Enhancing Wildlife and Biodiversity in the garden

Biodiversity in the back garden

A possible definition of Biodiversity could be: the variability among living organisms from all sources, including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine, and other aquatic ecosystems, and the ecological complexes of which they are part: this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems”

“Bio” means life and “diversity” means variety within the living world. Everything is interconnected: A pair of Great tits feeding their young need caterpillars during the breeding season. Those caterpillars can only live if certain food plants are available and in order to have enough caterpillars, we must have enough moths or butterflies that are able to produce caterpillars. These butterflies and moths in their turn need flowers, which in their turn need pollinators to survive and to reproduce.

Far too often people think of what they cannot do: that very rare butterfly that can only survive because of a Gentian will probably not come into your garden but there is so much you can do to improve the conditions for wildlife, plants, and the living world. With this blog, I show you my modest approach to increasing the biodiversity in my own back garden.


Even the smallest garden can have a mini pond. My pond does not contain any fish: fish and amphibians do not go well together as most fish prey on young amphibians. I gave the fish to a friend of mine who has a pond with fish and she was delighted. Everybody happy! After the long and cold winter it is so exciting to see the first newts in the pond, sometimes even as early as February. Frog spawn is usually around March/ April in huge numbers and some people were worried that I would end up with thousands of little frogs but rest assured: tadpoles and frog spawn is on the menu of many predators: newts love frog spawn and tadpoles and dragon fly larvae are also ferocious predators of tadpoles.  Below is a picture of a very young smooth newt that left the pond seeking a place to hide on land.

Young smooth newtfrog spawn

Frogs, toads and newts spend a short period of their lives in the water so if you have these beautiful and fascinating animals in your garden,  please make sure you provide a habitat for them during the time they are out of the water so that they can have enough to eat and find a place to hide. In my garden, there is enough vegetation, a compost heap and lots of dead wood.smooth newt laying her eggs

Dead wood in the garden

Dead wood is very important for biodiversity. It is estimated that a third of forest-dwelling species rely on dead or dying trees, logs, and branches for their survival. Many fungi can only thrive on dead wood. Underneath the wood, it is teeming with life: centipedes, millipedes, woodlice, mites, all of which play a role in the ecosystem and they are a possible food source for wildlife.

Dead wood shelter for amphibians

Plant litter

Litter fall is often being cleaned up after winter and in spring we all rush to the garden centre to buy products to improve our garden soil. There is no need to do that as we can leave dead leaves in a sheltered area of the area and in two years we have leaf mould which improves the structure of the soil. The plant debris is composed of fallen leaves, twigs, pieces of bark, old fruits, etc. Bacteria, fungi and all sorts of insects convert the leaf litter into humus and nutrients are being recycled. Humus is valuable for our soil for it enable plants to absorb minerals and water better. Some leaves take a long time to decompose: needles of pine trees, beech and oak leaves take longer to compose compared to hazel, lime, Ash, Elm.

leaf litter natural protection for invertebrates


Flowers and plants

Flowers use colours, shapes, scent to advertise themselves. Flowers take on the crucial role of reproduction and they do this by making sure pollen is tranferred from one plant to another plant. Fact is that the plant is immobile so it needs a carrier to do this work. In our part of the world they use insects. Nectar and sometimes pollen is the reward that plants pay to insects for carrying pollen to another flower. It is a mutualism between two kingdoms of organisms: the plant gains reproductive success and the animal a food reward as it visits the plant.

There are numerous flowers and not all of them are equally valuable for wildlife. Bedding plants we often see in garden centres have often no value for pollinating insects: the flowers are often sterile, producing no pollen and nor do they produce nectar and in the rare occurence that they do produce small amounts of nectar, the insects cannot reach it. There are better options available.

In my garden, I have several plant families. The Labiates such as Lavender, Thyme, Marjoram, Dead Nettles are valuable for many bees: honeybees, solitary bees and bumblebees love these plants. Below the Spotted dead nettle. Labiates are an important food source for solitary bees that belong to the bee genus Anthophora.

Spotted Deadnettle  -Lamium maculatum

Plants that belong to the Pea family or Fabaceae or Leguminosae, such as Vetches, Vetchlings (Lathyrus), Clovers are quite important as providers of pollen for bumblebees. They are of great importance as a source of nectar and extremely important and favoured as a source of pollen: A study into the main plant families visited by bumblebees showed that 61.6% of the visits done by bumblebees for pollen were on plants that belong to the Fabaceae family; in only 2.5% Lamiaceae were used as a pollen source. Below a picture of Bird’s-foot trefoil. They are also favoured as a nectar source so members of the plant family are great additions to the wildlife garden.

