Author interview with Richard Rickitt: Beekeeping for Gardeners

Beekeeping for Gardeners book cover showing a beehive in a garden behind a rose bush.

This beautifully illustrated book provides a comprehensive gardener’s guide to sustainable beekeeping. It reveals the pleasures and benefits of keeping bees in gardens of all sizes in both rural and urban areas, explains the practicalities of this widely enjoyed hobby and lists the top performing plants that will help your colony thrive. Beekeeping for Gardeners also discusses the hobby of beekeeping within the wider environment and questions how it can meet the needs of all species of pollinators, as well as it’s potential contribution to the local ecology.

Richard Rickitt portrait.Richard Rickitt is an award-winning author as well as co-editor of the UK’s best-selling beekeeping magazine BeeCraft. He has been an avid beekeeper for over 20 years, maintaining numerous hives for both commercial and private clients as well as his own, looks after the bees at the National Arboretum, and teaches beekeeping courses across the UK as well as abroad.

Richard recently took the time out of his busy schedule to talk to about Beekeeping for Gardeners, including what inspired him to write a book aimed at gardeners, what the future of Honey Bees in Britain looks like and more.


Bee getting pollen from a blue flower.
© Richard Rickitt

Firstly, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what prompted you to write a beekeeping book aimed specifically at gardeners? 

I grew up on a Somerset smallholding, so my heart is in the countryside. I always loved wildlife and my bedroom was like a miniature Natural History Museum filled with bird’s nests, animal skulls and a menagerie of frogs, newts, caterpillars and anything else I could catch and keep. One day I peeked through a garden hedge to spy on an old beekeeper at work. The white hives, sparkling clouds of bees and puffing smoker seemed mysterious and magical. I suspect that I have a very romanticised image of the scene in my mind, although even now when tending my bees I am often struck by what a bucolic activity it can be. Later, I learned beekeeping at my secondary school which had an excellent rural studies department – I’m not sure if such things exist anymore, which is a terrible shame. I went on to work in film and television special effects, but after moving from London to Wiltshire about 18 years ago, I took up beekeeping again. I became increasingly involved in the beekeeping community, eventually becoming co-editor of BeeCraft, the UK’s bestselling beekeeping magazine, which is now in its 105th year.   

I wrote a book aimed at gardeners because many of the people attending my beekeeping courses are already gardeners and want to know more about the bees that they see visiting their flowers. By starting out as gardeners, new beekeepers are already doing one of the most important things that anyone can do for bees; providing them with the resources and habitats that they need. But sometimes a little extra knowledge and small changes in the way you garden can make a huge difference to the sustainability of your local bee populations. For example, some species of solitary bee depend on a single, specific variety of flower.  

Keeping honey bees dovetails very nicely with gardening; it’s a seasonal activity done mostly in good weather in spring and summer. Time spent in the garden can be time spent tending both plants and bees, enjoying watching them develop and interact through the year. Gardeners enjoy choosing what plants best work in their garden and if you are a beekeeper there can be the added pleasure of planting specifically for bees and seeing them make use of what you have provided. There are practical benefits too; fruit and vegetable crops will be better pollinated, resulting in more and higher-quality produce. And, of course, there can be the reward of a crop of delicious honey and even wax with which to make candles or cosmetics. Like gardening, beekeeping is a lovely hobby to share as a couple or family – each person often finding their own areas of interest, and sharing the work, discoveries and pleasures. 

So, my book is for anyone who loves gardens and is interested in learning about and helping bees of all kinds. They might want to create a beautiful garden with the most appropriate plants, habitat and nesting opportunities for wild bees, or take things further and keep a hive or two of honey bees. 

Beekeeping for gardeners internal page showing an image of a solitary bee on a flower on the left hand page and text about solitary bees on the right hand page.

I really liked how the book provided not only a comprehensive guide to beekeeping on a small scale but is also an exceptional resource of information on growing flowering plants and creating habitats for bumblebees, solitary bees and insects of all kinds. Do you think traditional beekeeping advice has tended to be very focused on the Honey Bee itself with less of an emphasis on providing the habitat it requires to thrive? 

Beekeepers have always very carefully noted which plants flower near their bees, as well as the quality and quantity of honey that their bees produce as a result. However, the presence of such resources has generally been taken for granted; the beekeeper only having to look after the bees while it was assumed that nature would provide the rest. Increasingly, because of habitat loss, climate change and pollution, the necessary resources aren’t always there. Today’s beekeepers therefore have to think not only about caring for their bees, but also about caring for the environment in which their bees live. That includes growing more of the right plants but also considering whether their bees might have a negative impact on the local environment and the other species it supports. Most beekeepers begin their hobby for environmental reasons and try have a positive impact. 

How do you think beekeeping fits within the broader context of conservation, given that the honey bee is considered by some as not native to Britain and may spread diseases to or compete with other important wild pollinators? 

This is a great question involving several complex issues, so I’m afraid it requires quite a long reply. 

The first point is the erroneous but increasingly commonly held belief that the honey bee is not a UK native species. The oldest fossil of a true honey bee (Apis species) comes from Germany and is about 25 million years old. The distribution of such bees, along with all species of plant and animal, will have fluctuated drastically over the millennia in response to changes in geography, environment and climate. However, when the ice retreated at the end of the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago, what is now called Britain was still connected to the European continent. This allowed the spread northwards of animals and plants. Honey bees naturally live in tree cavities and undoubtedly would have spread into Britain as trees began to grow here. Then, when sea levels rose about 6000 years ago, Britain became an island. This is the cutoff point at which species already established and subsequently isolated here are generally considered to be native. That would certainly have included honey bees as well as the hundreds of other species of bumblebee and solitary bee that we now consider to belong here. So, I think there is no doubt that honey bees are in fact native. Indeed, there is archaeological evidence of the presence of honey bees in Britian dating back thousands of years. For example, the remains of venison cooked with honey were found in Bronze Age artifacts recently unearthed in Peterborough. There is no such archaeological evidence for the presence of any species of solitary bee or bumblebee in Britain at that time, although I wouldn’t question that most of those are also native. For more about the evidence of the honey bee as a native species, I would recommend reading an academic paper by Norman Careck of Sussex University. 

Bee flying to land on a yellow flower.
© Richard Rickitt

Many of the bumblebee and solitary bee species found in Britain are also found on the continent and are considered native in both places. However, the honey bee, also naturally present on both sides of the channel, is currently claimed by a few people to be non-native in Britian. This contradictory claim only seems to have come about in the last decade or so and is perhaps partly because of a history of commercial importation of honey bees from the European mainland into Britian. Such imports have been made for three reasons; firstly, because in the early twentieth century many of our wild and managed honey bee colonies died as a result of a disease then known as the Isle of Wight disease – so much so that the production of pollinated farm crops was thought to be threatened; secondly, it was thought that the slightly different genetic traits of honey bees from elsewhere could be used to produce more disease-resistant and productive honey bees in the UK; and thirdly, because commercial beekeepers whose bees pollinate crops in spring often require new queens to replace those that have died over winter – and the British climate makes it impossible to raise new queens here until later in the season. The result has been an influx of honey bee queens from Europe. These bees are the same species as has existed here for thousands of years (Apis mellifera) but they have evolved into regional subspecies because of the slightly differing environmental conditions where they live. Honey bees living in Italy will experience a very different climate and flowering plants to those living in Scotland, for example. The result is that many of our honey bees now have a mixture of genes hailing from different places.  

Some hobby beekeepers today are against the importation of honey bees and increasingly favour what are known as local bees. These are bees raised from colonies that survive and thrive in a relatively small geographical area, without the addition of new genetic characteristics from bees imported from abroad or elsewhere within the UK – they are ecotypes. The actual genetic makeup might be a mixture of all sorts, depending on what is already in an area, but studies have shown that, over time, the native genetic element tends to dominate. There are some areas of the UK where the genetics of local honey bee populations are very highly native. However, as climate change worsens, adaptability will be key to the survival of all species of animal and plant; it might be that genetic traits from imported honey bees are what eventually give our honey bees the ability to survive in unstable climatic conditions. In my book, I urge beginner beekeepers to buy new bees and queens from a local beekeeper who has kept the same bees in the same place for decades, these honey bees will probably be best suited to your area. 

Now for the second part of the question, which is also complicated but I will try to keep things brief. There are several diseases that appear to be shared in one form or another by various types of bee. Research into these diseases, their effects and transmissibility, is at the early stages with very few definitive conclusions at the moment. One disease, called nosema, is a kind of fungus that affects the gut of a bee. This is found in both honey bees and bumblebees. It is thought that this first evolved in butterflies, and has since been passed on to bees, which can be spread from one species to another perhaps by sharing the same flower resources. One of the biggest threats to honey bees is the presence of varroa, a tiny parasitic mite that can spread various pathogens when feeding from the bodies of developing honey bee pupae. It’s not yet clear which of these pathogens can spread to other species of bee which are not in themselves hosts to varroa.

