Insects: why they’re so great for our gardens

Bumble bee flying to a pink and yellow flower

Does the very idea of insects make you smile or shudder? If it’s the latter, just to give you warning, 22-28 June is National Insect Week and small things with six legs will be showcased in events, articles and programmes all over the country.

Insect week article

Maybe time for a quick overseas break? But for me, and hopefully many others who love insects, it will be a chance to find out more about this fascinating group of creatures that have been on earth a lot longer than we have.

I’ve been interested in insects for years, mainly because, as a gardener with environmentally friendly tendencies, it really helps to know friend from foe. I’m surprised how few folk can only identify the common ones, like ladybirds, butterflies, bees, ants and wasps.

Everything else seems to be lumped in with ‘creepy crawlies’ or ‘bugs’.  That might be due to the ‘yuck’ factor, or maybe because there are so many different types. Unbelievably, we have 24,000 different species of insect in the UK alone and many of them don’t even have common names.

Why are insects so important?

In case you watched the movie Ants and got confused, insects are the creepy crawlies with six legs. They matter because they do all kinds of important things in the ecosystem – clearing up and removing dead plants, feeding birds and other creatures, pollenating plants. I could go on and on…

Essentially, even the annoying ones have a role to play. Wasps may seem like a complete pest, but they actually spend a lot of time pollenating crops, just like bees, and they also take caterpillars to feed their young, which protects your cabbages. So they are really useful. Right up until the last few weeks of their lives when they turn into the insect version of a football hooligan, complete with yellow and black team stripes!

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Turn your garden into a haven for insects…

Of course, when it comes to popularity, the pretty bugs get all the breaks – with ladybird hotels, bee homes and butterfly feeding stations on sale in shops and garden centres and magazine articles on nectar-rich flowers to plant. It’s nice that folk want to add these to their little bit of paradise, but there is a catch. If you keep your garden too tidy, many insects won’t have a home, no matter how much nectar your flowers hold.

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I suggest letting at least one or two edges get a bit shaggy. It probably won’t matter if the bit behind the shed or the spot at the end of the garden gets a bit unkempt, but a whole host of amazing creatures will thank you for it, especially over winter.

You will also find that a lot of butterflies and rather lovely moths will appear if you can grow more weeds, as they often lack food plants for their caterpillars. Spectacular day-flying Cinnabar moths need Ragwort to thrive, so if you want to see these crimson and black beauties in your garden, that’s what you’ll need.

Even the humble nettle deserves a place, as it’s food for the caterpillars of Red Admirals, Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell and Comma butterflies.

For even better results, let a corner of lawn grow long and flower. You will be rewarded by all kinds of lovely critters, including grasshoppers and crickets. You could follow Monty Don’s advice and leave most of your grass long, just mowing sinuous paths through it to show it’s intentional.

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Just imagine how much less work you’d have to do!

Baby Ladybird

Ladybird larvae (baby)

It also really helps to know what insects look like at different stages of their lives. We all know and love ladybirds, but their babies are not pretty at all.

You might not even recognise some of your gardens best friends – lacewings are fantastic greenfly eaters as well, but look quite alien, and their larvae are even less attractive.

It’s definitely worth finding out more, if only to make sure you aren’t ridding your garden of lots of willing, free labour!

Fortunately there’s loads going on in National Insect Week, so here’s to a celebration of our six-legged friends.

About Tracey Lloyd

I’m an environmental educator in Nottingham with a wonderful community allotment to play in, called Windmill Community Gardens. I teach people how to grow, cook, eat and preserve their food in low energy and low cost ways, as well as having a lot of fun making useful and beautiful things with junk. My lovely husband and kids just about tolerate my tendency to hoard waste items for future projects! Photo by Jonathan Cherry.