Biodiversity Gardening

from Biodiversity Gardens Capacity Building Workshop with Tan Kai Ren

Tan Kai Ren was the project officer of the Rimba Project in University of Malaya where he conducted a series of urban biodiversity conservation and education programmes. He also organised the Klang Valley City Nature Challenge in 2019, a citizen science project that focused on collecting biodiversity data in the urban area. A former YSEALI Academic Fellow for Natural Resource Management and Environmental Issues, he is now an environmental officer at Club Med Cherating.

Kai Ren discusses how we benefit from biodiversity and how we can introduce elements that promote urban biodiversity.

Importance of biodiversity

Biodiversity provides us with oxygen and food, a fact that many of us seldom appreciate as we do not see the link between nature & human. It helps increase productivity as diverse soil microbes are involved in nutrient cycles where they break down organic matter underground and keep plants healthy.

Biodiversity also contributes to our health. Many pharmaceutical products are made with raw materials that come from many different plants in the forest. It contributes to our economy as well: places with high biodiversity become recreational destinations and attractions for tourism.

Biodiversity contributes to pest control too as it regulates the number of pests by natural processes through prey and predator interaction.

The keys to high biodiversity in your garden

High number of plant species results in high diversity of features and micro-climates that promote different kinds of wildlife. For example, companion plants grown alongside desired garden plants distract insect pests. This helps targeted plants grow more successfully.

Selecting local plant species for your garden attracts local animals as they seek their preferred food.

There is an easy way to look at how local wildlife can improve our life quality. The plants and animals such as the mammals, insects and birds in our garden interact among one another, forming food webs that regulate the population number of each species, including pests.

Many people think that more plants will attract more mosquitoes. In fact, once a whole ecosystem is established, there will be fishes eating the mosquito larvae and dragonflies eating the mosquitoes. As a result, less mosquitoes are found in the place.

The roles of a garden as a habitat

As urbanisation takes place, land that was covered almost entirely by natural forest habitats is replaced by high-rise buildings, roads and houses that lead to habitat fragmentation. Some animals find it difficult to survive in such conditions, especially those that need large spaces, e.g. elephants, tigers and other large mammals. Animal populations end up being threatened, some may become locally extinct, even the so-called common or urban species.

To re-introduce wildlife into our city, we can start growing fruit trees and wildflowers in our garden, as these plants attract butterflies and birds. We can view gardens as a shared space for ourselves and the wildlife. When we establish a balanced ecosystem in our garden, our garden serves as a place for animals to rest, nest and feed. Perhaps it is not for the relatively large animals, but the garden is still friendly to smaller and more mobile animals that contribute to the food chain.

We can view gardens as a shared space for ourselves and the wildlife.

We can try to make our gardens a bit wilder so as to attract wildlife such as the monitor lizard, bats and the Asian tree toad. Sometimes, when biodiversity comes to us, we push it away for reasons like guano from bats, for example. However, we can still try to find a solution to overcome these problems.

During the Klang Valley City Nature Challenge, over 2000 species of plants and animals were documented in Kuala Lumpur despite its urban setting. Urban gardens play a large role in supporting wildlife. Therefore, anyone can contribute to wildlife conservation, even in the city, by just growing a single plant in his or her garden.

Elements to encourage biodiversity

  1. Sunlight. The essential element that plants can’t live without but there should not be too much exposure.
  2. Shade. Shade is especially important for certain plants such as moss, ferns and orchids.
  3. Water. Both continuous supply and temporary puddles are important to wildlife. Water features will attract frogs that eat mosquitoes.
  4. Hideouts. The small lizards and frogs need these dark spaces, whether they are natural or artificial.
  5. Plants. Have more plants that attract pollinators such as bees, butterflies as well as birds. The selection of plants depends on our expectations and objectives. Arrange plants in multiple layers to create spaces for shade-loving species. It is important to know the growing requirements of the plants. Choose plants that flower and fruit all year round. These plants are best for wildlife.
  6. Decaying materials. Compost, logs, mulch that consists of dry leaves or wood chips increase biodiversity underground and keep plants healthy.
  7. Feeding station. Provide grains for birds.