There are a lot of uncertainties, and it is by no means clear that honey bees are a significant disease danger to other species of bee, or the reverse. However, it highlights the importance of beekeepers fully understanding the biology and lifecycle of honey bees, and their diseases and predators. This will enable them to keep healthy bees that are better able both to resist diseases and minimise the chances of spreading them to other species. Reading my book is a good way to begin understanding how to keep healthy honey bees, and indeed if beekeeping is really for you. After that, I strongly suggest joining your local beekeeping association and signing up for a training course.   

Finally, and referring to the first part of your question, you asked about where beekeeping fits into conservation more broadly.  The fact is that because beekeepers generally do a good job of looking after them, honey bees are not currently under threat – despite being subject to many of the same pressures as solitary bees and bumblebees. There was a great deal of worry some years ago when huge numbers of honey bees died for largely unknown reasons, but those problems are now generally under control. We shouldn’t be complacent, however; there are still a great many threats to honey bees and the climate crisis poses lots of potential problems. 

I consider honey bees to be the ‘gateway bee’. Many people who have never had a very close relationship to wildlife or the natural world are attracted to beekeeping as a fascinating and rewarding hobby – sometimes at first they don’t even understand the difference between honey bees and other bees. Once they are acquainted with honey bees, such people often want to learn more about the other species of bee, ultimately taking part in conservation measures and becoming bee ambassadors, spreading the word about the importance and fragility of bee populations generally and appreciating the importance of plant life and biodiversity in general. 

Beekeeping for Gardeners pages 176-177.

Beekeeping within the UK appears to be a thriving pastime and, throughout the Covid pandemic in particular, it seems that many were inspired to take it up as a hobby. Could we reach a situation where we have too many beekeepers? 

It’s thought that in the UK there are about a quarter of the number of honey bee colonies there were in the 1950’s, and far fewer than might have been present naturally a few thousand years ago – a natural density of about one colony per square kilometre is estimated by renowned bee scientist, Professor Tom Seeley. But although we may have fewer honey bees now, we also have a hugely degraded environment that is much less capable of supporting bees of all kinds.   

There was a huge drop in the number of beekeepers and bee colonies in the mid-1990s, with membership of the British Beekeeper’s Association (BBKA) dropping to just 7000. When the media began to highlight the problems being experienced by honey bees, particularly due to so-called colony collapse disorder, the number of beekeepers began to rise again. As you say, numbers increased somewhat during the pandemic, too. Today there are about 27,000 members of the BBKA. That number seems to be levelling off and I wouldn’t be surprised if it has reached a peak. There are new beekeepers every year, of course, but people also drop out of the hobby at about the same rate as they join.  

I think it is unlikely therefore that we will have too many beekeepers overall, but I do think that the distribution of beekeepers and their bees is a matter of possible concern. Beekeeping has become popular in large cities, and although suburban areas with their dense patterns of small gardens containing a wide variety of plants – not to mention parks, allotments and railway embankments – can provide plenty of bee habitat, city centres are often extremely poor places for supporting bees and other pollinators. The trend for putting beehives on top of city centre office buildings is highly questionable when there are so few flowering plants nearby. There are also a few rural areas with particularly fragile populations of rare bee species where it might be unwise to keep honey bees. A very high density of honey bees in any area could increase the chances of disease transmission – as discussed in the previous question. These are all issues discussed in my book. 

Overall, I believe that thoughtful beekeeping is environmentally beneficial. Although you can place bee hotels in your garden and plant gardens to attract bees, there is nothing quite like learning about and witnessing the extraordinary lifecycle of a honey bee colony for opening people’s eyes, minds and hearts to the breathtakingly complex and beautiful natural history of bees and pollinators in general.   

Bumble bee on a pink flower.
© Richard Rickitt

With constant monitoring in place for the arrival of pests such as Tropilaelaps mites as well as the current spread of the Yellow Legged Hornet (commonly referred to as the Asian Hornet), are you broadly optimistic for the future of Honey Bees in Britain? 

It seems likely that the Asian Hornet (Vespa velutina) might finally have a toehold in the UK and we could have a small breeding population. Until now, APHA (Animal and Plant Health Agency) and the National Bee Unit have done a great job tracing nests and destroying them, but if the population increases exponentially, it will be impossible to control – as has been the case in France and other places.  

It is hard to say exactly how the arrival of the Asian Hornet will affect British beekeeping although, as with the arrival of Varroa Mites in the 1990s, I suspect there will be a steep decline in the number of people keeping bees. Chris Packham recently said that having Asian hornets might only mean the loss of a few teaspoonfuls of honey, but I strongly disagree with this sentiment. One nest of Asian hornets can consume 11.5 kg of insects in a season – that’s hundreds of thousands of insects. Perhaps people don’t mind if those insects are honey bees, but when the honey bees run out, other bees, wasps, flies, butterflies and so-on could become the target prey. Imagine how that might affect birds and other animals that rely on those insects – not to mention the crops that they pollinate. And bear in mind that one Asian hornet nest can produce 300 queens resulting in hundreds of new nests the following year.  

Tropelaelaps, and particularly Small Hive Beetle, are two other potentially very problematic invasive pests. They haven’t been found here yet and there are import controls and a system of sentinel apiaries to try to prevent or detect their arrival. There are contingency plans to prevent their spread should they arrive but there are a lot of unknown factors. Climate change makes the possible arrival and spread of these exotic species more concerning.  

I’m broadly optimistic about the future of beekeeping in the UK but there will be challenges and changes. 

Beekeeping for Gardeners, page 92-93 showing a close up of bees on a hive.

Finally, although I’m sure your job as editor of BeeCraft magazine, as well as your public speaking engagements must keep you incredibly busy (alongside the actual beekeeping of course!), we’d love to know if you have plans for further books? 

I have lots of ideas for other bee-related books, some practical and some a bit more esoteric. Whether I’ll ever find time to write them, and in particular take the photographs for them, is another matterAt the moment, I’m glad to have finished this book and I am enjoying watching bees and visiting gardens without feeling the need to make notes and take photosalthough my camera is never very far away…


Beekeeping for Gardeners book cover showing a beehive in a garden behind a rose bush. Beekeeping for Gardeners is available from our online bookstore.

Solitary Bee Week 2024

Solitary Bee Week was founded in 2018 to raise awareness of the importance of solitary bee populations across the globe. Now hosted by Buglife, this week-long event hopes to encourage the public to pledge their support for these unsung heroes. Solitary Bee Week 2024 (Monday 1st July – Sunday 7th July) gives us a chance to support these vital pollinators and #EarnYourStripes. 

A hairy mining bee resting on a leaf. It has orange hair on its hind legs and long white hair on its thorax, legs and head
Andrena gravida by Frank Vassen via Flickr

What are solitary bees and why are they important? 

It is estimated that there are between 20,000–30,000 solitary bee species across the world, and the UK is home to 240 of them. Solitary bees do not produce wax or honey, do not form hives, and do not exhibit swarming behaviours – a striking difference to the behaviours we usually associate with bees. They typically nest in underground burrows or in the hollows of plant stems and tunnels, so it is no surprise that we are seeing a downturn in the abundance of the group with increasing urban development and environmental decline.  

As we urbanise, we remove the habitat of these extraordinary pollinators – we are seeing fewer hedgerows and wildflower meadows, which would otherwise provide vital food sources for these insects. Partnered with agricultural intensification, environmental changes are contributing to the significant declines we see in pollinators. Solitary bees are important for pollination, and their loss could be devastating not only to the environment, but for food security worldwide. Solitary Bee Week is helping raise awareness of these insects in the hopes of managing their threats and preventing further declines in the future. 

 

Image by Buglife

 

How can I take part? 

From pollinator identification workshops to solitary bee walks, Buglife is hosting a range of events in support of Solitary Bee Week. An interesting highlight of the week, Buglife have collaborated with Hayley Herridge the Pollinator Gardener to create the ‘B-Lines Garden’ to be featured in the Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival – highlighting the importance of insect pathways to provide corridors for pollinators. Find the full week’s itinerary here 

 

What can I do to support my local bees? 

Solitary Bee Week is the perfect time to pledge your support for local solitary bees.  

Leaving an area of exposed soil and providing bee hotels are great ways to provide nesting areas. Mining bees account for around 70% of solitary species – patches of exposed soil are an excellent way to provide space for this group, where they create underground nesting burrows. For cavity nesting bees, such as Red Mason Bees, hotels are a great way to provide nesting habitat where they will lay eggs in the dry, hollow tubes. Planting wildflowers and nectar-rich plant species is another way to support pollinators by providing an important food source. 

