Insects - Why we need them

Insects - Why we need them

Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust volunteer and amateur entomologist Kate Nightingale explains why insects are vital components of our ecosystem and how your garden can become a safe haven for these often overlooked and underappreciated creatures. This is the first in a series of Action for Insects blogs Kate will be sharing with us.

Insects live in almost every habitat on Earth, but despite being integral to the health of the environment and everything in it, they seldom get the credit they deserve.

Even within the insect world, people tend to make distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, but they all play essential roles in maintaining and regulating natural processes.  They sustain birds, small mammals, amphibians, reptiles and aquatic life; they are pollinators and pest-controllers; they break down decaying organic matter and recycle nutrients back to the soil.

Without insects there would be devastating food shortages and we’d be up to our necks in some very unpleasant things!

Migrant Hoverfly -  (Eupeodes corollae)

Migrant Hoverfly -  (Eupeodes corollae)

Gardens managed for the benefit of insects have huge potential to make a positive impact on our sadly declining populations.  There are an estimated 23 million private gardens in the UK, with a total area of up to 10 million acres - larger than all our nature reserves combined – and these green corridors link urban nature reserves and the countryside so wildlife can move around, feed, breed and shelter.

Although a pristine lawn may be appealing to many gardeners, the ‘untidy’ places make the best sites for insects.  Consider letting parts of your lawn go wild  - even a small patch of long grass can make a difference.

You could also encourage ‘weeds’ such as nettles, dock, thistles and ragwort, which provide vital habitats and food for many species. 

Small Tortoiseshell butterfly

Caterpillars of the Small Tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae) feed almost exclusively on nettles.

Contrary to popular belief, bumblebees and butterflies are not the only pollinators. Wasps, beetles, moths, bugs, ants and flies can also do an excellent job.  

The easily recognisable black and yellow social wasps have a bad reputation (it’s no picnic being a wasp!), but they transport pollen between flowers and feed on caterpillars, flies and aphids. 

A variety of garden plants that bloom at different times will ensure that pollen and nectar are available throughout the year.  Late-flowering ivy growing in a sunny spot is a good food source when many other plants have died off.  Avoid having exotic or invasive species, though, as they can disrupt the local insect eco-system.  

Not all wasps are yellow and black. Ruby –tailed wasp.

Not all wasps are yellow and black. Ruby –tailed wasp.

Very few insect species are capable of inflicting significant damage to your flowers, fruit or vegetables.

A good balance of pest and predator can be maintained by appropriate management - blackbirds and thrushes will control slugs and snails, and dragonflies and bats keep down fly and mosquito numbers, so there’s little need to use toxic chemicals that can get into the wildlife food chain – such as pesticides, slug and snail pellets.


 Spotted Longhorn Beetle - Rutpela maculata

Some beetles are good pollinators.  Spotted Longhorn Beetle - Rutpela maculata

A mixture of garden habitats is ideal.  Leaf litter, moss, stone piles, dead wood, matted vegetation, cracks and crevices are all important microhabitats for insects.  Please try to avoid disturbing them when you’re cutting back foliage, clearing leaves, building a bonfire, or, later in the year, using a wood burner.  Although insects tend to be more conspicuous in the spring and summer months, many species you see now will have overwintered somewhere in your garden – either as adults, or as eggs, larvae or pupae, depending on the species.

Cinnabar Moth

The caterpillars of the Cinnabar Moth (Tyria Jacobaeae) munch their way through swathes of ragwort every summer.

It can be very rewarding to get to know your garden insects and their fascinating and complex lives.  Nature needs insects, so please give them a helping hand this summer… and beyond.