National Insect Week

It’s not the most glamorous of ‘national week of…’ events but it is globally important to the conservation of insect species, which are rapidly declining. The celebration was started to “encourage people of all ages to learn about insects”, which is a particularly prescient exercise given the recent evidence from France and Germany that shows a 75% decline in insect species across the countryside within the last 25 years.

The National Insect Week website lists all the different types of insects and has a wealth of learning resources. Insects include:

  • beetles
  • butterflies and moths
  • bees and wasps
  • ants
  • crickets and grasshoppers
  • dragonflies and damselflies
  • earwigs
  • lacewings
  • mayflies
  • stoneflies
  • silverfish and firebrats
  • true bugs
  • true flies

A casual flick through the website and I have learnt that while there are over 50 or 60 species of butterflies in the UK, there are a staggering 2000 species of moth! I have also discovered what a firebrat is.

You may not be especially interested in insects – you may even avoid them at all costs – but they are an essential component of any ecosystem because so many animals depend on them for a food source. They are also pollinators so they help plants and flowers to reproduce, which contributes to a healthy and diverse ecosystem. Some insects even break down decaying organisms, returning those nutrients to the environment.

The RSPB suggests excellent ways to encourage insect species in our gardens:

  • build a bug home
  • plant for butterflies
  • install a bee hotel
  • pile up dead wood
  • support campaigns by Buglife

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Insect Loss

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Much has been made of the insect Armageddon news this month – that the massive decline in insect life is overwhelmingly terrible for the world. Conservationists and entomologists have been warning about this for years but perhaps the extent of the decline has been so far unknown. New research, however, has found that three quarters of flying insects on German nature reserves have vanished in 25 years.

This is an obvious problem for the food chain: fewer insects means birds don’t get as much food, therefore fewer birds; fewer birds for mammals to feed on. And it’s not just the loss of a direct food resource for birds – insects are our pollinators, and many birds and mammals feed on flowers and plants. Without insects the entire ecosystem will collapse.

So what might have caused this worrying trend?

  • loss of wild habitats
  • use of pesticides
  • possibly climate change

The scientists involved were able to rule out weather and landscape changes as not having sufficient impact to explain the severe 75% decline.

The scientists have been using malaise traps since 1989 to trap and analyse insect numbers across 63 nature reserves in Germany; given that the landscape throughout the rest of Western Europe is pretty much the same, I think it’s safe to generalise these findings to Britain as well. Not only has the research captured a much larger range of insects than is normally studied in one research attempt, it was also carried out on nature reserves, which are protected areas.

Just to get your head around how catastrophic this decline is, bear in mind that insects have dominated and thrived on this earth for millennia – they are incredibly prolific and have been relentlessly successful. And human behaviour has caused a 75% decline in 25 years?!

The conclusion of this research – that declining insect numbers have and will have a devastating effect on ecosystems as a whole – has been demonstrated by other evidence. Spotted flycatchers, who feed primarily on flying insects, have declined by 95%. Grey partridges, which feed their chicks on insects, have all but vanished from the countryside. We know it’s true from last year’s State of Nature report, which found that in the past 50 years over 56% of species have declined and 15% are either extinct or nearly. We also know this instinctively through anecdote: see the windscreen phenomenon.

It’s not just agriculture, though I’m pretty convinced that the loss of hedgerows and flower borders means that farmland is virtually an ecological void. Yet everywhere you look, there is tidiness. What used to be front gardens are now paved over for cars.  Grass is cut on road verges and around cities as soon as it reaches your ankles – I wrote a post about this.

What can we do about it?

  • get over our cultural aversion to creepy insects
  • consider the importance of the minutiae of ecology
  • stop poisoning the land with pesticides on an industrial scale
  • make our gardens mini nature reserves
  • bang on and on about insects on your blog
  • teach your kids to appreciate insects
  • lobby your local council to stop mowing every patch of grass

 

 

Wildlife in Churchyards

I loathe a tidy churchyard. I hate to see their freshly mown grass and neatly trimmed edges. Give me unkempt, wild and natural graveyards any day.

Churchyards can often be ancient grassland habitats, providing havens for over 100 species of wildflowers, millions of insects, as well as birds and mammals. Bats can still be found in the belfries managed by wildlife-friendly churchyard keepers (sorry, who manages these sites? Does the parish have a gardener? Or does the priest gets his hoe out when he’s not delivering mass?)

The Wildlife Trusts run a Churchyard Conservation Scheme across many of it’s organisations, which aims to support churches to manage their outside space in a wildlife-friendly manner to promote biodiversity and provide vital corridors between habitats in the countryside.

What makes ancient churchyards such great resources for wildlife is that they have escaped the plague of modern pesticides and chemicals that have damaged other parts of the countryside. Lichen love to colonize gravestones, and ferns adore damp church walls, so it’s not just the grassland but also the church buildings themselves that provide homes to plant and insect life.

A secular charity called ‘Caring for God’s Acre‘ launched recently to preserve wildlife in the UK’s 20,000 churchyards, cemeteries and burial grounds. It focuses on the following 6 flagship species:

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Yew trees

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Waxcap fungi

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Bumblebees

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Slow worms

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Swifts

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Hedgehogs

Have you visited any wildlife-rich churchyards recently? I’ll be sharing a few in the followings month of those that I’ve visited in Norfolk.

On The Importance Of Insects

Insects are the most common of all animals on the planet, totally around 1.5 million types of insects – that’s three times more than any other animal population combined!

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They are especially important to all ecosystems because they serve two functions: to pollinate and to clean. Many of the foods we rely on are pollinated by insects, and insects also provide an efficient service in cleaning up decaying matter and decomposing animals.

Insects are also eaten by many species, including reptiles, amphibians, other insects, mammals and, of course, birds, so they are a substantial foundation in the food web that most species simply could not do without.

Since the 1950s, however, insect populations have been declining, and conservationists are particularly concerned about the falling numbers of bees, moths, and butterflies. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust suggests that this decline in bee populations is due to a combination of factors but mostly we look to the loss of wildflowers in the countryside and new agricultural techniques. They estimate that we have lost around 97% of flower-grassland since the 1930s, resulting in the extinction in the UK of two species of bees – so far. They also suggest that:

Through the pollination of many commercial crops such as tomatoes, peas, apples and strawberries, insects are estimated to contribute over £400 million per annum to the UK economy and €14.2 billion per annum to the EU economy.

A very important insect, then. But it’s not just bees that contribute to the UK economy; ladybirds, for example, eat aphids, which feed on farmers’ crops.

But those are the cute, fluffy, colourful bugs – what about the ugly bugs? Cockroaches are probably universally despised, yet the 5,000+ known species that do not inhabit urban areas provide a significant ecological service in forests by cleaning up indigestible leaf matter, and by being a food source to desert lizards and some endangered mammals. Mosquitoes, too, despite being potentially deadly to humans, are a vital food source to birds and mammals.

There are some excellent resources on the internet to learn about the valuable role of insects in all ecosystems:

National Insect Week

Amateur Entomologists’ Society

Insects.org

 

 

 

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