Natural bookshelf

For those of us who enjoy natural history books we have been living in a ‘land of plenty’ of late. It seems that barely a month passes without another exciting new title added to the list of good reads.  In amongst the blizzard of publishing activity books about bees have certainly had their moment in the sun, and in this short article we take a look at just a handful of titles you might enjoy.

IMG_0376 2

It is fair to say that Professor Dave Goulson took the literary world by storm with his unique mixture of insight and humour in ‘A Sting in the Tale’. It’s a few years since that excellent title re-ignited interest in natural history books up and down the country, and not unreasonable to say it fuelled something fresh in the publishing and nature writing circles.

By his own admission Dave grew up obsessed by insects, and wildlife in general. Now Professor of Biology at Sussex University he has published over 200 scientific papers on bumblebees and other insects, and in 2006 he founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, a charity which now boasts over 7,000 members.

Professor Goulson made the leap from academia to popular writing with incredible success and style. His main gift is that he is superbly able to demystify complex themes and detail, whilst retaining a dash of humour and a pleasing conversational tone.  Little wonder his work has featured on Radio Four’s Book of the Week as well as being shortlisted for the coveted Samuel Johnson Prize.

A Sting in the Tale’ introduced a whole new readership to bumblebees, and was followed by other titles all of which have featured bees in varying degrees. ‘A Buzz in the Meadow’, took the reader on an interesting journey to France where Dave used his small landholding to create and study a mini wildlife reserve. ‘Bee Quest’ was much more widely travelled and the author recounted visits to the Hebrides, Ecuador, Patagonia and Poland. Again the story was told in a fashion that was both compelling and hugely informative. And in his latest book ,‘The Garden Jungle’, Dave makes a plea that we all plant for pollinators. That seems a good point for his progression of highly enjoyable books to have reached.


Thor Hanson’s ‘Buzz’ highlights the American experience and spends a deal of time looking at California and Florida. He analysed a range of subjects from solitary bees and almond orchards to the transportation of bees across America to pollinate crops. His was an interesting read that highlighted practices that entomologists had long been aware of and held a deep interest in, but which hadn’t made it into the public domain with quite the force that might have been expected.

For those seeking fiction, then Maja Lunde’s ‘The History of Bees’ may fit the bill.  It’s a story set in three different time-frames. From China 2098 back to the United States in 2007 and England in 1851 it focuses on the role of bees, our inescapable connection with them, and how successive generations of beekeepers have faced different challenges.



Climate Change is a key theme in this fascinating novel which many have suggested could prove as thought provoking as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Another strand running through this novel is culture and how place, economics and time have dictated the ways in which people interact with pollinators.

As we contemplate more time spent at home books will be increasingly important. If nature sparks your imagination, then the above might just help ease you through the weeks ahead.

How to make a pollinator meadow

Why we should help pollinators

Insects are vital in the functioning of healthy ecosystems and provide us with useful services such as the pollination of crops.  Unfortunately, some pollinating insects such as bees, hoverflies and moths are experiencing significant and widespread decline. This is largely due to habitat loss, as over 97% of our flower rich grasslands have disappeared from the British landscape in less than a century. Creating good quality pollinator habitat isn’t as difficult as you might think and could help to restore local insect populations, as Apithanny Bourne explains.

What can I do to help?

It’s easy and rewarding to garden for pollinators – regardless of the size of space you have available. The main requirement is to provide both nectar rich flowering plants and larval food plants – catering for all stages of the insect lifecycle. There are many options for introducing nectar into the garden depending on the size of space and resources available to you. This blog post will focus on how to create a native wildflower meadow in a garden or area of greenspace.

Bumblebee feeding on devil's bit scabious.©Lorne Gill

Devil’s-bit scabious

Planning a pollinator meadow:

Before designing a meadow, it might be useful to do some research into which pollinator species occur in your area. This will vary regionally but also depending on whether you live in an urban or rural habitat. Many species, such as the Buff Tail Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) are generalists – meaning they can thrive in a variety of habitats and feed on a number of plants. If you are lucky enough to have more specialist species where you live, you can consider planting the relevant food plants to help them.

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust have a useful Identification Chart

Preparing ground for wildflower seed:

A meadow need not be large, as even a strip or square meter can produce a great display of wildflowers. The most popular and affordable method of achieving this is by sowing seed directly onto bare soil. For smaller areas, it may be possible to prepare ground by hand with gardening tools. Alternately, larger areas of turf can be removed efficiently with a turf cutter or rotavator. These items of machinery are expensive to buy but can usually be hired locally for an affordable daily rate. It’s important to remember that wildflowers favour nutrient-poor soils and it can take time to reduce the fertility of land which has been regularly treated with fertilisers (e.g. lawns and former arable pastures). Make sure that no chemical fertilisers or manure are added to your future meadow site.