Here we have chosen a selection of products in our range that can support solitary bees in your outdoor space: 

#262715 Solitary Bee Bricks  

 

#217363 Insect Tower 

 

#257245 Solitary Bee Nesting Tin 

 

 

#264931 Bee Barn Gift Box 

 

#259552 Solitary Bees (Hardback) 

#261456 Hairy-Foot, Long-Tongue (Paperback) 

 

#244919 The Solitary Bees (Hardback) 


 

The NHBS Guide to UK Birds of Prey

As we enter the warmer months, many of us will find ourselves wandering through nature more often, perhaps while camping or taking an evening walk through wild areas. We might encounter birds of prey during these times, and many of us will ask ‘Which one is that?’. Here we look at a selection of the 15 birds of prey in the UK, covering every group of predatory bird aside from vultures.  


Red Kite (Milvus milvus)

A red kite shown flying from below with its wings spread out.
Red Kite. Image by Countryfile.

Conservation Status: On the Green list under the Birds of Conservation Concern 5. Listed as least concern under the IUCN Red List.  

Distribution: Widespread and common throughout the UK. Estimated 4,600 breeding pairs.  

Identification: Red Kites are large birds with a wingspan of up to 2m. Easily identified by their angled red wings, reddish-brown streaky body and a long, forked tail. These birds have a distinctive white patch underneath their black-tipped wings. Adults have a grey head and a yellow beak with a grey-black hook.  

Best places to spot: Red Kites can be seen year-round and are active during the day. They can be found in woodland, open countryside, farmland and increasingly in suburban areas and towns. The Chilterns, central Scotland and southern England are great places to spot Red Kites in the UK, although the species is commonplace and can be found across the country.  

 

Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

Grey sparrowhawk resting on a mossy treestump
Sparrowhawk. Image by Caroline Legg via Flickr.

Conservation Status: On the Amber list under the Birds of Conservation Concern 5.  

Distribution: Widespread throughout the UK except for the Scottish Highlands and offshore islands. Around 31,000 breeding pairs.   

Identification: A small bird of prey with a wingspan of around 60cm, the Sparrowhawk is around the size of a blackbird (although females can be as large as a Feral Pigeon) and weighs up to 300g. Males have a bluish-grey back and cap with white and orange barred underparts. Females are browner in colouration and have brown/grey barring on their underside. The species have broad, rounded wings and bright yellow/orange eyes. The chin and cheeks of both males and females are a reddish orange.  

Best places to spot: Sparrowhawks can be found year-round in grassland, woodland, heath and moorland, farmland and suburban areas. Good places to spot Sparrowhawks are: Bowers Marsh, Basildon; Blean Woods, Canterbury and Wolves Wood, Ipswich. The Sparrowhawk is also a good species for garden watchers – often feeding on finches, tits and sparrows, you may be fortunate enough to see one in your own garden.  

 

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

Peregrine Falcon resting on a tree branch
Peregrine Falcon. Image by Countryfile.

Conservation Status: On the green list under Birds of Conservation Concern 5. Protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. 

Distribution: Nesting occurs in the north and south-west of England, also in Wales and Scotland on coastal cliffs. There are around 1,750 breeding pairs in the UK.  

Identification: The Peregrine Falcon has a large wingspan measuring up to 1.2m and a muscular, heavy-set profile. From above, this bird appears a dark slate-grey with pointed wings and a shorter tail. From below, it appears white with thin, dark stripes across the chest and belly. This species also has a white throat and cheek with a black mask and moustache. 

Best places to spot: Peregrine Falcons can be found nesting along coastal cliffs and rocky coastlines. They may also be found in urban areas as their range expands and have famously been found at the top of Derby Cathedral. Great places to spot Peregrine Falcons include Ramsey Island, Pembrokeshire; Saltholme Nature Reserve, Cleveland and Rainham Marshes Nature Reserve, Essex. 

 

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)

Osprey flying in-air with its wings widespread
Osprey. Image via BBC Wildlife.

Conservation Status: On the amber list under Birds of Conservation Concern 5. Protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.  

Distribution: Osprey can be seen from March to September before they migrate to west Africa for the winter.  Osprey breed in Scotland, Wales, Cumbria and the east Midlands. Breeding populations are estimated to be between 200–250 pairs.  

Identification: Ospreys are large birds with a wingspan of up to 1.7m. The species have brown and white plumage – a dark brown upper contrasting with a white chest, underside and head. The wings are long, barred and appear angled during flight.  A ‘necklace’ of slightly darker, mottled colouration may be present, and is more visible in females.  

Best places to spot: Osprey have a fish-based diet so are best spotted in freshwater and wetland habitats. Loch Ruthven, Lock Lomond and Loch of Kinnordy are reported to be good locations for Osprey spotting.  

 

Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

Common buzzard resting on a wooden post
Common Buzzard. Image by Caroline Legg via Flickr.

Conservation Status: On the green list under Birds of Conservation Concern 5. 

Distribution: The UK’s most common bird of prey, the Common Buzzard can be seen year-round almost everywhere in the UK. The population has an estimated 63,000 breeding pairs.  

Identification: A large bird with broad, rounded wings, the Common Buzzard has a wingspan of up to 1.2m. In flight, their wings have a distinctive ‘V’ shape with dark coloured wingtips. Their plumage can vary from shades of dark brown to paler hues, and individuals often have a ‘necklace’ of colour beneath the breast. Their underside is white, some more so than others, and their tail feathers have light brown barring. Their beak is sharp and yellow in colour with a dark brown/black hook.  

Best places to spot: Buzzards can be found in farmland, grassland, woodlands and urban areas with green spaces. West Sedgemoor Nature Reserve, Taunton; Fairy Glen, Isle of Skye and Labrador Bay, Torquay are reported to be good places to spot these birds.  

 

Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Kestrel resting on a wooden fence
Kestrel by Andy Morffew via Flickr.

Conservation Status: On the amber list under Birds of Conservation Concern 5. Populations are declining.  

Distribution: This species is widespread and can be found year-round across the UK, although absent from north-west Scotland, central Wales and Shetland. There are an estimated 46,000 breeding pairs.  

Identification: Slightly larger than a Feral Pigeon, Kestrels have a wingspan up to 80cm. This species is often seen hovering mid-air, and has distinctively pointed wings. The head and tail of male Kestrels is grey, with a black band at the bottom of the tail feathers. Their backs are gingery-brown with a black-speckled cream underside. Females have a more uniform colouration, with a lighter brown plumage and dark bands on the wings and tail. The chest and underside have a lighter, almost-cream plumage with brown spots. The species have a short, yellow/grey beak with a sharp hook.  

Best places to spot: Kestrels can be found on open grassland and farmland, wetlands and urban areas. This species is often observed by roadside hedges and may be seen perching on fences or lampposts.  

 

Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis)

Goshawk resting on a mossy fallen tree
Goshawk by Andy Morffew Via Flickr

Conservation Status: On the green list under Birds of Conservation Concern 5. Protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.  

Distribution: Found dispersed across the UK in localised populations. Strongholds are present in south and east Scotland, northern England and Wales. There are an estimated 620 breeding pairs.   

Identification: This species has a wingspan of up to 120cm and is around the size of a Buzzard. Goshawks have broad wings which appear grey on top. Females have a slate-grey upper and males have a blue-grey upper, both with white, barred underparts. The species has long, thick legs and a rounded tail. Goshawks also have a distinctive white line above their eyes.  

Best places to spot: This species can be seen year-round in wetlands, farmland and coniferous woodland. Goshawks are commonly seen in late winter and spring during aerial displays over their breeding grounds. Sites of particular interest are Kielder Forest, New Forest and the Forest of Dean.  

 

Merlin (Falco columbarius)

Merlin resting on a fence post
Merlin by Veir via Flickr.

Conservation Status: On the red list under the Birds of Conservation Concern 5. Protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.  

Distribution: Widespread across the UK. Merlin are seen nesting in north and south-west England, Wales and Scotland. Up to 1,500 breeding pairs are estimated in the UK.  

IdentificationThe UK’s smallest bird of prey, the Merlin is around the size of a Blackbird (Turdus merula). This species is often seen low to the ground or hovering in breezy areas. Males have blue-grey plumage from above with cream-slightly brown underparts with black streaks. Females also have dark streaking underneath but are instead more brown in colour. The species has broad wings with pointed tips (wingspan up to 60cm) and a square, blunt tail. As with other raptors, they have yellow legs and a grey tipped beak.  

Best places to spot: This species can be seen year-round in moorland, coastal marshes and farmland where they nest in heather. Orkney, Loch Sunart and Dee Estuary are reported to be excellent places to spot Merlin.  

 

Tawny Owl (Strix aluco)

Tawny owl resting on a mossy tree stump in front of shallow water
Tawny Owl by Caroline Legg via Flickr

Conservation Status: On the amber list under Birds of Conservation Concern 5. 

Distribution: Widespread in the UK, but absent in Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man. An estimated 50,000 breeding pairs in the UK. 

