Stories about small insects and making a big difference

Wednesday 21st July 2021

The second in a short series of blogs from Radoslav Valkov, born in Sofia, Bulgaria. In 2010 he won CIWEM’s prestigious British award “Young Environmental Photographer of the Year” with the highly artistic work “The Fortune Teller” that received wide international exposure. He studied Zoology at the University of Roehampton, London before returning to Byala Slatina, Bulgaria. A member of the Flemish Entomological Society, he is focused on plant-insect interactions and citizen science. His first article On the importance of inconspicuous flowering plants – how a “noxious weed” sustains valuable insects appeared in the Society’s journal, Phegea.

Insect conservation calling for our open-mindedness and ingenuity. Sometimes it can happen just where we are, but for some reason we have not managed to explore the array of small gifts that can be given to our planet by taking care of insect communities. Whether that being inside your property, balcony, patio, garden, farm or agricultural landscape, it is always worth inspecting available insect fauna and assess the possible degree of our very own contribution to insect communities around. The potential to do this is enormous because even the smallest habitat can offer overwhelming diversity within a fairly restricted area that could amount to just 1 m².

Let me take you through an exciting conservation journey in my garden where the tiny detail holds huge potential to prove that helping nature pays off. Announcement not convincing enough? Here is the statistics of a recent ecological survey I conducted in 2020 in my own garden space in Bulgaria: 43 different insect species of which just 4 are not found to be greatly significant. Beneficial insects visit 3 dense patches of Common field Speedwell and Ivy-leaved Speedwell to consume generous amounts of nectar and pollen. Many of them deliver precious ecosystem services. All this happening on 2 plant species restricted to 3 patches (about 100 cm in diameter each).

You would probably ask the question why such seemingly casual observation should matter. This is actually one of the many proper pathways towards saving insect species and populations in decline. Recent findings that discrete cascading extinctions of insects are currently taking place reminded me of the fact we are still unaware of how to obtain insights into the unobvious world of targeted conservation effort at a small-scale level. A single act of conservation might not be an instant game-changer, but it can result in fairly predictable positive outcomes, i.e. a given measure can lead to a multitude of other detectable improvements with broad positive consequences.

Nemophora fasciella which is “a female resting on Ballota nigra following oviposition on 8 June 2020.”

The nationally scarce micro moth species Nemophora fasciella, which is also an incredibly rare sighting in Europe (many inspired microlepidopterologists have not seen in nature!) is the hard evidence. Generally, Adelidae, the Long-horn moths can be safely regarded as elusively beautiful insects that leave you with the impression that there is something extraordinary about them. Fortunately, it could not be simpler when it comes to this particular species; the hugely beneficial flowering plant Ballota nigra (Black Horehound) has been supplying larval food resources to this rare species for many years. Its first sighting in my garden took place in June 2007. I was particularly interested by the fact that irrespective of the size and density of larval food plant patches, it has never been abundant, despite the great and suitable assortment of wildflowers and garden flowers which adults feed on.

Lagria hirta

Job done, a rare threatened species across the UK and Europe had found its safe home to live and reproduce. One would ask about the practical implications of such an exquisite conservation mission and that would be a very pertinent question indeed. Contrary to the above-mentioned cascading effect in insect declines, the positive effect Ballota nigra produced in its capacity of a highly beneficial insect attractant over time was impressive. Sometimes the cure is much more straightforward than we think. The plant supplies substantial amount of food and reliable shelter to a significant number of pollinating insects that deliver vital ecosystem services. Some of the species that depend on the plant are also scavengers and decomposers of decaying plant matter which makes them important participants in nutrient cycles. This is how I have recently found that leaving removed plant material from the plant without getting rid of the “litter”, just leaving it intact, supported the detritivorous larvae of another rather exciting addition to the picture, the Tenebrionid beetle Lagria hirta. The increased number of beneficial insects stemmed from the propagation of this insectary plant. I purposefully used the term ”insectary” because this is how we call plants that aid ecosystem services delivered by insects within agri-environmental landscapes.

Long before I started to sense the globally alarming aftertaste of omitting important details after so many warnings that insect declines and extinctions would soon pose serious threats to our human existence, I had already started exploring opportunities to help insects. Call it an innate rational sense of peaceful living with insects, this attitude works and will always do. The problem is that the pressing time factor sometimes causes disorientation and lack of efficiency when reflecting on quick solutions. The more we protract implementation of countermeasures, the lower the number of quick ecologically viable solutions at hand.

Chrysoperla carnea Common green lacewing

Nemophora fasciella is just one conservation example in a privately owned garden. Such measures are a good example of a streamlined effort that branched out in a particularly beneficial manner. Notwithstanding the above-mentioned positive outcome, such accomplishment is a slow process. It comes to demonstrate that once established and working, even a small conservation achievement would result in a large number of advantages to us. Putting time and effort to build such equilibrium is the most rewarding, inspiring and responsible mission, whether that being your garden or a large protected area. Would it be unsafe to extrapolate this example to wider contexts? The truth is we need this more than ever, to turn meaningful observations into transferable practice. If there is irrefutable evidence about a conservation measure that works, we must go for it. Was it difficult to do this for this small (and quite honestly, so cute!) insect? No, it was not at all. How much did it cost? A couple of hours doing manual labour, spending precious memorable moments with wildlife at a time when the connection with nature is so vital.

Polyommatus icarus