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  • Writer's pictureTony Kendle

The wonder-filled world of insects

Can insects hear?

We don’t tend to think of insects as hearing things - they never seem to react to even the loudest noises. Yet if they really couldn’t hear they wouldn’t make their own noises - grasshoppers make their chirps by rubbing their legs against a kind of wash board on their bodies.

Recently scientists have found that ants can do this too - they believe the ants divide the world’s sounds into two zones. They have a near zone where they listen to each other and a far zone that is just meaningless noise.

Pretty in blue

One of the first colours you will see in butterflies in spring is a wonderful sky blue spiraling about two metres off the ground. This the holly blue, an early spring arrival. As the name suggests it feeds on holly, and later on ivy - strangely blending the seasons in one small beauty.

All in the day of a mayfly

Mayflies are renowned for their unusual lifecycle - they live a year as juveniles underwater, hatch, find a mate and die after only one day. It may sound tragic but it is not unsuccessful, they are one of the oldest groups of insects, believed to have flown alongside dinosaurs.

Bugs milked by ants, whoever heard such a thing

Unlike pollinators, sap-sucking insects have few friends - gardeners usually see them as enemies. Their main value to the world is they feed birds in huge numbers. Just as cows turn grass into something we can eat, greenfly turn trees into something the birds can eat.

Think of greenfly as the cows of the trees - they even get milked by ants as well! The ants drink the nectar that these greenfly extract from the trees - look carefully you might even see this happening. The ants and greenfly feed more birds, turning into balls of song.

Masters of disguise

Somewhere in your garden a master of camouflage may be hidden. Very well hidden.

The peppered moth has two remarkable stories. As a caterpillar they can sense colours with their skin and change their own appearance to blend with their background. The adult moths are held as one of the clearest examples that evolution is a constant force. During the heavily polluted industrial revolution, the light-coloured moths were too visible against dark black walls and a new black form evolved, both light and dark-coloured moths exist today.

More migrations

It is not just birds that complete extraordinary migrations. Around this time of year you will see Hoverflies, some of the estimated half a billion that fly to Britain from North Africa every year; once here they join the ranks of valuable pollinators, but they are also aphid eaters.

Hoverflies, also known as flower flies, are nature's helicopters. They dart, hover, dart and while they are flies they look more like bees or wasps with their stripey bodies. If you get up close you can see that while they have the colourful body of a bee or wasp they only have two wings instead of four and the head of a fly - that's how you know what they are. It has been shown that they are as important as bees for pollination and consume roughly 20% of aphid pests. This puts them on a par with ladybirds as controllers of aphids and scale insects and makes them a great friend in the garden.

You can attract Hoverflies by planting flowers in your garden. They generally prefer simple, open flowers because of their short tongues. They tend to like yellow and white flowers but aromatic choices will help guide them to a wider variety, for example Oregano, Chives, Thyme and Mints, and Tagetes, Alyssum and Cornflower.

A mini worm world right under our feet

Nematodes are microscopic worms, usually invisible to us. They feed on bacteria and plant roots - again they are part of the recycling machine. In turn nematodes are eaten by mites and fungi.

Gradually the things that feed on other things get bigger. As we climb the pyramid of soil life, we reach the insects and the earthworms; these in turn feed mammals such as moles and of course the songbirds that feed on the soil.

Although they do not live underground, so intimately linked to soil are songbirds like robins they could be fairly called part of the soil community - as can humans? The difference perhaps is that the robins possibly know it, while humans have certainly forgotten.

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