Category Archives: insects

Looking back at 2016

I’m looking forward to shaking the dust of 2016 from my sandals. But it hasn’t all been bad. Here are my highlights and lowlights from the year.

Highlights

I find January pretty tough – I’m not a fan of cold, and the lack of light gets me down. So a fun day out at the British Wildlife Centre with my fellow members of Surrey Dormouse Group was a welcome relief.

Fluffed-up bluetit roosting in our camera nest box
Fluffed-up bluetit roosting in our camera nest box

I love spring, and seeing the bluetits start to build a nest in my camera nest box meant the return home each day was exciting – what’s happened today?!

My Wild Garden 2016 challenge kept me busy over the year, as each month I tried to make my garden better for wildlife. For the first time this year I fed live mealworms to the birds – it was great seeing how well this went down with them, and something I’ll do again in 2017. We also installed an insect house, and it was great watching the bees move in. Perhaps my favourite Wild Garden activity of the year was creating the Bog Garden – lots of digging involved, but worth it. I’m looking forward to seeing how it does this year, now the plants have had a chance to bed in and grow.

Bee on loosestrife in the bog garden

Bee on loosestrife in the bog garden

As always, it’s a delight to watch hedgehogs in the garden, and even more exciting (and entertaining) to watch their courtship.

Dr C gave me a great new toy – a macro lens, and I’ve enjoyed experimenting with that over the year. The Macrophotography course I did with Adrian Davies was particularly helpful. Some of the images I took that day even featured in my 2017 calendar!

Gatekeeper(?) butterfly on bramble flower
Butterfly on bramble flower

It’s been a good year for my dormouse site. In one box check we had 9 dormice (including 7 youngsters crammed into one box!), and we’ve now had dormouse activity in every part of the site, which is great news.

16g dormouse found in May
16g dormouse found in May

And it’s great that the Paris Agreement on Climate Change has now come into force. On a smaller scale, it’s lovely to hear that the beavers on the River Otter are breeding.

Lowlights

Work has been very tough this year (particularly in the first half of the year), so this blog has taken a bit of a back seat for a while. It’s frustrating, as I’ve loads of things I wanted to tell you about, and lots of photos and videos that need editing.

It’s not been a great year for my garden birds – the Big Garden Birdwatch in January, when we saw only one bird. The bluetits that started to build their nest in the camera nest box soon abandoned it. And when I looked at the data over the year from June 2015 to May 2016, it confirmed that we’ve had far fewer birds than normal.

The referendum result was staggering, and, to me, hugely disappointing. It’s still not clear how it will affect many things, including our laws for protecting wildlife and the environment. The whole campaign was a bit of a disaster – even those campaigning for remain failed to make a case on the positive things that EU membership has brought this country, including cleaner rivers, beaches and air, and protection for species like dormice. One thing is clear: we need make sure whatever happens next does not damage this protection.

2016 has seen a lot of beloved public figures die. Among them, perhaps the most famous tiger in the world: Machli, the lady of the lake. I was lucky enough to see her in the wild, back in 2006. She has had a long life for a tiger, and brought up many youngsters that will continue her legacy. But it’s still sad to think she is no longer ruling the temples and lakes of Ranthambore.

Bengal tiger
Machli

Let’s hope next year brings peace, reconciliation and restoration between people, and between humans and nature.

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Leafcutter bees

I’ve discovered a new pleasure this summer: sitting in my garden with a cold drink, watching leafcutter bees.

I’d heard of leafcutter bees before this year, but never actually seen one. Now, thanks to our new insect home, I can watch them work.

Leafcutter bee busy with the insect house
Leafcutter bee busy with the insect house

Leafcutter bees are solitary bees that use small holes to lay their eggs in. They use circles of leaf to create chambers for their larvae to develop in, and stock these chambers up with a supply of pollen before sealing them up. It looks like a lot of work, but is fascinating to watch.

I was surprised how quickly they can cut a neat circle in a leaf. Some of our plants look like they’ve been visited by the very hungry caterpillar. These holes make them unpopular with gardeners who aim for perfection, but I think it adds interest.

Leaves used by leafcutter bees
Leaves used by leafcutter bees

It’s satisfying that the insect house we installed earlier this year is giving them somewhere to nest. I’m looking forward to watching the new bees emerge next year, and make even more holes in our leaves. We might have to install some more insect houses for them!

