Native plants are not always best for native insects, non-natives also have an important role. That’s the message following a thirty year study in a British garden. For thirty years award-winning ecologist Dr Jennifer Owen studied, identified – and counted! – the insects and other creatures that visited her suburban garden in the English Midlands. And detailed it all in her invaluable book Wildlife of A Garden (Available in North America, and available in Britain) published by the Royal Horticultural Society.
She grew well over 400 different plant species - garden plants and weeds, natives and non-natives - in her garden (below, click to enlarge) which measures just 741square meters (8000 square feet). And she counted 23 species of butterflies, 375 species of moths, 94 species of hoverflies, 121 species of bees and wasps, 305 species of bugs, sawflies, lacewings and related creatures; 21 species of beetles, 122 species of other insects including two ants – all in her suburban garden. And 138 other invertebrates. And 57 birds and six mammals.
And as well as counting with extraordinary determination and great skill at identifying this vast variety of creatures – she also studied their food plants. And what did she find?
Dr Owens found that non-native species were better as food plants for moth larvae than native species. Moth larvae used 27% of the native species in the garden as food plants, and 35% of the alien plants. And 46 species of moth fed on 40 native plants in the garden, while 75 alien plants provided food for 38 species of moth.
She also looked at the four moth species with the most varied diets and the plants they ate. One ate 78% non-native plants, one ate 83% non-native plants, one 62% and one 79% non-native plants. They definitely didn’t favor natives. Of course, we don’t know how much of each plant each moth actually ate – after all, Dr Owen needs to get a few hours sleep each night.
And finally, what were the most popular food plants for moths? Plants in the rose family come out top, with seven native species and five non-native species used by 27 species of moth. And one of those native species, Potentilla fruticosa, is so rare in Britain it might almost be non-native. Next comes the Buddleja family represented only by the Chinese Buddleja davidii and used by 19 species of moth. The daisy family, the largest family of garden plants, hosts just 13 moth species all of which feed on aliens and only two of which feed on natives. And just to be clear: these are all British native moth species.
You get the picture. I could go on, but this is just a blog post of a few hundred words. Read the book. OK then, one more thing. Dr Owen reports that of the 15 most widely used food plants in the garden nine are non-natives and only six are native. And some people think that introduced plants have no native larvae feeding on them at all!
This really throws the “natives are best” notion out of the window. We may like to think that natives are best, but they’re just not. And can’t we trust the insects know what they like to eat – wherever the plants come from? So why don’t we plant what the larvae actually like to eat, instead of what we think they ought to like?
This is an extraordinary piece of research summarized in a very readable and well illustrated book.
In my next post here, I’ll be looking at which buddlejas are best for adult butterflies. Because now we know.
* This post was originally headlined: "Alien plants are better for insects than natives – it’s official!" But after reflecting on the comments below, I modified it and substituted a less sensationalist headline. I also modified the introduction.
* At present, for some reason, amazon.com and amazon.co.uk don't seem to realize they have the books in their own warehouses and are not listing them as being available. They are available for shipping anywhere in the world from The Royal Horticultural Society.