Identification: Tawny Owls are the largest common owl in the UK and have a wingspan up to 100cm. They appear a mottled reddish-brown with a paler underside. Their large, round head has a dark ring around its border, and they have characteristically large dark eyes. The species has an olive-yellow hooked beak  

Best places to Spot: Tawny Owls can be spotted year-round in broadleaved woodland, farmland and urban green spaces. 

 

Barn Owl (Tyto alba)

Barn Owl by Caroline Legg via Flickr

Conservation Status: On the green list under Birds of Conservation Concern 5. Protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. 

Distribution: Widespread across the UK but absent from the Scottish Highlands. An estimated 4,000 breeding pairs.  

Identification: Barn Owls are best known for their distinctive heart-shaped face and snowy white feathers. Their back and wings are mottled grey and beige, with a pure white underside. They have a white face with large black eyes and a short, curved beak.   

Best places to spot: Barn Owls can be seen year-round at dawn and dusk. The species may be seen in farmland, grassland and wetland. Strumpshaw Fen, Norfolk; Middleton Lakes, Staffordshire and Bempton Cliffs, East Riding of Yorkshire are reported to be good places to spot Barn Owls in the UK.  

No Mow May 2024: An Update

Each year, Plantlife launch their national campaign of #NoMowMay. This initiative encourages people across the UK to allow their garden lawns to grow wild in the spring, providing vital habitats for many species. Here at NHBS, this is our fourth year taking part – each year in awe of the diversity of species in our lawn. Find our previous No Mow May blog posts on our conservation hub. Here, we give an update on the species we saw throughout last month.  


The wilder lawns that develop during No Mow May provide a haven for invertebrate species in our gardens. At NHBS, we saw a whole host of insects in and around our lawn last month, from wasps to weevils and Green-veined White butterflies. Other highlights have included:  

A Small Yellow Underwing (Panemeria tenebrata) – a diurnal moth species frequenting meadows and grassland.  

 

Mayfly (Ephemera vulgata) – found near rivers and areas of freshwater between May and August.  

 

Volucella bombylans – a bumblebee-mimicking hoverfly common throughout the UK.  

 

Beautiful Demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo) – a damselfly with a striking blue, metallic body found near rivers and streams. 

 

And some beautiful wildflowers, including Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) and Perforate St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum). Here are some of our favourites: 

The Southern Marsh Orchid (Dactylorhiza praetermissa) – the most common and widespread of marsh orchids, features spectacular purple petals. 

 

Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera) – named for its mimicry, the Bee Orchid self-pollinates due to a lack of appropriate pollinators in the UK. The specimen on our lawn has yet to bloom (left), but we have a striking image from last year showcasing the mimicry of this species (right).  

 

Cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis) – also known as ‘Lady’s-smock’, this flower is one of the first signs of spring, often found near riverbanks, wet meadows and grassland. 

 

Germander Speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys) considered a ‘good luck charm’ for travellers, this plant has a beautiful blue flower and is found in meadows, woods and hedgerows across the UK. 

 

Our Product and Purchasing Manager, Mark, has documented the progress of his local park during No Mow May. Towards the end of the month, the green expanse had varying lengths of grass and plenty of wildflowers, encouraging pollinating species – a great example of how local councils can boost biodiversity in public spaces.  

 

And our Sales and Marketing Manager, Adam, has grown his lawn throughout May creating a corridor for local wildlife brimming with wild buttercups, dandelions and many other self-seeded plants.


No Mow May is a fantastic initiative to engage with, attracting homeowners, businesses and local councils with its wealth of benefits. If you have enjoyed taking part, then Let it Bloom June could be a great opportunity to continue supporting your garden wildlife. This scheme simply involves continuing the No Mow May philosophy throughout the summer with less garden maintenance. You may choose to allow your entire garden to grow wild or leave some areas untouched for wildlife.  

Have you taken part in No Mow May? Share your pictures with us via Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.  

The NHBS Guide to UK Weevil Identification

Weevils are beetles belonging to the superfamily Curculionoidea. They are generally characterised by their elongated snout, or rostrum, although this is not present in all species. The similarly named Curculionidae family exist within this superfamily and contain the “true” weevils. These true weevils have long snouts and geniculate or sharply hinged antennae that end in small clubs. There are several other families of weevil including Belidae, the primitive weevils, and Anthribidae, the fungus weevils.

As of 2012, over 600 species of weevil had been recorded in Britain. The total number of species worldwide is unknown, but estimates suggest that there are between 40,000–97,000. They can be found in a variety of habitats including gardens, parks, woodland, farmland, heathland and wetlands. They are usually found on plants but they can also be found on the ground. Some weevil species, such as vine weevils and rice weevils, feed on grains and can become an infestation inside pantries and cupboards. They aren’t harmful to humans or pets but they can cause damage to stored foods as their populations grow rapidly once they are inside containers of flour or cereals.

Identification of weevils can be difficult in the field as many species look alike to the naked eye. A hand lens, specimen pots and a good field guide can help. There are several ways to look for specimens, such as using a sweep net or beating tray or simply searching by eye. However, as weevils are very small, often less than 6mm in length, it is important to be careful when surveying.

In this post we will look at some of the most commonly found weevils in the UK, providing some key identifying features and information on similar or confusion species.

Glossary

– Elytra – Protective wing-cases covering the hindwings (singular, elytron)
– Geniculate antennae – Antennae having elbows
– Pronotum – Section of the body directly behind the head
– Rostrum – Snout-like projection extending from the head
– Scutellum – Large triangular shield or plate located on the back
– Setae – Stiff bristle-like hairs (singular, seta)
– Striae – Longitudinally depressed lines or furrows (singular, stria)
– Tarsi – Foot or contact surface of the leg (singular, tarsus)
– Tibia – Fourth segment of the leg (from the body), located between the femur and the tarsus

Common UK Weevils
Vine Weavil by AJC1 via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

VINE WEEVIL (Otiorhynchus sulcatus)

Distribution: Widespread throughout Britain.
What to look for: Black body mottled with small brown patches. Their elytra, the hardened forewings that serve as protective cases for the hindwings, have longitudinal grooves, or striae. Their pronotum is pebbled in texture.
Similar species: There are several dark, grooved species, and the Large Pine Weevil (Hylobius abietis) is visually similar but has orange or creamy-yellow spots resembling bands and their elytra lack defined grooves.

Green Immigrant Leaf Weevil by Tim Worfolk via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

GREEN IMMIGRANT LEAF WEEVIL (Polydrusus formosus)

Distribution: Widespread, increasing population.
What to look for: A metallic green species with round scales and pale antennae that end in a dark club. Their elytra are longitudinally striated and do not have any setae (stiff structures that resemble bristles). Older specimens may be darker in colour as their scales can wear off, showing their black under-colour. Their legs have some metallic green covering but with an orangey under-colour.
Similar species: There are several visually similar species, therefore specimens need to be examined closely. Identification in the field may be difficult.

Pea Leaf Weevil by Danny Chapman via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

PEA LEAF WEEVIL (Sitona lineatus)

Distribution: Widespread in England and Wales.
What to look for: This is a buff species with dark longitudinal stripes that can appear dark brown or reddish. Its rostrum, or snout, is very short, unlike those of many weevil species.
Similar species: There are several similar Sitona species. Identification in the field may not be possible and dissection is often needed to confirm species.

Acorn Weevil by Lukas Large via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

ACORN WEEVIL (Curculio glandium)

Distribution: Widespread, more common in the south of Britain.
What to look for: The Acorn Weevil is a brownish-rust colour with darker markings on its elytra. It has a long, striking rostrum and a paler scutellum.
Similar species: Very similar to Curculio nucum but can be distinguished by the shape of the antennal club which is more elongated and narrow than that of C. nucum.

Nettle Weevil by Danny Chapman via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

NETTLE WEEVIL (Phyliobius pomaceus)

Distribution: Common in England and Wales, rare in Scotland.
What to look for: A black beetle covered in metallic, bluish-green scales, which are oval. There is a prominent tooth on the front femur.
Similar species: There are multiple similar species in the Phyllobius genus. The Nettle Weevil is the only one with oval scales.

Cabbage Seed Weevil by Gilles San Martin via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

CABBAGE SEED WEEVIL (Ceutorhynchus obstrictus)

Distribution: Fairly widespread in England and Wales.
What to look for: The Cabbage Seed Weevil has a round grey body with grey legs. They are covered in small, white scales. They have a long, curved rostrum and small, bent antennae. If disturbed, this weevil will fold its rostrum and legs against its body, resembling a small pebble.
Similar species: Several other Ceutorhynchus species are very similar to C. obstrictus but they can be distinguished from some by the colour of their tarsi, the last part of the insect leg, which are black to dark-brown rather than reddish-yellow. C. Obstrictus also lacks a tooth on the hind femora.
Synonym: Ceutorhynchus assimilis, Cabbage Seedpod Weevil.

