The importance of nettles

Nettles provide a safe habitat for aphids

This week our blog has been written by our Seasonal Aviculture Warden, Amy Plows:

“Spring has sprung and everywhere you look, including at Pensthorpe, there are nettles popping up in fresh, leafy patches. Whilst many people consider the stinging nettle a weed or an unwanted cause of pain, it is in fact a very important native plant for our wildlife.

The common nettle, Urtica dioica, supports over 40 insect species in the UK and provides a safe habitat for them due to its unappealing sting for grazing animals. If you are to look at the underside of a nettle, whilst trying not to get stung, at this time of year you are sure to find an abundance of aphids making the most of the new leaves.

Aphids may seem a fairly unexciting bug but that is far from the truth. There are about 4,000 known species of aphid worldwide and over 500 of these are found in the UK.

The oldest known fossil of an aphid is estimated to be 280 million years old. That means that aphids evolved at least 40 million years before the arrival of the dinosaurs. It also means they have managed to survive three mass extinctions!

The species pictured above is the common nettle aphid, Microlophium carnosum. They are a great prey item for larger insects such as parasitic wasps and ladybirds and can also be prey for small insect eating birds like blue tits.

During these strange times of lockdown, many of us are taking to our gardens to get them looking how they should and getting rid of those pesky ‘weeds’. If you’re missing your nature fix by visiting places like Pensthorpe and you want to help UK biodiversity then think twice before pulling out those plants which we deem less attractive. Leave a little slice of welcome habitat for the insects and other creatures in your garden. Leaving a few nettles behind is a great way to start!”

Photo credit: Amy Plows.
Nettles at Pensthorpe