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Do you like what insects like?

Published on December 13, 2014, by in All, News and musings.

Over the summer, if you were near the project’s experimental meadow plots in Bedford or Luton, you may have been asked which plots you like best and why. We are also interested in discovering the plot preferences of the insects and other invertebrates. If we can work out what types of grassland attract insects, we can make our urban environments friendlier for struggling urban invertebrates in search of food and shelter. In turn, people can benefit from seeing attractive landscapes full of beautiful insects that provide pollination, pest control and food for other wildlife.

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Black-tailed skimmer dragonfly on in one of the meadow plots. Although juvenile dragonflies develop in water, in habitats such as ponds and lakes, the adults are very good flyers and can travel considerable distances from their watery birthplace in search of their insect prey. This is one sort of ‘flow’ that is important in urban ecosystems: the opportunity for organisms to move between different types of green space.

The meadow plots have nine different treatments, varying in vegetation height and plant diversity. There are three different heights of vegetation, which are achieved by mowing at different times. By reducing the frequency of mowing, vegetation becomes more structurally diverse and has more opportunity to flower. This is good for insects, which forage among the flowers for food, shelter and reproduction. There are also three different levels of biodiversity, which have been achieved by sowing different combinations of seeds. More diverse plant communities should also support a wider the range of insects.

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Small skipper butterfly. Not one of the most spectacular butterflies, but a striking colour, and certainly something that would catch your eye fluttering between flowers in the plots.

Several of the meadow sites are in their second year after establishment now. The plants are growing well and invertebrates have started to find them. Unlike people, however, we can’t just ask the insects what they like! So, throughout the summer, researchers from the University of Sheffield visited the meadows and sampled each plot see which insects had colonised the plots and which were just visiting. We sampled in three different ways. To find out which type of meadow would give people the chance to see the most insects, we spent time recording everything we could directly observe when visiting the plots. We also collected flying insects using sweep nets, and finally we collected invertebrates sheltering down in the vegetation and soil using a vacuum sampler, which sucks up insects from the depths of the vegetation. There are thousands of invertebrates lurking in the meadows, but many of them are really hard to see because they’re tiny or well camouflaged. Collecting a sample of these allows us to identify and count them later under a microscope in the lab. We are currently undertaking the slow process of identification to work out what everything is.

Ultimately we will be able to relate what sort of meadow planting is most attractive to invertebrates (both the big spectacular ones you can see, and the tiny little ones you can’t) and what is most attractive to people. This in turn will help us identify the sort of plantings that can benefit both people and biodiversity at the same time.

Paul Richards and Briony Norton

 
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