How to Have a Happy Garden
We are currently witnessing a global insect collapse as a direct result of human actions. 40% of insect species are declining while 30% are endangered, at a rate eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles. The research estimates that, at the current rate, insects could entirely disappear within a century.
This is concerning not only for the insect populations themselves, but also for the functioning of our ecosystems. Insects are a core player in our ecosystem - abundant insect populations provide essential food for other animals such as birds while playing a vital role in the pollination of plants and recycling of nutrients, which not only give us food but also help to supply us with clean air and water. Their extinction would spell disaster for humanity and the environment alike.
This so-called “insectageddon” would result in what ecologists call a “bottom-up trophic cascade”: the knock-on effects of the decreasing insect populations on larger mammals in the food chain. This is already being witnessed in Puerto Rico for example, where the numbers of one bird species that feeds almost solely on insects has seen a drastic drop by 90%.
In the UK, butterflies, bees and moths are among the worst affected, with butterflies having experienced a decrease of 58% on farmed land between 2000 and 2009. Whilst data is hard to gather due to insect levels being difficult to monitor, the two-spot ladybird had decreased by 44% when last assessed in 2012 and moth numbers dropped by 40% in southern Britain between 1968 and 2007.
Without this fundamental food source, birds, reptiles, fish and amphibians that rely on insects will starve to death. It is not an understatement to say that the effects of an insect-free planet would be catastrophic.
The falling insect numbers are likely to be partly caused by intensive agricultural methods, particularly the popularisation of new classes of insecticides which have appeared in the last 20 years or so to sterilise the soil, killing the grubs beneath.
Rising temperatures caused by global warming are also to blame, particularly in tropical areas, with many insects unable to adapt to the changing climate.
What can you do to help?
It is not too late to try and counteract this; there are plenty of things you can do to help as a garden owner. Gardens play a hugely important role, so cultivating a healthy area for insects to thrive in is something we can all strive to do, even with only a little green space. Here are 10 top tips for a happy garden.
- Choose real grass: using artificial grass results in a drastic loss of habitat for insects like butterflies, bees and other wildlife, not to mention the creation of non-biodegradable, plastic waste.
- Allow your lawn to grow: mow your grass once a year, rather than every two weeks. This allows flowers to bloom and be pollinated, as well as creating a home for insects. Equally, if you have the space, setting aside a small area of unmown lawn or a patch of nettles provides plant food as well as a breeding area for butterflies.
- Consider getting an allotment: if you don’t have a garden, an allotment is another option. Allotments are urban sanctuaries for bees and other pollinators and have been shown to actually be better for insects than gardens due the varieties of fruit and vegetable flowers.
- Sow a wide variety of plants: include plants which flower late or early in the season, such as chives, to encourage bees and butterflies throughout spring, summer and autumn. Flowers with plenty of nectar and pollen create a more diverse, happy garden.
- Favour native plants: native flowers which are often thought of as weeds such as brambles, dandelions, buttercups and ox-eye daisies are particularly attractive to bees, hoverflies and other pollinators.
- Don’t use fertilisers or pesticides: fertilisers create dense vegetation which isn’t suitable for insects that make their habitats in the sparser patches. Instead, use companion planting to combat pests naturally, such as planting carrots and leeks together; leeks ward off carrot flies while carrots repel leek moths.
- Create a compost heap: it will not only help to generate healthy soil but also makes a great shelter for insects.
- Build bug-boxes for ladybirds and lacewings: they are effective predators for less welcome insects such as aphids.
- Cultivate larger plants and trees: they create important shelters for insects, while pieces of bark in your lawn would provide an excellent habitat for stag and bark beetles as well as grubs.
- Install a pond: the Royal Horticultural Society say that having a pond in your garden, however small, is “the single easiest way to add wildlife value”. Allow water plants to grow naturally on top to provide essential food and shelter for insects.
Even if only by following a few of these tips, we can all do our bit to help combat the global insect crisis.