Ideas for a wildlife garden

  1. Build an insect hotel by piling branches or rocks to create a moist and dark space for the insects.
  2. Mulch plants to attract beneficial insects and earthworms that help release nutrients back into the soil. This will also attract more birds e.g. the wild junglefowl.
  3. Create a small pond using plastic bottles or trays. Insert fish to inhibit breeding of mosquitoes. Small ponds help to increase biodiversity despite their size. It is also a good place for dragonflies to lay eggs.
  4. Start composting. We produce food waste every day. The fruit peels or roots of vegetables can be turned into compost that help gardens grow.
  5. Limit the use of insecticides as the toxins will cause long-lasting effects on non-target insects. Try alternative methods e.g. hand removal of the pest insects.
  6. Plant fruit trees as most of them are perennial. Besides, they bear edible fruits for humans and animals.

Knowing your limits

Knowing the right microclimate is especially important for plants such as orchids and leafy vegetables. Also, make sure there are enough spaces for the plants to grow. The intensity of sunlight is a decisive factor for plant growth. We also need to have the suitable soil type to produce healthy plants that support wildlife.

Most importantly, make sure you have enough time to manage your own garden. More is not always better as nature can be messy sometimes. It is always about balance. Avoid dominance in terms of plants as well as animals. 


This article is supported by The Habitat Foundation Conservation Grant

You can watch the entire session here.

Pollinators: Bees and Wasps

Often people ask me about how to make their gardens pollinator friendly. This is a tough question, because there are so many different types of pollinators. Guides usually don’t have all of them in one place.

Here, I’ll explain the categories of pollinators that visit plants, as well as the characteristics of the flowers that they pollinate. But be warned that a lot of the plant examples are not exclusively pollinated by a single pollinator. Often, there can be several different pollinators visiting the same type of flower.

To do this, I dug up a bunch of scientific papers and tried to summarise all of it in simple language here. Some of these categories correspond to categories used by scientists, while some have been simplified and combined for the general public.

Since there are so many pollinators I’ve split this up into a few different articles. This one will discuss bees and wasps.

Bees

Bees collect pollen on their hairy bodies and legs. There are 265 valid bee species in Malaysia. 62 species have been recorded in Kuala Lumpur alone (some of these may be undescribed).  Bees can be divided into two guilds: large bees and small bees.

Large bees

These are your typical bees, locally called lebah or sometimes kumbang*. Only honey bees tend to sting, and only if aggressively disturbed. 

They vary greatly in size, from 10mm to 40mm in length. Large bees tend to travel quite long distances in search of flowers, and due to this prefer flowers with more nectar.

Many of these bees are long tongued bees, they have long mouthparts that lets them suck up nectar that is deep in flowers. A subgroup of large bees are the very large carpenter bees, which tend to prefer larger flowers that can support their weight.

Examples: Honey bees (Apis spp.), carpenter bees (Xylocopa spp.), Blue banded bee (Amegilla spp.)

Flower structure: Usually these are not round and are somewhat tube shaped, often with a petal where the bee can land. However they also pollinate or steal pollen from round, shallow flowers by crawling around inside them.

Plants that they pollinate: tomatoes, eggplants, begonia, Senduduk, Coromandel, many wildflowers.

*In the Malay language, carpenter bees are kumbang kayu, although kumbang is also used for beetles.

Small bees

This is a more diverse group of bees, but easily missed due to their small size (2-12mm). They include bees that live in colonies like stingless bees or solitary bees like sweat bees.

These bees are slower fliers with less range than larger bees. Some of these bees have shorter mouthparts and cannot harvest nectar from very deep flowers. They feed primarily on pollen, and therefore tend to prefer shallow round flowers that they can walk in and collect pollen.

Examples: Stingless bees (Heterotrigona spp.; Lepidotrigona spp.; Tetragonula spp.), Sweat bees (Halictidae)

Flower structure: Shallow round flowers which are not tube shaped.