Photo special: Macrophotography course

It’s easy to overlook small things, and miss the everyday beauty (and weirdness) that surrounds us. Dr C very kindly gave me a macro lens for my birthday, back in April, and since then I’ve been seeing the world differently. It’s been a revelation.

I realised I needed to learn how to use it, so booked myself on a Surrey Wildlife Trust macrophotography course, led by Adrian Davies. The course took place in an old orchard, in the most glorious sunshine. There was plenty of unexpected beauty to be found, once you start looking at it. Here are my best shots from the day.

Globe thistle
Globe thistle
Bee on bramble flower
Bee on bramble flower
Irridescent fly
Irridescent fly
Water drops at the heart of a flower
Water drops at the heart of a flower
Hoverfly on bramble flower
Hoverfly on bramble flower
Cranesbill flowers
Cranesbill flowers
Butterfly
Butterfly
Gatekeeper(?) butterfly on bramble flower
Gatekeeper(?) butterfly on bramble flower

Wild Garden: June and July

I haven’t forgotten my wildlife gardening challenge – it’s just been a busy few months with lots of work travel. So here’s a quick update on what I have done lately to make my garden even more wildlife friendly.

June – wildflower disaster

I’ve been trying to increase the number of types of native wildflowers in my garden, particularly for the shade planter and pallet planter. I sowed foxgloves, common dog violets, white clover, and wood forget-me-not in my propagator earlier in the spring. They eventually germinated, and, in June, once big enough, I moved them to the greenhouse to harden off.

Wood forget-me-not seedlings
Wood forget-me-not seedlings

Sadly the slugs came and ate them

all (apart from two little clover seedlings), so it was back to square one. I’m now just waiting for the new seedlings to get big enough to transplant.

 

I need to find a solution to the slug problem – they ate all my basil and chilli plants as well. I was hoping that eventually we’d get enough slug predators in the garden to keep the population under control. But that hasn’t happened. The hedgehogs ignore slugs, and if the slow worm is still around it’s not making a dent in slug numbers. Obviously slug pellets aren’t an option for my wildlife garden. I don’t want to use nematodes, as I don’t want to get rid of all the slugs, just stop them eating my precious plants. I don’t want to trap them, as I don’t know what to do with them once caught. I think some kind of barrier is the approach for me – I’ve bought some wool pellets (that deter rather than kill slugs) in the hope they will keep the slugs off my precious plants.

July – insect-friendly plants

July’s gardening has been about planting flowers for insects. We’ve dramtically increased the number of flowering plants in the garden, including:

  • even more lavender

    Salvia Amistad
    Salvia Amistad
  • several types of salvia, including Patio Deep Blue and Amistad
  • vivid violet scabious

    Vivid violet scabious
    Vivid violet scabious
  • red, velvety Cosmos
    Cosmos atrosanguineous
    Cosmos atrosanguineous

    atrosanguineus

  • Lady Boothby fuscia
  • Antirrhinum
  • First Lady Veronica

    Veronica First Lady
    Veronica First Lady

At the garden centre we hunted out plants with the ‘Perfect for Pollinators‘ logo on the label. This was quite straightforward for perennials and shrubs for the border – plenty to choose from. We made a shortlist, and tried to pick a mix of species with different colours, flower shapes and flowering times, to suit as wide a variety of insects as possible. It was harder with bedding plants for our pallet planter – most of the petunias, marigolds etc. on offer have been bred for their looks, rather than accessibility and attractiveness to insects. In the end we managed to find some antirrhinum with the ‘Perfect for Pollinators’ logo, and then squeezed some lavender and lobellia (for its looks) in as well. If you can’t find plants with the ‘Perfect for Pollinators’ logo, watch which ones the insects at the garden centre head towards.

The bees at home couldn’t wait for us to get the new plants in the ground! I knew I had made a good choice when a bee landed on one of the salvias when it was still in its plastic bag in the garden.

Seeing the effect of previous Wild Garden tasks

We’re already seeing the benefit of some of our earlier Wild Garden activities – the solitary bee house seems to have lots of residents, which is very satisfying. If you build it (or install it), they will come.

Bee house with sealed-up cells
Bee house with sealed-up cells

And the bog garden plants are growing nicely, with the loosestrife looking good and attracting insects at the moment.

