The RSPB's Mike Shurmer describes his top five garden bugs to spot this month ... how many can you find?
From the largest rural garden to the smallest urban green space, our gardens provide homes for many insects throughout the year. These insects play a beneficial role for us - they pollinate flowers, provide natural pest control and recycle organic matter. At a time when our gardens, no matter how small, are providing a chance for us to connect with nature, this blog describes some of the insects that you may just be able to find in your garden.
Dark-edged beefly (Bombylius major)
Despite the furry body and high-pitched buzzing, this distinctive insect is, in fact, a species of fly rather than a bumblebee. It may be seen hovering in the sunshine between March and May, using its long proboscis to feed on nectar from flowers. Native spring flowers, particularly primroses and violets, are often favoured and providing these will increase your chances of seeing this fabulous insect. It is found throughout most of the UK, though in southern England you may also see the dotted beefly (Bombylius discolour), told apart by the distinctive spots in the clear wings.
Beeflies parasitise the nests of solitary bees, with their larvae feeding on the bees larval cells. The female flicks her eggs into the burrows of solitary bees, using grains of soil as ballast.
Green shieldbug (Palomena prasina)
One of the commonest of our 44 species of shieldbug, this is a distinctive insect with its green shield-shaped flattened body, small head and dark brown wing-tips. They can be found in most gardens between March and November, feeding on the sap a wide variety of shrubs, herbaceous plants and native trees, though they do not cause any real damage. They may also be found climbing outside walls in the sunshine. As with all bugs, shieldbugs lay eggs which hatch to produce nymphs in early summer. These nymphs go through a number of stages, known as instars, before becoming adults.
Green shieldbugs can produce a defensive pungent odour from special glands. For this reason, they are also known as stink bugs.
14-spot ladybird (Propylea 14-punctata)
The attractive small ladybird can sometimes be difficult to spot but careful searching of vegetation close to the ground might reveal it. Its is the commonest of the UK’s three species of yellow and black ladybirds and can be identified by the rectangular spots and the dark line running down the back, where its wing cases join. They emerge from hibernation in late April and can be found in towns and gardens. Having a good selection of native plants and shrubs, along with woodpiles and leaving patches of fallen leaves, are good ways to support ladybirds in your garden.
The 14-spot ladybird feeds on aphids to provide natural pest control. Another species, the 7-spot ladybird (Coccinella septempunctata) has been considered to eat as many as 5,000 aphids in a year!
Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)
This is one of our commonest bumblebees and regularly found in gardens. The queens emerge in the early spring and can be recognised by their buff-coloured ‘tail’ and their size, being our largest bumblebee. The workers are very tricky to tell apart from the similar white-tailed bumblebee species. Like many other bumblebees, they nest underground and form large colonies of more than 500 insects – worth considering when doing any work in the garden. Many bee species struggle to find flowers when they first emerge in late February, and leaving early spring flowers, like dandelions, helps them find a ready nectar source.
Buff-tailed bumblebees have short tongues but have developed a trick to access tubular flowers by biting a hole at their base. This is known as ‘nectar robbing’.
Common earwig (Forficula auricularia)
The common earwig is one of our most fascinating insects. Despite their reputation for nibbling the petals of prize dahlias, they play a vital role in our gardens by eating aphids, particularly on fruit trees, along with decaying plant and animal matter. This is the largest and commonest of our three species of earwig, easily recognised by their sleek glossy brown body and pincers – curved in the male, straight in the female. Providing woodpiles and compost heaps is a great way of helping earwigs and a good place to search for them. Contrary to popular belief they do not habitually crawl into people’s ears.
Female earwigs lay 30-50 eggs in a chamber in the soil, keeping clean these until they hatch in the early spring, and then caring for the nymphs until they disperse.
Scorpionfly (Panorpa communis or germanica)
These insects are not really flies, but within the insect order Mecoptera. There are three very similar UK species of scorpionfly and they can be found between April and September. This is a remarkable looking insect with it’s long beak (rostrum) on the head, two pairs of patterned wings and, in the male, the body being turned upwards at the end, resembling a scorpions tail. They love nettle patches in shady locations, and if you are able to leave some nettles in a shady area of your garden you may be lucky enough to attract them.
Scorpionflies have a diet of nectar, rotten fruit and dead insects. Males offer females a dead insect as a courtship gift, often stealing these from spiders webs.
Pics: All Maria Justamond, apart from the earwing, by David Williams, and the bee, via RSPB-Images/Grahame Madge
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