Amazingly, there are about 250 species of Hoverfly in the UK, but most of us will only have seen a few species in our gardens, if you can keep up with them! They are not all brightly coloured, bee and wasp impersonators, but can be dark in colour and harder to spot. Mimicking bees and wasps will warn off predators as this type of marking and colours normally depicts a stinging insects or one that’s bad to taste. This type of mimicry is called Batesian mimicry and is named after the naturalist Henry W Bates, who first published his idea in 1862 after discussing his idea with a certain Mr C Darwin. Hoverflies are true flies and are two winged insects of the Diptera order.
Hoverflies feed on nectar and pollen, and as their name suggests, have this amazing ability to appear motionless in the air, then dart off quickly before hovering again. The young larvae vary in behaviour and appearance. They can be either vegetarian, feeding on vegetation, or carnivores feeding on aphids. So there are good reasons for attracting them to your garden! You can see these amazing insects from March to November, depending on the species.
One of the most common species you’ll see is the Marmalade Hoverfly Episyrphus balteatus, and I was lucky to spot a Hoverfly mimicking a white-tailed bumble bee Volucella bombylans, here in The Lodge gardens; the compound eyes were a tell-tale give away. A compound eye consists of hundreds or thousands of photoreceptors on a convex surface, creating a large viewing angle that can identify fast movement (the eyes appear to almost touch in the middle). Unlike wasps, Hoverflies don’t have a sting and are completely harmless. They are important pollinators, but are unable to carry as much pollen as bees do, but more frequent visits help to make up for this.
Marmalade Hoverfly - Chris Sheilds (rspb-images.com)
You can help these agile flyers by having lots of flowering plants in your garden all through the summer. Don’t think that gardens on a grand scale are the only ones to attract these fascinating creatures. You can garden in pots and containers having bulbs flowering early in the spring, with shrubs and bedding plants through the summer months and into autumn. Your local garden centre will advise you on what’s in season and what will grow well in containers, but for more ideas take a look at our gardening for wildlife pages on our web site (see link).
We get a number of calls coming into Wildlife Enquiries about bees taking over nest boxes with people wanting to know what can be done to remove them. Well, the best thing to do is to leave them where they are and enjoy watching these industrious creatures. You could put another nest box up for the birds (which is unlikely to be taken over by the bees), but in the autumn you’ll be able to clean the box out as you would have done if a bird had nested in there. The bees that have taken over the box are likely to be Tree Bumble Bees Bombus hypnorum. These bees are relatively new to the UK and have arrived from mainland Europe.
The queen bee will have overwintered, probably in the ground, and in the spring will be on the look out for a suitable site to start a new colony. In the spring you can often see queen bees flying in a zig-zag pattern, either low to the ground or in higher areas as they search for a potential nest site. In higher areas they may select nest boxes or sites near the roof line, depending on the species. The nests can be either underground or above ground in a variety of places; rodent holes, thick grass, holes in trees, roofs and some in nestboxes, which have a convenient entrance hole and is dark and dry inside. Like birds, bees don’t like their nest to be in full sun as it can overheat, so they’ll look for somewhere that’s in partial shade. The bees you see flying around the nest are males and are waiting for the chance to mate with the queen. So just keep your distance and enjoy watching them and they won’t be bothered by you.
I’ve been very lucky this year as I have a Bumble Bee nest in my compost bin. They are fascinating to watch and aren’t at all bothered by us when we need to go to the greenhouse. The compost bin is the plastic kind with slits in the side and it’s in partial shade so it’s ideal for them. I’m looking forward to the end of the year when the queen has left to overwinter and I can take a look inside. It won’t look like the inside of a bee hive, with the uniform hexagonal chambers, but will be a random mass of chambers, probably with some dead bees near the entrance, where they’ve been removed to keep the nest free from disease.
Bees on Globe thistle - Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
How you can help
Provide plenty of food for the bees by adding flowering plants to your garden. Try to have plants which flower over the spring and summer, so as some fade when others come into bloom. Single blooms are more accessible than double blooms for the bees and other insects. For more information on how to help the bees and insects in your garden, take a look at our web page for gardening tips and how to create an insect hotel, or take a look at our online shop for seeds and bug boxes (see links).
At this time of year, we get a number of calls about hedge cutting and tree pruning in the nesting season. It’s amazing how many people think you cannot touch hedges and trees while birds are nesting, but you can. People are very passionate about protecting our bird life, quite rightly, but I thought I would do a bit of myth busting.
So, what does this information tell us? Well, it’s all about common sense and timing. One of our most frequent calls is about felling conifers; they are normally very big, out of control, difficult to see into to check for nests and when people decide to get rid of them, they want to do it now! Although it can be more difficult with the weather, try to aim to get the work done in the winter months. Cutting the lower branches off of a conifer will allow you to look up into the tree for nests, and old nests and roosting sites are not protected by the WCA. Regardless of the time of year, if you find an active nest you need to leave the tree or hedge until the fledglings have left the nest, then you can carry out the work.
Song Thrush - Mike Richards (rspb-images.com)
With our warm and wetter springs and summers, hedges can quickly become unmanageable. It’s OK to use secateurs or sheers to keep a hedge under control, and if you do disturb an adult from their nest, they should return when you leave the area. Birds have different strategies for raising their young; some only nest once a year and others have multiple broods. On the whole, they tend to build new nests in different locations, but some birds, for example House Sparrows, will use the same nest all year, but the WCA still applies while the birds are actively nesting at any time of year.
What can you do?
Hopefully, your garden won’t get too out of control while the birds are nesting! If you’d like some ideas on how to encourage wildlife into your garden, check out our gardening pages on the link below.