Willow Gall Weavil by Line Sabroe via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

WILLOW GALL WEAVIL (Archarius salicivorus)

Distribution: Widespread in Britain.
What to look for: A short, black weevil with a tapered body and long snout. Its antennae are midway along the rostrum. It has a paler underside and a small pale scutellum, the small section of the exoskeleton in the middle of the back between the pronotum and the abdomen
Similar species: The Strawberry Blossom Weevil (Anthonomus rubi) is visually similar but has a less rounded appearance when viewed from above and a less barrel-shaped pronotum than the Willow Gall Weevil.

Large Pine Weavil by gbohne via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

LARGE PINE WEAVIL (Hyblobius albietis)

Distribution: Widespread.
What to look for: This is a large dark brown weevil with orange to creamy-yellow patches on its elytra, which form bands. They have black or deep red legs with a distinct tooth on the femora and at the end of the tibiae. They also have eyebrow-like patches on their head at the base of their rostrum.
Similar species: The Vine Weevil (O. Sulcatus, see above) is also dark with lighter patches, but these are brown and their elytra have more distinct striations. They also have a more distinctly ‘pebbled’ pronotum.

The NHBS Guide to UK Caterpillar Identification

Caterpillars are part of the life cycle of moths or butterflies which is known as complete metamorphosis. This life cycle includes four stages: egg, caterpillar (also known as the larval or feeding stage), pupa (the transition stage) and adult (the reproductive phase). With over 2,600 species of moth and 60 species of butterfly in the British Isles, there are a large variety of caterpillars present in our countryside.

There are several stages of caterpillar growth called instars, during which the caterpillar sheds its skin as it grows. Colouration, size and patternation can vary between these instars. Additionally, species can have different variations of caterpillars, including different colour forms. Several species are listed below, grouped by key characteristics such as colour, patternation and features.

Hairy caterpillars

Collage of 8 images of hairy caterpillars.

  1. Knot Grass moth (Acronicta rumicis): Colour can vary between light gingery brown to near black, with patches of rusty brown hair and a broken line of white dorsal patches. They also have a wavy white line on their sides, broken with bright orange/red spots. They grow up to 40mm in length. Can be confused with the caterpillars of Brown-tail and Yellow-tail moths. Foodplants include Knot Grass as well as Broad-leaved Dock, plantains, Bramble, Hawthorn, Common Sorrel, heather, and Purple Loosestrife  [Image by author]
  2. Fox Moth (Macrothylacia rubi): Very hairy, up to 70mm long, dark brown with an orangey stripe down the length of its body. Caterpillars in earlier stages of development may have distinctive orange or yellow bands. Commonly feeds on heathers, Bilberry, Creeping Willow, Bramble, Meadowsweet and Salad Burnet. [Image by Odd Wellies via Flickr]
  3. Garden Tiger moth (Arctia caja): Also known as the woolly bear caterpillar due its very long hairs. Grows up to 55mm long and has a dark red dorsal area with white tipped hairs,an orangey red underside, and small white markings along its sides. Feeds on a variety of herbacious and garden plants including Common Nettle, Broad-leaved Dock, burdocks and Hound’s-tongue. [Image by Dean Morley via Flickr] 
  4. Brown-tail moth (Euproctis chrysorrhoea): Can measure up to 30mm long, black with white markings down its sides and two distinctive orangey red ‘warts’ on its back near its tail. Be aware that its hairs are toxic to humans. Feeds on plants in the Rosaceae family including Hawthorn, Blackthorn, Plum, Cherry, Rose and Bramble. [Image (cropped) by Chris Cooper via Flickr] 
  5. Miller moth (Acronicta leporina): Up to 35mm long with very long white or yellow hairs that swirl to one side. The body is often a pale green to brown depending on the development stage but this can be hard to see under the hairs. Usually found on birch or Alder trees. [Image by janet graham via Flickr 
  6. Pale Tussock moth (Calliteara pudibunda): Greenish yellow hairs with a black body showing through in bands between tufts. The hairs can vary in colour and can be white, brown or pink. They also have a tail tuft that varies in colour but is usually brown, pink or red. This can be absent in some individuals. The four, tussocky tufts on their dorsal are frequently white, brown or yellow. Feeds on a variety of broadleaved trees and shrubs including Hawthorn, Blackthorn, Crab Apple, oaks, birches and Hazel.[Image by gailhampshire via Flickr] 
  7. Sycamore moth (Acronicta aceris): Up to 40mm long with thick hair that is either yellow, brown or orange . They have bold white spots down their back, outlined in black, as well as tufts of dark orange or bright red hair on their back. Foodplants are most commonly Sycamore, Field Maple and Horse-chestnut. [Image by Jon Brinn via Flickr] 
  8. White Ermine moth (Spilosoma lubricipeda): Approximately 40mm long with a red, orange or pale dorsal line. Caterpillars at later development stages are covered in spines that can be reddish brown, dark brown or even black. [Image (cropped) by Odd Wellies via Flickr 

There are many ecological functions of hair-like structures on caterpillars including defence and camouflage. These hairs, called setea, can be almost invisible to the naked eye, while others make them easier to see. Two types of caterpillar hair can cause harm to humans and pets: urticating, which are itchy, non-venomous hairs that can irritate the skin, and stinging hairs, which are hollow spines that have poison-secreting cells that can cause a range of health issues if they enter the skin.  

Brown caterpillars

Collage of 4 images of brown caterpillars.

  1. Elephant Hawk-moth (Deilephila elpenor): Thick bodies that grow up to 8cm in length, usually dark brown but bright green forms also occur. The name derives from their smaller, trunk-like head that extends from its more bulbous neck. They feature a spiked tail and four eyespots, although the second pair can be less visible on darker individuals. Most frequently found on Rosebay Willowherb, Great Willowherb, other willowherbs and bedstraws. [Image by Aah-Yeah via Flickr] 
  2. Square-spot Rustic moth (Xestia xanthographa): Greenish ochre in colour, with pale lines on its back and edged with dark, long, slanted markings on its sides in a row. Mainly feeds on grasses, plantains and Cleavers. [Image (brightness adjusted and cropped) by David Short via Flickr] 
  3. Large Yellow Underwing moth (Noctua pronuba): Grows to a length of 45–50mm. Its body can be various shades of brown and green, with three lines down its back and dark patches on the inner side of the outer two lines – similar to the Square-spot Rustic. They also have darker sides with a lighter stripe above the legs. Feeds on a wide range of herbaceous plants and grasses including docks, brassicas, marigolds and Foxglove. [Image by rhonddawildlifediary via Flickr] 
  4. Dot Moth (Melanchra persicariae): These caterpillars can reach up to 45mm in length and can be different shades of brown and green. They have three pale, distinctive lines on the dark prothoracic plate behind their head, as well as dark and light chevrons along a pale dorsal line down their backs. Feeds on a wide range of herbaceous and woody plants including Common Nettle, White Clover, Ivy, Hazel, Elder and willows. [Image (cropped) by Martin Cooper via Flickr].  

Many of these caterpillars can also have a green form.   

Black and yellow/orange patterned caterpillars

Collage of 6 images of black and yellow/orange caterpillars climbing along leaves.

  1. Large White butterfly (Pieris brassicae): Pale green-yellow in colour with black spots along its body. Visibly hairy. Also known as a Cabbage White due to its preference for cabbages as a food plant. [Image by S. Rae via Flickr]
  2. Buff-tip moth (Phalera bucephala): Distinctive caterpillar with a trellised black and yellow patterning and covering of pale hairs. The face is black and has an inverted yellow V. When fully grown this caterpillar measures up to 75mm in length. Most frequently found on sallows, birches, oaks and Hazel. [Image by Tristram Brelstaff via Flickr]
  3. Six-spot Burnet moth (Zygaena filipendulae): Caterpillars feature a series of yellow and black dots on a green or greenish-yellow body. Feeds on Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil or occasionally Greater Bird’s-foot-trefoil. [Image by Peter O’Connor via Flickr]
  4. Small Tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae): Caterpillars are initially black but show increasing variation in colour, with many developing pale yellow lines down their back and sides (some, however, may remain pure black). They have small clusters of short yellow spines and are fully grown at 30mm. Usually found on Common Nettle leaves. [Image by Gilles San Martin via Flickr]
  5. Mullein moth (Curcullia verbasci): One of the most striking and distinctive caterpillars to be found in Britain, they have a mixture of repeating black and yellow markings on a pale bluish-grey body. When fully grown they measure almost 50mm in length. Foodplants include mulleins, Common Figwort, Water Figwort and buddleias.[Image by Amanda Slater via Flickr]
  6. Box Tree moth (Cydalima perspectalis): Box Tree moths were introduced accidentally from south-east Asia and are a pest of Box trees. Caterpillars have green and black stripes running the length of the body, and the head is shiny black. Each of the body segments has white hairs and eyelike markings. [Image by hedera.baltica via Flickr]
 Black and spiky caterpillars

Collage of 4 images of Black and Spikey caterpillars climbing on leaves.

