Category Archives: ecology

Butterflies, Bees, Birds And The Big Butterfly Count 2014


Peacock Butterfly

Peacock Butterfly

Today has been exceptional. Walking back up the garden having sown more radish and beetroot, I disturbed the butterflies feeding. They swarmed in front of my eyes. Such a delightful sight! Most of them were peacocks, but I have spotted today small coppers, a common blue, red admirals and large and small cabbage whites.

Peacock Butterflies dance

Peacock Butterflies dance

That’s just the butterflies. I noticed a couple of years ago when visiting Geoff Hamilton’s garden at Barnsdale Gardens that the marjoram had more bees on it than anything else. As this herb is one I make a lot of use of, I resolved to ensure at least one big clump adorned one of my borders. I have one marjoram and one oregano clump right nest to each other. This has paid huge dividends. Not only do I have plenty for my antifungal, antibacterial tea, but I have many, many bees of many types. Now, I’m no bee expert, but I saw working honey bees, buff tailed bumble bees, leaf cutter bees, white tailed bumble bees and lots of others. Hoverflies dodged their way around them, all feeding and buzzing to my delight. The maxim I keep repeating, ‘build it (or grow it) and they will come’ actually does pay off.

Bee On Marjoram - One Of Hundreds Today

Bee On Marjoram – One Of Hundreds Today

There’s a big event happening. I’ll be getting involved myself. This is a cause that really matters. One third of our food needs pollination by insects, mostly bees. Peaches, runner beans, apples, pears, you name it, bees do the job for us. The Big Butterfly Count 1014 takes place from 19th July (so it’s happening folks) until Sunday, 10th August. Right now, you can help conservation by giving the scientists the information they need. Here’s the link to get you started. 

Bee On Dahlia

Bee On Dahlia

And you can plant marjoram, simple single flowers like these dahlias, Buddleja davidii to help our insect population. Our gardens are hugely important. They cover so much of our land that we can save these insects from their demise if we try. Sorry to rant, but they need our help and it’s such a simple, easy thing to do. Grow simple flowers! Grow herbs. Will you?

Oh, I’ve had to come back and edit this post. My memory is tragically bad. I mentioned birds, didn’t I, in my title? That was to remind you. They need water. If you don’t have a pond, please put out a dish of water or a bird bath. They need to drink and bathe. Many have visited my bird bath today. They’re lovely to watch, so don’t miss out.

Great Crested Newts Welcome Here

Great Crested Newt. Once Common, Now Endangered.

Great Crested Newt. Once Common, Now Endangered.

Well, I was chatting to my neighbour. Comparing gardens, I told him of my plans to install a wildlife pond this autumn. Guess what? When he had a wildlife style pond he had great crested newts! So they are in the area. This may well be the best case of ‘build it and they will come’ I’ll have had so far. I certainly will build it. Of course the advantages of ponds are well known. Not only will I have a chance to help an endangered species, but all the other wildlife a pond will inevitably attract is going to increase the biodiversity of my garden and many others.

As a child brought up in the north of England, before the days of Elf and safety, I played in the mill ponds that serviced the cotton industry. The mills, ponds and industry have gone, and so have the great crested newts that were then common and we played with. The ponds were steep-sided concrete affairs, but the newts didn’t seem to mind. Now they rely on us to make homes for them and leave them be to reproduce and hopefully recover their numbers. This is just as well. Our local council have approved planning permission for houses to be built on green fields behind us, and the farmer who owned them is quite happy to take the money and run.

So anything I can do to make homes for the creatures that will be displaced can only help. We have a hedgehog house, a bat box, five nest boxes (and will install more) a log pile, long grass, wild flowers and a huge nectar bar in the form of my borders. They will get bigger as I continue to expand them and shrink the amount of lawn. I say lawn, it’s more like rough grass, and not my top priority. I’ve planted lots of climbers around the fencing, where native hedgerow isn’t. In the hedgerow, I’ve added more honeysuckle, and pushed in native flowering plants, hoping they’ll cope and get on with it. So far I’ve had success with one or two vetches, and leave bits of nettle, but don’t really need to. There’s lots of it around where we live, so I don’t have to get stung every time I’m tending the garden.

I love this lifestyle. Food on the table and wildlife in the garden.It’s quite easy, this environmentally friendly gardening, once you know how. Much more relaxed than the old stiff, prune it to death style of gardening that saw every blade of grass regimentally organised and every flower standing to attention, bare soil in between. Give me abundance and flowers, insects and animals very time.