Plants that they pollinate: Basil, lotus, water lily, Lantana, sunflowers, Beggarsticks,

Wasps

Wasps are less furry and much thinner than bees. They can be identified by their thin “wasp waist”. While many are predatory, they sometimes pollinate flowers when they opportunistically feed on nectar or pollen. However they pollinate with less efficiency than bees because they lack the fuzz to trap pollen.

But there are flowers that are adapted to being exclusively pollinated by wasps, although a lot is still unknown about this type of interaction.

Examples: Hover wasps (Liostenogaster spp.), paper wasps (Ropalidia spp.)

Flower structure: Usually these flowers communicate with their pollinators by smell and taste of nectar (some of which cannot be detected by humans).  Some orchids mimic wasps and transfer pollen as the wasp tries to mate the flower.

Plants they pollinate: Some species of Orchids such as Coelogyne sp., usually these have greenish-yellow colours.  At the moment I can’t find any records of Malaysian plants being pollinated by non-fig wasps. (Any help on this would be appreciated)

Fig wasps

Fig wasps are an example of a keystone species that nobody thinks about. Without fig wasps the fruiting events of figs which sustain most birds in urban settings would not be possible. The reason being that fig wasps are the exclusive pollinator of figs.

Fig flowers grow inwards, forming round structures called synconium. The synconium has a small hole in it that is just big enough for a fig wasp to enter. Female fig wasps lay eggs within fig flowers, while also pollinating the flower so it produces a fruit structure that the larva can feed on. The new females emerge, mate with wingless males, pick up pollen and escape the fig fruit to continue the cycle.

Examples: Fig wasp (Ceratosolen spp.)

Flower structure: Synconium. Flowers that grow inwards and look like round fruit.

 Plants they pollinate: Figs

References:

Cheng, J., Shi, J., Shangguan, F. Z., Dafni, A., Deng, Z. H., & Luo, Y. B. (2009). The pollination of a self-incompatible, food-mimic orchid, Coelogyne fimbriata (Orchidaceae), by female Vespula wasps. Annals of Botany, 104(3), 565-571.

Weiblen, G. D. (2002). How to be a fig wasp. Annual review of entomology, 47(1), 299-330.

Ascher, J.S., and Pickering, J. 2020. Discover Life bee species guide and world checklist (Hymenoptera: Apoidea: Anthophila). Available from http://www.discoverlife.org/mp/20q?guide=Apoidea_species [accessed 8 May 2020].


This article is supported by The Habitat Foundation Conservation Grant

A Beginner Butterfly Garden

A beginner’s butterfly garden uses host plants and flowering plants that grow wild. Shade is not an issue for many of these butterfly species here since they are adapted to living in hot open areas. Because this garden uses wild plants, it requires almost zero maintenance (except for occasional trimming).

For aesthetic value, you can hide the host plants behind or between ornamental plants, or use them as verges (edge or border plants).

Some of these butterfly species may already be present in your gardens. But enriching your garden for butterflies can bring them closer for you to view.

Target butterflies

This garden is suitable for sustaining populations of these species of butterfly.

Passionflower butterflies

These are recent introductions to Malaysia; they can use passionflower vines as a food source for their caterpillars

Coromandel and Cleome butterflies

These butterflies have a variety of host plants but they can use coromandel and cleome as host plants.

Lawn butterflies

These butterflies lay their eggs in lawns on low growing plants that can withstand being mowed.

Roadside tree butterflies

These butterflies can use common roadside trees as a host. This means that you don’t have to plant their host plants but they will still be attracted to your garden.

Host plants

Common four rings use grass as a host plant. A pesticide free lawn is enough to sustain these butterflies

This is the list of host plants that can be planted in a beginner butterfly garden. You can choose to plant all or just some of them. A few of these are common urban wildflowers.

Passionflowers are creeping vines that can be grown on fences. Sometimes they can be found growing on the borders of drains or other plants.

Coromandel and Cleome are two easily grown wildflowers that are almost everywhere and require almost no maintenance. They grow low and won’t take over your garden, so a small patch or planting them between pots is possible. Both these plants produce seed pods that can be easily harvested from patches of wildflowers.

