Falkirk’s forward-looking green progress

Pollinator-friendly actions are nothing new to Falkirk Council.  Over the years they have been involved in a range of projects which have made life easier for pollinators, and brought considerable enjoyment to people.

So what have they been up to lately?  We caught up with Anna Perks, a local biodiversity officer, to find out.

“I think one of our most exciting local developments has been that Falkirk Council has commissioned consultants to carry out a piece of work looking at the potential for habitat creation on our land/buildings to help sequester CO2.  Although CO2 sequestration is our primary goal, we anticipate that many of the identified opportunities will also have benefits for pollinators and other biodiversity. 

“To deliver this project we will be looking at a range of habitat creation opportunities, including woodland, long grassland, wetland, and green/brown roofs and walls.”

Other bodies liaise with Falkirk Council to good effect in projects which, in passing, improve prospects for pollinators.  Take, for example, the work of amphibian and reptile specialists Froglife.  As part of their ‘Come Forth for Wildlife’ project they created a number of small meadow strips in four of Falkirk’s parks. That was great news in its own right, but in late 2020 volunteers carried out a bit of supplementary sowing at those meadows.  It’s a classic example of where helping one element of biodiversity can have a positive knock-on effect for another group.

Anna has developed a keen eye for new ideas or practices and relays these to her colleagues where there is a potential biodiversity gain. 

“I have written a report detailing proposed changes to Falkirk Council’s grass and verge cutting regimes”, she explains by way of example.  “This could not only benefit biodiversity but meet other objectives such as our aims to take action to combat climate change, and deliver budget savings.  I have just had approval from the Council to  implement a pilot phase of these changes this year (at  35 sites) and review these in spring 2022 with a view to wider roll out after that.”

Anna is realistic that change doesn’t always happen overnight. However,  approval to run this pilot represents significant progress, It’s an excellent sign of the direction things are headed.

This forward thinking is nothing new in a council area which saw pollinator-friendly planting in a range of parks in spring 2018, and native bulbs planting in autumn 2018 to complement those new meadows. This tied in well with Buglife Scotland’s B-lines initiative and engaged several local groups with pollinator activities.  Working with groups such as Buglife Scotland has been a welcome element of Falkirk’s approach.

And the progress on ‘completed’ sites continues with the council recently purchasing equipment that allows them to cut and lift long grass – a key element to building on the good initial planting work. This will prevent soil becoming too nutrient-rich and favour wild flowers. 

It’s intriguing to see how Falkirk has built on its early actions to continue to make solid environmental improvements. Come spring and summer the community here will be able to enjoy a host of pollinator friendly flowers. And that’s great news for pollinators – and people.

Blistering brigands

By Athayde Tonhasca

Flying over coastal dunes in the American state of Oregon, a male silver digger bee (Habropoda miserabilis) picks up the scent of a female. The smell takes him to a dark shape hanging from a twig: he zeroes in for a romantic encounter before she has time to flee. But as he touches the female-to-be, the object breaks up into a mass of louse-like creatures who in no time crawl onto him, clinging on for dear life. These hitchhikers are planidia (singular planidium, from the Greek planis, meaning ‘wanderer’), which are a type of larva that don’t look at all like larvae. They have well developed legs, are quite nimble, and they’re phoretic, that is, they use another organism to be transported to a new location. 

The puzzled male bee moves on carrying his passengers, and eventually finds a real female. During their encounter, the planidia jump ship again and attach to the female bee. She will then carry the uninvited guests to her nest, where their joyride ends and their parasitic nature is revealed. They start eating the bees’ pollen stores, eggs and larvae before moulting into ordinary, grub-like larvae, which carry on depleting the bee’s provisions and offspring. The larvae go through several stages, and in the following spring emerge from the host’s nest as adult blister beetles of the species Meloe franciscanus.

Aggregations of Meloe franciscanus planidia on grass stems and on the dorsal surface of a male silver digger bee © Saul-Gershenz et al. 2018. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115(39) 9756-9760; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1718682115.

The tale started with a sophisticated deception: the planidia lured the male bee with chemical signals that mimic the host’s sex pheromones. But the trickery goes further: another population from the Mojave Desert (California) produces different chemicals to attract another species of bee. Not only that, the planidia match their perching heights with the height at which local male bees normally patrol for females.

The cunning behaviour of M. franciscanus is just one of the distinctive facts about blister beetles (family Meloidae). They undergo hypermetamorphosis, by which one of their larval stages is radically different from the others: planidia don’t look or behave at all like other immature phases. Females are prodigiously fecund, sometimes laying several thousand eggs. This reproductive potential possibly evolved to counterbalance high mortality: planidia will climb onto any insect they can reach, so the risk of picking the wrong host is considerable.