Wildflower strip being prepared with a rotavator

Wildflower strip being prepared with a rotovator. (Image (c) Apithanny Bourne)

Winter preparation of a wildflower patch, ready for sowing in early spring

Winter preparation of a wildflower patch, ready for sowing in early spring. (Image (c) Apithanny Bourne)

Where to source plants?

It’s good practice to source seeds and plants locally if possible, to account for regional differences in climate. One of the best (and cheapest!) ways is to swap seeds and cuttings with friends – this way you can also be sure they have not been treated with any pesticides or herbicides, as is often the case in garden centres. Alternatively there are some great nurseries in Scotland who focus on providing a wildlife friendly service. Most garden centres and supermarkets also now use the pollinator friendly logo – look out for it on seed packets and plant labels.

Look out for this label on plants and seed packets

Look out for this label on plants and seed packets

Which species to grow?

Deciding which species to plant can be difficult, thankfully there are many existing resources to help you (see links at the bottom of this post). A true meadow should contain a mixture of native perennial wildflowers and grasses – which will provide a good supply of nectar year after year. Grasses might not seem an obvious choice to put into your nicely prepared ground, however native grass species are an important food source for many insects. Avoid colourful annual mixes which are often sold in supermarkets in spring – although eye-catching, the poppies, cornflowers and lack of grasses in these mixes are not a true representation of a natural meadow.

The type of plant species required will largely depend on the type of soil and how waterlogged it becomes – however popular choices include yellow rattle, common knapweed, yarrow, birds-foot trefoil, meadow buttercup, red clover, tufted vetch, lady’s bedstraw, devil’s bit scabious, meadow foxtail, sweet vernal grass and common bent to name just a few. Why not take a look at the different seed mixes available through Scotia Seeds to get an idea.

True meadow containing native perennial wildflowers and grasses

True meadow containing native perennial wildflowers and grasses.

Yellow Rattle

Yellow Rattle is the most important addition to any new meadow and has earned itself the nicknames “meadow maker” and “nature’s lawn mower.” This lovely yellow-flowered plant will parasitise dominant grass species, keeping them under control and naturally increasing the species diversity of grasslands. Its seed can be bought in bulk and sown during the autumn and winter months. If you add only one species to your meadow – make it this one!

Yellow rattle

Yellow rattle


Wildflower seeds (particularly yellow rattle) often need to have their dormancy broken by cold winter weather, so it’s best to seed your meadow either in the autumn or spring. The type of seed mix you purchase may also influence your sowing time, as some mixes are aimed at providing early spring or late summer nectar – check the planting guidelines to be sure.

When seeding a large area it can be difficult to remember where you have already been. Try adding some fine sand to the mix (in the ratio one part seed to three parts sand) to remind you! You won’t need to rake in the seed you scatter, but do walk over it to ensure good contact with the soil.

Natural Meadow creation

If removing turf sounds like a bit too much hard work then fear not – there is a less strenuous alternative, which simply involves altering your mowing regime. Try to significantly reduce the frequency of cuts and see if any wildflower seeds already existing in the seed bank begin to grow – you may be surprised! This is a good way to quickly make your garden more pollinator friendly, as even common plants such as clover and dandelions are fantastic nectar sources.

If the natural cutting method isn’t quite achieving the results you hoped for, plug plants are a great solution. Although buying ready grown plants is a bit more expensive than seed, planting plugs into existing grassland does have a greater success rate.

Garden where areas of lawn are left uncut during spring and summer.

Garden where areas of lawn are left uncut during spring and summer. (Image (c) Apithanny Bourne)

Meadow Maintenance

People often think that meadows should be abandoned completely to nature, however this is not the case. Performing a cut once or twice a year is important to maintain species diversity and prevent rank grassland (where tall grass falls over in winter, preventing anything from growing the following year). Try to perform a cut in early spring before plants start to grow and then again in late summer (after plants have set seed). Ensuring that all cuttings are removed quickly to maintain low soil fertility.

Many invertebrates and small mammals rely on grassland vegetation to overwinter, so it’s best to maintain a mosaic within you meadow. For example leaving one quarter uncut and rotating this each year.

Cutting of meadow at end of summer.

Cutting of meadow at end of summer

Find out more

Identifying meadows:

Creating meadows:

All images courtesy and copyright of Apithanny Bourne where stated, others copyright Lorne Gill/SNH.

Please share your meadow creation photos with us @Scotpollinators !