How about you?



Moths – The Night Economy Butterflies Visit In Droves

Moth On Bergamot. Taken with flash

Moth On Bergamot. Taken with flash

Yesterday I went into the garden at dusk. I was greeted by a sight I’ve never seen before. Moths. In their droves. They were drawn by the bergamot, a herb I planted for the bees and myself. It’s a beautifully scented flower used to flavour Earl Grey tea. They don’t rest on the flowers like our daytime butterflies, but hover and feed on the wing. At least, those I could see were doing just that. I managed to get a photo using flash, but of course it’s not perfect, but does demonstrate their behavior nicely. You can actually see its proboscis delving into the flower for its pollen. I was overjoyed!

All our insects are suffering drops in numbers, including our moths. There is no difference between butterflies and moths, except their day/nighttime habits in this world, and they are pollinators of many flowers. They are another part of our eco-system suffering habitat and food plant loss and need our conservation efforts as much as a daytime butterfly or bee.

Once I’d spotted a species on the bergamot I started peering around to see of they were visiting any other flowers. Indeed they were. The buddlia was busy with them, as was the honeysuckle and dahlias. So when you feed the bees and the butterflies you are also keeping many moth species fed too. So many people have said to me that they love butterflies but hate moths. My reply is that to an entemologist there is no difference. They are all scaled, winged insects. Then I ask them if they’ve ever seen some of these beautiful creatures. I have a book full of stunning photos of moths. Burnets have gorgeous markings.There’s one on the chart for the Big Butterfly Count and I’ve posted here a photo of another of our moths, just to give you an idea of how stunning they can be. And they deserve our support. Why not make space for some nectar rich flowers?

Oleander Hawk Moth

Oleander Hawk Moth

Top Ten Butterfly Plants in My garden

Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly feeding on Allium Drumstick

Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly feeding on Allium Drumstick

As butterflies and moths are in serious trouble due to wet summers and massive declines in natural habitat due to intensive farming and the loss of meadows, This year conservationists are appealing to us all to help. So, here are my favourite top ten butterfly plants, based on observation of the insect life in my garden.

  1. The best nectar plant anyone can grow is buddleia. They are now available in dwarf form for the patio, so you don’t need a large garden or space to grow one. If you have room, grow several together, giving the butterflies a better chance of seeing them and lots more food.
  2. Verbena bonariensis. A gorgeous, delicate annual that is easily grown and can be left to self seed through your borders
  3. Nettles. Yep, nettles. If you live near waste ground and there are plenty of nettles around, you probably don’t need to have a nettle patch, but it is the food plant for many species of butterfly larvae, so worth having.
  4. Hawthorn, which is the home and food plant for many moths. It gives them somewhere, too to pupate in peace. My hedge comprises mainly of hawthorn. I see and am trying to identify lots of beautiful moths.
  5. Marjoram and oregano. I went out this morning to find these have just come into flower, and are smothered in small white butterflies eagerly feeding.
  6. Allium. Our Small tortoiseshell is feeding on drumstick, but all the alliums I have seem to attract plenty of butterflies when they’re around. Bees adore them, too. They happily move from flower to flower gorging themselves. As they are easy bulbs to grow and suffer no pest problems that I’ve encountered you too could have some. They will increase their own numbers in time and take up little space as they can be planted among other plants, covering their bare legs.
  7. Sedums. These are great plants that need little attention as they are drought tolerant. Just give them full sun and good drainage. Many are perfect for pots and alpine troughs. You can even grow them in a window box. The butterflies won’t mind!
  8. Cosmos. Easy annuals, bright and colourful, grow from seed or get young plug plants, often sold cheaply on your local market.
  9. Vetches. Native wild flowers that grow on verges and in hedgerows. Seed of many are now available through seed companies and young plants from specialist nurseries. They are food plants for larvae and adults.
  10. Scabious. These pretty nectar rich flowers seem to be a magnet for any butterflies around, and they spend ages on each flower head, dipping into a rich meal.Small White Butterfly Feeding On MarjoramSmall White Butterfly Feeding On Marjoram

There is a lot more we can do. The BBC are running the Summer of Wildlife, where you can help increase the knowledge of scientists so they can further understand the needs of our precious butterflies. Their page How to Help Wildlife can start you off with all the information you need to join the growing crowd of people giving vital information to the scientists, plus TONS more information on how to help our declining wildlife in general. Their page Worrying Declines will tell you much more.

