Watch in horror as monster ants threaten to take over our world, as maggot-like body snatchers enslave our minds, or swarms of vampire mosquitos leave behind the empty husks of human existence!
But no, this is not the next Hollywood bee movie, this Armageddon is a threat to the insects themselves, the destruction of 6-legged life in all its amazing abundance and diversity. The story is real, it is happening now, and is a danger to our own existence.
Biodiversity collapse remains the biggest underlying threat to our survival on this planet. The biosphere regulates our climate, cleans our water, provides food, and medicines and buffers us from disease and other extreme events.
The amazing and wonderful mix of plants, animals, and other creatures we see around us have evolved to coexist over millions of years, adapting to changes in soil or atmospheric conditions or in response to other species around them. This biosphere has helped to create an ecosystem very favourable to humans, we are part of this wider ecosystem, we are dependent upon it, and we are now powerful enough to change it.
Insect population decline
The massive decline of biodiversity in the UK and across the globe has become a huge concern for many people. Most groups of organisms from insects to birds are showing major declines in abundance with many species threatened with extinction. In 2019, the State of Nature Report found that 41% of UK species have shown a decline in population since 1970. In recent years moth populations have declined by 25%, hedgehogs by 45%, and toads by 68%. The current rate of biodiversity loss means we are losing species faster than we are discovering them.
Insects are declining at an even more alarming rate. A study by Buglife and the Kent Wildlife Trust found that the number of flying insects in the UK has declined by 59% between 2004 and 2021. This decline is even more pronounced in other areas with a German study finding a that the biomass of flying insects had plummeted by three quarters in 25 years.
But so what? Creeping, crawling, biting, stinging and spreading disease – we could do without a few insects, couldn’t we?
Vital part of the food chain
Making up around 70% of all species on Earth, insects are a very important part of the food chain providing food for many other creatures. Blue tits, for example, must catch 1,000 caterpillars every day to feed their young, whilst bats must eat half of their body weight in insects every night. The humble ant provides a wide range of benefits for humans from controlling pests to dispersing seeds and, as ecosystem engineers, they carry out vital services of decomposition, aerating the soil and improving drainage. Even the dreaded wasp has value, munching its way through thousands of aphids and caterpillars and providing a valuable pest control service.
Plants rely on pollinators
8 out of 10 of the worlds plant species depend on insects for pollination, including 75% of the plants we grow for food. Some plants have even evolved a method of pollination reliant on very few or even one species of insect. In the UK, Bee and Spider Orchids look, and smell, so much like female bees that male bees cannot resist them and, in their desperate attempt to mate, will assist the plant in transferring pollen.
To give an indication of their monetary value, the services provided by insect pollinators has been estimated to be up to 577 billion U.S. dollars of annual global food production.
But surely, we cannot just appreciate insects in terms of their financial value or ecosystem services, vital though they are. With such a bewildering array of insects, their shapes, colours, and lifestyles can provide us with endless fascination and discovery.
At only 1cm in length, the green tiger beetle, for example, is a voracious predator of heaths and grasslands and is one of our fastest land animals, able to run at speeds of 5mph. This may not seem like much but, scaled up to our size, this would be equivalent to over 200mph, or three times faster than a cheetah.
Did you know? Insects are great parents
Many insects exhibit surprising parenting skills. As well as being an effective predator of aphids our common earwig is quite the doting parent, creating a nest under a stone or log and staying with the eggs until they hatch, she will regularly lick them clean to remove any fungal spores.
Some insects rely on deception to survive childhood. Many of our blue butterflies have a close relationship with ants who like to feed on a sugary solution excreted by the caterpillar. The ants will protect them from predators and even take them underground when they are not feeding. The Large Blue butterfly has taken this relationship to another level and once taken underground by red ants it will continue to feed on their young before being guided out of the nest as an emerging butterfly. Elephant hawkmoth caterpillars, on the other hand, ward off potential predators with scare tactics. The larvae have eye spots behind the head and, when threatened, they retract their head to make their neck swell and sway to and fro to look remarkably snake-like.
So, rather than looking at insects in a negative light let’s celebrate the good they do, and the joy they bring to our world. There is much we can do to encourage insects into our lives, to encourage other wildlife, and push back on the biodiversity crisis.
At BioScapes we’re all about making it easier to encourage wildlife – creating spaces where plants, animals and fungi can thrive and where people can reconnect with nature. Here are a few simple things you can do to encourage insects.
- Beds for butterflies
Beds and borders are often the showpiece of a garden but sometimes the colour we create here can be poor for wildlife. Some garden varieties may be colourful and showy but provide very little pollen or nectar for insect pollinators like bumblebees and butterflies.
As a good rule of thumb, a wide range of different plants which provide variety in size, shape and growing season will also attract many different insects. Different flowers shapes are suited to different insects. The long, thin tubes of honeysuckle are great for butterflies and, releasing lots of scent at night, are also attractive to moths. Foxgloves are excellent for bees and will provide food for many months as a succession of flowers open on the tall flower stalk. Robust flowers with flat heads like Ox-eye Daisy and Wild Carrot provide lots of pollen and a safe landing zone suitable for a whole range of insects including beetles.