Bird's foot trefoil

However, Red clover has flowers where nectar is hidden so deep that honeybees cannot reach it; this plant is mainly pollinated by bumblebees with long tongues.

Below a photograph of a solitary bee called Anthophora furcata, a bee with a very long tongue which enables the bee to drink nectar from flowers that have long flower tubes such as Wood sage as in the picture. Here she is collecting pollen for her young.

Picture 551

Plants that belong to the Daisy family or Asteraceae or Compositae offer nectar to bees with a relatively short tongue: Often you will see smaller solitary bees on these flowers. Plants that belong to this family are Common knapweed, Cornflower, Dandelion, Chicory and of course Asters. They are important as a pollen source for many solitary bees, beetles, etc.

Common knapweed

Some plants like Verbascum do not produce nectar; the reward pollinating insects receive is pollen of excellent quality. Dark mullein is a beautiful plant and combines well with plants that provide mostly nectar such as Geranium species.

Bumblebee on Verbascum nigrum

Pollen contains up to 40% protein and protein is needed to bring up young bees in the case of solitary bees, honeybees and bumblebees. Pollen contains amino acids (protein) but there is no single plant that produces pollen which contains all amino acids. The greater the variety, the better it is for the bee. Some plants lack a certain amino acid that is available in other plants. In this way, bees do receive all amino acids. Again, the plant family that produce pollen with a high protein percentage and of good quality, at least for bumblebees, are the Fabaceae.

Trees and shrubs

If you have the space you should consider planting an Oak. The Quercus robur or English oak supports more insects than any other tree except for the Willow. It is estimated that more than 400 species of insects and mites use the English oak as a food source whereas the American oak no more than 12. Now you know why birds are often found in Oak trees: they are like a restaurant for birds and offer plenty of food. In my garden I have planted the following trees/shrubs:

Common hawthorn: supports many insects, provides both pollen and nectar, berries are a good food source for birds.

Alder buckthorns: despit its inconspicuous flowers, this is a very important nectar and pollen source for bees, beetles, flies. Together with its close relative the Purging buckthorn, the only food plant for the caterpillars of the Brimstone butterfly. Birds love the berries. Flowers from May until September!

Alder buckthorn flowers

Purging buckthorn: Produces flowers in abundance during May-June.

Spindle: Small flowers, nectar easily accessible, beautiful poisonous berries in autumn.

Holly: Food plant for the Holly blue, provides both nectar and pollen.

Male Holly in flower

Hazel: Many moth caterpillars feed on its leaves, soil improver.

Fruit trees: Apples and Cherries provide both lots of pollen and nectar, leaves are eaten by several moth caterpillars and you can harvest your own fruit in autumn!

Cherry tree blossom

Goat willow: One of the first available sources of nectar or pollen for emerging queen bumblebees: its leaves are eaten by many moth caterpillars. Male plants provide pollen and secrete some nectar, female only nectar. Below a female tree in flower.


Barberry: This spiny shrub offers both pollen and nectar and is covered in berries in autumn.

Barberry - zuurbes berberis vulgaris

Suggestion: Some species are either female or male such as Holly. Please make sure you have a male Holly tree nearby if you want to have berries in autumn on the female tree.

There is no doubt i forgot to mention something but that will be for next time. Hope you enjoyed this blog and learned something new. Nature is amazing!!.

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A Mystery guest in the garden

I was watering a few plants that i replanted in early spring when suddenly I noticed this odd looking plant. I am familiar with broomrapes as my parents had a few in their garden called Orobanche purpurea growing on yarrow.

As I have quite a bit of Ivy growing in the garden, and looking on the internet I am pretty sure this one is the wonderful Ivy Broomrape or Orobanche hederae.Orobanche hederae

It is a fascinating plant as it is a parasite so there is no need for any chlorophyll. All the nutrition it needs comes from the roots of the Ivy plant. It attaches itself and forms underground roots.

I forgot all about this plant of which I did receive seeds more than a year ago. They must have been dormant and now some flowering shoots have emerged with spikes of flowers. A very unusual plant but a lovely addition to the wildlife garden.


It is a rare plant in the Netherlands but expanding its range in urban areas it seems. However, it is a Red List species here so all the more reason to be happy having this one in the garden.

