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Little Green Space

There are more than 24,000 types of insect in the UK – from beautiful butterflies and endearing bumblebees to less familiar species such as hoverflies, crickets and shieldbugs.

Insects are an essential part of a healthy ecosystem, and they play an important role in our food security. Most fruits and vegetables rely on insect pollination – and not just by bumblebees and butterflies. Flies, wasps, beetles, solitary bees, and all sorts of other insects are pollinators too.

Alongside pollinating crops, some insects – such as ladybirds and red soldier beetles – help with keeping aphids and other pests under control. Insects are a vital part of the natural food chain too, providing meals for bats, badgers, hedgehogs, frogs, and many different species of bird.

But insects are struggling, with recent studies suggesting that populations have crashed by 60% in the last 20 years.

Key causes of decline include habitat loss, climate change and pesticides. Changes in agricultural practices over the past 70 years or so have played a major part. More than 60% of UK land is used for agriculture – so an increase in insect-friendly farming methods could have huge benefits for pollinators.

Gardeners can help too. In the UK, 87% of households have a garden – and together these are estimated to cover more than 400,000 hectares. In England alone, this amounts to four and a half times more than the combined total area of England’s 224 National Nature Reserves.

If you want to help reverse the staggering declines in insect numbers, and create insect-friendly spaces in your garden or community, here are some simple ideas.

Grow nectar-rich flowers

Nectar and pollen are vital sources of food for insects. Growing a range of plants to provide nectar-rich blooms throughout the year ensures pollinators can keep feeding in all seasons.

Some plants have a long flowering period, producing flowers throughout spring and summer and into autumn, so these are a good choice. Try perennial wallflowers, especially Erysimum ‘Bowles’s Mauve’, nepeta (catmint), and hardy geraniums.

For easy-to-care-for shrubs and plants, grow hebe, verbena bonariensis, lavender, and sedums – the latter are useful autumn-flowering plants that provide nectar later in the year. Annuals such as sunflowers and cosmos are also easy to grow, and are a budget-friendly choice as they can be grown from seed.

Include blooms that are different shapes. For example, some species of bumblebee have long tongues and prefer tubular flowers such as aquilegia, while ladybirds like flat flowers such as fennel.

Growing some native flowers particularly helps to boost biodiversity. Native plants that are good at supporting pollinating insects include bugle (ajuga reptans), foxgloves (but handle these carefully, as they are poisonous), purple loosestrife, primroses, heather, and ox-eye daisies.

Also consider including honeysuckle when choosing native plants. As honeysuckle releases its strongest scent at night, it attracts moths and other night-flying insects.

Grow caterpillar food plants

Butterflies and moths are attracted to nectar-rich flowers. But they also need certain plants to lay their eggs on – these plants then provide food for the caterpillars when they emerge.

Nettles are one of the best caterpillar food plants. They are eaten by the caterpillars of comma, peacock, small tortoiseshell and red admiral butterflies. Orange tip butterflies will lay their eggs on lady’s smock, garlic mustard and honesty, and ragwort is the main food plant for cinnabar moth caterpillars.

If you have enough space to leave a corner to grow wild, many of these plants may well appear on their own – without cost or effort! Lots of trees are also excellent caterpillar food plants – see below.

Plant native trees

Like native flowers, native trees can boost biodiversity. Hawthorns support more than 300 insect species, with blossom in May that provides nectar, and leaves that are an important food plant for the caterpillars of several moth species.

Oak trees also support hundreds of different types of insect. An oak’s nectar-rich spring blossom is a vital source of food for the rare oak-mining bee, which relies almost exclusively on oak pollen for food. Purple hairstreak butterflies and dark-crimson underwing moths (another rare species) also feed on the flowers.

Trees that produce blossom early in the year, such as hazel and blackthorn, are especially useful as they provide food when there’s not much else in flower. Hazel leaves are eaten by many moth caterpillars, and blackthorn leaves are also a food plant for the caterpillars of various moths, as well as the caterpillars of brown hairstreak butterflies.

Holly flowers bloom from early spring, providing nectar and pollen for pollinators like bumblebees. In spring, the caterpillars of holly blue butterflies rely on holly leaves, buds and berries for food.

Reduce your carbon footprint

Climate breakdown is one of the biggest challenges faced by insects and other wildlife. So every action you can take to reduce your carbon footprint helps nature.

Using public transport, walking or cycling, saving energy in the home, and buying local, seasonal food are all ways to reduce your impact on the environment. Choosing organic food, if you can, helps to reduce the use of pesticides in agriculture.

If growing your own food, or when buying plants from garden centres and nurseries, be sure to avoid peat – peat-free compost and plants grown in peat-free compost are widely available. Using peat-free alternatives can help reduce CO2 emissions – and peatlands are precious landscapes that support all sorts of plant and animal life, so they need to be protected and restored.

Also avoid using pesticides – these harmful chemicals kill insects, including pollinators.

Reducing your carbon footprint comes with benefits for you too. Reducing car use and walking more can improve health; saving energy also saves money; and local, seasonal food can cost less and taste better than produce that’s been imported from far-flung countries. Shopping locally also supports local economies and communities.

If you don’t have a garden, you can still help insects. Reduce your carbon footprint, and if you have a window box or balcony, you could try growing some insect-friendly plants. You can even grow some of your own food, such as salads, chillies and tomatoes, on a sunny windowsill.

By making even small changes, we can all have a positive impact and help our struggling pollinators.

Penny Bunting

Twitter @LGSpace


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