Lavender and rosemary provide lots of food for a wide range of insects, and plants like buddleia are great for butterflies in particular. Planting native wildflowers like Meadow Cranesbill or Campion is even better for wildlife as they will provide food for hungry caterpillars as well.
In this way, adding diversity to your borders, can support a healthy ecosystem, providing homes for a wide range of species including butterflies, beetles, hoverflies and soldier flies, bringing more wildlife to your garden. Find more suggestions for native wildflowers here https://bioscapes.co.uk/planting/.
Creating a woodpile, or compost heap, in your garden will encourage a whole range of beneficial insects as well as reducing waste, and provide you with rich compost for your plants.
Some animals, such as butterflies and lacewings, use woodpiles as a place to hide and to hibernate through the colder months. These habitat piles provide an excellent home for other beneficial insects like earwigs and ground beetles who, in turn, provide a valuable service for gardeners by eating potential pests like aphids and snails.
Insect hotels are inspired by natural log pile habitats with a multitude of gaps, cracks and hollows which provide different sized refuges for many different creatures, and an abundance of different food types which form the basis of the food chain. The Wildlife Trust provide some helpful guidance on how to create an insect hotel here https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/actions/how-build-bug-mansion.
Log piles and dead wood are such an important component of a healthy ecosystem that we have incorporated a dead wood zone within all our BioScapes habitat units. This habitat may not be as colourful and fragrant as the wildflower planting area but, with close connection to the soils and surroundings it will become full of invertebrates and gradually break down providing nutrition for the plants above.
- Just add water
Wildlife ponds don’t have to be big. An upturned shallow dish could soon attract diving beetles and, if you add some dry leaves and perhaps a few grass cuttings, this will create a wonderful home for insects like hoverflies, many of which are excellent pollinators. Check out hoverfly lagoons at the Buzz Club here https://www.thebuzzclub.uk/hoverfly-lagoons. We have incorporated a rot hole into WildPod® and NatureArk® as a way of encouraging a wider diversity of creatures which rely on these special places for their young.
With a larger body of water and a few native aquatic plants you can quickly encourage a whole host of different insects and other invertebrates. Peering into this underwater world will introduce a wonderfully diverse ecosystem featuring, pond skaters, water boatmen, water beetles and various other insect larvae. You may even be graced with the frenetic whirligig beetle. At only a few millimetres long these shiny metallic insects are perfectly adapted for an aquatic lifestyle, with paddles for feet you can sometimes see a little raft of them dancing on the water surface like little drops of mercury.
- Encourage your wild side
One of the simplest ways to encourage more wildlife to your garden is to leave an area unmanaged, and to grow a little wild. Allowing a few ‘weeds’ to grow in these areas can provide a valuable boost for wildlife adding a little diversity of food or shelter not found in other parts of the garden. And remember, a weed is just a plant in the wrong place so feel free to let nature take its course, you might be surprised what pops up.
One simple way to add a touch of wilderness to your garden is to let a patch of your lawn grow. Choose a patch which already shows promise, perhaps with a mix of different plants – indicated by different leaf shapes or different shades of green. These areas are much more likely to reward you during No Mow May the campaign promoted by Plantlife (https://www.plantlife.org.uk/campaigns/nomowmay/) to encourage gardeners to make space for nature. Allowing species like daisy, clover, and selfheal to break free from the mower provides a valuable boost for bumblebees and also adds a buzz of colour to your garden.
- Bee friendly
Unlike the familiar bumblebees and honeybee, most bees do not make large colonies with one egg-laying queen but, instead, are solitary. The female will search for a suitable nesting site like a hole a wall, galleries from wood-boring beetles, or hollow stems in which to lay her eggs. She will then build a series of chambers or cells which she fills with pollen and nectar before laying a single egg in each. Covered head to toe with dense hairs, these solitary bees are excellent pollinators and provide a great service to gardeners and farmers.
A bundle of hollow stems tied together will provide one of the simplest bee habitats for your garden. Placed in a sunny area these often attract red mason bees and you will soon note if they are in use when the holes are plugged with dried mud. Do take care when buying a bee house or bee hotel as although some might look the part, with bright colours and fancy designs, many are less suitable for solitary bees due to the short length of the tunnels. Do follow Professor Dave Goulson on YouTube to catch some valuable tips on encouraging solitary bees in your patch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=46_rNKomVb0.
Avoid pesticides where you can
Where possible, avoid using pesticides. As well as killing problem species they are also poisonous to other wildlife damaging the whole of the food chain. Natural chemicals are available or, even better, encourage natural predators with wilder habitat features dotted through the garden.
At BioScapes we have created some neat little habitat units which bring this wide range of wildlife homes together under one roof. With homes for hedgehogs, amphibians, bees and butterflies these integrated habitat units can quickly create a diverse ecosystem in your garden. The units come in a range of sizes and being easy to install and maintain, are suited to any garden, whatever the space or design. Made from untreated timber or recycled plastic and coated steel, they are attractive in their own right and, with an integrated planter, can grow a mix of herbs, wildflowers or even veggies to help bring your garden to lifeA