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My mini meadow – a paradise for solitary bees and bumblebees

While writing this blog, the sun is shining and it’s a perfect start of the day. The neighbours are quiet still and there is just me and birds and bees. Moments of pleasure!

I take a cup of tea and walk through the garden and it amazes me to see how much can be done on a very small piece of land in an urban area.

Here is a picture of the wildflowers in my garden which are flowering nowwildlfowers in July2

There is Meadow cranesbill, Greater knapweed, Common knapweed, Rampion bellflower, Dark mullein.

I also grow Tansy which is an important foodplant for Colletes bees and a small bee called Heriades truncorum, of which tens maybe even a hundred nest in my garden.

The Campanulas are such lovely plants and if you are lucky you will get the specialist the harebell carpenter-bees in your garden. They are tiny, little bigger than ants and people would be surprised to hear that they are bees. Chelostoma campanularum

Can you see the tiny bee inside the flower? The females are said to exclusively feed their young pollen of Campanula plants. They are called oligolectic bees.

Pollen is needed to raise their young. Pollen of the Scrophulariaceae family to which Dark mullein belongs, is important for bumblebees to raise their young. You can see the orange pollen basket on the bee’s hind legs. Bumblebee on Verbascum nigrum

I noticed a bumblebee gathering pollen on Viper’s bugloss, another bee magnet. The colour of that pollen is dark blue, almost grey. Bumblebee with blue greyish pollen

Heriades truncorum is similar to the harebell carpenter bee. Here is one sitting on my fingertip. Heriades truncorum

Dasypoda hirtipes is a very beautiful solitary bee indeed. Quote from Bwars: “The female of this species is one of the more attractive and distinctive bees which occur in Britain, the extremely long, golden pollen-collecting hairs on the hind tibiae being particularly notable”. Dasypoda hirtipes- Pluimvoetbij

For further reading please go to the following website http://www.bwars.com/index.php?q=bee/melittidae/dasypoda-hirtipes

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Gardening with wildflowers – photo gallery

I love gardening with wildflowers. They have been growing here for thousands of years and insects have developed with them, they are interconnected. Here some examples of wildflowers I grow in the pollinator garden

Meadow cranesbill – Geranium pratense – provides nectar and some pollen

Meadow crane'sbill

Rampion bell-flower, a rare plant in the Netherlands and declining. Small solitary bees in the Chelostoma family need Campanula pollen to feed their young. I love this elegant plant.

Rampion Bellflower

Wild mignonette, Reseda lutea, one of the best plants for bees in my garden. A good source of pollen for many species such as Bombus lapidarius. It flowers for a long time. Some stem nesting bees (Hylaeus) love this plant too.

Bombus lapidarius feeding on reseda lutea

Geranium pyrenaicum has very small flowers but it flowers for a long time and you will always see bees gathering nectar. A lovely garden plant.

geranium pyrenaicum

Greater knapweed, Centaurea scabiosa, a very ornamental and beautiful wildflower. Offers both pollen and nectar, a true magnet for bumblebees.

Greater knapweed

Often Ox-eye daisies are not considered good plants for bees but this is not true; as the small amount of nectar is easily accessible, it will attract smaller solitary bees, hoverflies. Honeybees and bumblebees do not often visit this plant in my garden. Here you see a digger wasp on the flower.

Ox-ey daisy with digger wasp

Viper’s bugloss – one of the best plants for the bee garden and a beautiful plant. Offers lots of pollen and nectar.

Slangekruid  Viper's Bugloss

White bryony flowers for a long time and offers both nectar and pollen. In my garden it was very popular with honeybees last year and many solitary bees and bumblebees. These are the male flowers which are larger than the female flowers, which grow on different plants.

Solitary bee gathering pollen on whity bryony

Pollen is needed to raise young bees. Pollen contains certain amino acids but only some of them. There is no single plant that provides pollen that contains all necessary amino acids. By providing a variety of flowers, you offer bees a variety of food and you will provide them with all amino acids to raise healthy young bees.

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Buckthorns – a welcome addition to the pollinator garden

Buckthorns are modest trees with with great ecological values. They are not often planted in our gardens as they bear tiny flowers but they are important trees for wildlife.

Alder buckthorns are small trees which you will not find in the average garden centre. Alder buckthorn flowers

The flowers of Alder buckthorns are small, inconspicuous and greenish white in colour. I can imagine this description does not make you ecstatic right away but bear with me for a few more minutes because this modest tree has a lot to offer.

