Contrary to popular opinion, woodlice are not significant garden pests and although they might nibble a few seedlings these are just as likely to be weed seedlings as your prized plants. The damp spaces under rotting wood are one of their favourite haunts and it's here that they nibble fungi and dead plant material, playing a useful role by helping to recycle nutrients back into the soil.
Woodlice are crustaceans, related to shrimps, crabs and lobsters, and like their aquatic cousins they need to shed their outer hard covering before they can grow larger. You'll sometimes find their ghostly exoskeletons in the log pile. Newly-moulted woodlice are very vulnerable to predators until their new exoskeleton hardens into tough armour.
When you find various-sized woodlice huddled together in your wood pile, then you'll now that they're using it as a breeding habitat. Woodlice carry their young, that are called mancas, around in a pouch until they can fend for themselves. The young don't develop their full complement of legs until they moult.
A woodlouse's aquatic ancestry means that it needs to remain permanently damp to be able to absorb oxygen, which diffuses in through the gill plates that you can see just behind the final pair of legs.
A pill bugs's common name comes from the ancient belief that they could cure digestive ailments if you swallowed the live animal (don't try this at home!)
The plight of the bumblebee has become an issue of national concern because their numbers have plummeted in recent years, due to habitat loss in the countryside and the impact of insecticides. Fortunately gardeners can help, by providing nest sites. Bumblebee species like the common carder bee will often nest in woodpiles or in tussocky grass around them. If the garden has plenty of nectar- and pollen-rich flowers with a blooming period that extends from early spring until late autumn, the bees will have all the resources they need to raise a successful colony.
Bumblebees play a crucial part in pollinating our native wild flowers, like this purple loosestrife (which is an excellent plant to grow beside a garden pond), and ...
.... and in pollinating our garden food crops, like these blackcurrants.
Although many of our native bee species are in steep decline, we do have a new arrival - the tree bee - that is rapidly colonising Britain and is a very effective pollinator of wild and crop plants. Tree bees will sometimes nest in empty bird nest boxes.
Dandelions are wonderful pollen and nectar sources for bumblebees in spring - just when they need to collect these resources for their new colony. Most gardeners wouldn't be happy to see their gardens overrun with dandelions, but if you let the plants flower and then dead-head them before they can go to seed you can let the bees exploit this food resource without adding to the weed problem.
Many flowers have evolved to manipulate bees for their own benefit, providing a hidden nectar resource that can only be reached if the bee enters the flower in a particular way and collects pollen, which it transfers between flowers during its food collection trips. Bumblebees need to crawl right inside these monkshood flowers to reach the nectar.
Bumblebees love broad bean flowers, which provide a rich source of nectar and pollen in exchange for efficient pollination that will ensure a good broad bean crop. Bees collect nectar to fuel their own energy requirements and nectar and pollen to provide food for their brood; this bumblebee's pollen baskets are full of pollen, which the bee has combed from its furry body. Broad beans produce poor crops if there are no bumblebees to pollinate them.
One of the best ways to provide resources for bumblebees like this common carder bee is to plant lungwort (Pulmonaria species). These flower very early in spring, just when hibernating queen bees emerge and need to refuel. Lungwort is very easy to grow and will even thrive in dry shade, under trees.
Red Mason Bees
Red mason bees are a hyperactive species that's particular effective at pollinating spring fruit crops. Unlike bumblebees they don't have a high level of social organisation, with queens and workers, but they do nest in colonies .....
....... and you can give them a helping hand by providing nest tubes, crammed inside a piece of plastic drainpipe to provide weatherproofing. This colony is on a south-facing window ledge, where the garden owner can watch the bees at work.
The bees lay eggs in the tubes, provide them with a pollen food store and seal each egg chamber with mud. There can be several chambers in each tube. The larvae hatch and feed on the pollen through the summer and the adults merge in early spring in the following year.
If you don't have red mason bees in your garden you can buy tubes that contain the developing larvae and start a colony in your garden.
When you think about it, a perfectly maintained, billiard table-smooth garden lawn is the least environmentally-friendly part of a garden. It requires an input of herbicides and fossil fuel, not to mention a regular cacophony of noise pollution, to grow and mow grass so that it's maintained as a perfect sward in a perpetual state of retarded development. So why not let at least some of the grass grow and flower? Grasses are an important food resource for the caterpillars of many moths and some butterflies, like these meadow browns which sometimes breed in gardens.
If grasses are allowed to produce their airy panicles of flowers they'll ultimately become seeds that will feed finches in autumn. Bumblebees often nest in tussocks of grasses and birds use dry grass stems to build nests.
All sorts of interesting interactions take place between the small animals that live amongst long grasses. This ichneumon wasp is laying its eggs inside a tiny hidden caterpillar that's feeding inside grass florets.
Froghoppers, whose larvae produce the familiar 'cuckoo spit', love the cool damp conditions in long grass.
The larvae, which do little harm to plants, feed by sucking the sap of plants through their tubular mouthparts, and blow frothy bumbles in the water that they excrete, which prevents them from drying out and protects them from predators.
Adult froghoppers are capable of prodigious leaps, thanks to protein called resilin in their legs that stores energy and releases it with explosive force, catapulting the insect into the air.
Common froghoppers come in a variety of camouflage shades of buff and brown, including his one with white patches on its wings.
If you have long grass and log piles in the garden you may well find that field mice have taken up residence too, especially if you also have a compost heap where they can feed. Other tell-tale signs include piles of discarded stony seed cases of cherry and hawthorn, and chewed rose hips, which they often carry into old bird nests, where they can eat them in safety. Sometimes, after a prolonged snowfall, you might find the surface tunnels of wood mice in the long grass, where they have remained active under the snow.
Wood mice aren't usually a serious problem in gardens that have plenty of natural food resources, although they can sometimes nibble newly-sown peas. They're not averse to eating a few woodlice from the log pile too. They're most active at night and must be constantly on the lookout for their arch enemies - tawny owls. Those large upward-facing eyes and big ears scan for threats from overhead. The reward for the gardener who tolerates wood mice is that sometimes, when darkness falls, you might hear the 'kee-wik' call of a tawny owl hunting over your garden. If you do......
.... then there's a good chance that it will be a parent bird that has nested in a hollow tree not far away, and is providing hungry fledglings like this with a constant supply of field mice.
As a wildlife garden matures it soon develops complex food webs that extend from the woodlice in the log pile to tawny owls. Part of the satisfaction that comes from gardening for wildlife is that you can be sure that the benefits for wildlife from all your hard work extend far beyond the boundaries of your garden.