Blister beetles are also known as oil beetles, as many species exude drops of oily haemolymph from their joints when alarmed or disturbed. This liquid contains cantharidin, a toxic and irritating chemical. Apothecaries of ancient times used dried and ground up oil beetles as a blistering agent to remove warts and moles. One species, Lytta vesicatoria, is the source of a concoction named Spanish fly, the usage of which is not appropriate for discussion in a family-orientated blog. Medicinal and aphrodisiacal uses of blister beetles are unsubstantiated and risky to say the least, as cantharidin is about as toxic to humans as cyanide and strychnine. And there’s no known antidote. Remarkably, dozens of insect species, including some biting midges, feed on this oil beetle exudate, presumably to acquire its defensive properties.  

There are five species Meloe oil beetle in Britain, but only two are common: the black (M. proscarabaeus) and violet (M. violaceus) oil beetles. Adults feed mostly on flower parts, pollen and nectar. They are most often seen between March and July on open soil, as they search for a mate or a site for oviposition. Our oil beetles are all parasites of solitary bees, but we don’t know whether they use similar ruses to their American cousin: they probably do.  

A violet oil beetle. Note the drop of haemolymph on its thorax.  ©Darkone, Wikipedia Creative Commons

Many people can’t warm to parasitic insects, especially when their victims are lovable bees. This attitude is prejudiced and ill-informed: parasitic insects are important components of ecological communities by regulating population sizes, with profound effects on food webs and biodiversity. Oil beetles’ life histories are magnificent examples of adaptation and survival skills. And they need our care as well: some of our species are declining. 

Solitary bees have many natural enemies, and oil beetles are one of the main factors of brood mortality for those species that nest on the ground such as Andrena spp. mining bees. Despite this, it is estimated that less than 20% of their brood is lost to natural enemies. Bees may be facing several environmental challenges, but oil beetles are not one of them. Bees and beetles can be both valued, admired and protected. 

Violet oil beetle planidia. ©Natural History Museum, http://data.nhm.ac.uk/dataset/collection-specimens

Tayside triumph

How appropriate that the third Keep Scotland Beautiful ‘It’s Your Neighbourhood’ pollinator award was won by Bonnie Dundee.  2020 was also the third year of Bonnie Dundee’s focus on pollinators, and they delivered an extraordinary effort in what, by any standards, proved an unprecedented year.

The volunteers from the It’s Your Neighbourhood Bonnie Dundee group design and maintain attractive planting in Dundee city centre to encourage insects and improve the wellbeing of workers, residents and people visiting the city.

Working closely with Dundee City Council, the group plant with pollinators in mind, and to educate and increase people’s awareness and understanding via notices, contact with schools and nurseries and through online communications. The volunteers are responsible for fourteen planters on Union Street, four in Westport, fourteen outside the square at Dundee Science Centre plus an Urban Orchard of eight heritage trees in fourteen planters, a raised herb area and seven flower beds in the William Gardiner Square at the back of the Overgate shopping centre and an area of Slessor Gardens.

Dundee’s enthusiastic volunteers deliver a wide range of activities each year, including tending planters, community gardening, litter-picks, encouraging biodiversity and helping to improve local parks.

For the past three years they have been doing all of the above with an emphasis on ensuring pollinators are catered for. 

Catherine Lawson explains the thinking behind the group’s actions.  “We have been planting with pollinators in mind for some time now,” she notes, “educating and increasing the public’s awareness and understanding through notices and online, plus encouraging everyone to sow seeds. 

“The city centre areas we maintain have included attractive pollinator-friendly planting, such as our planters on Union Street where we planted varieties of Rudbeckia, and our garden at Slessor Gardens which also included Tithonia Torch and Echium Blue Bedder. The Thyme and Hyssop in our community herb-beds were bee magnets when in flower, and our cosmos was loved by hoverflies! 

“In 2020 we hoped to build on the success of our 2019 pollinator identification notices and pollinator walk, but had to hold back due to Covid-19. Instead, we teamed up with ‘Seeds of Hope Scotland’ and handed out 95 packets of Scottish wildflower seeds during lockdown to individuals and groups throughout Dundee. 

“Communication was done electronically, and seeds posted out to maintain social distancing. We highlighted the importance of pollinators, and the fact that absolutely everyone can be pollinator friendly, even if they only have a window box. “

This approach overcame what threated to be a significant hurdle. The response was really positive, with participants sending on celebratory photos of their seed patch to the Bonnie Dundee organisers.  There is something enduring and uplifting about planting, and the rewards of blooms are both a personal and shared delight.

Through the increased communications and seed-packet sharing a sense of community was fostered, despite the restrictions, and individuals, some of whom felt isolated, welcomed being part of a city-wide project. As the seasons progressed everyone involved enjoyed watching their seeds grow and bloom, and loved seeing the visiting range of insects particularly the bees and butterflies.

As we increasingly come to recognise the positive link between nature and our health this collaborative approach paid dividends in the City of Discovery. The attractive planting in Dundee city centre not only encouraged insects but clearly had the ability to cheer people and engage them with a key biodiversity issue.

