Garden Insects Throughout The Seasons


Look around your garden, and you will be amazed by how many insects you can see. Some have their positives, pollinating the flowers, but others can be serious pests.

Insects can be found year-round in your garden. In spring, butterflies and bees start appearing, while in summer, ants abound, and hundreds can be seen flying around to find a mate. In autumn, daddy long legs can be seen trying to get into and out of your home, while in winter, the hardiest insects, including swarms of gnats can be found.

Most insects can be found in gardens at some time. Some are casual visitors from the surrounding countryside, but many are actually residents. Not all gardens support as many species, and new gardens also have fewer species than established ones, as insects need mature garden plant life to take up residence.

Photo of tortoiseshell butterfly

Spring

Some insects are present all year round. Flies can be seen basking on sunny walls, even in the middle of winter. Most species have definite seasons, however, and insect populations change a lot between spring and autumn.

Among the first to stir in spring are those insects that hibernate as adults. Brimstone, peacock, and small tortoiseshell butterflies fly on warm days, even in February, trying to find nectar from any flowers that are open.

However, it is not until but not until the aubrietia, primrose, and polyanthus come to flower later in the spring do these butterflies become particularly busy. They are soon joined by the first broods of large and small whites, which emerge from their pupae early in April.

Honey bees appear as soon as the days warm up, mixing with the droneflies on the snowdrops and crocuses. Bumble bee queens emerge from hibernation in spring and are active as soon as the temperatures begin to rise.

Several species are common in the garden, with Bombus pratorum being one of the earliest to appear. Other garden species of bee include B. lapidarius, B. pascuorum, B. lucorum and B. hortum.

The bees all find plenty of nectar in deadnettle flowers and sallow catkins and build up their strength in readiness for nesting.

When the aubrietia opens, the fascinating bee-fly is never far away, hovering over the plants while making a high-pitched whine.

Queen wasps, like queen bumble bees, pass the winter in hibernation, and when they wake, they need a plentiful supply of energy-rich food.

Nectar provides most of this, and the wasps can be seen buzzing around cotoneaster and other early flowering shrubs. If the flowers are not yet open, the wasps bite through their bases to reach the nectar.

When not feeding, the wasps can often be seen and even heard, scraping wood from sheds and fences, which they chew and mix with saliva to make the paper for their nests.

As you get busy in the garden, digging and weeding in readiness for spring planting, you may find many insects on the ground.

As gardeners, you don’t want the larvae of craneflies or click beetles in your garden. However, other insects, such as predatory ground beetles, including the violet ground beetle, rush over the surface, feeding on harmful insect larvae.

During May, many garden plants become decorated with blobs of white froth known as cuckoo spit. People once thought this really was cuckoo spit as it seems to appear from nowhere at a time when cuckoos were around.

It is produced by the nymphs of frog hoppers which feed on the plant sap. The froth protects the nymphs from drying out and also from many of their predators.

Summer

As spring passes into summer, the aphids multiply quickly on many garden plants, exuding large quantities of honeydew, a liquid that ants and many other insects love to feed on.

Garden insects reach peak numbers in high summer when every flower has its attendant hoverfly and often many other insects as well. The summer generations of small tortoiseshells, peacocks, and brimstone butterflies feed on lavender and buddleia nectar and may be joined by the wall brown and comma butterflies.

The large and small whites join in when they are not busy laying eggs on brassicas, together with their harmless relative, the green-veined white.

If you wander around the garden at night with a torch or shine a lamp out of the window, you will soon be aware of the large numbers of moths in the garden, feeding at the flowers or simply flying about in search of mates.

These may include the yellow underwings, whose shiny brown pupae you may have dug up in spring, and the tiger moth and its cousins, the white and buff ermines.

Several day-flying moths also occur in the garden during the summer and autumn. Best known are the hummingbird hawkmoth and the silver-Y moth. Both arrive in late spring and produce a new generation in late summer, feeding while hovering.

Ants are extremely common in the garden, but they are generally unobtrusive for much of the year. The commonest species is the black Lasius niger, which feeds on a variety of small insects and has a special taste for aphids, which they milk for honeydew.

This species breeds under paths and rockery stones, and the nests can be seen teeming with ants in July or August when thousands of winged ants take to the air for their mating flight. These flying ant days can be quite unpleasant, and the winged ants can make their way into your home in the hundreds if you are unlucky.

The winged ants are males and new queens nurtured by the workers for several weeks. When the weather conditions are reasonably still, but warm and humid, the workers open the nests and allow the winged forms out for their mid-air matings.

All the nests in one area tend to erupt simultaneously, thus encouraging intermarriage between the different colonies.

The great majority of flying ants fall victim to swallows and other birds, but males which return to the ground will soon die while the queens break off their wings and search for suitable places in which to start their new colonies.

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Photo of flying ant

Autumn

Earwigs can be found all year, but they are especially noticeable around harvest time. Found in crevices, they like curling up around the stalks of apples in the daytime, from where they emerge at night to feed on fruit.

The oak bush cricket is another inhabitant of the apple tree and many other fruit trees. It is mainly active at night and feeds on other small insects.

Daddy longlegs, a cranefly, abound in the autumn after spending several months as leatherjackets feeding on the roots under your lawn. These like sunbathing on walls, but at night they commonly enter houses and can be seen buzzing around trying to escape.

Late autumn sees the last of the butterflies with the small tortoiseshell, usually the last to hibernate after feeding on nectar from the ice plants and Michaelmas daisies.

Ivy blossom is also a rich nectar source for many insects, including young queen wasps and bluebottles. At night the ivy blossom is home to many moths, such as the beaded chestnut and the green-brindled crescent.

Winter

As the days become shorter, swarms of winter gnats come out in the afternoons. The males of these small, harmless, mosquito-like flies form dancing swarms to attract females.

The swarms usually stay over a fixed object, such as a car, until dark. These performances go on all through the winter, in all but the very coldest weather.

When I was walking along a grass path in a field recently, I noticed that the swarm would stay directly above the path. However, if I moved one foot to the side of the path, there wouldn’t be any gnats.

As the path was much hotter than the grass on either side, it seemed that they liked the heat of the path and would rarely veer off it.

The winter moth is another hardy species whose males can be seen on window panes throughout the winter. The females are wingless and occur on the trunks and branches of various trees.

Several other moths can be seen in winter, including the mottled umber and the drab grey November moth. When the spring usher appears, usually in February, we can be sure that spring, with its longer, warmer days, will be here soon.

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