It is no secrete that I’m fond of a good garden. I’m not the most green fingered person but I do enjoy gardening. There is something incredibly soothing about the gentle pace of time in the garden, the slow, steady rhythm with which the garden year ticks by. When we moved into our house its large garden was the deciding factor for me. As soon as we were safely moved we set to work converting a chunk of it to veggie beds. We shielded this area off from the lawn by a row of espalier apple and pear trees – an idea I shamelessly stole from the kitchen garden at National Trust property Greys Court.
The apple trees are my pride and joy and are coming on in leaps and bounds from the whimpy little whips they once were. You can imagine how exasperated I was therefore to find their leaves thick with aphids this year. Many of them were curled up and equal amounts were yellowing or dropping off. I read up on it and found out aphid damage can affect the apple crop too. Not good. Roo on the other hand found the aphids fascinating and her little sister got in on the act too, pulling off a lot of leaves to show me.
As educational as they were, the aphids needed to be controlled. I didn’t want to spray the trees with a pesticide – we would be eating the produce and besides, being wildlife aware means it’s not really my style. Some apple trees were also still in flower and spraying flowers with chemicals can cause a lot of problems for bees. Instead, I did what I do best. I researched.
It didn’t take long to find an obvious natural suggestion for our garden infestation – use ladybirds! Only problem is, despite ‘relocating’ some ladybirds from our previous garden when we moved in (I know, my husband thinks I’m a bit dotty too), our garden is fairly ladybird free. Thank goodness for modern society though as it turns out you really can buy everything. Yes – you really can buy mail-order ladybirds! I checked out with some wildlife experts first and made sure I used a company that bred native ladybird species but it didn’t take me long to send my order in.
Roo’s face when I told her what had arrived was a picture. She didn’t believe me. As she undid the carefully packed little packages containing a the bugs and their food she broke into a grin. I had gained an enthusiastic volunteer to help me release our new garden inhabitants.
The ladybirds were first out and Roo had great fun setting them loose on the worst affected trees. I’d only got a few adult ladybirds as there is no guarantee they will stay put. She managed to get ladybirds all over her and it took a bit of work convincing them to take up residence on the apple tree and not her t-shirt! Next up were the tiny ladybird and lacewing larvae. Both these are fantastic for helping clear aphid infestations as they cannot fly off yet. One ladybird larvae alone can eat through hundreds of aphids before it pupates. Roo couldn’t quite believe that the tiny little black dots of insects were actually ever going to be ladybirds.
Next up came the lacewing larvae. Adult lacewing are those delicate tiny green flies you see about the garden from time to time. They are also huge fans of aphid and greenfly snacks. These had been provided as tiny pinprick insects and some eggs so we put them in breathable fabric bags supplied with them and hung these in the apple trees so they could emerge from them gradually. Roo had a lot of fun helping choose the best places for them and then telling Daddy all about our new garden inhabitants later.
Since the ladybirds and lacewing arrived I have noticed a genuine improvement in the state of the apple trees. The leaves that were worse affected have not improved but the aphids are now gone. No new leaves seem to have been hit either. Our apple crop promises to be a good one! According to the general advice out there results are not always quite so immediate as the populations need to stabilise but I guess as we ordered quite a few it had a bigger effect. Best of all though, the ladybirds have provided endless entertainment and a great educational experience for Roo. I have learnt all about ladybird life-cycles too and the fantastic UK Ladybird Survey website has been an invaluable source of information. Roo has been tracking their progress and this week she arrived inside with a large, spiky insect on her hand that looked a little like something out a Hollywood alien horror movie. It was a ladybird larvae in the final stages before it pupates – a vicious carnivorous monster for things its own size but fortunately harmless to preschoolers!
Roo’s tree inspections also threw up another bizarre discover. Those ladybird larvae that had finally matured were pupating. For the uninitiated this slightly grim but fascinating spectacle involves the ladybird larvae shrinking into a kind of roundish hunched lump. Then, around a week later, the adult ladybird emerges. Our ladybirds must have been in the final stages of this process as the ladybird body was clearly visible in most cases but had what looked like a bad case of skin peeling sun burn as its old skin shriveled back to allow the adult ladybird to emerge. Fascinatingly before a ladybird even gets to the pupating stage it will shed its skin three times as a ladybird larva to accommodate its rapid growth!
The next challenge of course is going to be getting our adult ladybirds to stay in our garden for future years. The new ladybirds don’t breed in their first year. Instead they need a safe place to overwinter before emerging to mate next spring. I feel a ladybird box project coming on for Roo. Lacewing are keen on a winter shelter too. For now though, those new adult ladybirds can spread their wings and nip on over to the nearby runner beans where their savvy minded prey seem to have relocated.
I’m joining in today with Coombe Mill Country Kids Linky.