The group harnessed social media to keep their project ticking over with ease. They entered a video of the project into the Dundee Flower & Food Festival’s Virtual Show and uploaded it to their popular Facebook page (@BonnieDundeeBloom). 

Grasping technology in this way quickly highlights positive actions and the long term pollinator-friendly planting message Bonnie Dundee were keen to see circulated. Along the way this attractive messaging demonstrates the importance of pollinators to our economy and enjoyment of the outdoors.

This is the third year that NatureScot has supported this pollinator-friendly award. The number of entrants increased again, and the variety of successful pollinator-friendly approaches was clear in all the entries.

But anyone hoping to wrest away Bonnie Dundee’s crown next year will have to work hard. The Taysiders don’t intend to rest on their laurels.  As Catherine explains “We plan to use the prize money to buy more Scottish seeds, from ‘Seeds of Hope’ and perennial seeds from Scotia Seeds to distribute with instructions to individuals and groups so we spread knowledge even further.”

Keep Scotland Beautiful CEO, Barry Fisher was quick to praise the Dundee project and the commitment that lies behind it. “We know that lockdown resulted in many people reconnecting with nature and biodiversity in their local neighbourhoods,” he noted. “This can only be good news for our environment, locally and globally, as people’s renewed appreciation and reconnection will ultimately help us tackle climate change and protect our planet.   

“I’d like to thank Bonnie Dundee for the efforts its volunteers have made to keep Dundee beautiful this year, for its people and nature, and look forward to seeing how the work blooms with the prize money.”  

Being positive in a time characterised by lockdowns and restrictions can’t have been easy. But as the It’s your Neighbourhood gathering continually demonstrates, Scotland is blessed with some remarkably determined and resilient community groups.

Smorgasbord or Spartan: the consequences of pollen diets

By Athayde Tonhasca

There is nothing visibly remarkable about the mining bee Andrena florea. This bee, one of the 67 Andrena species in Britain, is found in open scrubby areas, grassland and woodland edges of south-east England. But one thing makes this bee unusual; it only takes pollen from white bryony (Bryonia dioica).

Andrena florea, which is commonly and unsurprisingly called the white bryony mining bee, is a rare British example of a bee that forages on a single plant species. This dietary restriction is circumstantial, because white bryony is the only plant of this group occurring in Britain. In continental Europe, A. florea has other Bryonia species available. So in a wider geographical context, this bee is oligolectic (or an oligolege) that is, it collects pollen from a few related plant species (from the Greek oligo: few, scant; and lect: chosen, picked).

A white bryony mining bee and its pollen source, white bryony © Aiwok (L) and H. Zell (R), Wikipedia Creative Commons

Pollen specialisation can be a considerable drawback for a bee because food may be scarce even in a landscape full of flowers, and this may limit populations of some species. For example, until recently the white bryony mining bee was rare and threatened in Poland. This has changed with the spread of white bryony into the country’s urban areas. And yet, a considerable number of species are pollen specialists; in some habitats, they make up the majority of the bee fauna. So pollen specialisation must have its advantages, for example by allowing more efficient flower visitation and pollination rates, which benefits bees and plants.

Polylectic bees are at the other end of the spectrum: they collect pollen from various unrelated kinds of flowers. The advantages of being a pollen generalist seem evident: there is more food to choose from and it’s available for longer, as flowers blossom at different times. But these bees must also have an array of physiological adaptations to overcome a variety of chemical and physical barriers to different types of pollen. This could be too costly for a bee’s metabolism.

Pollen is a rich source of protein, lipids, vitamins and minerals. But it also contains secondary compounds that may be noxious to some bees, and pollen grains are often protected by indigestible coating. These barriers explain why few insect taxa rely on pollen alone for food, and could also explain why most polyleges (polylectic bees) exhibit a degree of pollen specialisation: for example, heather (family Ericaceae) and legumes (family Fabaceae) make up over 70% of the pollen collected by British bumble bees, despite local abundance of other pollen sources.

Experiments with the closely related red mason bee (Osmia bicornis) and horned mason bee (Osmia cornuta) show the effects of different types of pollen. Red mason bee larvae develop well on buttercup pollen (genus Ranunculus), but fail to do so on pollen from viper’s bugloss and related plants (genus Echium); the reverse happens for the horned mason bee. Both bees do well on field mustard pollen (genus Sinapis), while neither develop on pollen from tansies and related species (genus Tanacetum). But the story is a bit more complex: neither bee shows any negative effect as long as they are not restricted to ‘bad’ pollen. In fact, unsuitable pollen is part of the bees’ natural diet. Other bee species show similar patterns.

Viper’s bugloss (1), creeping buttercup (2), field mustard (3) and tansy (4): nutritious/poisonous food for the right/wrong bee. © Wikipedia Creative Commons

So what can we conclude from all this?