  1. Peacock butterfly (Aglais io): Unlike the brightly coloured adult Peacock butterfly, the Peacock caterpillar has a velvety black body with small white spots and short spines on each segment. Most commonly feeds on Common Nettle and Hops. [Image by Peter O’Connor via Flickr]
  2. Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui): Often found on thistles, Painted Lady caterpillars live for 5-10 days in a loosely woven silk nest inside which they feed continuously. They have dark bodies with pale narrow yellow-cream stripes. Particularly on younger larvae, spines can be alternating light and dark. [Image (cropped) by ahh-yeah via Flickr]
  3. Marsh Fritillary butterfly (Euphydryas aurinia): Caterpillars are black and hairy and initially live in groups on a larval web which is woven on the bottom-most leaves of Devil’s Bit Scabious plants. Prior to pupation, at the end of April, caterpillars will finally disperse to live independently. [Image by Gilles San Martin via Flickr]
  4. Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta): Caterpillars are black and spiny with a yellow stripe down each side and fine hairs along the body. They can be tricky to spot as they use silk to bind nettle leaves together to make a protective tent inside which they feed. [Image by Benny Mazur via Flickr]
Green caterpillars

Collage of 8 images of green caterpillars on leaves and rocks.

  1. Lime Hawk-moth (Mimas tiliae): Caterpillars are distinctive having a large green body with pale yellow streaks on each segment and a bluish ‘horn’ at the tail end. Turns purple a short time before pupation. Foodplants include Limes, elms, Downy Birch, Silver Birch and Elder. [Image by Odd Wellies via Flickr]
  2. Poplar Hawk-moth (Laothoe populi): A thick and chunky, bright green caterpillar with faint yellow lines running diagonally along the body. The tail end has a yellow ‘horn’ and some individuals have small, dark spots. Food plants include poplars, sallows and willows. [Image by Patrick Clement via Flickr]
  3. Privet Hawk-moth (Sphinx ligustri): Bright, lime-green caterpillar with white and purple stripes and a pale yellow spot on each segment. The tail end has a black curved hook. Usually found on Wild and Garden Privets, Ash, Lilac and Guelder-rose. [Image by Jo Garbutt via Flickr]
  4. Eyed Hawk-moth (Smerinthus ocellata): Closely resembles the Poplar Hawk-moth caterpillar in that it is bright green with diagonal yellow lines. When mature it can be distinguished by its bluish tail horn. Foodplants include Apple, willows and sallows. [Image by Julian Smith via Flickr]
  5. Speckled Wood butterfly (Pararge aegeria): Bright green with faint dark green and yellow stripes running longitudinally along the length of the body. Feeds on False Brome, Cock’s-foot, Yorkshire-fog and Common Couch. [Image by Dean Morley via Flickr]
  6. Pine Hawk-moth (Sphinx pinastri): Dark green caterpillar with a brown stripe along the centre of its back and cream dashes that run either side of this. It has a brown head and a black tail horn. Feeds mainly on Scots Pine.[Image by Aah-Yeah via Flickr]
  7. Bright-line Brown-eye moth (Lacanobia oleracea): Green caterpillar with a bright yellow line along its sides and tiny black spots. Found on a variety of herbacious and woody plants such as Common Nettle, Fat-hen, willowherbs, Hazel and Hop. Sometimes a pest of cultivated Tomatoes. [Image by Ben Sale via Flickr]
  8. Hummingbird Hawk-moth (Macroglossum stellatarum): Caterpillars are mainly green and have a thick, cream-yellow stripe running along the sides with a white line above. The tail horn is black with a yellow tip when mature. Feeds on Lady’s Bedstraw, Hedge Bedstraw and Wild Madder. [Image by liesvanrompaey via Flickr]Collage of 5 caterpillars.
  9. Straw Dot moth (Rivula sericealis): Green caterpillar with two cream stripes running along the back creating a repeating hourglass pattern between them. Covered in long fine hairs. Not often seen, the caterpillars feed on a variety of grass species. [Image by Mick Talbot] 
  10. Silver Y moth (Autographa gamma): Relatively easy to identify as it has only two sets of prolegs (small fleshy stubs beneath the body) and a rear clasper which means it walks with an arched body. It has a green body with a series of white wavy lines which may be broken by pale circles in later instars. Feeds on a range of low-lying herbacious plants including bedstraws, clovers, Common Nettle, Garden Pea and Cabbage. [Image by Artur Rydzewski via Flickr] 
  11. Kentish Glory moth (Endromis versicolora): Large green caterpillar with diagonal pale stripes on each segment. Usually found on Silver Birch and less often on Downy Birch and Alder. [Image by Harald Supfle] 
  12. Emperor Moth (Saturnia pavonia): Green with black hoops containing yellow wartlike spots. Common in scrubby places whether they often feed on heathers, Meadowsweet, Bramble, Hawthorn and Blackthorn, amongst others. [Image by Odd Wellies via Flickr] 
  13. Angle Shades moth (Phlogophora meticulosa): Usually green but can be mixed with shades of brown and/or yellow. A fine pale line runs down the back and a pale band runs down the sides of the body. Foodplants include a range of herbaceous and woody plants such as Common Nettle, Hop, Red Valerian, Bramble and Broad-leaved Dock. [Image by author] 
 Others

Collage of 8 caterpillars of other species.

  1. Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio machaon): Striking bright green caterpillar with black bands and orange spots. British Swallowtail caterpillars feed solely on Milk-parsley. [Image by Frank Vassen via Flickr]
  2. Cinnabar moth (Tyria jacobaeae): Easy to identify having bold gold and black stripes. Most commonly feeds on the leaves and flowers of Common Ragwort where they can be found in their hundreds. [Image by Smudge 9000 via Flickr]
  3. High Brown Fritillary butterfly (Argynnis adippe): Black caterpillar with a checkered pale pattern and yellow/buff spines. Covered in fine black bristles. Feeds on Common Dog-violet and Hairy Violet. [Image by Darius Bauzys via Flickr]
  4. Magpie moth (Abraxas grossulariata): Distinctive caterpillar with a creamy-white body, rows of black and white spots and an orange stripe that runs along the length of the body on the lower sides. Feeds on a range of deciduous trees such as Blackthorn, Hawthorn and Hazel as well as currant and gooseberry bushes. [Image by Conall via Flickr]
  5. Small Copper butterfly (Lycaena phlaeas): Slug-shaped caterpillar covered in tiny white hairs. Exists in two forms: a purely green form and a green and pink striped form. Main foodplants are Common Sorrel and Sheep’s Sorrel. [Image by Gilles San Martin via Flickr]
  6. Comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album): Mainly coloured brown and black with a large white mark towards the rear end of its back. Preferred foodplant is Common Nettle. [Image by Gilles San Martin via Flickr]
  7. Yellow-tail moth (Euproctis similis): Black caterpillar with a small hump behind its head. Two red/orange lines run along the back with a row of white markings wither side of them. They are covered in long black hairs and shorter white ones. Feeds on a wide selection of broadleaf trees and shrubs including Hawthorn, Blackthorn, oaks, roses, Hazel and willows. [Image by gailhampshire via Flickr]
  8. Lackey moth (Malacosoma neustria): Large orange, blue and white striped caterpillars that are covered with fine orange hairs. Often feed in large groups on broadleaved trees and shrubs including Blackthorn, Hawthorn, cherries, Plum and Apple. [Image by gailhampshire via Flickr]

Equipment in Focus: Royal Entomological Society Bug Hunting Kits

Shows the bug kit- containing a net, ID guide, pooter and collecting pots

The Royal Entomological Society (RES) is an organisation dedicated to advancing the field of insect science. Through encouraging open communication, research and publication, the RES hopes to enrich the world with entomology 

Developed in collaboration with the RES, the Royal Entomological Society Bug Hunting Kits provide naturalist users with the tools to safely capture, observe and identify British insects. Kitted with sweep nets, collecting pots and a pooter to capture your insects, you will also be provided with a hand lens, ID guide and optional forceps for identification of species you find. 

Suited for aspiring entomologists, The Royal Entomological Society Educational Bug Hunting Kit includes a copy of A Naturalists Guide to The Insects of Britain and Northern Europe. The Royal Entomological Society Advanced Bug Hunting Kit provides a technical alternative for more experienced naturalists, with additional pointed forceps and the Collins Complete Guide to British Insects. Here we take a closer look at what’s included in these exclusive kits.  


A hand holding a net, sweeping in a bush of nettles.

As seen on Countryfile, the Standard Sweep Net provides users with a simple, lightweight (280g) net for catching invertebrates. The short, 15cm handle has a foam grip for improved control and a lightweight aluminium frame. The net itself is made in the UK and features a soft calico bag attached via Velcro to the frame, making it easy to remove for washing.

