September, 2017

Homes for Wildlife

Homes for Wildlife
If you love the creatures in your garden, you'll love our Homes for Wildlife project. This is the place to ask and answer questions about making your backyard wildlife-friendly.

Gardening for wildlife

Follow the adventures of Adrian Thomas, our wildlife gardening expert, and be inspired to create your own wildlife haven on your doorstep. Adrian posts here every Monday and Friday without fail, so make it a date and drop by!
  • Autumn hues in the wildlife-friendly garden

    Autumn is famed for its vibrant dashes of colour, so I headed out into my garden this week to see how the season's palette is progressing.

    We think of spring as a prime time for yellows, but flower borders in autumn can still cling on to summer's blooms right into October or early November, so it wasn't hard to find yellows, such as this Rudbeckia lacinata, great for bees)...

    ...and Californian Poppies, better for hoverflies, but in this case a perch for a tiny parasitic wasp.

    I was also able to find blues, none better than this, a male Common Blue, who verges into the purple side in his wings but whose body fur is paint-box blue.

    But its reds we want to see in autumn, and some such as this Nasturtium, that have been home to my Large White butterflies while my cabbages have been safely netted, have been in radiant flower for months.

    However, it is nature's turning from greens to reds that is so intoxicating.

    It happens in apples, such as my Ida Reds (below), some of which I eat now, some of which go into storage to put out for the Fieldfares in winter.

    The rambling rose hips are turning quickly, too. This is Rosa helenae, which I thoroughly recommend, or try Francis E. Lester. Both have relatively small hips, making it easier for birds to eat them.

    But it is perhaps the leaf colour change that we relish the most, and my Red Maple is starting to 'do its thing'. The green chlorophyll that dominated the leaf colour is now breaking down. In many British trees, this reveals  yellow pigments previously hidden, but a few tree species now actively produce red pigments called anthocyanins. Yes, the reds aren't revealed, they are actually made specially for this season.

    So I thought I'd end with another common garden creature that actually 'ripens'. The Common Darter is the commonest dragonfly at this time of year, but when the males first emerge they are yellowy in colour. Now, at maturity, they are flush with autumn's fire.

    It was only proven about five years ago that this is due to a simple chemical reaction (called reduction).

    Just as the reddening of fruit signals it is ripe and ready to eat (and hence ready to spread its seed), so the reddening of male Common Darters signals that they, too, are now ready to mate and produce the next generation. All this autumn colour may be the fireworks as nature closes down, but it also points to the future, too.

  • In praise of...Common Hogweed

    A few weeks ago I praised... (take a deep breath)...dandelions.

    Today, is the turn of another native plant that is not especially loved, the Common Hogweed, that familiar upright white flower of road verges and hedgerows

    Before I go any further, I need to be clear that I am not talking the Invasive Non-native Species called Giant Hogweed, which should be avoided at all costs. Growing to 3 metres tall and incredibly robust, that is the plant which, should you get a bit of sap on your skin, reacts with sunlight to cause horrible and long-lasting blistering. To think that was introduced into this country as a garden plant....

    Anyway, no, this is all about the native and rather ubiquitous Common Hogweed, growing to normally chest height at most, and in flower from high summer right through until now.

    It is in the carrot family, which used to be the called the Umbellifers and is now the vowel-filled tongue-twister, Apiaceae. It includes Cow Parsley, Angelica and indeed Carrot, and their flowers typically are arranged in an umbel, which is like an upside down umbrella.

    So why celebrate Common Hogweed? Well, it just seems to pack in the insects like almost no other plant.

    Here are some critters that I photographed on Common Hogweed in ten minutes in my aunt's garden the other day:

    We start with a Halophilus hoverfly. Note the humbig stripes on the back (thorax). This is one of the hoverflies whose grubs live in ponds, rather than eating aphids

    We then have a face only its mother could love - this is a fly called Tachina fera. Nice name; I can imagine a beautiful actress being called that.

    I also saw ichneumon flies, Honeybees and Thick-kneed Beetle. But I really wanted to concentrate on these next two.

    Here's the first. It's a hoverfly, but have a close look - what do you notice?

    Hopefully you have spotted that it has got what I might call 'thunder thighs' on its back legs. And there's only one hoverfly that has these - Syritta pipiens.

    And then how about this little insect? It is tiny, only about half a centimetre long, with little black smudges in its wings. It and many of its friends were walking about on the open flowers, supping at the nectar, and waving their little wings like semaphore.

    And all of that makes it a fly called a sepsis fly (there are several different types).

    I'm no insect expert, so I hope it shows is that insects other than butterflies and dragonflies aren't a total no-go area; look hard and you can begin to see things you recognise that have a fascination all of their own.

    I also bet if you went out and found a Hogweed flower and looked closely, you'd find one or all of these insects, plus probably others that I didn't see.

    And if you do see Tachina fera, just remember that if you think  she didn't look too great from the front, she looks even worse from the back!

  • Life in the Ivy Tree

    You know you like a little bit of a teaser, so here's today's game: spot the wildlife in the Ivy... There is something in there, I promise.

    Hopefully you found the Chiffchaff lurking in there. (If it eluded you, the answer is at the end of the blog).

    Here he is out in the open, having a whale of a time among all the insects that are attracted now the Ivy is in flower.

    Much of the insect life he isn't interested in, whether that be Honeybees, wasps or Red Admiral butterflies. He's more of a little fly lover.

    But hopefully my Ivy is helping him build up his energy for his forthcoming flight down to southern Europe.

    In order for Ivy to work its magic in this way, it needs to get its 'head' into the sunlight, because only then does it burst into so much flower.

    So I thought you'd like to see how I've achieved that with the Ivy Tree that I've grown. Tree?! Ivy? Yup, here it is, 25 foot tall.

    Ok, I own up, the skeleton inside the Ivy is the old trunk of a dead tree that I retained, rather than chopping it to the ground. And now it is the biggest mass of Ivy flower in the neighbourhood.

    So to finish for today, I just wanted to show you something else which is visiting it:

    This ginger-haired, stripy-bottomed beauty is the Ivy Bee. Smaller than a Honeybee, it is still a newcomer to this country, having only first arrived (under its own steam) in 2001.

    So if you have Ivy in your garden that is flowering, and you get a bit of sunshine this weekend, have a look to see what is visiting yours. I guarantee you will find life in abundance.

    Oh, and did you find the Chiffchaff? He's half hidden behind an Ivy flower, facing left, his little black eye and pale stripe above the eye poking out!