Oligolecty and polylecty are both successful evolutionary strategies. Some bees depend on a few plants, others have diversified pollen diets. The range of hosts can be narrow or wide, depending on the species, but setting aside a handful of exceptions, bees need pollen from different plants to complement nutritional imbalances or to mitigate the effects of harmful secondary metabolites. But even pollen of low nutritional quality or digestibility is taken, as long as it’s a portion of a balanced diet.

These aspects have important consequences for the conservation of bees. They need a diversity of flowers, and plenty of them. Habitats such as semi-natural grassland, hedgerows, field borders, cover crops, brown sites, road verges, wild gardens and weedy parks are all suitable. Planting is helpful, but except for the honey bee and some bumble bees, we know little about what plant species to use. The safest action is to let our wild plants go wild, so that we have bigger, and more diverse flower-rich habitats. That’s not much or too difficult a task to assure the future of our most important pollinators.  

The first cut is the neatest

Not far from the remnants of the Romans Antonine Wall are several meadows that would have brought a smile to the face of even the meanest centurion.  They are the work of East Dunbartonshire Council, and there are more in the pipeline.  

Like a well drilled army a routine will be applied to the new meadows. After the ground is prepared. squadrons of pollinator-friendly plants will be introduced either as seeds or plugs. Further down the line the meadows will be cut once a year and the arisings removed. It’s a reliable method which will allow beautiful flowers including Northern Marsh Orchid, Bog Cotton, Greater Trefoil, and Marsh Bedstraw to flourish. 

For pollinators it all represents a welcome banquet, but a lot of hard work lies behind these stunning meadows.

A mini-baler in operation

Jackie Gillespie, Streetscene Project Officer with East Dunbartonshire Council, reflected on the unique challenges that 2020 presented.  “Lockdown meant we were unable to carry out the works in May which would have been ideal as we enjoyed such good weather at the time,” she ruefully recalled. “Work eventually started in August and the weather was so wet that some areas were under water. This has meant that germination is patchy in some areas but we will revisit and re-sow Spring 2021.”

As with so many Local Authorities, the work to create wildflower meadows relies significantly on forging a good partnership. 

Cut and Lift machinery

In the case of East Dunbartonshire the allies come in the shape of Buglife Scotland who were awarded funding by NatureScot through the Biodiversity Challenge Fund. Working with the Council, Buglife have sown a mix of wetland and neutral grasslands.  An impressive 19,000 square metres were sown in a variety of sites, within parks and open space in Milton of Campsie and Kirkintilloch.

Planting and sowing can be a mixture of muscle power and machines. 

Buglife part-funded a machine bulb-planting exercise which saw a biodiversity-friendly mix of spring bulbs planted at Kirkintilloch High School and Milton of Campsie. There was a Dutch influence in this work. Lubbe, a Dutch bulb company, supplied and planted around 176 square metres of their ‘Bee Surprise’ mix. It’s a mix that pollinators, and people, are sure to love, containing early splashes of colour in the shape of crocus, scilla and small tulips.

The ever-popular John Muir Pollinator Way , Scotland’s first B-Line, runs through this district and stretches of the route benefitted from a range of enhancements in 2020. With the launch of the completed B-Lines map for Scotland  the work in East Dunbartonshire is adding to a very exciting and ever expanding network of pollinator highways.

Chief amongst these was the planting of 5,700 jumbo sized wildflower plugs. A combination of Ragged Robin, Devil’s Bit Scabious, Ox-eye daisy, Cowslip and other nectar rich species formed what for pollinators is a heady mix. These were originally to be planted by Community Groups and Schools, and it was a great shame that Covid 19 halted this and the only way to proceed was to employ contractors to carry out the planting instead.

But despite the challenges East Dunbartonshire’s Streetscene Technical Support pressed on with two more wetland meadows in Lennoxtown, transforming 3,000 square metres beneath the Campsie Fells in the process.

Six miles north-west of Glasgow lies the popular suburb of Bearsden. Long associated with the aforementioned Antonine Wall, it may have just acquired another notable feature. A total of 5,000 wildflowers were recently planted and will form an impressive swathe in the Heather Drive Open Space area. 

An example of power harrowing, from Kincaid Park.

Local residents have grown to love the Heather Drive meadow and so too have a range of butterflies.  Ringlet, Meadow Brown, Small White, Orange Tip, Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock have all been recorded on this site, no doubt lured here after the maintenance regime was changed to suit pollinators needs.

Meadow turf is a less travelled route to success, but very effective. Whilst most projects grow wildflowers from seed or from plug plants, the easiest way to establish a wildflower meadow is probably to lay wildflower turf, which you can buy from online suppliers. That’s the approach that was taken in Bishopbriggs. A total of 160 square metres of Biodiversity lawn turf was laid and has been very successful.

Our Roman centurion might have hankered for the Piano Grande in Umbria. However, were he here today, he would be hard-pressed to deny that by creating a rich abundance of wildflowers East Dunbartonshire is doing its bit for pollinators.

