No Backbone? No Problem!
By Annie Buckle
You can forget the wide plains of Africa and you can keep your tropical jungle paradise. By stepping outside your door, you could find yourself in a world full of the most bizarre and extraordinary creatures to have ever roamed the planet, if you just adjust your eyes.
The hidden world of insects must be one of the most fascinating and intriguing places to explore. With almost 400 million years of evolution under their belts, it is no wonder that this group of animals is the most abundant and successful creatures on earth. These ingenious engineers have survived four of the five mass extinctions, grown to enormous sizes, shrunk to miniscule proportions, inhabited almost every continent across the globe and display some of the most diverse adaptations imaginable.
And yet insects are sorely underrated by many people. Their contribution to the most essential ecological systems on earth tends to be glossed over and replaced with images of beastly (and sometimes wildly inaccurate) proportions. Whilst it is important we understand our six-legged enemies, it is equally important we appreciate and cherish our six-legged friends too. The insect world is suffering a greater rate of extinction than the most high-profile animals, and much of the problem is exacerbated by habitat loss and the overuse of pesticides.
By now, we are all familiar with the benefits of bees and the beauty of butterflies. Pollinators are the latest buzz word, if you can excuse the terrible pun. But what about wasps, flies, beetles, ants, midges and mosquitos? These insects are also highly valuable pollinators (yes, even the mosquito! It is only female mosquitos who feed on blood to gain enough nutrition for their young, the males feed solely on nectar!).
And it’s not just pollination. Insects provide an irreplaceable source of nutrition for animals such as other insects and arthropods, birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals, including an estimated 2 billion humans. They form an essential role in nutrient recycling by breaking up and redistributing dead and decaying matter, as well as providing an important economic role in industries such as honey, wax, dyes, and silk production. They also provide scientists with model species to study genetics and they have a rich cultural history ranging from the scarab beetles of Egypt to their use in Native American crafts.
The UK has an estimated 24,000 species of insect and the great thing about them is that no matter how large or small your outdoor space is, there is always room for them. Whether you have a large expansive garden or a small balcony or even simply pots outside your door, these oases can provide a home for one or more species of insect.
During the autumn and winter months, many insects are seeking places to shelter themselves from the harsh weather. It is during this time you may notice an increase of these little critters trying to find their way into your homes and outbuildings, as well as other arthropods such as spiders, millipedes and centipedes. You might be relieved to know that our homes are not always the best place for insects to spend the winter as they are usually too warm and dry. Although overwintering insects in your house do not cause damage, it is usually best to carefully remove any insects you discover inside, such as caterpillars, ladybirds or bees, and place them in a sheltered spot outside, such as a shed, garage or under a pot. Here, they will be protected from the weather, but will remain cool enough to prevent them becoming too active at the wrong time of year!
Another great way to help insects over winter is to leave your garden a little on the messy side. Fallen leaves, sticks, wood and old seed-heads can provide insects with the perfect home to spend the winter so try to keep as much of this valuable habitat available as possible. Once you have tidied and cleaned your pots for winter, try not to move them until spring so as not to disturb any resting insects underneath. There is also a range of beautiful, purpose-made insect houses for sale in the Nicholsons shop that can be installed around your garden. Alternatively, if you were feeling very creative and wanted a fun lockdown project, you could make your own insect hotel! All these valuable shelters will ensure you have a plentiful supply of insects in the spring, ready to pollinate the flowers, feast on any foes and provide other garden visitors, such as birds, with a much needed snack.
Finally, when planning next year’s borders and beds, always remember to include as many nectar-rich plants as possible to ensure you have a continuous and healthy supply of these marvellously magnificent creatures. For further advice, come and visit our Plant Centre and have a chat with our friendly staff to find out which plants would be best.