Bee on loosestrife in the bog garden
Bee on loosestrife in the bog garden

Frogbert and Frogmilla are regularly spotted keeping cool in the pond (when the coast is clear of next door’s kittens). And the buddleia has exploded with flowers, attracting butterflies. The garden is full of life right now.

Installing an insect house, and feeding birds live food

This month’s wildlife garden activities have focused on insects: installing a nice new home for some of them to live in, and feeding others to robins.

Installing an insect house

The credit for the first bit needs to go to Dr C, who did all the hard work. I was given a lovely insect house for Christmas. With spring well and truly here, and lots of blossom on the fruit trees, it was about time we installed it.

Our previous insect home (a bit of log with holes drilled into it) has started rotting away. To keep this one in good condition for longer, we decided to install it off the ground, on a post.

Insect house in border
Insect house in border

It looks to me like it’s designed for solitary bees (not all bees live in hives). We’ve put it in the border next to the buddleia, which provides plenty of food for pollinators.

Close-up of insect house
Close-up of insect house

Feeding live food to the birds

The second insect related wildlife garden activity is providing live mealworms for the robins, who must have a nest with chicks nearby.
I have been feeding birds dried mealworms for years (soaked first to rehydrate them). Everything seems to love them. But even with the soaking, I have been a bit concerned they may be a bit dry for chicks whose only moisture comes from their food.

When I first started feeding dried mealworms to the birds I was quite squeamish – I didn’t want to touch them.  But I had to admit they smelt surprisingly tasty. I got used to dried mealworms, but I was a bit concerned that, confronted with squirming, squishy live insects, my squeamishness would return. Luckily that hasn’t been the case.

Live mealworms are best put out in smooth sided containers, so they can’t escape. We put up a clear plastic feeder that attaches to our window with suckers, so we can see the birds feeding. I was concerned that it might take the robins a long time to pluck up the courage to feed from it, but they’re bold birds and soon got the hang of it. They certainly seem to appreciate the mealworms, and we’re getting through the supply quickly. I haven’t spotted any other birds using it yet.

Window bird feeder with mealworms
Window bird feeder with live mealworms

Hopefully providing live food will help to give the baby robins a good chance of surviving.

How to attract insects to shady corners of your garden

One of my wildlife garden priorities this year was to make the garden more insect friendly by providing more food sources. This means more flowers, blooming for a larger proportion of the year. Our garden is small, so squeezing more flowers in requires some innovation.

There’s a strip of my garden that had no value for wildlife. A narrow passage 3-4m long, it runs between the fence and the wall of our extension. It’s almost completely in the shade, and is mostly decked, with an even narrower strip of gravel. How could I make this more wildlife friendly, short of knocking down the extension and landscaping it?

While most flowers need some direct sunshine to thrive, there are some that are used to deep shade – mostly flowers you’d find in woodland. A planter full of shade loving plants was the answer.

Identifying which flowers to go for took some time. I decided that I wanted shade-dwelling wildflowers that are native to Britain, good for pollinators, and between them bloomed for a large proportion of the year. I also wanted a variety of colours and flower shapes, as different pollinators are attracted to different flowers. They also needed to be quite compact, as I didn’t have much space.

I worked my way through the list suggested in the Surrey Wildlife Trust Wildlife Gardening Guide I got as part of my prize. I compiled a shortlist that fulfilled my criteria (and that I could buy seeds or plugs from a reputable wildflower supplier). From that, I picked 5 species that would hopefully ensure nectar between February and October once the bed was established, and placed my order. The species I chose were:

  • Snowdrops
  • Primroses
  • Foxglove
  • Common dog violet
  • Wood forget-me-not

To hold the plants, I chose a micro manger from Harrod Horticultural, as it fitted the space, and I have been pleased with the quality of the raised bed we bought from them years ago. It was quite straightforward to put together, with the aid of Dr C and an electric screwdriver.

image

The primroses and snowdrops I ordered as plants; plugs in the case of primroses, as their seeds need the cold of winter to germinate, and I am impatient, and snowdrops in the green, as they don’t do well if moved once their leaves have died off. The rest I ordered as seeds, which I will plant once I have built my new mini greenhouse.

