Insects and other invertebrates like spiders, centipedes, and earthworms provide invaluable ecosystem services for free. Some decompose dead plants and animals, thus insuring the recycling of nutrients. Others pollinate. Some clean up dung and others provide soil aeration. All are a major part of the food web of nature.
For example, bees and other pollinators are essential to the reproduction of most flowering plants, including many vegetables, fruits, and nuts. I like to watch bumble bees visiting our tomato blossoms and southeastern blueberry bees pollinating our blueberry bushes. When wildflowers like ironweed, salt and pepper bush, calico aster, and purple coneflower are in bloom, bees, wasps, beetles, butterflies, and pollinating flies actively work the flowers for nectar and pollen in our butterfly garden.
Native ants aerate the soil. Bessie beetles are active in the decay process and can often be found in rotting logs in shady areas. Dung beetles are fun to watch as they make a ball of animal poop to roll away to their homes. If you are lucky enough to have a pond or creek nearby, dragonflies will grace your yard. They are fierce predators. In their larval form, dragonflies eat copious amounts of mosquito larvae.
It is very important to set aside large acreages of parkland to serve as reservoirs for invertebrate diversity. In Florida, we have a conservation and recreation lands acquisition program called the Florida Forever that acts as a blueprint for conserving our precious natural resources. Florida Forever and other similar programs protect thousands of acres of habitat and can preserve natural ecosystems for generations.
However, since farmland and urban and suburban areas make up roughly 95% of our land use, it is just as important for citizens to make changes in the way we manage our yards and local parks. What we do in our own yards can make a big difference locally to our invertebrate populations. Here are three things you can do.
First, increase the percentage of native plants in your yard. Native plants have unique ecological relationships with native insects. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation reports that 96% of songbirds rear their young on insects, most of which are feeding on native plants. Attract pollinators by planting wildflowers. You can extend the season by including carefully chosen non-native flowers that extend the blooming season such as pentas, African blue basil, salvias, Mexican sunflower, and many others. Herbs like Greek oregano and rosemary are also good.
Secondly, give up pesticides or at least be super selective in how you use them. Control weeds by mowing or weed whacking with a string trimmer periodically rather than relying on herbicides. Hand weeding is good exercise!
Lastly, improve habitat. Woodland beds should have a forest floor of leaves and pine straw, as well as some areas of exposed soil for nesting non-aggressive solitary ground bees. Rotting logs and downed twigs and brush provide habitat for invertebrates. If you have a tree removed, consider leaving a small snag that will rot over time. Create brush piles here and there. Small piles can be tucked neatly under shrubbery.
A bee on a purple coneflower. Photo by Donna Legare.
I once discovered an overwintering bumble bee in an old flycatcher nest inside a large gourd. When I clean out my bluebird nest box, I place the old nest at the edge of a woodland bed on the ground. These are sometimes used by bumble bees. Areas of weak lawn, especially in the sun, may be used by non-aggressive miner bees which are usually seen in late winter or early spring in our area.
Why bother? A yard rich in invertebrates will be rich in birds and other wildlife. For me, it is very satisfying to see butterflies, moths, caterpillars, beetles, solitary wasps and bees, honey bees, bumble bees, pollinating flies, doodlebugs (ant lions), native ants, jumping spiders, crab spiders, golden silk spiders, centipedes, and all sorts of invertebrates that I cannot begin to identify in our yard. We have worked the last 27 years to increase the biodiversity of this small city lot that surrounds our home. I would encourage everyone reading this to take a more relaxed attitude about the neatness of your yard and make room for invertebrates!