It usually grows to about 5 metres at most so it will suit the smaller gardens as well. It flowers from May until September, sometimes even until October which makes it a very valuable plant for pollinators. It grows best on acidic soils but my experience is that they are easy to grow. Many beekeepers love this plant as it offers both pollen and nectar during a long period of time. There is a mining bee, Andrena fulvida that depends on this tree. Bumblebees and butterflies often visit this tree and in woodland, where this tree can be found, it is often one of the few plants that provide nectar. In my garden, many Early bumblebees, Tree bumblebees, honeybees and buff-tailed bumblebees feed on this plant.

Purging buckthorns usually grow on calcareous soils and are more rare in this part of the country. Purging buckthorn

Another reason why you could consider planting this tree is that it is the only food plant for the Brimstone butterfly, together with purging buckthorns. If you live in the right area, you may get lucky and some Brimstones might visit your garden and stay there.

Below a picture of a caterpillar that looks like a small twig; part of the Geometridae family.Geometridae (spanner)

In autumn, the berries turn black and are eaten by several bird species. Its autumn leaves are golden yellow.Alder buckthorn autumn colours

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Power to the consumers! Buy organic!

The representatives of the 27 member states, meeting in the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health, failed to reach a qualified majority in favour a proposal for a ban on the use of three neonicotinoid insecticides (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiametoxam) on crops attractive to honeybees.

More and more it seems that member states are puppets of the big corporations and have shown not enough concern about the environment we all depend upon. I have come to the conclusion that governments are not there to serve the citizens of Europe but to serve the big corporations. I may be wrong, but I feel that way.Delicious organic food - alles biologisch

Now it is down to us, consumers: Do not buy pesticides for your garden, there are alternatives available. Also, buy organic as much as you can. Some people said: “Yes, If I had the money, I would” but why not start with a few organic products or why not grow your own food? An apple tree is great to start with for example. Too often, I hear individuals say: “Ah, what difference does it make”. True, one individual does not make a difference but thousands of them do! With each bag of organically grown apples you buy, you vote with your wallet and this will result in a higher demand for organic apples and retailers will pick up that signal and start growing them.Pear tree

Make a difference, for the bees, for the flowers that depend on bees and for ourselves as we humans are part of this beautiful, magnificent Web of Life. I believe in leaving this world a better place and buying organic is a good starting point.

apple blossom

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A midwinter garden ~ December 2012

It’s winter and nature seems to be asleep. However there are still signs of life in the garden. The weather so far has been very mild and very wet. This situation is good for fungi. In my garden, there are lots of different fungi like this beautiful white one growing on an old piece of cherry wood. Fungi, together with bacteria, are responsible for a great deal of the recycling on the planet: returning dead material to the soil in a form in which it can be reused.  Fungi on cherry

Here are some more examples of fungi found in the garden. They are part of a healthy garden.Fungi on piece of oak

Above: fungi growing on a piece of oak tree.

Fungi on cherry2

Above: more fungi growing on piece of cherry tree.

Winter is a good time to take a look at the flower buds on trees. Here is a pear tree (Concorde, ecological pear tree variety) and you can see the flower bud. Pear tree flower but

Fruit trees are very important for insects especially for honeybees but also favoured by bumblebees and solitary bees. They provide lots of pollen and nectar. Most favoured is the apple tree followed by cherry. Nectar of pear trees is said to be less sugary compared to apple.

The strong wind makes it a bit difficult to take pictures but here is a one of the flower buds of Wild cherry, Prunus avium. A superb tree with gorgeous flowers, berries that attracts many birds and leaves that turn red in autumn. Its leaves decompose quickly, improving the quality of the soil. cherry prunus avium flower buts

I am growing lots of shrubs such as roses that provide food for birds. Rose hips are rich in vitamin c and greenfinches love them. This is the Rosa rubiginosa, Sweet briar. Roses (single  petal ones) provide lots of pollen so many insects are drawn to this banquet, in particular bumblebees

Rosa rubiginosa

The mild weather means some amphibians like this lovely male alpine newts are still active. This photo was taken on 29 december and the newt was in the water. Alpine newts are originally restricted to the south of the Netherlands and relatively common where i live. Stunningly beautiful they are. To keep newts happy, please make sure your pond is healthy and avoid fish as they eat all the young newts. However, as newts spend more time outside the water than inside, you also need to provide places where they can hide and hunt. A hedgerow, log pile, meadow or piece of garden with tall grass will suit them well.

male alpine newt

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