Sunday, 19 June 2016

Cabbage White; Banana Slug?

Any gardener will tell you that every plant plays host to some "pest" that exists solely to destroy it. In my garden there will be cabbage whites, pine sawflies, currant moths, onion flies and loads more. I can almost hear them munching now. But have you noticed that, while some plants are almost impossible to grow because they get blitzed, others always go unscathed? Think of rhubarb - it shelters every slug and snail in the garden but they don't eat it.

Some plants protect themselves by being distasteful, others are downright toxic, but as a rule of thumb, if it tastes good and you want to eat it, you had better be quick!

There are plants like nettles and oaks that manage to play host to masses of creatures without being destroyed in the process. Look at a patch of nettles in June and you will find aphids, and where you find aphids you will "spot" hunting ladybirds. Looking closer you can find a whole "web" of life on nettles, including all kinds of herbivores (such as caterpillars and bugs) and predators, including a range of spiders. In fact, nettles play host to over 40 species of insect in the UK, including some of our biggest and most beautiful butterflies like Red Admirals, Tortoiseshells and Peacocks. If you run a light trap at night among the nettles, you will attract some astonishing moths with fanciful names like Burnished Brass.

Nettles are great for wildlife, but Oaks are Top of the League. In June, you might find up to 110 species of moth and butterfly on an oak tree - and don't get me started on wasps, beetles, bugs, spiders and the rest. There is a catch though; it has to be an English Oak (Quercus robur) and you need to have a head for heights. Here's a few moths for starters: Oak Eggar, Oak Beauty, Oak Lutewing, Oak Tortrix and Oak Hooktip (I'm sure you get the idea). Among the butterflies there are some real oak specialists like the Purple Emperor and the Purple Hairstreak, both found at Paxton Pits in recent years.

It's ragwort time now. Soon the flowers will be out and almost every plant will have a population of the black and yellow caterpillars that will become Cinnabar Moths.  Similarly, the only caterpillars to be found on Mullein plants will be from Mullein Moths. You find them nowhere else.

The largest, most striking moths we see are the Hawk Moths. Each species has its own specialist host-plant on which it lays its eggs. There are Poplar. Privet, Lime, Pine, Spurge, Convulvulous, Oleander and Bedstraw Hawk Moths, and that's just the ones that come to the UK.

Back in the garden, or on the Reserve, every time we plant something, or even dig something up, we need to remember that each plant carries with it a range of invertebrates that are inseparable from it. We can make them a home, or make them homeless.