Further reading

You can find our 2019 blog about pollinator-friendly actions in East Dunbartonshire @ https://scottishpollinators.wordpress.com/2019/10/01/the-grass-isnt-always-greener/ 

and our initial blog covering East Dunbartonshire from August 2018 @ https://scottishpollinators.wordpress.com/2018/08/20/east-dunbartonshire-on-the-ball/


Bees in the sun, bees in the rain

By Athayde Tonhasca

For most animals and plants, the number of species increases from the poles to the Equator. This pattern, known as the latitudinal diversity gradient (LDG), is one the best documented features of life on Earth. At one extreme, lush and species-rich tropical rainforests and coral reefs; at the other, species-poor, barren polar areas. Ecologists have proposed several theories to explain the causes of LDG, which include solar radiation, competition, predation, rates of speciation (the formation of new species in the course of evolution) and other factors. But the debate is far from settled.

However, as is the case for many biological patterns, there are exceptions. And bees are one of them.

Time and time again, regional surveys around the globe have shown more bee species in dry and warm regions than in the humid and warm tropics. Despite the scarcity of data for some countries, these results have been consistent; there are many more bees in the deserts of South-western USA and the Mediterranean Basin than in the South American and African jungles. Recently, a group of scientists put together over 5.8 million records of the 20,000 or so known species of bee around the world to map their global distribution. The resulting image is an exceptional snapshot of the world’s biodiversity, and it confirms the pattern found in several independent, smaller-scale surveys: bee species richness is highest in dry, temperate and mid-latitude areas, decreasing sharply towards the equator. Israel for example, with very hot, dry summers and few rainy days, has the highest number of species per area of any country.

Bee species richness projections © Michael C. Orr et al. Global patterns and drivers of bee distribution. Current Biology, 2020; doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2020.10.053

Ecologists have mulled over explanations for such an unusual biodiversity pattern. It could be that bees don’t cope with high humidity. Most species store their larval food (usually pollen mixed with nectar) in cells excavated in the soil. The cells are lined with waxy or paper-like materials, but these barriers are thin and may not prevent fungal attacks in humid environments. Also, larval food stores may deteriorate more easily because of moisture absorption. 

Bee species concentrate on areas of high solar radiation and high plant productivity, as long as they are not forests. Perhaps because forests offer less pollen and nectar, and fewer nesting sites (e.g., bare earth on sunny spots). Predation on bee larvae by ants may be more intense in forests, especially in the tropics, where ants have the highest diversity and biomass. These are hypotheses: we don’t know for sure the factors determining bee species distribution.

A South African desert in bloom, a bees’ haven © Winfried Bruenken, Wikipedia Creative Commons

While bees differ from most life forms in their latitudinal diversity gradient, British bees differ from most bees. They live in habitats of short seasons, thus with a low incidence of solar radiation, and face a harsh climate of cold and humid winters. Our solitary bees adapt by passing most of the time tucked away in their nests as larvae or as adults encased in cocoons, to emerge in spring. Their flying stage is very short, lasting from a few weeks to a couple of months, which they spend frantically collecting food for their young. Bumble bees also hibernate to go through unfavourable conditions (only the queens: all workers die at the end of the season), and are better adapted to the cold. Bumble bees produce internal heat, and their chunky and hairy bodies are well suited to maintaining their body temperature.

A British landscape: not very sunny, not very dry, but good enough for our bees. © Tim Niblett, Wikipedia Creative Commons

Surveys and the map of global diversity tell us that bees are creatures of dry, sunny and open surroundings. Our bees share none, or very little, of this Mediterranean paradise. But they have evolved to cope with the cold, damp and long winters, and to the seasonal scarcity of food. So they thrive, regardless of their hardships. That is, as long as we don’t mess up their habitats.   

Our distinguished but endangered bumble bee

By Athayde Tonhasca 

Among all the fears brought to the British people by the Second World War, one seemed insidious and imminent: famine. Shortage of imports led to food rationing, which dragged on until 1953. The government, determined to reduce the country’s dependency on foreign products, passed the 1947 Agricultural Act with the support of all political parties. This legislation guaranteed prices for the main agricultural goods, and encouraged farmers to maximize food production through mechanisation and chemical inputs.  

Thanks to the greater availability of commercial fertilizers, crop rotation with legumes was no longer necessary. Flower-rich hay meadows gave way to intensively grazed grassland. The landscape became blanketed with large, monotonous monocultures, where non-crop plants were not tolerated. Crop yields and farmers’ income improved dramatically, but the countryside changed forever: over 90% of unimproved lowland grassland has been lost, and today about 35% of Britain’s land area is covered by arable crops and grassland. This process of profound agricultural expansion and intensification had an inevitable impact on biodiversity, and one species was hit particularly hard: the great yellow bumble bee (Bombus distinguendus). 

