Where Have All The Insects Gone?

In the past month, I’ve seen two articles on a topic I’ve been worrying (along with a lot of other people) about some time: the decline in insect populations. The articles are different, although one was triggered by the other, and both have the same title as this blog post:

To quote from the science article:

Entomologists call it the windshield phenomenon. “If you talk to people, they have a gut feeling. They remember how insects used to smash on your windscreen,” says Wolfgang Wägele, director of the Leibniz Institute for Animal Biodiversity in Bonn, Germany. Today, drivers spend less time scraping and scrubbing.

But in 2013 they spotted something alarming. When they returned to one of their earliest trapping sites from 1989, the total mass of their catch had fallen by nearly 80%. Perhaps it was a particularly bad year, they thought, so they set up the traps again in 2014. The numbers were just as low. Through more direct comparisons, the group—which had preserved thousands of samples over 3 decades—found dramatic declines across more than a dozen other sites.

Now, I’m a child of the early eighties, but even I remember bug splats on the windscreen, and I know that now that’s basically not an issue for me as a driver. Bird droppings and mud splatter can make the windscreen dirty, but not insects. This means that either the insects have learned how to avoid cars in a few short decades, or there are much fewer of them around to get splatted in the first place. Which seems more likely?

The big cause, of course, is intensification of agriculture, reduction in the wild gaps and hedgerows, and more spraying of chemicals. Even chemicals which were believed to be safe for “good” insects, like neonicotinoids, have now been shown to have serious if sub-lethal effects on pollinators. And the reduction of insect populations has effects right up the food chain, as insects are populous and right there at the bottom. Reduce their numbers and birds struggle to feed their young, for example.

Having said that, I think the mild spring has made 2017 a good year for insects. I’ve seen many more butterflies for the time of year than normal, and even some new insects. Have you ever seen one of these in Midlands garden before? They’re impressive things, so if you’ve seen one you probably know it.

Hummingbird hawk-moth, source: Wikipedia, by IronChris

Well, I hadn’t until this year. I’ve lived in Nottinghamshire my entire life and never seen them except on holiday in Brittany, but this spring I’ve seen three flitting around our garden and feeding on the flowers of the Aubrietas. Supposedly they sometimes make it over here in the summer, but if so they must prefer warmer parts of the country.

I like to think we’re doing our part to boost the good insect year too. Our garden is full of the flowers of fruit, herbs and groundcover plants and almost entirely chemical free, to the occasional frustration of my wife when I leave the aphids in hope of the arrival of red-spotted saviours. The bees have been going crazy the last few weeks over the bugle, lungwort and comfrey, and just this evening I noticed a hum coming from the corner of the garage roof. Some careful observation revealed the odd bee flying in and out of a small ventilation grill high on the garage wall, so I’m pretty sure we have our very own nest up there. Again, I suspect I’m much happier than my wife at hosting them, but they shouldn’t do any harm.

It might be that the cities are the last refuge of the insects after the countryside has been completely sterilised.

Garden Construction, Apples are in Bloom

The garden is definitely getting going now. The pears and plums have more or less finished flowering, and now it’s the turn of the apples:

Fiesta apple in flower

And while the plants have been doing their thing, the humans have been doing theirs. We’ve finished a couple of garden construction projects over the last couple of weeks, in preparation for the spring.

Compost Bins

Until recently, I didn’t have a compost bin, I had a heap. And all was well… but four years of growth produced a heap 4m wide, 2m deep and 2m tall that was over-flowing the corner behind the garage where it was living. The solution was three 1m x 1.5m x 1m compost bins made of breeze blocks, which will hopefully last for a lifetime or two. My father generously built them, since he’s much handier with non-green things than I am, and I spent a day or two sorting the pile into woody, non-woody, and already composted, and spreading some of the compost-y centre over the rest of the garden. The next step is probably to burn the woody waste and mix the ash in with the rest.