What can you do to help? What have you planted or plan to grow? I’d love to hear from you.

Plant It And They Will Come

Mullein Moth Caterpillars

Mullein Moth Caterpillars

Last year, when I went to a specialist herb centre in the Cotswolds, I bought a mullein plant. The plant was new to me, but I understood it would be great for bees to feed on, so home it came. The rosette of woolly leaves grew steadily, despite all last year’s rain, then withstood the icy winter. Up it came this spring and produced flower spikes. When I looked closely, I found caterpillars were gorging on it. I decided to share the plant with them and left them there. I discovered these pretty creatures were larvae of the mullein moth, which looks like a twig, and is no-where near as pretty as the juvenile form, but I don’t care. Diversity and keeping balance is what I’m about. I thought I was sacrificing the flower, but no. What a gorgeous display, and the bees can have their share now, too. mullein

The Buzz About Bees. Can We Help Them?

Painted Lady Butterfly

Painted Lady Butterfly









At last the government have got involved. But they are still debating, procrastinating, about the use of neonicotinoids. Nicotine based pesticides are modern, used only for the last twenty years. Bees are in trouble, as we’ve known for a long time now. If we lose them we’re in big trouble. Our food supplies would be hugely affected. That’s why we should all be doing our utmost to help them. I’m no expert on insects, I’m just a concerned gardener and amateur naturalist.

Members of the Commons Environmental Audit Committee are calling for a moratorium on the use of sprays containing neonicotinoids. If you want to know more about it there’s an article currently on the BBC website.

So here’s my plan for this year. I planted early flowers for bees last year, and two days after snow cleared, as I mentioned in my last post, I have violas flowering. There is also heather in flower, growing in my holly.  Crocus, too are there providing that vital nectar. I had nesting solitary bees last year, and left them undisturbed. Primroses and cowslips will also help as soon as they begin to flower. I have also made insect hotels out of lengths of cane, and we currently have piles of rotting wood which will provide more insect hide-aways.

Almost all the flowers I plan to grow this year are single flowers, as these provide the most pollen and nectar. Daisy flowers of all kinds are loved by bees with their composite heads, therefore lots of pollen and in one place. I will have, as long as they all germinate, bidens, felicia, dahlia (single flowered), aster, coreopsis, sunflowers, and a blended mix of wildflowers. The packet says they are to attract butterflies, but many of the flowers for them will also feed and attract bees.

Bee On Geranium Flower

Bee On Geranium Flower

I’ve planted a buddleia, the butterfly bush, and have more cuttings of that to give away or plant elsewhere. My son has planted one in his tiny garden in a nearby town. Spread the bee and butterfly love!

Sedums are excellent nectar plants, and I have planted several. I’ve also planted  geraniums. The hardy type. As you can see from the bee photo, they love them, and they are for the most part easy going plants that will give pleasure for years.

The great news for today is….drumroll….I saw the first bee and the first butterfly. Spring on the wing. Hooray!!!

Rare Plant Find In The Garden

I’ve watched it for weeks. It looked like a tagetes or marigold at first. Then it began to mystify me. The flower spikes didn’t look right. I took photos. I looked in herb books, wildflower books and finally in horticultural books, but couldn’t find it. I waited. I watched. Finally some sign that flowers might be opening happened, but they appeared to be so tiny I got the macro lens out. I contacted an expert. He was mystified too.

Eventually, I went through an ID list on The Botanical Society of the British Isles. Now I know what it is! I’m so pleased! It’s a fairly uncommon find here in the UK, but is listed as a ‘noxious weed’ in North America. It apparently is the worst hay fever plant, producing masses amounts of tiny pollen grains that cause symptoms. So, despite being pleased to have found it and identified it, once I’ve gathered the photos for it to be included on Wildflower Finder by Roger Darlington I will have to remove it. I want British natives, and I don’t want a major pollen problem propagating itself as I suffer hay fever myself!

It’s been interesting, though. I assume the seed has been sitting in this previously neglected garden just waiting for someone to bring it to the surface, which is what I did when I planted my herb bed.

By now you must be dying to know what this mystery plant is, and see some photos of it. Well, it is Ambrosia Artemisifolia or Ragweed. Here are some photos should you ever come across it.