The great yellow bumble bee © Jan Ove Gjershaug/Norsk institutt for naturforskning, Wikipedia Creative Commons

This bee does not need a great variety of flowers, but their supply must be uninterrupted from May to September. No single plant provides nectar and pollen throughout this period, so there must be a succession of suitable species. However, lots of flowers is only part of this bee’s requirements: it also needs areas with tussocks, taller grasses and small mammal burrows as nesting and hibernation sites. Habitats for the great yellow bumble bee are found on unimproved, semi-natural grassland; areas of limited grazing, late cutting, or under crop rotation. Unfortunately, this is the very type of habitat that has been inexorably lost to intense farming and grazing practices. So decline was inevitable. Once distributed all over Great Britain, today the great yellow bumble bee is confined to the edges of north and northwest Scotland. The species clings on in areas of low-intensity crofting and low-lying arable land near the coast (machair), where clovers, vetches and knapweeds are still plentiful.

Keeping the great yellow bumble bee well fed: common bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) in the spring, and common knapweed (Centaurea nigra) in late summer © LeafyHistory (L), Kate Jewell (R), Wikipedia Creative Commons

Because of the scale of population losses, this species is considered nationally endangered according to the criteria used by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It is the only British bumble bee in this unenviable category. 

Organisations and conservation groups, along with many dedicated, enthusiastic volunteers have contributed with expertise, labour and money to reverse the fortunes of the great yellow bumble bee and eventually remove it from the endangered species list. This work involves monitoring bee populations, protecting and enhancing its habitat and increasing the species profile with local people. Time will tell. 

Machair, great yellow bumble bee haven in the Isle of Berneray, Outer Hebrides. © hazelisles, Wikipedia Creative Commons

Plan to plant for pollinators

This may seem like a time of year when we can do little for pollinators. However, that’s not entirely true. Planning for next year can begin, and by introducing certain shrubs or trees into your outdoor space you could be taking out an ‘insurance policy’ for our hard pressed pollinators.

Early Spring and autumn are tricky months for pollinators as they emerge from, or prepare to enter, hibernation. You can help them hugely if you aim to have pollinator-friendly plants flowering in your garden around March and October. 

Trees and shrubs can be great nectar and pollen sources. We can often overlook the fact that not only are early and late flowering varieties plentiful, but that potentially they are veritable supermarkets for foraging insects thanks to their abundance of food concentrated in one location

Now is a good time to plant bare-root deciduous hedging plants, trees and shrubs. You don’t necessarily need a large garden to do so either.  There are a range of container sized trees and shrubs, and for those who have a little more space large semi-mature specimens are plentiful in choice.

In the gardening calendar there is a sense that we are entering that period that runs to late-winter and early spring, when we are in a ‘golden spot’ for planting shrubs. 

Even visually this time of year is good for planting shrubs and planning your garden, because with the greenery having died back, you can view your garden ‘canvas’ clearly and see exactly where there is a gap for new plants.

You may be nervous about planting at this time of year, but if you protect your newly planted hedges and shrubs from wind and cold they should take. Numerous websites offers good advice on how best to protect your new plants. 

The real joy is in picking varieties which will help pollinators.

To some extent we are spoiled for choice when looking to introduce spring flowering shrubs into the garden or container.  Any of these would be a welcome pollinator-friendly addition – Berberis, Blackthorn, Broom, Crab apple, Forsythia, Hawthorn, Hazel, Mahonia, Wild cherry, Winter honeysuckle, Rowan, and Willow.

Some are better than others but they are all good.  

You might feel you have to navigate through a bewildering array of varieties of, say,  willow for example, but many of them are really great for medium or small gardens. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust website is a wonderful source of ideas; it mentions the Kilmarnock willow, which tends to have a very compact shape. Birch, hazel and willow trees all sport fuzzy catkins and therefore an abundance of pollen and nectar when many other plants are still to flower. They are truly a potential feast for bumble bees and solitary bees

Many of our fruit trees and hedgerow shrubs flower early and prove a welcome resource for emerging queen bumble bees (remembering that not all of our bumblebee species emerge at the same time).  And what’s not to like about the short lived but bright pink and white flowers that adorn our fruit trees in early spring.

Hedges are fantastic for a range of wildlife and unlike fences don’t generally deteriorate over time or need costly painting and repainting.  For bees their tangled roots offer potential nesting sites but the succession of flowers from blackthorn to hawthorn epitomises the way in which their blossom provides not just a good food source for a range of bees, but a splendidly concentrated food source. 

And if your neighbours subsequently wonder if you have planted blackthorn or hawthorn you can regale them with the little hedge-lovers mantra that the flowers reveal all — “Blackthorn blossoms before its leaves start to show, unlike hawthorn, which blossoms after its leaves show.”

Of course, we want to avoid a hunger or burst scenario and thus ideally you would look to have a transition into summer shrubs and again the choice is wide. A list of pollinator favourites would include Buddleia, Bramble, Cotoneaster, Honeysuckle, Laburnum, Rock-rose, Raspberry, Blackcurrant and Flowering currant, Viburnum.