The saddest part of the entire process was depriving lots of tiny creatures of a home. I found so many frogs, toads, spiders, centipedes, and wood lice that I lost count, and I also found a mouse nest with three baby mice in it. I tried to rehouse them in a small bucket filled with straw in case their mother returns, but I suspect they won’t make it. The whole thing made me feel a bit sad and guilty, but I’m not sure what else I could have done. Maybe I should have done it in the winter (but the mice might be hibernating in there then)? Their little nest was full of sunflower seed shells, proving that it wasn’t just the birds and the squirrels harvesting our sunflowers last autumn.

New compost bins


Cold Frame

Last year, we fitted an extra two roof vents to the greenhouse, which left us with two large panes of toughened glass in need of a home. I decided to use one of them as the lid of a cold frame. It took most of this afternoon for me to put it together using a mix of new and recycled materials – the walls are made of new decking boards, but the roof is entirely old timber, glass and fixings I had lying around. Despite the less than professional look it’s pretty solid and I’m quite pleased with it.

The only problem is the weight. It’s incredibly heavy and hard for me to move on my own. I just about dragged it to the spot I’d designed it to fit, only to stand back and decide that I didn’t like it there. The garden is very plant dominated, and a wall of brown right in sight of the house feels wrong to me somehow, so I’ve measured up and found somewhere else to put it. I’ll probably also reduce the height a little, since 80cm is a bit too much. I’ll have to wait until someone with big muscles visits though to help me shift it…

The new cold frame


The Glorious Weekend in Pictures


The garden continues to come to life. The plum tree is also very close to flowering now, and some heavy thinning is probably going to be needed given the number of flowers. Last year the late cold snapped wiped out most of the first crop ever from this tree, so here’s hoping for this year.

Plum flower buds

The arctic kiwis have been leafing out for a week or two now. Like all kiwi species, their greatest problem is that they come from a more consistent climate than the UK can provide. Actinidia kolomikta can stand amazingly cold temperatures when dormant, growing as it does into Siberia, but once it starts growing the new growth is vulnerable to frost damage. We had the first frost in about a month on Friday night and some of the leaves are showing signs of damage, but the developing flower buds look OK.

Actinidia kolomikta leaves with developing flowers

Medlars leaf out early by fruit tree standards, and mine is now almost there. Still no sign of the flowers of course, since unlike most fruit trees they flower on new growth after leafing out, normally in May.

Medlar tree leafing out

Just as an experiment, I shoved all the cuttings I took from the medlar this winter into a pot. It’s supposed to be hard to start fruit trees from cuttings, which is why grafting is normally used even when people want vigorous trees. Own root trees are normally produces by grafting onto a throwaway rootstock and then buying the graft union so overtime the scion roots independently. So I was a bit surprised when a lot of the medlar cuttings started to leaf out after sitting in a pot for several months, although of course they might still die. Let’s see what happens…

Medlar prunings from the winter in a pot, just to see what happens


The most amazing thing about the glorious weekend was the butterflies. I’ve never seen so many butterflies in March before. They’re quite hard to catch on camera, but I saw a couple of different species in our garden, and we saw three or four while walking in the countryside earlier today as well. Our two year old had great fun trying and failing to catch them. I assume that the butterflies out now are ones which successfully overwintered, and their numbers are due to the very mild winter and spring.

One of the first butterflies of the year

Bees are also out in numbers now, although they’re less fickle than butterflies so less of a surprise. Here’s one investigating flowers on one of the gooseberry bushes, some of which look like they’ve already set fruit.

Gooseberry flowers being pollinated by a bee


It’s looking increasingly likely that, for the world as whole, 2017 is going to be another hot year. The chance of 2017 being another el Niño year are growing. To quote from an article on the topic:

In the heart of hurricane season – August, September and October (ASO) – the chance for El Niño climbs to 67 percent, according to the International Research Institute for Climate and Society’s (IRI) model-based probabilistic forecast.

The ECMWF (European) computer model currently has about 70 percent of its ensemble members suggesting a moderate or strong El Niño will develop by September.

“Since 1870, we haven’t seen a second strong El Niño in such quick succession, so if 2017 turned out to be one, it would be unprecedented,” Ben Noll of New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) told weather.com.

Digital Weather

My lovely wife recently gave me a gift of a new weather station. The remote sensor is pictured below, and as of this morning is securely strapped to the support for the grape vine.

