The Insect Effect

Today I met a ladybird called Keith. She was tiny, smaller than a grain of Basmati rice, too miniscule for my point and shoot camera. With lovely colouring of yellow and black, a visiting gentleman’s hand had provided a landing strip for her and he presented her to me for identification. We discussed whether he had discovered a new species, in addition to the 5,000 already identified worldwide, and what it should be called. So in the tradition of naming plants and creatures after their discoverer, we called her Coccinellidae Keith. Ladybirds eat other insects but she was so small she was in danger of being eaten herself. I think she was too minute to be the invasive Harlequin Ladybird which is also yellow and black and poses a danger to our native species. Will check and report if necessary.

We then had a discussion on how useful a bug’s life is; some only live for a day, others only a season, and all are in danger of being eaten by the next size up. They each have a job to do in the bigger scheme of things, even if they are considered pests in the garden. I was asked by a visitor what use are snails and had to go and do some research. To my astonishment I discovered that besides providing birds with food, snail slime is used in cosmetics – however was that discovered? And are we worthy of it? I went home and looked again at the ingredients of my moisturiser. Snail mucus was also used medicinally from Ancient Greek times to the Middle Ages to relieve gastrointestinal ulcers, and to sooth sore throats. Mmmmm, think I’ll stick to honey and lemon.


Unlike at home where my hostas are like Mr Doiley’s paper napkins, slugs and snails at Mount Stewart seem to leave them alone, can’t see a single hole in this lovely bunch. Snails in turn are eaten by birds and are considered a delicacy by ducks and frogs.


The Kiosk family of housemartins await their escargot take-away.

And finally, the insect we love to swat – the wasp. This is a mistake because not only does it make a mess of your Woman’s Weekly but the dead body releases a chemical that signals other wasps to come to the rescue, so you end up with one dead and ten paramedics. It makes more sense just to share the jam in your Victoria sponge and let the flying scavenger move on to the next table. In the gardens at the moment we have two types of wasps, Vespula vulgaris, the homegrown or common one, and a visiting one Vespula germanica. They eat smaller insects like ants, aphids and caterpillars and flies, and also do some pollinating, therefore, apart from annoying picnickers, they are valuable members of the eco system. The two types are almost indistinguishable apart from the fact that vulgaris nests high up in roof spaces or holes in walls, and germanica likes to be at ground level. The common wasp depends for food on prey which disappears in winter, but germanica prefers species which are not affected by the cold and so their nests survive the winter and are also slightly bigger.



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