I particularly like honeysuckle as it often flowers late in the summer and its sweet-scented flowers offer food to moths, our occasionally overlooked night-shift pollinators, as well as long tongued bumble bees.

If you follow our twitter account you will have seen images of bees on the wing in October. Foraging at that time is difficult but there are autumnal flowering shrubs that can be a real boost for pollinators.  Ivy, Mahonia and Hebe all offer something.

With Ivy, an evergreen climber, the bonus coms in the flowers which look like bunches of green-yellow baubles. These offer a scarce late nectar source for queen bumblebees preparing for hibernation or honey bees out foraging on sunny days. At this time of year most other flowers have gone to seed.

Mahonia is another standout, with its yellow nectar rich flowers a rare pollinator food source around as we head into winter.  With Hebe the simple rule is to ensure you plant a flowering variety, not all of them do.

It may be that you prefer bulbs to shrubs, well there is good news here too and bulbs such as crocus and snowdrop are a very valuable source of nectar and pollen for bees

So at this time of year be bold in the garden and think wildlife. For the here and now dismiss the temptation to be over-tidy. The leaves from your trees and shrubs are a valuable habitat for many small invertebrates, which in turn provide a food source for a host of birds. And if you plant new trees and shrubs you will offer food for insects and birds at key stages in their lifecycles.

The planting suggestions above are by no means exhaustive; a quick search on the internet will provide lots more ideas and tips and look for ideas that fit with your location.  But wherever you look remember that in making little changes in your garden selections you can make a huge difference to our pollinating insects.


From the ancient world to us, thanks to the honey bee

By Athayde Tonhasca

The Western or European honey bee (Apis mellifera) is deservedly celebrated as one of the most useful species to mankind. Besides giving us honey, wax, pollen and royal jelly, the honey bee is the world’s main crop pollinator and a significant pollinator of wild plants. But this bee has made a lesser known but historically important contribution to the culture and history of the Western world.

Bees from the genus Apis secrete liquid wax through specialised glands located in their abdominal segments. Once exposed to air, the wax hardens into flakes and falls off. Bees chew and mould the wax into honeycomb, the architecturally complex array of cells that store honey and pollen, and house the brood (eggs, larvae and pupae). 

Wax coming out of glands on the underside of the bee’s abdomen. © Wikipedia Creative Commons

Beeswax is obtained by melting the honeycomb, straining it to remove impurities, and pressing the residue to extract any remaining wax. The purified material is then poured into moulds to solidify. Beeswax is a natural plastic, used since prehistory as a lubricant, as well as for polishing, waterproofing, metal casting and embalming. Beeswax candles were an agreeable alternative to the existing sources of artificial light: smoky, messy and stinky torches, oil-fuelled lamps and tallow candles, which were made from animal fats. The popularity of beeswax candles rose with the spread of Christianity then fell after the Reformation, when candlelight lost its importance in liturgical practices. But beeswax still is a profitable commodity for candle manufacture, as well as for the preservation of fresh fruit and in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. 

The softness and pliability of beeswax gave the ancients a candle moment (lightbulbs were not around): flat pieces of wood, stone or metal could be covered with a thin layer of wax and written on with a sharpened stick. The tablet prototype was born. 

The Greeks and Romans improved the concept by using a wooden frame shaped like a shallow tray, which was filled with a layer of beeswax. Frames were fastened together with wires or twine, so that tablets could be opened and shut like a book; the edges prevented the waxy surfaces from rubbing against each other. A stylus made from iron, bronze or bone was used scratch words in the wax. 

Reproductions of a Roman wax tablet and a stylus. © Wikipedia Creative Commons

Tablets were portable and reusable writing surfaces; the beeswax could be warmed and the surface smoothed over. The stylus was flattened at one end so it could be used to scrape off any unwanted writing. For the Romans, a tabula rasa(scraped tablet) meant to start over, just as, centuries later, the slate and chalk used by school pupils gave us the term ‘a clean slate’. A good writer was said to have ‘a good stylus’. With time, ‘a stylus’ came to mean a distinctive characteristic of any kind, and so giving rise to our ‘style.’

Papyrus and vellum, the sturdy writing media of the time, were expensive and therefore out of reach of most literate people. Wax tablets were the affordable alternative, thus used widely for ephemeral communications such as letters, drafts, drawings and accounting ledgers. But permanent records such as wills and contracts were registered on wax as well. The earliest written documents recorded in Britain, dating from 50 to 80 AD, are Roman wooden tablets retrieved between 2010 and 2013 from a construction site in London (the Bloomberg Tablets).

A Greek man (~500 BC) and a Roman woman (~50 AC) with their wax tablets and styluses. © Wikipedia Creative Commons

Until the middle ages, virtually everyone who learned to write did so on a wax tablet. Livy, Ovid, Cicero, Martial and other classical authors mentioned tabulae ceratae (wax tablets) in their texts, so it is quite likely that much of their thinking was first drafted on beeswax. These writings were then copied over and over onto parchment and later on paper, so they survived over the centuries to inspire writers such as, by their own account, William Shakespeare, Dante Alighieri and Bernard Shaw.    