The plants turned up early last week, so I have planted the snowdrops in the planter (and in the lawn and the meadow – there were lots of them!) and potted the primrose plugs into small pots to grow on a bit. The snowdrops have already flowered for the year before they arrived, so I won’t get to see the results until next year.

Snowdrops in the green planted in a shady bit of the lawn
Snowdrops in the green planted in a shady bit of the lawn
Primrose plug plants potted on into small pots
Primrose plug plants potted on into small pots

At the moment the planter is pretty empty (although not as empty as in the photo of it above!). Tempting as it was to fill it with snowdrops, I had to leave space for the other flowers that will hopefully germinate in a month or two. It’s still a work in progress, but hopefully by next year it will turn a dark, neglected corner of the garden into a useful pitstop for insects, as well as brightening the place up.

February wild garden: preparing the meadow

I have been itching to get to work on the garden since my new year’s resolution. At last, this weekend, we had some dry weather coinciding with me having some spare time, so I lit the chiminea for warmth, and set to work. My priority for this month was improving the wildflower meadow.

Calling it a meadow is perhaps stretching the point. My garden is tiny, so the meadow is only a few metres square. Nevertheless, it does have wildflowers, and the insects seem to love it.

When we decided to turn half our lawn into a wildflower meadow a few years ago, we tried a couple of approaches. In one small area we skimmed off the top layer of turf, and sowed a ready-made mix of wildflower seeds. This patch has done well, with a variety of wildflowers growing and setting seed each year. All it needs is a couple of trims a year, and the bees get a feast.

In another patch of the meadow I planted some plug plants of various wildflowers. These haven’t done so well, but nature seems to have seized advantage of the twice yearly mowing schedule to invade the area with a buttercup-like flower (botany is not my strong point). The patch is ok (a definite step up in terms of biodiversity from the lawn), but not as flowery as the first patch.

The remaining bit of meadow is in the shade, on the north side of the fence. It was taken over by ground elder, so, months ago I covered the area with old carpet, to combat the invasion. The carpet kept the plants down, but I knew the real problem remained – a dense network of roots just below the surface.

Armed with a hand fork and rake, I did battle with the roots. It’s quite addictive (and that comes from me, a very occasional weeder). The trouble is that the roots go beyond the patch I wanted to work on, so it was hard to stop. Still, it was good to be out in the garden, working with the soil, and seeing the signs of spring (even if it was mainly embryonic ground elder leaves). I’m pretty sure that the war against the ground elder isn’t over, but, hopefully I have set it back enough to give a wider variety of wildflowers a chance.

The weeded ground
The weeded ground

Once again, I am comparing a couple of different approaches to sowing wildflowers. The first is a wildflower mat: two layers of biodegradable fabric, with wildflower seeds sown in at appropriate spacing. I have heard that these can work well. You just place the mat on top of your prepared soil, and cover with a thin layer of soil. The other approach was rather less measured and evenly spaced. I mixed up a load of wildflower seeds, a chucked them on the ground, raking in lightly. As it’s a shady area, I used some seeds from wildflowers used to the shade of woodlands: primroses and violets. But because I am also impatient and not always terribly well organised, I also mixed in leftover seeds from commercial wildflower seed mixes that I had lying around in my seed box. I am not sure how well these will do, as they’re probably better fitted to sunnier areas, but nothing ventured…

The new and improved area of meadow, sown with wildflower seeds
The new and improved area of meadow, sown with wildflower seeds

My other concern is that it may be a little early to sow the seeds. I know some wildflowers need a bit of frost before they germinate, and I hope the others will get by, as spring seems to be coming early this year. Time will tell. I am looking forward to seeing what comes up. And anything will be an improvement on layers of old carpet.

The other wildlife garden related achievement from yesterday is that Dr C put up a hedgehog highway sign by the hole in our fence (the neighbours have one for their side as well). The sign is a bit of fun, but also, if we move house before the fence falls down, it will encourage future owners to keep access clear for hedgehogs, and look out for them (particularly if they end up strimming my beautiful meadow – maybe we should never move – I’m not sure I could cope with letting someone else be in charge of my wild garden).

Hedgehog highway sign
Hedgehog highway sign

Unused to such physical exertion, I’ve spent all today groaning each time I stand up or sit down. But the temporary pain is outweighed by the excitement of seeing what germinates, and then what creatures will make use of the new flowers for food or shelter.