On the morning of 12th of June, the Garden welcomed us with a content murmur of drizzle over the polytunnel’s surface, punctuated by a somewhat muffled bird chorus.
Cuppa in hand, we slowly settled in our chairs to listen to Gabby Flinn from Buglife tell us about the ecosystem of the garden, and how to help our garden invertebrates keep it healthy and productive – from the roots to the shoots.
She kicked off with a powerful quote from Edward O. Wilson, an American ecologist, emphasising the importance of insects to life as we know it:
If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.
The numbers alone are impressive – 85% all living things in Scotland are invertebrates which amounts to around 26,000 species!
In the first part of her presentation she moved on to speak about ‘the roots’ and explained how ground dwelling insects, such as beetles and ants, contribute to the health of woodlands and garden ecosystems. For example, beetles are just a fraction of the 2,000 species of invertebrates directly dependent on dead wood habitats, and as such contribute to release of the nutrients back into the soil. While their larvae munch away at the dead trees, adults of species such as ground beetles are very fond of snails and aphids, earning themselves a well-deserved nickname of ‘tigers of the garden’. Sounds like a worthwhile pal to have in your veggie patch! This is only one of the reasons that dead wood piles should be one of the permanent features of every garden. Buglife’s website has information on how to create all sorts of dead wood garden habitats here.
Despite their importance, there is still lots to learn about the insects around us. Gabby told us about two projects aimed at gathering more information on the distribution of two important groups of ground-dwellers in Scotland – and you can help out with both of them! If you prefer to stay in the comfort of your own garden and get to know your ‘garden tigers’ better, you may want to have a look at the longhorn beetle survey here. For those of you who like to venture out into the woodlands, there is the Nest Quest – a race to find the largest and the smallest wood ant nest in Scotland.
You can listen to Part 1 of Gabby’s presentation under the link below, which includes many curious facts from the life of the bugs, and additional tips on encouraging them in your garden (around 30 minutes).
After all that learning, we needed a bit of a refreshment break. We all eagerly pounced on Janice’s lovely gluten-free cake featuring the two seasonal favourites – rhubarb and strawberries! Here is her recipe (PDF).
Fortified, we had a go at making a simple lacewing and ladybird home, using a plastic bottle, a bit of cardboard, and a piece of string. Hang it on a tree branch in August-September, and there is a good chance you will boost your garden lacewing and ladybird populations, which should help keep your aphid problems at bay (here are instructions for you to try at home – PDF). We also discussed how to make simple homes for solitary bees from bamboo, leaf-piles for centipedes, earthworms and wood-lice, and mini-bug hotels constructed using pots filled with dead leaves, bits of wood and sticks.
There are a number of websites with good advice on how to create habitats for beneficial insects in your garden – here are some examples:
- RSPB advice on homes for insects
- BBC breathing places bug homes
- Wild about gardens project – bug mansion weekend project
- Children and schools resources from Buglife (also has some great pages for colouring in)
After the excitement of the bug home building it was time to settle in for Part 2 of Gabby’s presentation. This time she spoke about ‘the shoots’, focusing on pollinators and their role in healthy gardens and ecosystems.
We learned that not only are 80% of wild plants reliant on pollinators for reproduction, but a third of our food also depends on their ‘services’. Yet, they are in trouble as their usual feeding grounds, the flower meadows, have virtually disappeared from the British landscape after the World War II. On top of that they also have to contend with widespread use of pesticides, climate change and introduced diseases and parasites.
After pointing out that pollinators come in all shapes and sizes, such as the pollen-feeding longhorn beetle adults, Gabby focused on the bees. Of course, everybody has heard of the old, trusty honey bee but we were all blown away by the fact that wild bee species are much more important as pollinators – all 267 different species of them! Only around 10% of those are bumblebees, which most of us would be vaguely aware of, and the rest are much less known and less conspicuous solitary bees. Wild bees tend to be much more effective at their jobs as pollinators too. Bumblebees tend to be active in poorer weather conditions than honey bees, and are masters of buzz pollination which is required by the tomato family. Even more surprising, a single solitary red mason bee has been shown to be 120 times better at the job compared to a single honey bee!
So it is certainly worthwhile investing a little time and space into making those critters more comfortable near your veggie patch – by creating nesting spots and providing ample sources of nectar and pollen throughout the growing season. Buglife suggests that making mini-meadows using a mix of native local plants would make for a good start (Scotia seeds provides seed mixes suitable for Tayport).
You can listen to Part 2 of Gabby’s presentation on pollinators under the link below.