So, if next summer you find yourself sitting in a garden with a book in your hands while listening to the bees buzzing around, spare a moment to contemplate the possible connections. You will have another reason to cherish the honey bee.

Glasgow plants hope

Climate change and biodiversity loss are colossal twin challenges in a struggle society has to win.  No corner of the globe is left untouched. Recently the focus picked out Siberia where, it was revealed, between May and October of this year temperatures were 3 C higher than average. It was another startling indication that the crisis we face is as global as it is substantial.

Hoverfly on ox-eye daisy (C) Cath Scott

The postponed COP26 UN climate conference, will take place in November 2021 in Glasgow. And Scotland’s largest city will have a unique opportunity to showcase its own strides in tackling climate change within an international context.

As far as tackling the issues facing pollinators is concerned the city has much to be proud of and will be able to reflect on an increasingly positive outlook. Put simply Glasgow is overhauling the way it manages its public estate.

Glasgow has its own Pollinator Plan which neatly dovetails with the city’s Local Biodiversity Action Plan Monitoring, and Biodiversity Duty reporting. Coronavirus and subsequent restrictions may have put a sizable spanner in the works, but it hasn’t halted progress by any means.

Seven Lochs Volunteers planting wildflowers in a greenspace in Garthamlock, Glasgow. (C) Glasgow City Council

The city’s biodiversity drive is increasingly well honed. The opportunity to pro-actively promote habitat connectivity was seized with the launch of an Open Space Strategy in February 2020 which will seek to provide an integrated habitat network throughout the city.  

Glasgow is well-placed to deliver on this strategy. Already 30 key grasslands sites are managed as traditional meadows under an innovative mixture of management approaches. 

For example, 13 meadows are managed through the Council’s contracting procedures with work being undertaken on site under supervision of the Biodiversity Officers, whilst 15 smaller sites lean heavily on the enthusiasm and expertise of The Conservation Volunteers. And it’s a constantly evolving area of work which can deliver wider biodiversity gains – take for example the wildflower meadow which is cut and lifted specifically as part of the water vole grassland management trial. Great news for water voles, great news for pollinators.

Enhancing how the city looks, as well as how it delivers for biodiversity is a social task for sure.  Two ‘Friends’ groups have been an outstanding social as well as biodiversity success. The Friends of Glasgow Necropolis and Yorkhill Greenspaces in creating highly beneficial (and incredibly attractive) wildflower strips in their local areas have boosted prospects for pollinators and provided a green sanctuary for people to come together in when needed most during the pandemic.

One of the bedrocks of the Glasgow approach has been the ‘Flower Power’ nursery at Pollok Country Park. There the Countryside Rangers ran fortnightly volunteer sessions in their wildflower nursery on Tuesdays and Saturdays engaging a total of 191 individuals whilst providing 288 hours in volunteer time towards raising 1,120 wildflower plugs and plants across 27 sites. Behind the impressive numbers was a triumph of connecting people in a time of crisis.

Annual wildflowers at Hogganfield Park Local Nature Reserve (C) Cath Scott

Perhaps the busiest local group has been the aforementioned Friends of Yorkhill Greenspaces. They are led by the energetic and highly knowledgeable Scott Shanks who has a finely tuned sense of what pollinators need. He has worked with his local community to plant bulbs at Overnewton Park for early nectar and pollen sources, this complementing the work to plant year-round nectar-rich plants in borders and beds. 

Froglife, the amphibian and reptile group, got in on the act too. Through their  Glasgow Green Pathways project they planted over 200 crocus, grape hyacinth and snowdrop bulbs at different sites for pollinators and created wildflower areas in 15sq m of parkland in the shape of raised beds, and redesigned previously mown grass areas across Glasgow. For a small group it’s a big effort and contributes to the growing goal of creating connectivity that wildlife can exploit.

For Glasgow introducing nectar-rich plants into its formal planting schemes in parks and open spaces is a matter of course now. This is coupled with an aim to ensure early and late nectar sources in plantings. To this end 350,000 early flowering bulbs were planted city-wide and grass left uncut until October. It’s an approach that recognises the need for food for pollinators from the start of the season in early spring right through to autumn.

Much of what is achieved in Glasgow is on the back of positive partnership working. Working with Buglife Scotland meant Glasgow could hold 12 workshops/talks on pollinators with over 90 attendees in Castlemilk, Pollokshaws and the Seven Lochs Wetland Park. There was an equally inspiring link up with Butterfly Conservation to raise awareness of the role of pollinators and the variety in our midst.

The world is coming to Glasgow in November 2021. On the evidence of what they are doing for pollinators this is a city that is up for the challenge of identifying actions that make a difference.