONSERVATION TRUST * Find out more on What Can You Do For Your Garden page
The Pollinator Garden – WWW.FOXLEAS.COM – website for Marc Carlton, wildlife gardener. Click on Marc Carlton’s name to reach a number of related sites for tips, lists, downloads
Illustrations of UK Shieldbugs and their instars by Ashley Wood, available from: www.britishbugs.org.uk/heteroptera/idcards/life_stages.html