A buzz in the museum

Museums are great.  They bind communities, they collect and display our past, and they educate. Our interaction with cultural facilities will clearly be quite different for some time, so perhaps an on-line reflection which you can enjoy from your own home could offer a little respite.

Natural history museums are a particular delight as they show the evolving story of our relationship with and understanding of nature. Beekeeping museums make up a tiny proportion of Europe’s museums, but boy what a story they tell.

Since 1959 Radovljica in Slovenia has celebrated beekeeping in what must surely be one of Europe’s most captivating speciality museums.


Radovljica, Slovenia

A highlight of the museum is a stunning collection of over 200 aged hand painted beehive panels. The ‘father’ of Slovenian beekeeping – Anton Jansa – who would have been very familiar with the art of the beehive panel, operated in the 1700s and gets more than a passing mention – and it was his birthday, naturally enough, that was chosen to mark World Bee Day.  May 20, just in case you wish to raise a glass to this remarkable innovator.


The Carniolan grey bee is held dear in Slovenia and thus earns a fair bit of floor space.  So if you ever find yourself near Lake Bled do try and make time for the short hop to Radovljica, you won’t’ regret it and it’s worth noting that the labels are in English, Slovenian, Italian and German.  For me the glass observation hive is a personal favourite, enjoyable in its own right and reminding me of time as a small boy spent watching the comings and goings at the glass bee hive in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum.

Equally captivating is a bee museum in the South Tyrol on the Renon (Ritten) plateau. Located in the Plattnerhof farm, it surely claims the best view from any bee museum. Housed in a lovingly preserved traditional farmhouse and set in charming grounds this is a sheer delight. Those grounds not only stare out over a spectacular expanse of the famous Dolomites but an educational trail gives a close and detailed insight into the world of beekeeping.


Tools and equipment associated with beekeeping are here in profusion, as is another glass-sided bee hive to observe all the comings and goings. There are baskets that replicated the nesting sites in trees that bees traditionally favoured. The famous old beehive known as The Muchstock (invented by Romedius Girtler who was the author of one of the first ‘bibles for beekeepers’ —  Der Bienenmuch) is displayed along with a range of historical literature aimed at better beekeeping. And as in Slovenia the artistic front boards that adorned many a traditional hive occupy a prominent spot.
The stories of the two sisters who ran this farm for many years are fascinating. Given where this museum is and the sheer wealth of beautifully displayed materials it is hard to imagine a better place to learn about the ancient art of beekeeping.


It’s not only dedicated bee museums that cover this appealing subject. In the Ethnographic Museum in Dubrovnik there is a lovely little section about the history of beekeeping with some fascinating old wooden hives which were crafted to resemble tree-trunks with lids.

Congratulations to the many people behind the beguiling exhibitions in Slovenia, Dubrovnik and the Alto Adige for celebrating beekeeping with such panache.

Find out more about the Slovenian beekeeping museum at Radovljica @

Discover more about the beekeeping museum at the Plattnerhoff @





Gorse, or bee emergency food

Common gorse can be seen in all kinds of habitats, from heaths, coastal grasslands and forest margins to towns and gardens, writes Athayde Tonhasca. Like other members of the pea family (Fabaceae), this plant has nitrogen-fixing bacteria on its roots, so it can live in areas of poor soil quality. Nitrogen fixation also gives it a competitive advantage over non-legumes. Gorse is considered a serious invasive weed outside its native range: here in the UK, gorse thickets provide safe nesting sites for a range of birds and it is essential for the survival of some of our pollinators.


The common gorse (Ulex europaeus). © Wikipedia Creative Commons.

The flowering season of most plants coincides with warmer weather, when insects are flying about. Gorse however, generally flowers from January to June. This apparent flowering continuity in fact comprises two types of gorse-bush: those that flower in the winter, with a smaller number of flowers, and those that flower abundantly in the spring. Gorse has evolved this unusual pattern as a ‘bet hedging’ survival strategy: pods produced in the winter face harsher conditions but escape predation by the gorse seed weevil (Exapion ulicis) and the moth Cydia succedana, which can infest 70% of the seeds; spring pods are heavily attacked by predators, but produce so many seeds that some are likely to get away.

St Cyrus NNR. Grampian Area.©Lorne Gill/SNH

St Cyrus NNR. Grampian Area. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

With the arrival of spring, bumble bee queens gradually wake up from hibernation to start a colony on their own. The success of a new bumble bee nest depends on the queen finding food quickly to have the strength to build a nest and lay eggs. Gorse’s bright yellow, coconut-perfumed flowers produce little nectar, but its early spring blooms can be a life saver to these queens – and to honey bees as well – who have a hard time finding food at this time of the year.