 

A hand holding a pooter- a plastic chamber with two long plastic tubes used to entrap invertebrates

At the core of this kit is the NHBS Insect Pooter. Expertly designed and manufactured at our facilities in Devon, this piece of kit can safely capture a wide range of invertebrates. Affordable and simple to use, this item allows the user to observe specimens in a see-through chamber. The chamber is topped with a 2.5× magnification lens for easy viewing and identification. The pooters components can be removed and cleaned for sanitation between sampling.  

 

An alder fly in a collecting pot on a page of an identification guide showing species of flying insects

Each kit comes with five 60ml Collecting Pots for specimen handling and collection. The collecting pots have secure screw-on lids, made with see-through polypropylene for easy, clear viewing.  

 

A hand holding a magnifying hand lens over a ladybird on a leaf.

The handy Double Loupe Hand Lens provided with this kit is only 30mm in diameter, comprising two silicate glass lenses, 5× and 10× magnification. The lenses of this sturdy pocket magnifier fold into a protective casing, keeping them clear from scratches between use. Lightweight and compact, this hand lens is highly portable and is ideal for people of all ages. 

 

a pair of metal forceps with a beetle on a muddy tree stump

Made from a non-magnetic stainless-steel alloy, the Super Fine Pointed Forceps are manufactured with fine points for precision use. Included with the Advanced Bug Hunting Kit, these precise forceps are not serrated to minimise damage to delicate specimens, and at 11cm are a handy size for transportation and use in-field.  

 

Front cover of the Collins Complete Guide to British Insects

Provided with the Advanced Bug Hunting Kit, the Collins Complete Guide to British Insects is a photographic field guide to common and unusual insect species across Britain. This extensive work covers over 1,500 species, providing descriptions and detailing where, and when, to observe them. With detailed photographs for each species, differences between similar organisms are highlighted to aid identification. This book covers a range of insects, from bugs and bees to moths and mayflies.  

 

Front cover of a Naturalists guide to the insects of britain and northern europe

A Naturalists Guide to the Insects of Britain and Northern Europe is provided with the Educational Bug Hunting Kit. This easy-to-use ID guide is ideal for nonspecialist naturalists, with high quality photos of over 280 insect species. A description of appearance, associated habitats, habits and conservation status are outlined for each species. The guide also includes life cycles and describes the conservation of the group.     

 


The mission of The Royal Entomological Society is to enrich the world with insect science- doing this through events, books and supporting young people in gaining skills in entomology.

The Royal Entomological Society receives 10% from the sale of this kit to support their cause.

Spring Exploring: Equipment for Wildlife Watching

As spring emerges, naturalists across the UK are dusting off their kit to begin exploring the great outdoors. From bird watching to bug hunting, we have equipment to help you explore. Below, we have compiled a list of must-have equipment for wildlife watching this spring. 


Viking Cygnus Monocular 

Young boy looking through a monocular in the woods.
The Viking Cygnus Monocular in-field.

Excellent optics combined with a grippy, rubberised armour make this handy monocular the ideal companion this spring. At only 287g, The Viking Cygnus Monocular is a lightweight, showerproof monocular with a small form factor, designed for easy handling for any hand size. Created for quick access and target acquisition, this monocular features a smooth action barrel adjuster for precise focus adjustment and a larger objective lens for high colour imagery.  

For a smaller, even more lightweight alternative weighing only 140g, the 8×25 MK2 magnification monocular is ideal for quick and easy use, where a smaller objective diameter lens is counteracted by its handy size. 

Opticron Explorer Compact Binoculars 

Black binoculars.

The Explorer Compact Binoculars by Opticron would make an excellent addition to any naturalists kit this spring. A fully armoured, roof prism body provides comfort and extra grip for comfortable carrying infield. With a weatherproof, fold-down design, these are ideal for transport, and can be stored easily due to their size and weight (195g). The ribbed focus wheel and twist-type eye cups ensure a good field of view with easy focusing, and the use of multicoloured lens and high reflection coated prisms provide bright, crisp images. Available in 8 x 21 and 10 x 21.  

Nikon Sportstar EX DCF Compact Binoculars 

Black binoculars

Available in 8×25 and 10×25, these high-quality, pocket-sized binoculars are waterproof and fog free. Turn and slide rubber eye cups allow for easy positioning, and multilayer coated lenses deliver a high optical performance with great clarity and well-balanced colour. The field of view is ideal for observing large landscapes, and partnered with a good close focusing distance, these compact binoculars also work great with insects. Weighing only 300g, these ultra-lightweight binoculars are ideal for travelling or working infield.  

Crushable Pocket Butterfly Net

A hand holding a butterfly net

Designed with a spring steel frame, this Crushable Pocket Butterfly net can twist for an easy collapse and can be folded down to pocket-size. This foldable, yet robust design allows for easy transportation and storage whilst in-field. The net is supplied with a short, brass handle but can also be used with telescopic and push-fit net handles if you wish to extend its reach.  

Walkstool Basic 

A black and grey folding stool.

Designed and manufactured in Sweden, the Walkstool Basic is a simple, 3-point stool made for outdoorsmen of any kind. Suitable for home use and in-field work, this compact resting stool weighs only 725g, making it ideal for packing and transporting. Available in 24”, the Walkstool Basic is designed with comfort and sturdy support in mind. This highly portable stool has plastic foot ends and telescopic, extendable legs to account for uneven terrain. The sturdy aluminium frame and durable polyester seat make this stool a worthy addition to any explorers kit this spring.  

Pocket Guide to the Bumblebees of Great Britain and Ireland 

A hand holding a small book with a bumblebee on the front.

This handy, pocket-sized guide to the naturally occurring bumblebees of Great Britain and Ireland is a richly illustrated work accessible to beginners and more experienced naturalists alike. Each species has a dedicated double page spread, detailing its characteristics, habitat, distribution and sex differentiation, among others. This portable pocket guide provides an ‘at-a-glance’ guide to species. Ideal for exploring this spring, this handy book provides an informative peak into the world of bumblebee identification.  

Pocket Guide to the Butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland  

A hand holding a guide to butterflies with a background of grass

Another publication in the Bloomsbury Wildlife Guides collection, the Pocket Guide to the Butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland features over 600 detailed illustrations on each species and their life stages. Detailing species information, distribution and life history, this pocketbook provides an accessible, easytouse guide to butterflies in Britain.   

Field Studies Council Fold-out Guides  

Identification guide showing seaweed species

The Field Studies Council Fold-out Guides are ideal for days where full-size field guides are cumbersome. These handy species identification charts cover an eclectic range of themes, from mammal tracks and woodland plants to seashells and jellyfish. These weatherproof guides are a practical accompaniment to a spring stroll, find the full collection here 

No Mow May: A Celebration of Wildflower Power

This spring, traditional British lawns are out. Throughout the month of May, Plantlife urges us to let our gardens be wild with #NoMowMay. This exciting initiative encourages us to embrace a wild lawn this spring, providing plants, invertebrates and other wildlife the opportunity to make our gardens a home. No Mow May could transform your green spaces into a colourful kaleidoscope of flowers you never knew were there. From buttercups to bee orchids, here at NHBS we have had an astonishing array of wildflowers in previous years, and we are hoping that this year will be the same!

Knowing when, and how, to mow your lawn to encourage wildflower growth and minimise grass domination can be confusing, and there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer to supporting native wildlife. In anticipation of May, we outline the important things to consider when maintaining your lawn over the coming seasons.


Tightly manicured garden lawns are unable to host the diverse communities associated with a natural space. The artificially constructed environment, with uniform grass length and limited species, prevents our native wildflowers from blooming and our vital insects from settling. Lawn feeds and fertilisers often used to maintain our lawns can result in unnaturally high levels of soil fertility. Such levels can unintentionally diminish the diversity of flora within our gardens, since native wildflowers are adapted to low-nutrient conditions. Associated with higher carbon emissions, time consumption and overall cost, many are steering clear of a high maintenance lawn this spring. 

A spring-flowering lawn provides a whole host of benefits for the wildlife within our gardens. Opting for a wild, native lawn provides essential breeding habitats, food sources and physical protection for a number of species. These spaces give wildflowers a chance to bloom and set seed, benefitting both insects, and the predators who rely on them.  

 

A bee orchid in the centre, in front of a wild lawn
Our Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera) from #NoMowMay 2022. Image by Oli Haines.

So, how and when should we mow?   

Less is more! Switching up your mowing routine, or refraining from a mow in some areas, is a great way to maximise diversity in your garden. After a short time, your outdoor spaces can flourish into a haven for wildlife. From voles to vetches, and even British reptiles, watch your garden transform from monoculture to a wild refuge.  

Varied grass length, wild edges, or longer patches of lawn are great for attracting local wildlife to your garden. You may find orchids, ox-eye daisy and knapweed in these longer areas, which also provide cover for small mammals that may be wandering through, and shorter areas can boost pollen availability from low-lying flowers, like buttercups and clover. Plantlife advocates for a varied mowing approach with longer patches throughout the garden, alongside shorter areas (aiming to mimic grazing pressures of different herbivorous species in the wild). For instance, you might decide to maintain shorter pathways and areas around patios, but allow other areas of your green spaces to grow freely.  

