Cleve West: 'How far are people prepared to go with 'insectocide' in order to keep nuisance at bay?'

Urban Gardener
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The Independent Online

Despite a general improvement in environmental awareness, insects still get a bum deal. While their pollinating skills are obvious, much of their work as far as predation, decomposing and cleaning goes largely unseen. Things are improving for them in the gardener's world but I still see articles where they're pigeon-holed into the friend-or-foe category, the good being tolerated, the bad stamped, swatted, swiped, skewered or sprayed without any thought or concern that that they might be someone's supper. So engrained is this ignorance that it gives rise to extraordinary behaviour. Crane fly persecution is just one example of perverted perspective. As "daddy-long-legs" they just terrorise the squeamish, but in its early stages as a chafer grub, it is universally vilified by lawn fanatics due to the fact that they cause yellow patches in turf (hardly a big deal in my book). In another example, next door to a garden I was landscaping, I questioned a man as to why he was putting ant-powder on the footpath and road adjacent to his front garden. He said that ants were getting into his kitchen, some 70 feet or so away on the other side of the house. It made me wonder how far people are prepared to go with "insectocide" in order to keep nuisance at bay.

These musings came to mind recently while watching a swarm of ladybirds outside make their way through our kitchen window, up the wall to a small nucleus in the corner that had already staked their claim for winter. It seemed a touch early (mid-October) for such a frantic rush to hibernation but less than two weeks later temperatures plummeted with an early taste of winter so there they will remain (30 or so) in a huddle benefiting from each other's warmth. Quite how they will cope with the fluctuations in temperature and humidity of a kitchen remains to be seen, but intrinsic behaviour such as this should be inspiring enough to engender respect for the insect world.

If I have made anyone feel just a tiny bit guilty then it's not too late to make amends. The best thing you can do is to resist the urge to tidy up your garden too much. Cutting stems of herbaceous perennials back to ground level is customarily undertaken between now and spring but for all the wildlife that depends on hollow stems and debris in which to hole up for the winter, "putting the garden to bed" is nothing less than a rude awakening. Chopping hollow-stemmed plants (think onopordum, macleaya, and agapanthus) half way allows easier access for creatures like ladybirds, lacewings and small beetles. If you are time-poor in spring or really need to see clean beds and tidy borders in winter consider keeping bundles of woody debris in a place out of sight behind the compost heap, shed or under a hedge. The only real problem is timing. Clearing everything too early in spring can still damage hibernating insects. Too late and you'll risk damaging the new shoots emerging. But if you work regularly in the garden you will get to know the specific microclimates and idiosyncrasies of your space and will know instinctively when things are on the move.

If this still doesn't appeal then creative debris could be the way forward. We have log-piles resembling termite mounds at the allotment (although the health and safety mania that has gripped the nation has obviously got to me as I haven't got round to building one much more than a metre tall to date) which look reasonably sculptural in a Goldsworthy-esque sort of way. Logs will house myriad insects, not to mention amphibians and small rodents. Even wrens will make nests in them if reasonably sheltered. Their relative permanence makes them a more attractive proposition as the risks creatures take when using gardens to hibernate for winter are enormous and many suffer at the hands of "friendly fire". My personal accidental death tally is thankfully low in terms of more prominent wildlife but, no matter how vigilant, I can't seem to go through a whole winter without accidently disturbing a queen wasp in the allotment shed. Wasps get unreasonably bad press generally but it's actually quite distressing knowing that you've just killed the mother of a new colony. This insect-friendly urban gardener needs to be vigilant and perhaps a touch less sensitive, because right now he doesn't feel like ever setting foot in the garden again.