Our readers can’t have missed the ‘Hidden worlds’ feature in our current (Summer) issue.
Entomologist Ross Piper reveals some of the smallest species on RSPB reserves in full colour, double-page glory. It truly is a celebration of all creatures bright and small - not to mention some of their bizarre habits.
Enter a whole new world and get face-to-face with some very important little creatures, like this tanner beetle (Ben Andrew, RSPB-images.com)
Insects are the foundation of the food chain, upon which everything above them depends (including, ultimately, ourselves) - but more than that, they’re a fascinating and under-appreciated group in their own right, as Ross reveals.
He highlights just a handful of those found at the insect-rich heathlands around RSPB HQ at The Lodge in Bedfordshire, telling their stories and revealing their secrets - encouraging all of us to look down for wildlife, as well as up.
The terrifying-looking, yellow-and-black beewolf preys on honeybees, paralysing them with its venom then airlifting them to its stockpile, where it embalms and caches them in a sealed chamber for its emerging young to feast upon - which reminds me of the Egyptian pyramids; we’ve mummified everything you’ll need for your next life….
This month, Ross advises, scour patches of St John’s wort for little leaf beetles, which scoop out the droppings of other animals in which to lay their eggs. Their young larvae trundle about with these little poo-pots held aloft and most of their body tucked inside it - a comical sight if you happen to catch it.
You only have to lie on your belly or peer into the nearest native plant to find something to watch. My eight-year-old son loves stretching out in our orchard to watch ants. They’re always hard at work; tending and milking their flocks of aphids, fetching food, scouting, climbing and passing on messages; and at the first sign of danger each ant will seize an egg or grub and bravely race to get it to safety. Ant communities are highly organised, efficient and cooperative, and never cease to inspire him (or me).
So there’s plenty going on in the tiny world around our feet - but we shouldn’t take our insects for granted.
This week, Springwatch presenter Chris Packham posted on Facebook that over the course of two sunny days spent in his wildflower-rich Hampshire garden, he didn’t see a single butterfly. This attracted comments from all over the UK that told similar stories.
How are butterflies faring near you? (Green-veined white by Jenny Tweedie, rspb-images.com)
I don’t think I’ve seen any butterflies for a while, either, come to mention it. Are those stormy Beasts from the East to blame? Or are our insect populations basically collapsing? I reflected on my own experiences.
I do remember night-drives in the 1990s when my car would plough through blizzards of moths in the dark. Now, if I see a single moth in the headlights I’ll swerve to avoid it (if I can do so safely) because they seem so much rarer.
I have a phobia of common wasps but even so, the fact that I haven’t seen one in my garden for many years has got me worried.
As a kid, my great-grandma's garden was always full of hairy caterpillars, and I loved to let half a dozen of them crawl all over my hands before returning them to their bush. My kids have never got to do this - you have to look pretty hard to find even one caterpillar in our garden.
Of course, I do still have visible insect life around my house - not just the aforementioned greenfly and blackfly, but solitary bees, bumblebees, damselflies, ants and spiders are all easy to find. Insect-eating birds, including the swifts in my attic, seem to be doing OK, and I’ve seen bats, too. But should there be more? Were there more before?
I’ve never used chemicals in my garden and have plenty of native wildflowers and ‘messy’ areas - but I’m just one garden in a wider landscape, and nature needs to be able to cross boundary fences to thrive.
My mission for this weekend is to do a little bioblitz – a Big Garden Bug Watch – with my family. We’ll spend 20 minutes, and log every insect or insect-eating species we find within the garden. Hopefully we’ll photograph some of them, too.
I’ll hang on to the data and we can repeat this later in the summer, and again next June, for comparison. I hope that I find stable populations; but if not, I’ll be thinking about what I can do to help our tiniest wildlife - and thus the birds, bats, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and human food crops that depend upon it.
Meanwhile, here are 7 ways we can help insect populations:
Support insects and you support the wildlife you love. Helping bugs can be as pretty as this! (Andy Hay, rspb-images.com)
Start a wildflower meadow - or even a strip across the end of your garden. Those buttercups, plantains, dandelions, clovers, cowslips and ox-eye daisies will not only look gorgeous but be a lifeline for our little six-legged friends.
Plant bee-friendly flowers to get your beds buzzing with life. Even a few pots on a balcony can make a difference. On hot days, offer a few millimetres of water in a saucer for them, too.
Beetle banks in fields - a tussocky strip to shelter beneficial insects and spiders, which will act as pest control during the growing season.
Feed the night-fliers Your summer barbecues will benefit from plants that put out sweet scents at night - and so will moths. Adorn your patio with nicotiana, jasmine, honeysuckle and sweet rocket, then add a load of solar lights for some magical twinkle - and to bring in the moths. Local bats will thank you, too!
Feed very hungry caterpillars. The more caterpillars we have the more butterflies we get - but they’re fussy eaters, with most species focusing on one particular plant. Try a good mix of seeds to offer something for everyone.
Build a bug hotel - it’s a really fun way to help everything from dragonflies to ladybirds, and you can make them as big, small or eye-catching as you like!
Pile up some dead wood. Solitary bees, beetles and ground-dwelling insects all need noting wood, flaking bark and little gaps - so don’t burn it, pile it up!
What do you think? Are you seeing less butterflies, beetles or bugs than you used to? Log in to share your stories below.