I’ve wanted one for years, but had the unfortunate issue that someone else close to us gave me one that didn’t work very well as a gift and I didn’t want to offend them by replacing it. Enough time has passed now that the upgrade to one that can receive a signal from more than 2m away should pass without comment.

The accuracy of it is probably not as good as measurements made by professional organisations, but even so I’m thinking of starting a daily record and comparing it to the forecasts and (if available) actuals from the Met Office. A quantitative comparison of very local climate data with forecasts would be quite interesting, especially any bias or persistent error in the min and max temperatures.

Weather sensor – temperature, wind speed, wind direction, rainfall

Ahead of Schedule

Spring is definitely ahead of schedule this year. The winter was mild and recent hot weather has persuaded the fruit trees to make very early moves. All three of the pears are looking close to flowering, which normally wouldn’t happen until April, and the plum tree isn’t far behind.

That means a lead of at least 2 weeks… and possibly more like a month, since according to the National Fruit collection flowering for the variety below starts on average around the 25th of April. Let’s just hope that it doesn’t go horribly wrong.

Developing flowers on a Beurre Sterckmans pear, 15/3/17

Seeds and Books

I just added a list of the seeds I have lined up so far for 2016/7. As usual, it’s a bit long on plants that might be classified elsewhere as weeds, but had some traditional value in the past.

It’s a bit short on veg so far since I haven’t done the order yet. I did find a lot of left over seed from last year while reorganising today though, so I might not need that much if they’re still good.

I also picked up some very old gardening books on atrip yesterday to the garden centre. There was  box of old books with a sign saying ‘please take’, so I did.

Planting Fruit Trees, by Roy Genders

Seeing the way people used to think about specific topics is quite interesting. There’s no publication date anywhere I can find, but Mr Genders apparently regarded M4 as the best semi-dwarf rootstock for apples, M1, M2 or the ‘new’ M3 as semi-vigorous, and the ‘new’ M25 as a very robust choice. He also included a description of the heritage ‘Cockle Pippin’ variety we planted a year ago, which doesn’t feature in any but the most comprehensive books now, in the ‘For December to January’ section:

Like so many russets, at its best over Christmas, this is an extremely hardy variety. The fruit is sweet and aromatic, the skin being almost an orange colour, shaded with dull russet-brown. Its fruit reaches a good size only in a heavy loam, and should be thinned. Raised in Surrey about 1800, and at one time extensively grown in Surrey and Sussex.

The comment about soil requirements is something interesting I hadn’t read elsewhere. It’s the sort of thing that gets forgotten when varieties are rarely grown and reduced to the odd tree from Brogdale scionwood. No-one remembers anymore why these old varieties lost favour, or the trade-offs in growing them.

Service Resumes

We’re delighted to inform you that normal service is now resuming as winter draws to a close.

Our garden is not a great winter garden. Most food plants grown in the UK are deciduous, and I’m not a fan of most evergreen ornamentals. I hate the plastic, barren look and feel of most bread-leaved evergreens and hate conifers, so almost everything apart from the grass and a few herbs dies back, leaving a bare and brown space.

Luckily, though, perennials get going earlier in the year than almost any annual. The spring ephemerals are coming in of course, but the various alliums are also quick to start. After years getting established, Babington’s leek has now self-seeded around one corner with abandon and is popping up everywhere, and nearby the lungworts and lenten roses are in flower. On the other side of the house, the true roses are also now showing green shoots.

This afternoon I planted the first batch of seeds since the autumn sowings for stratification, and played with my son in the garden. Everything is still slow, but things are happening, and it feels good.

Spring ephemerals in bloom

Spring ephemerals in bloom

Babington's leeks - old plants and self-seeded bulbils are everywhere

Babington’s leeks – old plants and self-seeded bulbils are everywhere

Lungwort in bloom

Lungwort in bloom

Hellebores brightening up dreary winter days

Hellebores brightening up dreary winter days

Rose shoots

Rose shoots

Garden Plan

I decided it was time to draw a plan of the garden… and this is the first draft. Marking everything is impossible, so I’ve focused on the locations of medium to large shrubs and trees. The fruit trees are numbered and the size they might reach in 10 or 15 years is marked with dashed lines. I’m not sure how practical it is to number and label everything, but I might try later.