It is important to remove cuttings after lawn maintenance to prevent excess nitrogen in the soil, thus reducing nitrophilic plants (species with a preference for nitrate rich habitat, typically from fertilisers and the decomposition of organic material) in your garden. ‘Cut and rot’ management can be counterproductive when cultivating wildflowers, as low levels of soil nutrition are preferred by many and will harbour the most diversity. In fact, frequent fertilisation and additional nutrition can result in an overall decline of wildflowers, leading to a dominance of nitrophilic plant species.   

A garden during No Mow May with varied grass length, wildlife corridors and vegetable patches.
A garden with varied grass length during No Mow May. Image by Allan Harris via Flickr.

Knowing when, and how, to mow during the year is key to maximise flowering of wildflower species, while simultaneously preventing grass domination: to do this, it is generally recommended to mow three times a year; early spring, late summer and in autumn.  

A 3-inch, early spring mow is beneficial to kickstart the season, promoting early growth and blooming.  An early mow can also help to tackle nitrophiles, like nettles and cow parsley. This can help to prevent competition, allowing wildflowers to grow undisturbed. However, be wary of mowing too early, as this can prevent wildflower seeding and will impact your gardens growth next year.  

A summer mow in late July, or August, removes the previous growth, encouraging the bloom of wildflowers later in the season. As far as insects are concerned, the later the mow, the better. Insect species tend to hatch in the warmer parts of spring and summer, so a mow in late August will prevent harm to hatching individuals. 

Around late November, an autumn mow can help to promote reseeding and encourages germination in the following spring. Allow the wildflowers in your lawn to finish flowering and let them go to seed, a mow after this allows the seedheads to disperse seeds into your lawn. An autumn cut can also keep grass growth under control, further encouraging germination.  

There are also certain considerations to be wary of when forming wild areas in your garden. These habitats will attract a great number of species, who may make your lawn a home. Best practice involves leaving an area of your lawn untouched to house these species, but if you are looking to tidy up your garden after No Mow May, wildlife must be considered. Wildlife in our lawns can be harmed in the process of tidying up our outside spaces. It is recommended to disturb, or walk through patches to be maintained to shoo species from the area. On the first mow, start with a higher cut to give smaller animals a chance to escape. When mowing the lawn, start with garden paths and areas of high footfall, working toward the edges of the garden. This, again, provides wildlife with an escape route through the boundaries of your garden. If your garden has fences or hedgerows, a wildlife corridor along your borders is another way to support visiting animals. Untouched, or lightly managed, strips along these areas can provide a safe space for travel around the garden, providing cover and protection from predators.  

hedgehog looking out from a bush
Hedgehog by Kalle Gustafsson via Flickr.

How can we prepare for No Mow May?  

If you currently use fertilisers, lawn feed, moss killers or pesticides, abandoning the use of these additives in your garden will allow the soil to recover from these harmful chemicals. This can provide microscopic and invertebrate soil communities a chance to recover, improving the overall health of your soil.  

For some of us, early bloomers may already be present in our gardens. Cowslip, violets and primroses may be popping up on our lawns, showcasing the first few flowers of the season. You may consider allowing these to go undisturbed, giving them a head start for spring. Having said that, the best way to prepare for No Mow May is a 3-inch April cut to encourage a strong period of spring growth.  

Whether or not you decide to mow the lawn this spring, consider leaving an area of your garden wild. Whether this be a natural lawn or rough borders, we hope you feel inspired to take part in this year’s #NoMowMay! 

 

The NHBS Guide to UK Snail Identification

Snails are a common feature in our gardens and parks. You may have particularly noticed them if you have a vegetable or plant patch, as they feed on the leaves, flowers and fruits of many of our food plants. There are over 40,000 species of land snail, although only around 120 occur in Britain.  

There are several useful features for identifying the correct species. The overall shape, in terms of the ratio of height to breadth, is important, as species can vary between a wide, round, flattened shape to tall and thin. The shape, colouration and thickness of the mouth of the shell can often be used to discern between visually similar species. Shell colour and pattern of the shell can help. However, this can be varied between individuals of the same species. Empty shells can also have a different appearance than those with the snail inside. Other useful features can include the direction and number of whorls, shell thickness, surface sheen and texture. 

Very little equipment is needed for identifying snails, but a hand lens can help for smaller specimens, particularly when counting whorls or looking at shell textures. Specimen pots or trays can help you to safely store species while you study them, and forceps are useful for collecting and moving smaller, more delicate species.   

Garden Snail (Cornu aspersum)

Garden Snail on a leaf in a garden.
Snail in our garden by Les Pounder, via flickr.

Distribution: Common throughout lowland Britain. 

What to look for: This is a well-known species that most people will have seen in their gardens or local green spaces. The garden snail has a thick shell, with a mottled brown, red, and yellow colouration. Its shell aperture is large and has a thickened white lip. It has around 4.5–5 whorls and its thick shell has a rough, wrinkled surface. The umbilicus, the depression or hole at the centre of shell whorls, often on the underside, is completely sealed by the lip. 

White-lipped Snail (Cepaea hortensis)

White-lipped snail on concrete by hedera.baltica.
White-lipped snail by hedera.baltica, via flickr.

Distribution: Widespread across Britain, but mainly found in coastal areas in Scotland. 

What to look for: This species has a glossy, smooth shell that is usually a yellow colour. However, individuals can be pink, brown or red. The number and presence of dark spiral bands can vary but there is no more than five. This species most often has an obvious white lip around the shell aperture.  

Brown-lipped Snail (Cepaea nemoralis) 

Brown-lipped snail travelling across a concrete pavement.
Brown-lipped snail by hedera.baltica, via flickr.

Distribution: Widespread across Britain apart from the northern parts of Scotland. 

What to look for: The colouration of this snail is widely variable and can be yellow, brown or pink. The presence of the banded patterning is also variable and they can have up to five bands across their shells. Their shells have between 4.5–5.5 whorls, with a semi-glossy surface. There is usually a dark rim to the lip of the shell aperture.   

Hairy Snail (Trochulus hispidus) 

Trochulus hispidus - Hairy Snail climbing up a branch.
Trochulus hispidus – Hairy Snail by Nikk, via flickr.

Distribution: Widespread throughout Britain. 

What to look for: This snail can vary in colour from cream to brown. It sometimes has a light band around the shell aperture. The shell is quite flat and densely covered in short hairs, which can be worn away over time. These hairs have been found to help the snail to adhere better to wet surfaces.  

Copse Snail (Arianta arbustorum) 

Heesterslak - Arianta arbustorum snail on concrete.
Heesterslak – Arianta arbustorum by Gertjan van Noord, via flickr.

Distribution: Widespread. 

What to look for: This species can grow up to 19mm. Its shell is a mottled brown with a thin band around the circumference, although its colour pattern can be highly variable. Its body is very dark and the shell aperture is a ‘C’ shape, often with a paler inside lip that can be bone-white. The shell has between 5–6 whorls and the umbilicus is a small crescent-shaped slit.  

Kentish Snail (Monacha cantiana) 

Kentish Snail (Monacha cantiana) on a green leaf.
Kentish Snail (Monacha cantiana) by Peter O’Connor, via flickr.

Distribution: Widespread across England, less common in Wales and Scotland. 

What to look for: This non-native species has a creamy shell with dark mottling. It often has a pale band around its circumference and a relatively small umbilicus. The body of the snail is a pale brown, with a darker skirting and sometimes darker tentacles.  

Striped Snail (Cernuella virgata) 

Snail at Walkley, Sheffield, crawling across stones.
Snail at Walkley, Sheffield by Tim Parkinson, via flickr.

Distribution: Widespread.  

What to look for: Also known as the vineyard snail, this snail has a pale shell, usually with dark spiral bands. The shell colouration and the number of markings are variable. It is an uncommon species, usually found in calcareous grassland, sand dunes and coastal grasslands.  

Pointed Snail (Cochlicella acuta) 

Pointed Snail attached to a tree.
Pointed Snail by Katja Schulz, via flickr.

Distribution: Found mainly in Wales, Ireland, and south and west England, it also occurs on some islands off of Scotland. 

What to look for: It has an elongated conical shell that tapers to a blunt tip. This shell varies in colour and markings but is usually a pale cream or off-white. It may have several bands of dark brown or black or be streaked with brown. 

Amber Snail (Succinea putris) 

Succinea putris, large Amber Snail, on the fold of a green leaf.
Succinea putris. Large Amber Snail by gailhampshire, via flickr.

Distribution: Widespread throughout England and Wales, less common in Scotland. 

What to look for: Between 15–22mm tall and 7–12mm wide, the shell of this species can range from very light amber to a darker orange-brown in colour. Its shell also has a very large final whorl. The body of this snail is a pale colour with two dark lines running along the top of its head, extending along its tentacles to its eyes.