A year of British garden wildlife
Gardens provide a huge range of habitats, giving shelter and food to a wealth of British wildlife that you may not realise is literally on your doorstep.
Over the last year a team from the Museum's Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity, including trainees from our Identification Trainers for the Future project, have been searching for wildlife in a set of gardens in Welwyn Garden City. They were ably assisted by Chris Packham and accompanied by a film crew for BBC4.
If you want to start looking for some of these garden inhabitants yourself, here are some of our favourites that you could spot throughout the year.
January - Xanthoria parietina
This bright orange-yellow lichen is one of the foliose, or leafy lichens. It is widely distributed and pollution-tolerant, meaning it has adapted to growing on walls and roof tiles in urban environments.
Lichens are a fascinating group of organisms, being a symbiotic combination of fungus and algae. A fungal body creates the architecture on which algae grow. The algae use sunlight to produce essential nutrients via photosynthesis to support both the algae and fungal body.
Lichens get their names from the fungal body involved in the symbiont, and the same lichen may have different algae involved in the pairing. In X. parietina the algae are commonly either Trebouxia arboricola or T. irregularis, although other algae in the Trebouixa genus have been found. Both of these algae can also live outside of the lichen on tree bark.
February - southern hawker dragonfly larvae (Aeshna cyanea)
If you're lucky enough to have a pond in your garden, this can be a fascinating place to look, even in the depths of winter. Water is an essential component in at least part of the life cycle of many invertebrate species, and the larvae of some species are entirely reliant on water. So ponds can be a simple way to increase the biodiversity in your garden. Water is a great temperature buffer, enabling many species to spend the winter in either their adult or larval forms.
The southern hawker adult is a large, bright blue and green dragonfly. It is named for its characteristic hawking flight pattern. As a larva it is no less fascinating.
While they may only survive a short time as an adult, southern hawkers live as larvae in ponds for two to three years, hunting invertebrates and even small tadpoles. They are excellent predators, moving through the water column by squirting jets of water behind them. In a process more reminiscent of a sci-fi movie, they catch their prey by throwing out a structure under their head known as the labial 'mask', which pulls the prey back to the mandibles (jaws).
When the larva is ready to emerge in June or July, it crawls up a plant stem out of the water and the adult emerges through a split in the thorax. The adult then needs to sit out in the sunshine, waiting for its wings to fully inflate and dry. If you look carefully around a pond in the summer, you may find larval husks, known as exuviae, still clinging to the plant stem.
March - hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes)
This early emerging bee can be seen in gardens in southern and central England and Wales from early March until mid-June, often around lungwort flowers.
As its name suggests, not only does it have a fondness for flowers, it also has very hairy legs. It looks like a small, fast-flying bumblebee, but a few key features should help you to identify it. Because it is a sexually dimorphic species, the males and females look quite different to each other.
The female has black hairs all over its body and black face. Obvious bright orange hairs densely cluster on its hind legs and stand out clearly, even in flight.
As the male is light brown or grey all over and has a dark tail, it can be confused for the common carder bee, Bombus pascuorum, which is the commonest of the ginger bumblebees. However, look out for cream markings on the face and very long, black hairs on the two middle legs.
The males are the first to emerge from hibernation, so look for these from early March and the females about two weeks later.
April - large bee-fly (Bombylius major)
Flies can be endearing, as evidenced by the excellent bumblebee mimic, the large or dark-bordered bee-fly.
The large bee-fly is instantly recognisable from its round body, ginger fur, patterned wings and long, slender proboscis. As this is a fly, it only has two wings, not four like a bee. It feeds conspicuously on flower nectar in garden borders from April.
Compared to the other three Bombylius species in the UK, the large bee-fly is big, at around 10mm long. You can find a great guide to identifying bee-flies, as well as details of the bee-fly recording scheme on the Biological Records Centre website.