Lawn plants like grasses and some plants that grow together with grasses, such as Semalu and Desmodium, are also used by lawn butterflies.

Target butterfliesHost plant species
Passionflower butterfliesCorky passionflower, Passiflora suberosa
(other ornamental passionflowers can also be used as long as you don’t mind caterpillars)
Coromandel and Cleome butterfliesCoromandel, Asystasia gangetica (ornamental varieties are available if you would like to use them instead)
Purple Cleome, Cleome rutidosperma
Lawn butterfliesSemalu, Mimosa pudica
Desmodium
Goat grass, Ishaemum muticum
Roadside tree butterfliesAcacia
Raintrees, Albizia
Cassia
Desmodium is a host plant for the Tiny Grass Blue butterfly. It also enhances soil fertility and can grow in between grass in a lawn.

As with wildflower patches, allowing other plants to grow in between the host plants helps to fertilise the soil and lower the need for maintenance. Let it grow wild without pesticides and you might get additional biodiversity such as stingless bees and ladybugs.

Flowering plants

Little ironweeds can survive in degraded land and are very attractive to pollinators

Coromandel flowers can double as a nectar source for adult butterflies. Easily grown wildflowers such as Goat weed, Cupid’s shaving brush, Tridax daisy and Beggarticks are suitable sources of nectar since they are almost always flowering.  Since all of these are from the sunflower family, they produce dandelion like seeds that reseed the plot after the wilt.

The seeds can be harvested from wild patches and placed in a plot.

Tridax daisies are hardy plants that are used by a wide variety of pollinators

This article is supported by The Habitat Foundation Conservation Grant

Butterfly Gardens: Key Concepts

Butterflies are nice to have in a garden, they help to make it feel alive with colour and movement. They also become food for birds and carry out important pollination of plants.

To have butterflies in a garden, you have to meet the requirements of butterflies. In no particular order, the requirements are: host plants (for caterpillars), flowering plants (for adults) and suitable amounts of shade.

Host plants

These are plants that caterpillars feed on before they become butterflies. Many butterflies have specific host plants, while some common species have a variety of plants that they can feed on. Sometimes the host plants of butterflies are plants that we eat or use for decoration.

coromandel and pollinator
Coromandels are host plants for many urban butterflies

If you are preparing a butterfly garden, please tolerate a few chewed up leaves. Natural predators like wasps and birds can help to keep caterpillar numbers manageable, so preparing habitat for them too can help to bring a balance to your garden.

Flowering plants

butterfly feeding on Bidens alba nectar
Allowing wildflowers to grow in your garden is a good way to ensure a consistent source of nectar for butterflies

Plants which regularly flower are very attractive to butterflies. These flowers are not necessarily big, but they usually occur in clusters that the butterflies can walk across.

Wildflower patches are a simple way to make habitat for adult butterflies to feed, although edible plants such as Ulam raja and some ornamental flowers such as Lantana, Ixora and Saraca are attractive to butterflies as well.

butterfly and a cluster of flowers
Clustered flowers are very attractive to butterflies

Shade

Butterflies are cold blooded creatures, so they control their body temperature by exposing themselves to sunlight. However, too much sunlight can be harmful to them. Many species of butterflies prefer shadier conditions where they can rest and cool off. Some forest butterflies never leave the shade of the forest, while open area butterflies can tolerate intense heat from the sun. 

Keeping these three things in mind will help make your garden a suitable habitat for butterflies. However, you can meet the requirements of some species of butterflies and still not get a desired species. This is because butterflies have to get to your garden, and usually, species that are more sensitive to urban environments may need pathways from forest patches that they can safely migrate through. So it is good to keep in mind that connectivity to forest patches is a good way to ensure that butterflies can establish themselves in home gardens.

If you want to experiment with these concepts, you can try planting a beginner butterfly garden that attracts very hardy urban butterflies.


