The Daily Telegraph
The 200bn bug invasion taking over your home
As a new report warns an avalanche of critters are hatching in the UK, Joe Shute asks if that’s such a bad thing
The English language lacks a collective noun for a glut of daddy-longlegs, but “siege” appears an appropriate term. According to reports this week, the insect charity Buglife has warned of 200 billion of the critters rising up across the country – and soon heading into our homes.
Chances are, you will have already seen the insect, which is one of more than 300 species of cranefly in Britain; it boasts six legs nearly twice as long as its body, translucent wings and an flight path which always seems to bring it face-to-face with the most entomophobic person in the room.
Or perhaps you have spent recent days stationed at the fruit bowl and flapping madly at the seemingly endless black drowsy flies, known as drosophila, hovering about.
Almost certainly you will have spotted the plethora of spiders scuttling through your home. Yesterday, I shared the breakfast table with a bedraggled-looking house spider missing two legs lurking under the newspapers, while another sizeable specimen dangled in a corner of the ceiling, dropping down discarded bluebottle husks from its web, like the raisins in my muesli.
Early autumn, season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, is always boom time for many species of British bug – but this year it seems to have precipitated a veritable explosion.
The aforementioned species aside, The Telegraph letters pages have over recent weeks been filled with correspondents discussing wasps eating garden furniture (they peel off strips of wood to line their nests). One couple from Worcestershire lamented the voracious insects had arrived in such numbers in the garden that they were ruining a teak bench the owners had been given for their diamond wedding anniversary the previous year. There have been reports of an invasion of slugs. Mosquitos, too, are buzzing.
Most experts agree that the weather, chiefly, is behind the rise. It has been, in parts, a shocker of a summer, with London, East Sussex and Hampshire receiving 140 to 150 per cent of the average rainfall, and the Isle of Wight exceeding 200 per cent. But it has also been a relatively warm summer across much of the country (and in Scotland and Northern Ireland, one of the hottest on record). August may have felt like a washout for many, but across the UK as a whole, temperatures have been 0.1°C above the long-term average.
These sultry, humid temperatures have persisted into September, which, so far, has been marked by alternating heatwaves and torrential downpours. In other words, party time for insects.
According to Professor Helen Roy, president of the Royal Entomological Society, insect populations can fluctuate greatly in any given year and depend on temperature, rainfall and light, as well as suitable food and habitat. While some may balk at having to share their kitchen with daddy-longlegs, Prof Roy is delighted to be witnessing the increase in numbers both inside and outside her home.
“For me, it is wonderful having all these things in the house,” she says. “Even fruit flies, because I know the spiders in my kitchen will sort them out and they won’t do me any harm.”
For those who find the small, fat, buzzing flies intolerable, she recommends storing any fruit and veg in the fridge. Others swear by creating a fruit fly trap by filling a small cup with cider or red wine vinegar and covering it in clingfilm, with a small hole in the top to lure the flies inside.
The tropical weather has also led to a rise in mosquitos. A few weeks ago, Ukbased mosquito expert Howard Carter (who runs his own insect repellant business and previously advised the government on the Zika virus outbreak) cautioned that there would be a 20 per cent rise in the population this autumn, due to the favourable temperatures and the fact that hotel swimming pools, which lay abandoned earlier in the year during various lockdowns, had created perfect breeding grounds.
While the data is scarce, entomologists have also wondered whether the trend for leaving garden lawns uncut, fashioning so-called bee and bug hotels and sculpting wild patches in parks and other green spaces, is also starting to have an impact. The larvae of daddy-longlegs, for example, which are known as leatherjackets, thrive under grass where they feed on the roots before hatching.
“Plant growth has been really lush this summer, so roots underground will be particularly tasty for the leatherjackets,” says Dave Goulson, a professor of biology at Sussex University. “Above ground, if you don’t mow a lawn, everything is more abundant so it seems likely that below ground insects also thrive in a longer, less intensively managed lawn.”
The leatherjackets can sometimes
cause brown patches in lawn, but Prof Goulson urges people to avoid using chemical treatments at all costs. The larvae are a vital component in the food chain and are often feasted upon by garden birds such as starlings. Meanwhile, when the daddy-longlegs hatch, they are important prey for bats and numerous other species.
Similarly, he advocates leaving the adults alone. The persistent rumour that daddy longlegs are venomous is little more than scurrilous myth, believed to have originated from a poisonous spider of the same name found in the US. “People
panic or don’t like crane flies buzzing around, but they will be gone in no time,” Prof Goulson says. “Some people might find the adults a bit creepy, but there is literally nothing they can do to you at all.”
As Prof Goulson points out, any good year for insects should be placed into context against a wider pattern of decline. Various studies have shown the biomass of global insects is down an estimated 75 per cent in the past 50 years. Meanwhile, in the UK, butterfly populations have fallen by more than 50 per cent since the 1970s, and moths by around 34 per cent over a similar period. Since the 1980s, British bee ranges have declined on average by a third.
Buglife and the Kent Wildlife Trust conducted a study recently on the so-called “windscreen phenomenon” of insects on car windows and found the numbers collected have fallen by 50 per cent in 15 years. Given such stark findings, there are numerous home-spun remedies for deterring insects in our homes without reaching for pesticides – although of varying efficacy. Spraying lemon around is said to keep spiders at bay, while others swear by putting conkers in the corners of rooms, as the smell supposedly puts them off.
Far better, says Professor Helen Roy, to simply create a more healthy ecosystem in our gardens which will naturally keep any one species in check. Dig a pond, for example, and the frogs that arrive will greedily eat the slugs in your veg patch. Filling up bird feeders will attract species that will hoover up mosquitos or crane flies. Swifts, for example can collect up to 100,000 insects a day when they have chicks to feed.
Of course for some, the knowledge of the wider ecological benefits served by insects will be of small comfort as a daddy-long-legs looms out from a dark corner or a spider scurries over your foot.
In that case, perhaps all that is left is to batten down the hatches and reassure yourself with the thought that, come the first frost, the insect invasion will all be over. Until next year…