As they spend so much time around flowers, particularly primroses, bee-flies play a vital role in pollination. However, they are not entirely benign, being a parasitoid of bees and solitary wasps. Female bee-flies flick their eggs into their host's burrow entrance. The hatching larvae then enter the nest, consuming not only the stored food, but the resident larvae as well.
May - thick-legged flower beetle (Oedemera nobilis)
From May to September, this eye-catching, bright metallic-green beetle can be found tucked into large open flower heads like poppies, roses, cornflowers and ox-eye daisies. You can also see them on umbellifer species such as cow parsley.
The strange characteristic from which it takes its common name is the swollen hind femora (the insect equivalent of a thigh) of the males of the species. The females do not have this and can have more coppery tones on the elytra (wing cases). In both genders the elytra don't completely meet at the base, leaving the wings below slightly exposed.
As they spend so much of their time on and moving between flowers, thick-legged flower beetles are excellent pollinators. This proves once again that it is not just bees that have an important role in pollination, but many of our other insect species too.
June - elephant hawkmoths (Deilephila species)
Think moths are brown and boring? One glimpse of these stunning hawkmoth species should change your mind.
June is a great month to look out for hawkmoths. Two of the UK's most charismatic are the elephant hawkmoth (Deilephila elpenor) and the small elephant hawkmoth (Deilephila porcellus). These two species are a gaudy combination of bright pink and yellow-green, with a characteristic delta-shaped wing and furry, yellow heads.
They come readily to light, so keep an eye out around outdoor lights and near windows overnight. The best way to see them, however, is with a moth trap. These bright lights attract all sorts of moths and allow us to see just how diverse Britain's 2,500 moth species really are.
If you don't have your own moth trap or a suitable garden, check out your local Butterfly Conservation, Wildlife Trust branch or nature reserve. Many of them run public moth trapping evenings throughout the summer, a great way to start identifying moths with the help of an expert.
July - hornet-mimic hoverfly (Volucella zonaria)
Unlike actual hornets, this wonderful hornet mimic is entirely harmless.
It is very large for a British hoverfly. At around two centimetres long the species dwarfs most of the rest of the hoverfly group. Its patterns closely replicate the markings of the hornet, but it has fly characteristics: a single pair of wings and eyes that nearly touch at the top of its head. And unlike hornets and other wasps, it lacks a waist between the thorax and abdomen.
Once very rare, with only a few sightings before 1940, it is now increasingly common in the south and southeast of England. It is often found in gardens and parks in even quite urban areas.
This species lives as larvae in the nests of social wasps - living off, and clearing up, the detritus at the bottom of the hive. However, since they are also predators of the wasps' larvae, they are not entirely benign roommates.
The hornet-mimic hoverfly isn't the only species to copy the hornet's warning signs. The hornet robberfly (Asilus crabroniformis) is another fly which mimics their patterns, although arguably not as successfully. This time of year you can also come across the stunning hornet clearwing (Sesia apiformis), a moth which even mimics the hornet's characteristic flight pattern.
August - picture-winged flies (Tephritoidea superfamily)
Although diminutive, the stained-glass-like wings of these flies are striking, and quite noticeable when the flies display on flower heads such as yarrow (Achillea millefolium).
In August you may catch the adults sitting on top of large flower heads or florets of umbellifers like cow parsley. But if they feel threatened they often drop and hide behind the flower head until you go away.
Some species are common in gardens, although they are not always welcome due to their habit of eating plant matter. Keen observers will nonetheless appreciate their beautiful and diverse wing patterns.
True picture-winged flies are in the family Ulidiidae, although other species with similar wing patterns (for example from the family Tephritidae) are sometimes also referred to as picture-winged flies.
September - garden orb-weaver spider (Araneus diadematus)
Spiders may not be everyone's cup of tea, but hopefully the garden orb-weaver will convince some arachnophobes that spiders can at least be quite beautiful.