Wildflowers, trees and crops in the wider countryside usually produce enough pollen and nectar for bees to feed on from late spring through summer, but early spring and late summer (August-September) are periods of nectar deficit. Wild bees (bumble bees and solitary bees) store little honey or none at all, so they require a constant supply of nectar throughout the year to stay alive. Breaks of even one week could drastically limit pollinators’ survival.

So early-flowering plants (e.g., gorse, willows, hazel and dandelions) and late-flowering plants (e.g., red clover, ivy and bramble) help to fill the pollinators’ hungry gaps.

That’s a wrap

Leafcutter bees are remarkable insects. Not only are they excellent pollinators but their nesting habits are truly extraordinary.  Frustratingly, evidence of their activities, rather than sight of the bees themselves, are the nearest many of us get to them. Maybe it’s a bit like Oberammergau’s Passion Play, you know it’s there but seeing it is pretty tricky.


Patchwork Leafcutter Bee. Courtesy and copyright of gailhampshire from Cradley, Malvern, U.K / CC BY (

As with most solitary bees there is no maternal after-care for young leafcutter bees. Each spring the newly emerged females begin the job of preparing for the next generation almost immediately. Once mated, they select a potential nest cell in a hollow plant stem or similar cavity and, as their name suggests, the initial stage in preparing their nest is lining this with sections of leaves they have cut with their mandibles from plants. The structure has been said by many observers to liken the structure of a cigar or a small wrap.

This is the nest in which they lay a single egg and surround it with a nectar-pollen mix which the larva will feed on when it hatches.  They will repeat this process until the hole is filled with multiple well-provisioned cells. And with that the adult females are off; job done.

The eggs hatch and the well-fed larvae will then pupate and overwinter in this individual cell until emerging as an adult the next spring or early summer.  At that stage the whole process is on the cusp of starting again and once mated the females will live up to their leafcutter name with some urgency.

The fact is that the leafcutter bee’s handiwork, rather than they themselves, is most often seen. Think back to spotting little sections cut out of the likes of lilacs and rose leaves and what you probably observed was the work of the leafcutter bee. Now that you know, you can keep your eyes peeled for their neat, crescent-shaped trademark.

Gardeners should not fret if they stumble across evidence of the leafcutter bee at work. Misinformation and mistrust often stalks the common perception of insects. However, the amount trimmed is so small as to be of negligible impact on a healthy plant, certainly far less than a vigorous gardener might take in the course of enthusiastic action with a pair of secateurs. Plants don’t succumb in their wake.

So to the bee itself, or rather any one of the seven species you might encounter in the UK. They are dark coloured bees, often with orangey coloured hair, and they aren’t big with a wing span that never exceeds 1.5 cm.

If you are lucky enough to see a female carrying her prized leaf cutting back to her nest the sight is memorable as the leaf section is cleverly carried between her legs. It’s an incongruous site and one of nature’s moment that inevitably draws a smile from the watcher.

At Battleby we have had success with red mason bees using our bee houses, here’s hoping that perhaps leafcutters will be tempted as they are known to use man-made bee houses.

The pollination service provided by leafcutter bees is increasingly recognised. In North America they are known to pollinate alfalfa crops and it is said that they are more effective than the much better known and popularly revered honey bee. Their pollination service extends to garden plants so the presence of leafcutter bees in a garden should be celebrated rather than feared.

Leafcutter bees are indeed remarkable and one of the most engaging of our many solitary bees. But this is no Passion Play, and with luck you can view this spectacle every year.

A colourful banquet

After several months of the cold and prolonged darkness of winter it’s an eagerly anticipated delight to see the first sparkling flowers of the year emerge.  Amongst the highlights are surely twinkling snowdrops, glossy winter aconites and vivid crocus.


For many people the first glimpse of snowdrops is a sure sign that spring is coming. The dazzling white flowers are a boon for insects and this is a plant that requires absolutely no maintenance.  There was a misconception at one time that snowdrops didn’t produce seeds, but they can if there are pollinators about and for any emerging queen bumblebee snowdrops could be a life-saver. Bumblebee Conservation Trust point out that in some areas the buff-tailed bumblebee is active in winter and that snowdrops can be a great source beyond the likes of Mahonia and winter-flowering heather.


Snowdrop have another endearing quality, they frequently evolve into patches or drifts. As you might expect given their eagerly anticipated early flowering they have an interesting social history. Once strongly associated with Candlemass, which falls 40 days after Christmas, they had a less celebrated association with churches as they were often planted around graveyards which for some meant that snowdrops were associated with death.