Parts of it look a bit odd – why are the vegetable beds to the north of a plum tree? Why does the greenhouse have an apple tree to the south-east, which means careful management of its height forever? The answer is that plans evolved – the vegetable beds ended up where a (now deceased) dessert plum was, and the greenhouse was moved north from the plan after the unexpected arrival of our son made having more lawn near the house a priority. I’m sure that in a decade, things will have shifted more.

A plan of the garden (2016/7)

A plan of the garden (2016/7). 1 = Beurre Sterckmans pear, 2 = Concorde pear, 3 = Beth pear, 4 = Iranian medlar, 5 = Fiesta apple, 6 = Celeste cherry, 7 = Yellow Pershore plum, 8 = Howgate Wonder apple, 9 = Cockle Pippin apple

When drawing it, what struck me is how easy it was to sketch everything from memory. I used an old Google Maps image from back when the plot was bare for the outline, but the rest, the locations of the paths, arches, shrubs and beds, just fell onto the page. Gardening means devoting so much time and effort and attention to such a small space that the entire thing becomes engraved on your memory. Even if we move one day, I’m not sure I’ll ever forget our garden here.

Ulluco for the Win

Remember that I mentioned yesterday that you can buy oca in garden centres nowadays? Well, by complete coincidence I found some ulluco in our local one today. They’re definitely following customer interest in unusual edibles and new experiences.

Since it was on my wish list I couldn’t resist buying a few packets:

Ulluco seed tubers

Ulluco seed tubers

This completes the set of Andean root crops I know about that’ll grow here. If these grow I will have tried them all.

If anyone else wants some, this website sells them. I’ve never used them so I can’t vouch for their service.


In 2016 I grew yacon for the first time, and in December I finally dug up the tubers and had a chance to try it. They were crisp but moist like water chestnuts, but with a carrot and mint flavour. They left a similar fresh after-taste in my mouth to mint toothpaste or mouthwash, which may not appeal to everyone.

Yacon tubers

Yacon tubers

To go back a bit, yacon is another Andean crop that’s gained a niche in the UK as an unusual vegetable in recent years, following in the footsteps of oca (which has been sold occasionally in my local garden centre) and mashua. The Andes are also the original home of the humble potato, and traditional agriculture there relies much more heavily on roots and less on grains than our own. The roots they tamed came from diverse families: yacon is a relative of the dahlia (many of which also have edible tubers), oca is a member of the wood-sorrel family, and mashua is related to nasturtiums.

The Andes is much closer to the equator than Britain is, but altitude makes much of them relatively cool and moist. Crops from there feel right at home in British summers… the problem is that there is much less seasonal variation there, and the winters are much milder.

Because of this, many Andean crops respond to changes in day-length instead of temperature to trigger changes such as flowering and tuber production, but unfortunately this means they yield late by UK standards and plants maybe killed by frosts before reaching maximum yield. A long, warm autumn is required. The potato also had this problem when first imported to Europe, but centuries of selective breeding have encouraged it to yield much earlier than in its native habitat.

Luckily, frosts did arrive late this year, so I got to sample the crispy, carrot mint flavour of yacon on my first try.

So would I recommend it? Taste-wise, I’d rank it 2nd in my Andes obscure vegetable list, behind oca (lemon potato with sour cream) but ahead of mashua (sour potato). I find the minty aftertaste a bit odd in a root vegetable.

Health-wise, yacon has a couple of interesting traits. Firstly, it contains a lot of inulin, which tastes sweet but is basically indigestible to humans. This can be useful if you’re diabetic or on a diet. Unfortunately, gut bacteria can use inulin, which means you may get certain gassy side-effects from eating it.

The second interesting but less proven effect is to influence testosterone levels. Some studies have suggested that yacon raises testosterone levels, the opposite effect to mashua, which lowers them. Supposedly the Incas would deliberately feed their troops mashua to stop them getting distracted. Maybe if they’d just eaten yacon as well, the effects would have cancelled out.