Apart from the odd storm, this summer has been brilliant for our wildlife and has enabled us to get outside and enjoy watching everything that’s going on around us. I’ve been watching some butterflies, moths, bats, hedgehogs and a variety of birds in my garden, including recently some families of Goldfinch. Earlier on this year, Blue Tits successfully raised a brood of chicks in my new nest box.
It’s always a good idea to give your nest boxes a clear out once a year, and it’s also interesting to take a look inside at the nest. Cleaning the box ensures that nothing untoward is lurking in there over the winter months to infest the new nest in the spring the following year. You can sometimes get parasites and insects that will lie in wait for an unsuspecting brood of chicks, reducing their chances of survival.
Take the box down and open it up. If there is a nest in there you can dispose of it as you see fit, but it’s a good idea to put it in your compost bin. Any dead chicks can also be put in the compost bin and so can any unfertilised eggs, but legally, the eggs should be destroyed. Brush out any loose material, and pour boiling water throughout the box, but take care not to splash yourself with the hot water. Allow it to dry completely before putting the box back together and back in place for another year. We sometimes hear of people that only put their nest boxes up in the spring and summer, but if you leave the box up all year round it can give the birds a safe place to roost in over the winter months. You also stand a better chance of the box being used in the spring.
Blue Tit nest from this year - Deb Depledge
You don’t need to put any nesting material into the box, but if you want to you can put some hay or sawdust in the bottom of the box, but not straw as it can harbour mold. You may find in the spring that you see birds taking this material out of the box, but that’s okay as it means they may be nesting soon and are just having a clear out, or they may just be using the material as the base for their new nest. If birds do show an interest in the box, resist the urge to take a peek as it may put them off. Birds can check out a few potential nest sites before they choose the one they like, so they may start taking nesting material into the box and then give up. Hopefully, that won’t happen and they will make full use of your nest box and raise their young successfully.
You can put nest boxes up at any time of the year, so you don’t need to wait for the spring. If you put boxes up that have different size access holes, you may have more than one species of bird nesting in your garden. Don’t forget your open fronted boxes too, which are excellent for Robins and Wrens and can be cleaned out in the same way.
Give the birds in your garden a winter roosting site and check out the nest boxes on our website. There is also a link to a page which explains the best place to put up your box and give it the best chance of being used.
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).