From the white of the snowdrop to the golden yellow of the winter aconite. This low plant can create a stunning display of yellow at what is often a grey time of year.  It certainly lifts the spirits of many and it isn’t uncommon to see it flowering next to snowdrops making for a lovely sparkling display.

Winter aconites. ©Lorne Gill

The winter aconite, is reckoned to be a native of south west continental Europe and, just like the snowdrop, is naturalised in the UK.  It has nothing to do with the ‘real’ aconite.  Instead it’s a member of the buttercup family and loves deep deciduous woodland where it flowers before the tree canopy opens.


Without tree leaves “getting in the way” light can get down to ground level even at this time of year making the flowers very visible.   The flowers reflect UV light suggesting that they are adapted to attract pollinators which can see the UV spectrum. As an early source of nectar winter aconite has a role in helping insects that venture out before spring is fully in swing.


And so to crocuses, where the colour range increases significantly. Spring-flowering crocus is a great source of early nectar and pollen for foraging bees and flies as the days begin to warm up. Indeed the sight of pollen-sprinkled bumblebees on purple crocuses with their vivid yellow stamen is an increasingly popular macro photograph these days.


As with many plants we can’t be 100% sure of how the crocus made it to Scotland, but it is reckoned that the bulb originated from parts of western China, the Middle East and Mediterranean parts of Europe. Again this isn’t a difficult plant to care for and provided the bulbs are not sunk too deeply they have a chance of doing well, and you certainly don’t need to tidy up after them once they have flowered. I do however note that I get the odd squirrel digging up the bulbs!


If you want to get your garden or container buzzing, these popular plants might be just thing for you. They will add a dash of early colour, and our pollinators will certainly benefit.  Enjoy them this year if you have them, and perhaps plan for next year if you don’t!

The Grayling – a master of disguise

Many butterflies are brightly-coloured, from the azure glint of the Common Blue, to the burnt orange of the Small Copper. But one of our most intriguing species is a complete master of disguise: the Grayling, as Anthony McCluskey explains in our guest blog today. When they are in flight it’s easy to see this butterfly, as the wings are brown and orange, and the butterflies are often engaged in energetic courtship flights or defending their territories.

Grayling at Holyrood - AMcCWhen they land though, the wings snap shut and the butterfly can literally disappear in front of our eyes. The undersides of the wings are a mix of grey-brown and light-coloured speckles that look just like gravel or stones. This corresponds incredibly well to the dry stony grasslands that this butterfly breeds in. There are even several recognised sub-species of this butterfly, some of which appear to be adapted to the particular types of plants and rocks of their habitats.

Graylings are now mostly a coastal butterfly, and many inland sites for this species have disappeared. Inland they can still be found in quarries, former industrial sites and along train tracks, where the mix of sparse grass and rocks is perfect for them.

But all is not well for the Grayling; populations have crashed in recent times, and in Scotland it is estimated that the butterfly has declined in abundance by almost 90% over the past thirty years. The story across the UK is bleak too, with declines in abundance of almost 60% in the past forty years reported.

Despite this, it’s still possible to find this butterfly in what seems the most unlikely of places: the heart of Edinburgh! Around Edinburgh there are the remains of ancient volcanoes – Edinburgh Castle is built on one, and Arthur’s Seat is another. The rock that make up these features is hard, and the soil is thin – a perfect home for this elusive butterfly! Similar rocks can be found at Calton Hill, and the ridge of rock faces running parallel to Calton Road. And despite the butterfly’s camouflage, it’s easy to see them there in the summer. They mostly fly from early July to mid-August here, and if it’s a sunny day you’ll see them in this area. I’ve even spotted them drinking nectar from Buddleia bushes on Regent Road!

Calton Hill Work Party (11)

The habitat of the Grayling and other butterflies is threatened by shrubs like Gorse, which can get a hold on the thin soil and shelter out the low-growing wildflowers and grasses. So to help Graylings at Calton Hill and Holyrood Park I’ve been working with volunteers to control the gorse. It’s a prickly job, but a good one to warm us up in winter! Volunteers have also been recording Grayling numbers at Holyrood Park and Calton Hill, and in 2019 they had a real bumper year, with twice as many recorded.

Our next outing to Holyrood to control gorse will be on Sunday 1st March, and you’ll find the details of it and all our events on our events webpage, here:


Anthony works for Butterfly Conservation as the Helping Hands for Butterflies Project Officer. His work to support volunteers recording butterflies, and to create and maintain butterfly habitats, is supported by funds from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Scottish Natural Heritage. The work at Holyrood Park and Calton Hill has been supported by Historic Environment Scotland and City of Edinburgh Council.