Unsung heroes of the plant world

Male sallow tree at Dancersend nature reserve. Photo by Sue Taylor

BBOWT volunteer recorder, Sue Taylor takes a closer look some of the unsung heroes of the plant world

Plants lie at the heart of every habitat, taking nutrients from the soil, energy from the sun and carbon dioxide from the air and then, in an everyday miracle, forging these into roots, shoots, leaves and flowers, which then provide food for all animals, including us.

The plant species reflect where they are growing. They can tell you about the history, hydrology and management of any area, and the nature of the geology beneath our feet.

As well as responding to the environment they live in plants modify it, trees cast shade and increase local humidity. Hedges on exposed fields create shelter and sunny corners where insects can warm up.  On poor soils, vetches and clovers harness bacteria to fix nitrogen and when the plant dies the soil is enriched.

Nothings stays static, there is always change. BBOWT staff and volunteers strive, through management of habitats, to ensure that the right conditions are always available for our most treasured species, be they plant or animal. 

The biggest challenge and opportunity faced currently is the removal of diseased ash trees. The loss of these trees will change the woodlands, opening-up the woodland floor to more flowers and grasses, and creating deadwood to be colonised by a host of fungi and insects. New trees will take their place, decisions must be made as to which species are most appropriate to encourage.

All our plants, even the most lowly, have a role to play in the complex habitats on our reserves, but to my eyes as an insect enthusiast not all plants are created equal, some punch well above their weight in providing food for insects.

Here are a few of my favourites, plants that I always check out to see which insects are feeding there.

Ivy

Insects feeding on ivy flowers

Insects feeding on ivy flowers. Photo by Sue Taylor

Ivy is such an important plant. In autumn, the flowers provide an abundant source of late nectar to help overwintering insects get through to spring.

In winter, insects and small birds will shelter in its leaves while larger birds take the last of the energy rich seeds. On sunny days, insects sunbathe on the dark leaves, warming up so they can start feeding.

The variety of insects relying on ivy is incredible from wasps and beetles to flies and including the much loved holly blue butterfly which lays its eggs on its buds in spring. It's called holly blue as the next generation are laid on holly in late summer, but it could equally have been called the ivy blue!

Sallow

Sallow tree

Male sallow tree at Dancersend nature reserve. Photo by Sue Taylor

The first buzz of spring on our reserves usually centres on the abundance of flowers on our sallows and willows. These understated flowers provide pollen and nectar for our spring bees and a whole host of other insects.

Sallow flowers

Female sallow flowers, left, and male sallow flowers, right. Photos by Sue Taylor

At Dancersend there is a lone male sallow in the Meadow Plots and in spring you can stand beneath it and hear the hum of bees as they gather pollen, a short flight away is the female tree, where having picked up pollen the bees gather nectar and so pollenate the flowers.

Wild Marjoram

Small copper

Small copper on wild marjoram. Photo by Sue Taylor

Our wild marjoram grows freely on our chalk grassland, it provides abundant pollen and nectar between June and September, and is usually alive with bees and hoverflies and a host of other pollinating species like this gorgeous small copper

If you are not too mobile you could do worse than sit down by a clump of marjoram in the sunshine and just wait to see what turns up.

Bird's-foot-trefoil

Common blue

Common blue on bird's-foot-trefoil. Photo by Sue Taylor

Bird's-foot-trefoil is another hugely important source of nectar, from May to September, and much loved by bees.  But it is also the larval foodplant for several of our best loved butterflies and moths including the common blue butterfly, dingy skipper and six-belted clearwing moth. 

Umbellifers 

Insects on hogweed

An abundance of insects on hogweed. Photo by Sue Taylor

A succession of umbellifers are in flower from spring to late summer. Cow parsley is earliest then wild carrot and parsnip through to hogweed and wild angelica in late summer.

They provide floral platforms where insects can land and be assured of abundant nectar and pollen. As these are inflorescences (groups of flowers) you can often get many insects visiting at once, which means that in addition to the hoverflies, bees and beetles you can also watch predators like wasps and spiders.

Umbellifers can be found in many different habitats from wasteland to our best chalk downland, so keep an eye out for them, but don’t touch, the sap of some species can make your skin sensitive to sunlight and can cause blisters.

Between them these few species provide a steady source of pollen and nectar over most of the year, and the best thing about them? All can easily be grown in even a small garden, so you can have the joy of watching a host of insect species in your garden. 

Beehive with flowers

If you want a wildlife-friendly garden then please do think about our beautiful wild flowers as they not only provide pollen and nectar, but their leaves and stems provide food for insect larvae something our cultivated plants are not as good at.

Other wild species to think about growing in your garden are knapweeds, scabious, ox-eye daisy, hemp agrimony, figwort, yarrow, brambles and don’t forget some long grass too.

Sue Taylor
(Volunteer recorder for BBOWT, focusing on entomology)

 

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