Gardeners and farmers have spent decades waging war on many of our native invertebrates. Now we know that invertebrates have a vital role to play in a healthy ecosystem. They are an essential part of the food chain for hedgehogs and many birds. And without them, many of our crops and flowers simply can’t grow. So it’s time to turn the tide and start welcoming bugs back into the garden. Let’s look at how to attract invertebrates.
What Are Invertebrates?
An invertebrate is any creature that lacks a spine or backbone. They fall into two main groups. Soft-bodied creatures like jellyfish, slugs and worms, and hard-bodied creatures like insects and spiders. This second ground has no spine but does have a hard exterior known as an exoskeleton.
The invertebrates make up over 90% of all the animal species on earth. Yet in scientific research and conservation, they have often been overlooked in favour of larger, vertebrate creatures.
Why are Invertebrates Important?
Invertebrates have traditionally been viewed almost exclusively as pests. Eating crops and spreading diseases. It’s true some invertebrates are pests (just like some people!) but this diverse group performs some vital functions in our world too.
Pollination is the process by which plants reproduce. The female parts of a plant become fertile and form seeds when dusted with pollen from the male parts. Think of pollen as the plant-world equivalent of sperm.
Individual plants have both male and female parts so some plants can pollinate or fertilise themselves. But the vast majority of plant species require cross-pollination, or pollen from another plant, to become fertile.
Some pollination is done by the wind, but much is down to invertebrates. We all know about the stars of the pollination show, bees and butterflies, but these aren’t the only pollinators. Flies, wasps, ants, moths, beetles and even mosquitoes have a part to play too.
Invertebrates aerate, improve soil quality and in some cases even create the soil.
We are only just starting to understand the complex role that the earthworm plays in our world. But ants, beetles, mites and nematodes have important work to do here too.
We tend to think it’s disgusting when we see maggots on rotting food or a swarm of flies over a cow pat. But recycling dead and decaying matter is one of the key functions of invertebrates.
We should be very thankful for the dung beetle, there would be a lot more poo for the rest of us to clean up without him.
With invertebrates making up over 90% of all animal species it should come as no surprise that they eat each other.
In fact, encouraging the right species of invertebrates in your garden can be the easiest route to wildlife-friendly pest control.
Ladybirds, Hoverflies and lacewings all eat other invertebrates, especially aphids, which cause such damage to plants.
Ground beetles are also fierce predators and are especially keen on slugs and snails. They eat by vomiting on their prey and waiting for the vomit to soften their victims to mush, which they can then eat.
A Cornerstone of the Food Chain
If you are interested in attracting wildlife to your garden then a good population of invertebrates is a must.
Invertebrates form the main diet of hedgehogs, many of our garden birds, frogs, shrews. moles and more. If you succeed in attracting plenty of invertebrates to your garden then other wildlife will quickly follow.
And people eat invertebrates too, all the time and all over the world. Most of us have enjoyed a prawn from time to time I expect or even a snail in a Frech restaurant. Crickets and ants are popular crunchy snacks in some parts of the world. And in Mexico mealworms may never make it to the bird table – they’re a delicacy.
We may be squeamish about eating insects, but as we fight climate change we may need to change our tastes. Scientists are busy working on insect-based protein, which looks promising as an environmentally sustainable alternative to traditional meats.
8 Ways to Attract Invertebrates To Your Garden
Although invertebrates are so important they are disappearing at a truly shocking rate. Faster than birds or mammals. The State of Nature Report calculates that we have lost between 60 and 70% of all our invertebrates in the UK in recent decades. Loss of habitat, climate change, pressure from development and changing farming practices including increased use of pesticides are the primary causes.
And beyond that, the decimation of pollinators and the creatures that tend to our soil is impacting our ability to grow our own food.
So there’s never been a better time to make a home for bugs in your garden.
What do invertebrates need to thrive? The same as everything else on the planet including us humans:
- Food. Having enough of the right things to eat is vital for everyone, and invertebrates are no exception.
- Water. Many invertebrates live in water and most of those who don’t need to drink.
- Shelter. Suitable places to breed and shelter from the elements will help your garden’s invertebrate population to grow.
- Safety. One of the reasons you are inviting invertebrates into your garden is so that other things can eat them. It’s natural, and if invertebrates didn’t get eaten we’d soon have a problem on our hands. But man-made threats like poisons they really don’t need.
1. Make a Pond
Maybe the single most useful thing you can do for all wildlife in your garden, including invertebrates is to make a wildlife pond. All life needs water and is the natural habitat of many invertebrates. Dragonflies, damselflies, hoverflies water beetles and more will quickly be attracted to your pond.
It doesn’t matter how big a garden pond is. Even an old bucket or washing up bowl filled with clean water and some native plants can work miracles.
But resist the urge to put fish in it. They will eat the larvae of your invertebrates. Don’t add any chemicals. And remember to make an escape route, so anything that falls in can easily climb out again.
2. Plant Flowers
Nectar is an important food for so many of your invertebrates including bees, butterflies and moths.