Ambrosia Artemisiiflolia

Ambrosia Artemisiifolia

Ambrosia Artemisiifolia leaf detail


Macro shot of flower head on Ambrosia Artemisiifolia

Squirrel thief charms my garden

I woke this morning and as usual took my coffee through to the conservatory and peered out of the window. It’s raining, again, but there on my bird feeder was another visitor. We’ve seen this squirrel around before, but he’s never sat for half an hour helping himself to a bird food in such a blatant way. Local ecology in action! It’s a good job we like all our garden wildlife. He’s a charming little chap! I took the photo through the window, from about 20 metres away, but it seems to have come out quite well.

squirrel thief

squirrel thief

The second he ran off all the birds descended from the apple tree just behind the feeder and in glorious full bloom and the moment.

We’ve had, like a lot of the country, the heaviest rain in a long time. Water, water everywhere! On Sunday my weather station registered 1 3/4″ of the stuff in 24 hours. Of course we need it, and our gardens will benefit greatly. That was a lot of rain all at once, though. We’re fortunately not on a flood plain! Also fortunately, this soil seems to be very well-drained, as yesterday I was actually able to go out and use my new mower for the first time, so the rough grass has had a haircut.

If you need a mower, choose an electric model, as petrol ones are much less energy-efficient, and of course petrol is rocketing in price. You can do without the extra expense! Plus petrol mowers are three times heavier than electric ones. If, like me, you want a natural, rambling look to your garden and care for the wildlife, you only need a hover mower. This will trim the grass, but not give you stripes and a perfect finish. As we don’t want that, hover was the obvious choice.

The rain has now delayed my greenhouse build three times. At the moment I can barely get into my conservatory for towering tomato plants and seedlings that should by now be planted up in the greenhouse, but what can I do? Hopefully this rain will die out by the end of the week and I’ll finally see a glass house I can use instead of a potential swimming pool!

Spanish Bluebell Invasion Hits Home.

Well, the weather has been fantastic for the garden, and I’ve been out there trying to tame ten years or more of neglect. I had looked forward to the bulbs that are prolific in one large, overgrown bed, thinking I had bluebells I could move down into the hedgerow. But it turns out they are Spanish bluebells. Gorgeous, but dangerous for native English bluebells and very invasive. They are bigger, stronger and out-compete our native species. Not only that, but they cross-pollinate the English type to produce hybrids. This would eventually mean the demise of our own native, charming English bluebells. Not something I like to contemplate.

Here’s a photo of our  English bluebells growing with anemones. Charming! If you want to see them closer, just click on the photo.


English Bluebells

So the huge job of removing them has begun. They throw out underground runners, seed and tiny bulblets, so it’s going to be several years before they are completely eradicated, even with a little help from glyphosphate.

If you have bluebells in your garden, then it’s worth checking yours are native, too. English ones have flowers down only one side of the stem, causing them to arch beautifully as they open. Spanish ones have flowers all around the stem and stand upright. The leaves are much broader than English bluebells, too. English are only about 1cm wide and the Spanish much more (mine measure 2cm on the larger plants).

If you want to find out more about the problems associated with Spanish Bluebells there’s a BBC video here. For clearly explained and illustrated differences between the two species, have a look at this site.

No Butts – There’s a drought on!

With this announcement of drought restrictions this summer it looks as though we’d all better take care of what water there is. Not only should we be saving as much as we can in the home, but in the garden where hose pipe bans may mean the difference between a crop growing well or not, water butts will be essential.

drought water butt

Water butt ready for guttering

We’ve just put a new shed in our garden, and have bought guttering to run round it for extra rain collection. It will be fitted very soon. We raised the shed up from the ground to extend its life and left extra space at the end to ensure the water butt is raised and I can easily obtain any water we collect for my precious vegetables.

The greenhouse will also be fitted with a water-butt, and there is already one gathering rain from the house. So, we should be able to avoid turning on a hose pipe!

Inside the house, we have reduced the number of times we flush, make sure the dishwasher and washing machine are always fully loaded before running them and shower rather than bath. Taps are never left running, not even when brushing our teeth or cleaning vegetables. We all need to take care. Not only are supplies low, but rivers are actually drying up or their ecology being damaged by the lack of water flowing through them.

For more information on the drought restrictions now in force or imminent, click here