The backyard jungle

By Finley Hutchinson

What do you think of when I say ‘nature’? Or ‘biodiversity’? I reckon that most people in the UK would picture rainforests full of monkeys, birds and tree frogs. Or maybe a remote river bursting with kingfishers, multi-coloured fish and dragonflies. Granted, that may be largely the less ‘wildlife-orientated’ members of society who probably won’t be the ones reading this. But I’d bet a reasonable amount of money that every single person reading this, upon processing the opening question, casts their mind to the countrysidethe ancient woodlands of Wales, the Yorkshire moors, the Norfolk Broads, or maybe just the nearest farmland. But the countryside nonetheless. Yet is that really always the case?

There’s nothing outstanding about where I livecentral Reading, a southern town with an industrial past, nestled between London to the East and the North Wessex Downs to the West. Even as towns go it is very built up, with a large proportion of the streets dominated by terraced and semi-detached housing, built in the nineteenth century to accommodate factory workers. My house, with its medium-sized urban garden, lies here, surrounded by other houses and urban gardens. From an aerial view, bar the odd park or cemetery, it looks rather like a desert for nature. So I set out to disprove this.

At the start of the first lockdown in March 2020 I bought my first microscope, and since then I’ve been trying to demonstrate how cities are not the wasteland for biodiversity that they might seem to be. Since last March, nearly a year ago, I’ve recorded almost 900 species within my small, enclosed garden. And that’s just those I could identifythere must be at least 100 more I’ve found but couldn’t identify on a species level, and countless others that are yet to be found. This total includes 81 species of birds, all seen or heard in or from the garden, and over 300 different moths, the vast majority of which have come to my basic Heath moth trap. I found the majority of the other 500 or so simply by going into the garden with a pot or camera and seeing what I could find. Scanning even the smallest pond by torchlight, or beating a bush over a white tray, can reveal a huge variety of invertebrates.

I should make it clear now that I’m not a big fan of urban environments. I’m not sticking up for the property developers turning green landscapes into concrete jungles. But when there is nothing that can be done about it, all is not lost. This is especially important to realise at a time like this, when those of us not fortunate enough to have a wilderness on their back doorstep are stuck within the noise and hubbub of city life. Nature has been proven to be great at reducing stress, and when it doesn’t get much more stressful than the situation we are struggling through at the moment, it is essential to realise just how much wildlife can be found living, and even flourishing, in amongst the roads and brickwork.  

A relatively large proportion of the species I’ve recorded here since March have been found, or at least identified, using the pieces of kit I’ve bought in the last year, especially my microscope and moth trap. These must be two of the best investments I’ve ever made, and with the trap alone I’ve opened a door to a whole world of insectsnot just mothsthat is impossible to observe otherwise. Using this simple device I’ve found four moths that are new for Berkshire, and my favourite moth I’ve caught so farthe Light Crimson Underwinghas been previously recorded just twice in the county, in 1898 and 1995. The trap has also brought in my best insect find yet, which I’ll come onto later.

Light Crimson Underwing, July 2020

So yes, these pieces of equipment are hugely beneficial and, in my opinion, more than worth the cost. But they are by no means necessary to appreciate and observe the creatures living alongside us. Nothing beats going outside in summer and watching the garden full of activity, as various butterflies and bees take advantage of the warmer temperatures and increased daylight. You can shift a pile of leaf litter and watch hundreds of springtails springing away; turn over a plant pot and see the earthworms retreat into the ground, the wolf spiders scurrying for cover. Last spring I spent a great deal of time just sitting on the lawn looking up at the sky, and it is through that method that I recorded many birds, from the swifts that perform their screaming acrobatics overhead, letting you know that summer has arrived, to the first summer male Hen Harrier that passed casually over the garden  on 7 Maymy best garden bird to date.

Of all the various types of insects found in the UK, I’ve developed a particular fascination with wasps. These much-maligned insects (only some of the ‘social’ wasps, which are themselves a tiny minority of all wasp species, actually sting people) have a fascinating life cycle, and come in an immense variety of shapes, sizes, and colours. In my garden I have so far found and identified 47 different species, from the 2.5 cm European Hornet and bright orange nocturnal Ophionine wasps of a similar size, right down to the 2 mm emerald-green Pteromalids and 0.6 mm long Anagrus atomus, which parasitises leafhopper eggs!

Anagrus atomus female, November 2020

I’ll finish this blog post with a gallery of images from throughout the year to illustrate a fraction of the biodiversity that can be found in the middle of towns and cities across the UK. But before I do that, there is one more standout find from my garden which proves, beyond anything, the gems of nature that urban environments hold.  

Angling towards a career in entomology, and spending most of my free time in search of insects, I knew that sooner or later I’d turn up something really goodprobably found in some remote part of the UK. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was that this find would come so early in my entomological journey. Or that it would come in my own small, urban garden!

In mid-November, two small parasitoid wasps came to my moth trap. I tried to identify them but only got as far as Dinotrema sp. and really struggled to progress from there. That didn’t surprise me as it is a tricky genus and I had never attempted to identify one before. Determined to put a name to it, I contacted the author of the key I’d been using, who quickly got back to me and said it may be something interesting. Off my wasps went to Spain, where they were examined carefully and confirmed to be Dinotrema propodeale, a species never before seen in the UK! If that doesn’t showcase the wonders of urban entomology then I don’t know what does!

Dinotrema propodeale – November 2020

Garden Wildlife Calendar

One pic taken in my garden for each month of the year. There’s always something to find if you look for it!

January — Stock Dove Columba oenas

February — Juvenile Nurseryweb Spider Pisaura mirabilis

March — Dark-edged Bee-fly Bombylius major

April — Flower Crab Spider Misumena vatia with Drone Fly Eristalis sp.

May — Small Elephant Hawk-moth Deilephila porcellus

June — Furrow Bee Lasioglossum sp.

July – Nocturnal Ophionine Wasp Enicospilus cerebrator

August — Jersey Tiger Moth Euplagia quadripunctaria

September — Juniper Piercer Cydia interscindana — 14th UK record

October — Water Flea Daphnia obtusa

November — Lace-weaving Spider Amaurobius simlis

December — Freshwater Copepod Paracyclops poppei

4 Replies to “The backyard jungle”

  1. Your writing style is as brilliant as your eye for detail and your ability to spot and identify what you see. You are already an excellent promising entomologist.

  2. Fascinating, inspiring, well researched and engagingly written. You are making some incredible discoveries and clearly enjoying it! I hope you feel encouraged to go on discovering. Sir David better watch out!

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