Woodlouse on wood chippings

12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Life Underground

Above the ground you may be seeing bare branches and fewer flowers, but beneath the ground there is still a lot of activity, particularly in compost heaps. This is the theme for day four of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife. Here are top tips for creating a compost heap, and how to search for the animals living there, with Dr Ed Turner, Curator of Insects:

What’s happening underground

Dr Ed Turner, Curator of Insects, writes:

Violet ground beetle on wood
Violet ground beetle (c) Nick Goodrum CC BY 2.0

The tiny things living in your garden
Although you can’t always see them, gardens are teaming with insects and other tiny arthropods. For example, an amazing 30-year study by the biologist Jennifer Owen on her suburban garden in Leicester identified over 2000 species of insects and other invertebrates living there! In the summer, these are most obvious as bees and other flying insects visiting flowers, but this minute life can also be found in the depths of winter, particularly under leaf litter, rotting logs, in the soil, and in your compost heap!

Finding compost creatures
To search for insects and other arthropods in your compost, all you need is a trowel and an empty plastic container. Gently move aside the surface of the compost with the trowel and then wait. Often small insects will not move at first, but will then try to escape, helping you to spot them. When you see movement, use the trowel to gently pick up the animal and the material surrounding it and place it all in the plastic pot. This will allow you to look at the animal without disturbing it too much. Compost heaps contain a huge variety of life, including arthropods like woodlice and springtails (tiny pale creatures that can jump into the air using a spring-like device in their tail) that feed on decaying matter, as well as centipedes and ground beetles that feed on other arthropods. When you’ve looked at the creatures, always return them to the compost. See what four compost creatures you can find today!

My compost creatures

Common centipede on a white background
Common centipede (c) Edgar Turner

A common centipede, Lithobius forficatus
This ferocious predator feeds on other arthropods and is very fast moving. It has modified legs at its front legs that contain venom to help it catch its prey. Luckily, these aren’t strong enough to hurt people, but if you are a small insect, beware!

Springtail in compost
Springtail (white insect in the centre of the image) (c) Edgar Turner

Springtail or collembolan
This tiny invertebrate has six legs as well as a special forked tail at the end of its abdomen. It keeps its tail locked under its body, but can release it to catapult itself into the air to escape predators!

Pair of red worms on a white background
Red worms (c) Edgar Turner

Red worm, Eisenia fetida
This species of worm and its relatives are common in compost heaps. Unlike earthworms, they specialise in living in decaying plant material and dead leaves on the surface of the soil. The worms have bristles over their body that help them to grip onto material and move through the compost.

Shiny woodlouse on a white background
Common shiny woodlouse
(c) Edgar Turner

Common Shiny Woodlouse, Oniscus asellus Several species of woodlouse are commonly found in compost heaps, feeding on dead organic matter. The Common Shiny Woodlouse is one of the commonest five species found in most gardens. Woodlice are a type of crustacean (like crabs and lobsters). They breath through modified gills, which work best when they are damp; one reason why woodlice are generally found in damp locations.

Discover more compost creatures with Dr Ed Turner in this film from earlier in 2020:

Winter Wildlife Creations: Make a compost heap

Making a compost heap is a brilliant way to encourage insects into your garden, as well as being good for the garden itself. To make a functioning compost heap that’s good for wildlife, all you need to do is follow a few simple rules:

  • Include a mix of more carbon-rich (woody material or cardboard) and nitrogen-rich (grass clippings or kitchen scraps) material in a roughly 50:50 mix. This ensures that the compost decomposes quickly, but doesn’t smell.
  • Cut the material up into small, but not too small pieces. This makes it easy for insects and other small creatures to get in and eat it, but still means there is enough air to help it decompose.
  • Mix your compost, but not too regularly. As lots of creatures hide in compost heaps over the winter months, it is best to not do this from October-April. For example, I’ve found hedgehogs, mice and even toads hiding in my compost in the colder months!
  • Make sure your compost heap is in contact with the ground and, at least partly, open to the sides. This will ensure compost creatures can easily get in a take up residence!

Do share pictures of the animals you find in your compost heap by tagging us on social media and you could feature in our online community gallery.

12 Days of Winter Wildlife Day 5: Hibernation

Ladybirds in the crevices of a tree branch
(c) Tom Austin CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Visit the blog again tomorrow to discover animals that huddle away and hibernate over the winter months. Find out about insects that stay dormant over winter with Matt Hayes, and make your own insect refuge with Sara Steele.

12 Days of Winter Wildlife catch up:

Robin on frosted willow branches
(c) John Howlett

Catch up on Day 1 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife. Watch the livestreamed launch, including a virtual tour of the wildlife in the Botanic Garden, a Q&A with Rob Jaques of the British Trust for Ornithology, and sing along with the premiere of the 12 Days of Critters song. Read the top winter wildlife tips from staff and students at the Museum of Zoology. Download our Winter Wildlife spotter sheet, and create your very own hedgehog in a leaf pile.

Robin perched in a yew tree
(c) John Howlett

Catch up on Day 2 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Garden Birds. Enjoy a wonderful film about attracting birds to your garden by Dr Andrew Bladon, listen to recordings of garden birds in winter by Dr Tony Fulford, and learn how to make seed cakes for birds with Lucy Williamson.

Completed moth craft as tree decoration
Moth decoration by Natasha Lavers

Catch up on Day 3 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Active Insects. In this post we explore the amazing world of moths that are active during the winter moths. Find out about moth-trapping with a film from moth expert Annette Shelford, discover winter moths and December moths with Research Assistant Matt Hayes, and make your own moth decoration out or recycled fabric with Museum Volunteer Natasha Lavers.

And remember to send your winter wildlife spots and creations to us by tagging us on social media or using #12DaysofWinterWildlife and you could feature in our online community gallery.

Woodlouse on wood chippings
Woodlouse (c) Max Westby CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Find out more about minibeasts on the ground with Zoology Live Minibeasts Part 1.

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