The wonderful world of insectivores!
This month, Naturehood has been celebrating insects, exploring the amazing diversity of this group which numbers around 24,000 currently identified species. Insects are critical to functioning ecosystems, and part of this role is within the food chain, as a vital source of protein (yum!). Let’s do a deep dive into some of the species that healthy insect populations help to support.
A huge variety of our UK native animals are insectivorous, which means they eat insects as a large proportion of their diet. Many of the birds you see in the garden, or out in woodlands and on farmland will consume insects such as grasshoppers, flying ants, flies, spiders, and moths to name a few! The distinctive blue tit will time their egg laying every year so that hatching in spring coincides with a boom in oak-leaf-eating caterpillar populations, including the winter moth caterpillar. These caterpillars are plucked from the oak leaves by the blue tits and taken back to the nest to feed the young, providing important nutrients for growth and skeletal development.
Flycatchers, swallows, woodpeckers and wrens all have a diet that is primarily insectivorous, and swifts, which have just left the UK to start their long migration back to Africa are pure insectivores, catching their prey with incredible aerial control whilst flying high up in the sky. Other birds, including starlings, vary their diet depending on the season. They love to eat insects, but when the ground is frozen and their beaks can’t pierce the ground they will eat seeds and grain instead.
Research from the British Trust for Ornithology in 2019 on supplementary feeding of wild birds estimated that as a nation Britain spends £200-£300 million per year on bird feeding products. It’s incredible to see this enthusiasm for birds, and we would like to encourage our Naturehood participants to boost invertebrate food for birds too! By creating log and leaf piles, and leaving areas of lawn slightly longer you can increase insect numbers in your garden, and contribute to the successful fledging and survival of generations of birds that visit your Naturespace.
We are always amazed by photos of mini-ponds that are posted on the Naturehood live feed, and just how quickly insects will colonise. Insects form an integral part of the food web within the pond, without them this web would collapse and our amphibians would struggle to survive. Common frog tadpoles will initially feed on algae within the pond, but as they develop into froglets they become carnivorous, eating insects that they catch with their sticky tongues! If you have a pond that you would like to show us, please post a photo to the live feed, and if you have any advice on your wildlife pond creation journey and how you have created habitat for invertebrates that other participants would benefit from please share that too!
There is a group within our UK mammals called the insectivores, which includes everyone’s favourite visitor, the hedgehog, as well as moles and shrews. Needless to say, insects are vital for these animals, without them they would cease to exist, and we would no longer get to see that wonderful shuffle as a hedgehog visits during the night. An increase in pesticide use both within farming and in private gardens, alongside fragmentation of habitat has negatively impacted on the abundance of their insect food source, which is especially important for the common shrew which needs to eat 80-90% of its body weight per day to stay alive!
Last, but definitely not least, we have the bats. We have 18 species of bat in the UK, and they all eat insects! These nocturnal predators use echolocation to hone in on their prey in flight, and can eat thousands of insects each night. Scientific research globally has found that bats can protect crops by eating insects which are considered pests, which could decrease the amount of chemicals used to control insects.
To keep our ecosystems healthy, and complex food webs intact we need to boost our insect numbers. You don’t need massive areas of land to make that difference – by making your space more wildlife-friendly, and by encouraging your friends and neighbours to do the same we can make our landscape (both urban and rural), more resilient, and help wildlife to thrive. There is lots of advice on the Naturehood website, with simple actions that you can take to make a difference.