Flowers are where they get their nectar so planting flowers is essential for bringing these species into your garden.
Not all flowering plants are equally good for pollinators though. As a general rule, open – daisy-shaped plants, like cosmos are best for pollinators.
Some species have developed ingenious ways of getting nectar out of complex flowers – extra-long tongs to reach into deep cavities, or the ability to cut through the base of petals for example.
But if you can see the pollen in the centre of a flower then plenty of pollinators are going to be able to reach it.
If you are unsure what to choose, many garden centres mark up plants and seeds as “good for pollinators” to guide you in the right direction.
3. Get a Bug Hotel
Just as nesting boxes provide shelter for birds and hedgehog houses are havens for our prickly friends and bug hotel or bee box can provide useful shelter to the invertebrates in your garden.
Ladybirds, beetles and solitary bees will find these boxes useful for shelter, especially during the winter months.
They can be a great way of providing shelter for invertebrates even in the smallest space, or the tidiest garden.
4. Make a Log Pile
Turn over an old log when you’re out on a woodland walk and you will see a whole host of creatures underneath it.
You can create the same rich habitat in your own garden by putting a few old logs in a quiet corner and allowing them to decay over the years. The dead wood provides food and a habitat for a host of insects.
The hedgehogs will love it too.
Compost heaps can serve a similar purpose.
5. Make a Bee Bar
Bees need water just like everything else in the garden. They use it for drinking, for cooling and for diluting homey to feed to larvae. A summer colony of bees can get through 2 pints of water in a day.
But bees can only successfully drink from very shallow water, which is why we so often see them drowned or floundering in birdbaths or ponds.
Bees know a suitable drinking spot when they find it and will come back and scent mark it for others to find.
So why not create a bee bar for them? A very shallow dish of water filled with pebbles or beads so the water is only a few millimetres deep.
You will need to keep the water topped up in hot weather, as being shallow it will evaporate quickly. But the bees will be able to drink safely from it and will come back time and again once they know it’s there.
6. Grow Native Plants
In UK gardens we are lucky to be able to choose to grow plants from all over the world because of the legacy of different species brought to our shores by Victorian plant hunters.
Flowers from many parts of the world can nourish a hungry butterfly with their nectar.
But it’s likely that the same butterfly will only lay its eggs on a native plant and that the caterpillar can only feed on native plants.
Native plants – those that have always been here in Britain – have evolved with our native animals and insects. So they are the preferred habitat and food source for young in a wildlife garden.
You see this in birds too. Many garden birds will happily take their own food from bird feeders, but will only feed their chicks a natural diet of worms or insects.
So to attract wildlife, including invertebrates to your garden it’s best to plant a high proportion of native plants.
Which plants will work for you very much depends on the conditions in your garden. Your garden centre and the royal horticultural society website will have plenty of good advice.
7. Stop Using Chemicals
Pesticides and insecticides kill invertebrates – that’s what they’re made for.
They are also pretty indiscriminate in which insects they kill. You may think you are targetting aphids on your veg, but the pesticide you use to kill them is just as likely to harm a passing ladybird or butterfly.
We’ve even seen how slug pellets can work their way up the food chain to harm birds and hedgehogs.
So it stands to reason that in a wildlife garden the chemicals have to go.
But what about your plants? Well, we’ve seen that invertebrates eat one another, and are the preferred food of much other wildlife. So as you start to attract wildlife to your garden you may find natural pest control kicks in.
The other solution is to learn to be more tolerant. Try to look at a leaf with a hole in it not as ugly and spoiled, but as something that has provided a much-needed meal to a creature in your garden.
8. Plant a Wildflower Meadow
A wildflower meadow will help you attract wildlife to your garden in so many different ways. It will give you nectar rich flowers, a boon for the pollinators. Wildflowers are native plants so bring all those benefits. The long grass provides shelter and natural habitats for invertebrates and small mammals. And the seed heads that form in your meadow later in the year will provide food to attract birds.
And your meadow doesn’t need to be the size of a football field to bring benefits. A small patch of your lawn will do, or even a container. An unloved or underused corner of the garden with poor soil can often make a great site for a meadow patch. I’m turning the 18-inch wide strip of grass down the side of the drive into a meadow this winter.
There are plenty of ways to make a wildflower patch. Sowing wildflower seeds is probably the most cost-effective and is great for a container or small patch. If you are converting a lawn growing a meadow from seed can take a few years. So you might want to add some established plug plants. Yellow Rattle is a must. Or, for guaranteed instant results you can even buy meadow turf now.
Thanks for Reading
Hopefully, we’ve convinced you that encouraging invertebrates in your garden is just as important as keeping a well-stocked bird table or hedgehog house. In fact, when you bring in the bugs the hedgehogs, birds and other wildlife won’t be far behind.
Invertebrates are all too often overlooked by conservationists and demonised by gardeners. But they are fascinating and often beautiful creatures, and vital to our ecosystem.
If you have questions or suggestions we would love to hear from you. Leave us a comment below.