This species can be found throughout the northern hemisphere from June to October, but is most frequently seen in September to October when the spiders reach their full size. Sightings drop off rapidly after October. Many males are killed and eaten by females after mating, while females won't leave their eggs to hunt, dying of starvation in late autumn. The young remain within the egg sac until hatching the following May.
This relatively large and rotund spider forms characteristic orb webs, but its most notable feature is its markings. The white, cross-shaped pattern, made of dots and lines with an almost silvery shine, earns the spider the alternative common name of cross spider. The spider's background colour varies dramatically from dark brown to sandy orange or even a pale yellow-green.
Feeding on larger flying insects such as flies, wasps and even butterflies, these spiders often spin their webs across potential flight paths near plants. Look out for them in bushes and longer vegetation around the edges of your garden.
October - pseudoscorpions
Most people have never heard of false scorpions, let alone seen them. But far from being rare, they can be found in common habitats throughout the UK.
These tiny yet heavily armed arachnids stalk small invertebrates such as flies, moth larvae and beetles. Their strong pincers - which are actually modified pedipalps - mean they will even attack young woodlice.
They can be one of the more beneficial insects in your garden, with carpet moth larvae, carpet beetles and booklice among some of their favourite prey.
While there are over 3,000 species worldwide, in the UK we know of just 27, 12 of which are common. In your garden, look for these little predators in leaf litter and log piles or under bark. And don't worry - they don't have a scorpion's sting.
November - Mnium hornium
Mosses are a fascinating group of plants, often the first colonisers of bare ground. They can thrive on bare soil, rock and tree bark, and can even adapt to human-made objects such as roof tiles, paving slabs and plant pots. Winter is a great time to study them as most deciduous plants have died back.
This ubiquitous species of moss has several common names, including swan's-neck thyme moss, horn calcareous moss, feather moss and lipstick thyme-moss. This is why we use scientific names - too many synonyms can cause confusion. However, the species is most often referred to as carpet moss because it forms dense carpets across potentially wide areas.
The leaves - which are triangular, dark green and translucent - form in whorls around the stems and almost star-like tips. If you look closely at the leaves through a hand lens you will see a nerve running through the centre of the leaf. This is present in many mosses, but in this species ends just a little before the tip of the leaf. Capsules (the spore-bearing fruiting bodies) occur frequently throughout the year. They are bright yellow-green and supported on long orange stalks.
December - stone centipede (Lithobius forficatus)
Winter is an excellent time to check in log piles, under stones and through compost heaps for some fascinating invertebrates which are still active at this time of year.
Turn over any log or stone in a dark, damp corner of your garden and you may spot a centipede scuttling away. Whereas millipedes are the quiet multi-legged herbivores and detritivores of the log pile, centipedes are the voracious predators of this ecosystem.
Stone centipedes are one of our most common centipede species, found across the UK and in Europe. They are instantly recognisable by their flattened body shape, long antennae and 'tails' (actually modified hind legs which are used for feeling around, similarly to their antennae) and by a bright chestnut-brown colour. These fast-moving creatures chase down prey before delivering a venomous 'bite' from their claws.
This species can live for three to six years. The centipedes get longer as they age, adding an extra segment and an extra pair of legs each time they moult. They begin with seven pairs of legs and increase to 15 pairs as a fully grown adult. Next time you find one, count the pairs of legs to work out how many times it has moulted.
Many more species to observe
These are some favourite garden highlights that the team at the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity found during filming, but there are many more species you can observe right through the year.
Hopefully we've inspired you to look a bit more closely at your garden's wildlife. Don't forget your records of wildlife are important too. There are many wildlife recording schemes out there - have a look at our Nature Groups Near You directory to find nearby recording schemes and groups, or record your finds on iSpot or iRecord.
The important features of any wildlife records are:
- who you are
- where you saw it
- what it was that you saw
- when you saw it
Take clear photographs to verify what you saw as well. If you're not sure about your identification, we can help you out through the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity - ask us questions via our online identification forum or visit the centre's webpage for other ways to contact us.