Mention pollination, and everyone thinks of honeybees and bumblebees, However, there are some other insects that are just as important, says Adrian Thomas
High summer: flower borders everywhere are putting on a show. But as you sit back and revel in your planting skills, it's likely that you’re not the only one enjoying the flowers. Some of your blooms are likely to be abuzz – colourful pit-stops for those insects that do such a great service by moving pollen from one plant to the next, ensuring that our flowers and crops set seed or produce fruit.
Everyone knows how valuable honeybees are as pollinators. One hive can contain up to 40,000 workers, an all-female army spreading out on daily shopping trips in search of abundant nectar and pollen. The nation also seems to have fallen in love with bumblebees, the teddy bear of the insect world, and have been moved by their plight given that many species are in terrible decline.
But look closely among these more familiar pollinators and you may notice different insects going about their business too. Indeed, you may suddenly realise that some of the insects you thought were honeybees or bumblebees are in fact something else altogether. They may look similar, but on closer inspection turn out to be too rounded, or pointed, or the colour isn't quite right, or they move in a different way.
The variations can be so subtle it’s like a game of Spot the Difference. The reality is that where you may have four or five species of bumblebee in your garden, you may also have a dozen or more types of solitary bee, and 20 or more types of hoverfly. In fact, in the warmer southern half of the country, you may have even more. In her seminal 30-year study of asuburban garden in Leicester, Jennifer Owen recorded an astonishing 45 species of solitary bee and 94 species of hoverfly.
This gives us some hint towards the real number of uncelebrated insects that are out there delivering ‘pollination services’. To give you some idea of their importance, a 2013 government paper for the Office of National Statistics reported that “globally, evidence is emerging that wild bees and other insects are more important to crop pollination than managed bees”.
Gaining the skills to identify every type of bee and hoverfly is not something most of us have the time or inclination to do. Yet it’s really quite easy to learn the basic differences between bees and hoverflies, as our simple guide shows (see right). Take that simple step and you’ll have a much better understanding of which creatures are using your garden and hence how your garden is working, for wildlife and for you.
THE WHO'S WHO OF WINGED WONDERS
• Hairy-footed flower bee. One of the first solitary bees of spring, they move like lightning from flower to flower making a high pitched buzz. Males have round, golden bodies and white faces; females are black with reddish hind legs.
• Narcissus bulb-fly. This hoverfly is a bumblebee mimic. It is a pest̶ its larvae love nothing more than munching the bulbs of your prize daffs.
• Marmalade hoverfly. Very easy to identify, as this is the only hoverfly with thin black bars in between each thick black bar on the abdomen. A migrant from Europe, sometimes millions arrive in summer.
• Ashy mining-bee. What a stunner, in evening dress of shiny black leather and grey furry collar and waistband. It nests in sandy soil, often many females choosing the same area.
• Batman hoverfly. This wasp-mimic has a very distinctive black marking on its thorax (the middle section between head and abdomen) which looks rather like a bat with its wings outstretched.
• Hornet hoverfly. The biggest of all the hoverflies, this is a dramatic insect but is totally harmless. It enjoys visiting Buddleia flowers, and its larvae are waste-disposal workers in the nests of bees and wasps.
• Tawny mining-bee. This is one of the commonest solitary bees in gardens, sometimes nesting in lawns, but its ideal home is south facing dry banks. Females have chestnut backs and dense ginger fur on their abdomens.
• Wool carder-bee. A shiny black bee, with bold yellow spots down either side of its abdomen. Males guard their favourite plant - lamb's-ear (Stachys byzantina), waiting for females who come to feed or to collect the downy wool from the leaves to line their nest cells.