This article is supported by The Habitat Foundation Conservation Grant

See also

Wildflowers: Purple composites

Top (Left to right): Siam weed, Chromolaena odorata & Goat weed, Ageratum conyzoides

Bottom(Left to right): Cupid’s shaving brush, Emilia sonchifolia &
Tropical fleabane, Cyanthillium cinereum

Plants with small, fluffy purple or white flowers. They can be found almost anywhere, favoured by beekeepers for the pollen and nectar they produce. They are grown to prevent Lalang growth but they can crowd out native plants. They are poisonous to vertebrates.

Status: Least concern, invasive

Habit: Herbaceous

Cultivation: Planted by seeds or transplanting

Ecological Function: Attracts pollinators, ground cover

Pollinators:  Large bees, small bees, butterflies, flies, wasps

Soil: Sandy, loam, organic soils

Moisture: Well drained soils

Shade: Partial shade, no shade

Wildflowers: Monkey’s potato

Monkey potato ~ Rimanji

Plectranthus monostachyus

An upright plant from the mint family. It has oval leaves that occur in pairs opposite each other, and at right angles to the following pairs. It produces small purple flowers at the top end of stems. The common name comes from nodules found on the roots of the mature plant.

Status: Least concern, Introduced (Tropical Africa)

Habit: Annual herbaceous

Cultivation: Planted by seeds or transplanting

Ecological Function: Attracts pollinators, ground cover, host plant for butterflies (Junonia orithya)

Pollinators:  Large bees, small bees, butterflies

Soil: Loam, clay, organic soils

Moisture: Well drained soils

Shade: Partial shade, no shade

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Wildflowers: Touch-me-nots

Touch-me-nots ~ Pokok semalu

Mimosa pudica

A creeping plant from the pea flower family. Its leaves respond to touch by drooping or closing up in defense. Each leaf is a compound leaf made up of many leaflets. Its flowers are purple-pink, ball-shaped and form clusters at the ends of stalks. It produces pods which bear seeds.

Status: Least concern, Introduced (Central and South America)

Habit: Annual

Cultivation: Planted by seeds or transplanting

Ecological Function: Attracts pollinators, nitrogen fixer

Pollinators: Large bees, small bees, butterflies

Soil: Loam, organic soils

Moisture: Moist soil

Shade: Partial shade, no shade

Wildflowers: Elephant’s foot

Elephant’s foot~ Tutup bumi

Elephantopus scaber

A plant from the daisy or sunflower family that grows well in shady areas. Its leaves are arranged in a circle at the lower part of the stem. It has tiny pale purple flowers at the top of erect stalks. Its fruits are small and dry with hair-like structures to attach to animals or people.

Status: Least concern, Native

Habit: Perennial

Cultivation: Planted by seeds or transplanting

Ecological Function: Attracts pollinators, ground cover

Pollinators: Butterflies, large bees

Soil: Sandy

Moisture: Well drained soils

Shade: Partial shade, no shade

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Wildflowers: Star of Bethlehem

Star of Bethlehem ~ Dedalu cina

Hippobroma longiflora

An attractive wildflower, originally introduced as an ornamental plant. However, the plant’s sap is poisonous. Its leaves have an elongated oval shape, a pointed tip and tooth-like margins. They are arranged in a spiral at the stem base. A single star-shaped flower with five petals grows on a stalk.

Status: Least concern, Introduced (Jamaica)

Habit: Perennial

Cultivation: Planted by seeds or transplanting

Ecological Function: Attracts pollinators

Pollinators: Possibly moths

Soil: Clay

Moisture: Damp soils

Shade: Full shade, partial shade

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Wildflowers: Tridax daisy

Tridax daisy ~ Kancing baju

Tridax procumbens

A common roadside plant that does not need a lot of soil or water to grow. It is a plant that helps nourish soils. Its leaves are arrow-shaped and have tooth-like margins. The compound flowers are yellow and white, at the top of long stems. Fruits are small and dry and have hair-like structures.

Status: Least concern, Introduced (Central America)

Habit: Perennial

Cultivation: Planted by seeds or transplanting

Ecological Function: Attracts pollinators, ground cover

Pollinators: Butterflies, bees, thrips, flies

Soil: Sand, loam, organic soils

Moisture: Dry soil, well drained soil

Shade: Partial shade, no shade

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