May is the most exciting month for garden wildlife. Many bird species are feeding chicks in the nest or fledglings on the lawn. Bumblebees are starting to increase in number, and are joined by mining bees such as the tawny mining bee, which nests in the ground, and the red mason bee, which uses bee hotels. At night, hedgehogs are starting to look for mates – you may hear the tell-tale snuffles as males try to woo females at night.
Helping wildlife through a dry spring
In recent years, spring has been drier than previous averages. This puts pressure on wildlife as flowers produce less nectar in dry conditions, while leaves shrivel on caterpillar foodplants, which puts pressure on caterpillars and the birds that rely on them for food. Mammals such as hedgehogs, foxes and badgers have to travel further in search of drinking water, while hoverflies – many of which lay eggs in stagnant water – may be unable to lay eggs. It's also important to remember that some species, including the house martin and red mason bee, use mud to make their nests.
Keeping bird baths topped up and leaving out a dish of water on the ground, can be a lifeline for birds, hedgehogs and other mammals. Using grey water (such as from your bath or washing up bowl – as long as you use eco-detergents) to water the garden will help keep plants hydrated and ensure flowers continue to produce nectar. Making dishes of mud will help house martins and red mason bees, while a hoverfly lagoon can help provide breeding habitats for some species of hoverfly. As the climate changes we must be on hand to help wildlife however we can, and a bit of water here and there can save lives.
How to help wildlife in your garden
- Wildlife gardening
- Attract birds to your garden
- Make a bee-friendly garden
- Alan Titchmarsh on gardening for wildlife – podcast
Tadpoles are growing legs
While baby frogs are a couple of months off, frog tadpoles will be fattening up now and starting to grow legs. Their legs develop internaly and then 'pop out', with the left leg emerging first. The front legs develop first, followed by the back legs. Only then is the tail absorbed back into the body. At this time, tadpoles develop a taste for meat, and will eat insects trapped on the surface of the water, along with any meat scraps you feed them. Ensure they can exit the pond safely in a few weeks' time – if pond levels have dropped you may need to make them a ladder, using a log or piece of wood.
Great tits and blue tits are feeding their young
Great tits and blue tits are busy feeding their young, in May. One pair can have around 10 chicks in the nest, each of which needs to eat around 100 caterpillars per day, for the first three weeks of its life. If you see the birds frantically searching among your herbaceous plants and trees, it’s likely they’re looking for caterpillars. Give them a helping hand by ensuring plants are well watered so the caterpillars have enough to eat, and let them remain on your plants, rather than picking them off. Leave food out for adult birds to refuel quickly while they search for natural food to feed their young. Avoid putting out peanuts at this time of year, as there's a small risk of baby birds choking on large chunks of nut.
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Red mason bees are building nests
May is the key time when red mason bees nest in bee hotels. After mating, the female gathers mud to line her nest cell, and then gathers pollen and nectar to make a ‘cake’ on to which she lays an egg. She seals the cell and starts another, collecting more pollen and nectar and laying an egg. After two-three weeks she will have laid up to 40 eggs, each one in an individual mud cell. Over summer the eggs hatch into grubs which eat the pollen and nectar cake, and then metamorphose into adult bees. They spend winter in their cocoons within the bee hotel and emerge the following year to mate and lay eggs of their own.
Slow worms are mating
Slow worms are starting to mate. Usually these cold-blooded reptiles spend their time in warm, sheltered spots such as compost heaps or beneath bespoke ‘reptile tins’ – which you can make by laying a piece of slate or corrugated iron over grass to create a sheltered habitat where they can warm up. But this month, they can be seen moving between territories, in search of a mate. The females remain ‘gravid’ (with eggs) throughout summer and then ‘give birth’ to live young from mid-to late August. Compost bins are a popular choice for breeding, so take care when turning yours.
Bats are establishing maternity roosts
Bats, such as the common pipistrelle and soprano pipistrelle, which are common in gardens, will be fully out of hibernation now, feeding on small insects such as mosquitoes and midges from around treetops and over ponds. Females will be forming maternity colonies from his month, and looking for communal roosting sites in buildings and trees. Males will continue to roost on their own or in small groups.