Outside the Backdoor

Observing what can happen in your own garden even in suburbia!


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A tale of dragons and damsels

It was only when I came to write this article that I was suddenly struck by the thought of knights of old saving damsels in distress from dragons!  I can’t help but wonder how ‘dragon’ flies and ‘damsel’ flies came to be named?  So far I have failed to find out but, thankfully, that’s not really the point of this article!

Broad-bodied chaser taking a break in our garden (c) John Malone

When it comes to insects, there are an awful lot that many of us would prefer to run a mile from.  However, I suspect dragonflies and damselflies are an exception as we are fascinated by their iridescent colours and their darting aerobatics.  They are also out and about on lovely warm, sunny spring and summer days, so they have lots of positive associations with walks out in the countryside.  We are lucky in that, having created the pond in our garden, it quickly attracted these fascinating creatures which then, in turn, made us find out a bit more about them and try to identify what we were seeing.

Red damselfly settled on our Iceberg rose over the pond (c) Elizabeth Malone

First of all, do you know your damselfly from your dragonfly?  Damselflies are the smaller ones.  They are also the early birds, emerging as the weather starts to warm up around April.  They have a gentle flight and, when resting hold their wings against their body.  Most commonly you will see red ones and blue ones and quite often you will see them in pairs performing their curled mating routine just above the water.  In our garden, they love to skim the pond and to settle upon waterlily pads.

Blue damselfly enjoying the sunshine on our lilypads (c) John Malone

Dragonflies, on the other hand, can be quite substantial.  They have a strong, fast flight, holding their wings out at right angles to their bodies like miniature aircraft and, whilst you do commonly see them over water, you might also spot them elsewhere in the countryside, skimming over fields and hedgerows.  There are three common types in the UK – hawkers, darters and chasers.  If you see a dragonfly, or damselfly for that matter, and want to know what sort it is, the British Dragonfly Society has a good identification guide on its website.

Hawker dragonfly (not sure which!) in Bushy Park (c) John Malone

Both damselflies and dragonflies emerge from larvae that have lived in water for anything up to 2-3 years.  Dragonflies especially, spend more of their life underwater as larvae than they do flying around as adults.  This worried me when we recently did our pond clearance as I was concerned that we might accidentally be removing lots of dragonfly and damselfly larvae.  However, plenty seem to be hatching this summer so I think we’re ok!  When ready to hatch, they will emerge up the strappy leaves of plants such as iris, and they will then cast off their outer shell leaving the ‘ghost’ of an insect behind.  You will then find them sitting around, drying off their new wings before they take flight.

Emerging dragonfly on our pond (c) John Malone

My favourite of these insects is the beautifully named Banded Demoiselle which is an exquisite creature of iridescent blues and greens.  We occasionally get one in the garden but you can see them in Crane and Bushy parks so do keep an eye out for them.  You become aware of them when you see something that looks more like a piece of silk flying in mid-air!  However, earlier today I discovered that these are also difficult to remove from indoors!  One flew into the dining room and it was a two-person job to eject it without causing it any harm.  They just seem too delicate to handle!

Banded demoiselle exploring agapanthus buds (c) John Malone

And finally, some people believe that if a damselfly lands on you, it indicates that you have a pure soul!


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The power of ponds

Water is an essential feature of any wildlife garden and for most of us that means a pond. If you are looking to make your garden, terrace or even balcony, more environmentally friendly, you can’t go far wrong in adding a splash of water.

Our pond in spring time (c) Elizabeth Malone

When we moved here twenty years ago, there was a willow tree by the pergola. The pergola had been carefully positioned by the previous owners so that it caught the evening sun in the summer and was therefore a lovely place to wind down at the end of the day with a glass of something cold in your hand. Sitting in the pergola and by the willow tree, we quickly realised that this area was begging for a pond. It is perhaps ironic that the willow tree subsequently died but we have never regretted the decision to build the pond.

Pond and pergola (c) John Malone

Before embarking on the pond we had tested the water (apologies for the terrible pun!) by plugging the drainage hole in a large ceramic pot, filling it with water and adding a water lily. It actually worked really well and was a delight to look at. I’d really recommend this for anyone who either doesn’t have the space for a pond or who just wants to add a bit more water to their garden.

Our increasingly giant water lily! (C) John Malone

Without a shadow of doubt, our pond is teeming with wildlife. As I write this, it is a glorious sunny spring day and red damselflies are emerging, skimming the water, perching on marigold leaves and quickly finding a mate. I’ve also counted six newts. On a day like this they love to just float in the sunshine. Sadly we didn’t have any frogspawn this year. We did have a lonely frog who turned up and waited patiently for its mate but clearly to no avail. We are really missing the tadpoles as they devour the green weed in the pond and keep the water clear. Instead I am having to mess around, trying to extract it with a hoe or any other device that seems to work. I’ve tried scooping with a net but trying to clean out the net before making the next scoop, is really frustrating! There are also water snails – where did they come from? Everyone always says build a pond and the wildlife will come. This is so true.

Tadpoles last spring (c) Elizabeth Malone

Creating a pond needn’t be complicated but a little extra thought will help develop a really good wildlife haven. For example, ensuring that there are plants with tall, strappy leaves enables damselflies and dragonflies to emerge from the water and dry off after shedding their skin. You need plants that will maintain oxygen levels to enable frogs and newts to survive. You should also always include a way out for any creature that accidentally falls in. Most people have hedgehogs in mind when they say this but your cat might appreciate it too! Fortunately we have only ended up with a soggy moggy on about three occasions!

Dragonfly emerging (c) John Malone

As well as being a wildlife home, the pond also helps to sustain a variety of other creatures. The birds love to bathe here as well as drink and we frequently see bees and wasps refreshing themselves. The heron, however, is one of our less welcome visitors as it is probably the reason why we don’t have frogspawn. From our observations, there is nothing better that a heron likes for breakfast than a nice juicy frog! A bit like foxes, I think we have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the heron. They are so intriguing to watch. The first time I saw one standing by our pond early one morning, my first thought was that someone was playing a joke on me and had stuck a plastic one in the garden … but then it moved its head slightly!

Bee taking advantage of the marsh marigolds (c) John Malone

As we originally envisaged, sitting next to the pond is a really restful experience, watching the wildlife and listening the trickling water (on the occasions when we do remember to turn on the fountain!) and I would recommend to anyone adding a pond to your garden to enhance the environment, not just for the wildlife, but for you as well.

The relaxing sound of trickling water (c) Elizabeth Malone