Something is happening in our gardens. Little by little, a very unsettling silence is falling upon them. During my childhood, our garden was a blur of color as a multitude of brightly patterned insects busied themselves amongst the flowers. The number of bee species on the lavender bushes was a sight to behold and butterflies were aplenty. Iridescent ground beetles could be found in abundance, scurrying along the ground. Birds bobbed and weaved from tree, to bush, to lawn and back again, catching what they could to feed their waiting chicks.
All the vegetables we grew in the garden had bugs of one sort or another on them. Cauliflower had to be soaked in salt water to rid them of aphids, soft fruits freed of slugs and apples checked for codling moth larvae. Many a dinner time was punctuated with shrieks of disgust at the discovery of an errant caterpillar hiding in the folds of a lettuce leaf!
The number of (once common) insects has now reduced to a deeply worrying level. Over the past 25 years, global insect biomass has reduced by over 75%. Yay! I hear some people cry. However, the harsh reality of this situation is very different.
Consider the facts. Insects have been around for approximately 400 million years. They co-evolved with plants, pollinating their flowers and adapting some highly specialized characteristics in the process. To this day, insects provide pollination services for wild flowers, our gardens, and agriculture. It is estimated that 80% of wild plants need insects for pollination. Insects play a huge role in the functioning of ecosystems. They help to feed us and are the tiny engines that keep the world as we know it turning. We all enjoy a juicy tomato, don’t we? Bumblebees with their ‘buzz pollination’ are responsible for them. How about the deliciously heady fragrance of honeysuckle in the evening? Thank the moths for pollinating those flowers!
Not only are insects vital for our lives, and the lives of the plants that depend on them, they are also vital to countless other species. They provide food for approximately 60% of bird species as well as mammals, amphibians and reptiles. Remember that unsettling silence that is falling upon us? Songbirds are becoming a rarity.
Last spring was a particularly challenging one in the UK, with temperatures being the lowest on record for 60 years. April had the lowest average minimum temperature since 1922. Following this period, the emergence of moths was delayed by over a month resulting in a mismatch between wild bird chicks hatching and their food source being available. During this time, a friend of mine in Wales was monitoring a nesting box of Great tits. Six little eggs were laid, six little chicks hatched, but despite the efforts of their parents, one by one they succumbed to starvation. This is happening all over the UK, and indeed, much further afield. Many bird species in the UK are in steep decline, 29% being on the ‘Red list’ of conservation concern. The cuckoo, whose call was once synonymous with the start of summer, is once such bird. A bird I haven’t heard since I was a child.
What can we do to address this problem? One option is to allow our gardens to find a natural balance. Allow plants to be attacked by caterpillars and the birds and their young will feast upon these caterpillars. Allow snails and slugs to munch their way through some of our soft fruit and vegetables; birds, amphibians and mammals will chow down on them. Nature will find a way if we allow it to. ‘Sacrifice’ plants can be grown; a parsnip left to go to seed, a cabbage left un-netted, a patch of nettles or some weeds left to go wild. All can support insect and bird life.
To further help our feathered friends, their food intake can be supplemented with wild bird food and fresh water and fat balls in the winter. All vessels should be kept clean and changed regularly to avoid the spreading of diseases such as Avian flu. Put up nesting boxes around your garden, varying the size and shape of the entrance holes to attract different species; believe me, the sight of a tiny face poking out of a nesting box hole is worth the effort. Remember that an ‘untidy’ garden is a good thing too. Not only does it offer food and shelter, but also nesting material. I once witnessed an audacious blackbird plucking fur from our rabbit’s bottom; he remaining oblivious to his provision of the softest of nest liners.
Let our gardens be unkempt. Let the bugs thrive. If we don’t help them all now, not only may we go hungry, but the generations to come will never know the joy of bird song or the rainbow of colorful insects that we have had the privilege of knowing in our childhoods.
Hallmann. C, Sorg. M, Jongejans. E, Siepel. H, Hofland. N, Schwan. H, Stenmans. W, Müller. A, Sumser. H, Hörren, Goulson. T and de Kroon. H (2017) More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas. PLOS ONE. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0185809
Wagner.D, Grames. E, Forister. M, Berenbaum. R and Stopak. D (2021) Insect decline in the Anthropocene: Death by a thousand cuts. PNAS. 118 (2) https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2023989118