C’mon the Yellows!

It’s all about the yellows and the purples this August in Caroline Anderson’s latest blog. But hang on we aren’t talking football teams, we’re looking at the wildflowers at Taynish.  And with Caroline behind the lens you are in for a photographic treat.

The yellow team includes Hawkweed, Celandine, St John’s wort (above right) and Sow Thistle.   With Devils Bit Scabious (above left), Hemp Agrimony, Purple Loosestrife and Knapweed for the purples.

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Painted Lady butterfly on Buddliea

These are all ‘pollinator plants’ which attract insects in great numbers.   Just like the recent influx of Painted Lady butterflies that descended on Buddliea all around the country, so our Taynish insects have their own personal favourites.

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Hoverfly on Purple Loosestrife

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Speckled Wood on Purple Loosestrife

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Bumblebee on Purple Loosestrife

Particularly popular was the Hemp Agrimony down at the Mill which was weighted down with hoverflies, bees, butterflies and even the odd moth or two.

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Hoverfly on Hemp Agrimony

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Bird Cherry Ermine moth on Hemp Agrimony

It looks to be a good year for the brambles too, slowly turning a deep luscious red.  The Common Darters were resting in amongst the ripening fruit and were very well camouflaged against the berries and leaves.

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Common Darter on Brambles

Interestingly, the Sow Thistle  at the shore had no insects on them at all – not one – how curious!  So, for this visit, I would say its 2-1 to the purples, though there is still time to equalise.  C’mon the yellows!

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Why not come along and see the pollinators in action at our family fun event on Saturday 31st August.

Join us at Taynish Mill on Sat. 31st Aug. for free family-fun day packed with pollinator-themed activities! Drop-in between 11-3pm. Best to walk from the village, as car parking is v. limited. Email heather.watkin@nature.scot or call 0131 316 2658 for more info and to book.

Details can also be found here https://www.facebook.com/events/2462980310603856/

Undertakers, pests, healers, pollinators: The multi-faceted green bottle flies

You have probably seen these shiny, metallic green flies in your garden or around the bins. They are blow flies of the genus Lucilia, which comprises several species that are difficult to tell apart. As Athayde Tonhasca reveals these flies are flashy and exuberant, but also have a dark reputation because of their association with death and decay.

Lucilia

Lucilia sp.   ©Athayde Tonhasca

Female green bottle flies use their powerful sense of smell to track minute volumes of sulphur volatiles released by recently dead animals. Once a fly finds a corpse, sometimes within minutes of death, it lays 150 to 200 eggs on it. The eggs quickly hatch into maggots, which feed on the rotting flesh. After about ten days, the maggots leave the body and pupate in the soil nearby.

Gross, you say? Well, green bottle flies help decompose carcasses, accelerating the release of organic matter and nutrients into the ecosystem. Without blow flies and other scavenging insects such as flesh flies and carrion beetles, decomposition by microorganisms would take much longer, so rotting carcasses would accumulate in the landscape.

Because green bottles and other blow flies are so dependent on dead bodies, they are an important aid to forensic science. By noting the flies’ life stage, criminal investigators can determine a person’s time of death, and the presence or absence of flies in certain environments can be an indication of tampering with the body.

But alas, these flies can lay their eggs on live bodies as well. The common green bottle fly Lucillia sericata is a serious pest of sheep, causing significant expenses for farmers.

However, green bottle flies are not all death and pestilence. Because their maggots preferentially consume dead tissue, they have been used for the treatment of diabetic ulcers, bedsores and other chronic wounds in people and animals. Disinfected L. sericata maggots are placed in a non-healing wound, where they eat the necrotic (dead) tissue and produce antimicrobial enzymes that prevent infections, thus speeding the growth of new tissue.

Maggot therapy has been known since 1557 when Ambroise Paré, the Chief Surgeon of King Charles IX of France, described a soldier with a deep head wound filled with a ‘great number of worms’ (probably maggots), and noted that the patient ‘recovered beyond all men’s expectation’. This unusual but effective treatment has saved many lives before antibiotics become widely available, and the therapy is experiencing a comeback because of antibiotic resistance.

This is not the last of L. sericata roles in nature. The species is a good pollinator of crops that produce few flowers or little pollen such as Cruciferae (cauliflower, cabbage), Compositae (lettuce),  Umbelliferae (carrot) and Liliaceae (onion, leek, asparagus); so much so that this fly is commercially available to complement the pollination by bees in glasshouses. One study has demonstrated that the common green bottle fly helps to distribute pollen evenly across strawberry flowers, thus improving fruit quality. More is to be discovered about the role of green bottle flies as pollinators of crops and wild flowers.

Not so bad for those green creatures buzzing around your rubbish.

Busy Buglife

This is a tale of perpetual motion. Pollinators get more than a passing mention, but the focus is on the energetic team at Buglife Scotland.  We caught up with their Scotland manager Suzanne Burgess recently, and found out more about their impressive range of projects for pollinators.

First up is a look at Falkirk. Best known for the Kelpies and the Falkirk Wheel, the town has rapidly become important for its pollinator provision.  Much of that is down to the fabulous strides being made to develop a series of Pollinator Parks.

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Five parks have now been transformed into urban wildflower havens for pollinators. A combination of planting plugs, sowing seeds and sourcing native bulbs for Princes Park, Policy Bing, Camelon Park, Bantaskine Estate, and Ash Park has delivered super resources for pollinator and people alike.

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Not only do these parks individually help pollinators in Falkirk, they increasingly bring connectivity of good habitat whilst driving relentlessly towards a pollinator corridor approach.

One of Buglife’s goals is to use the 134-mile long popular long-distance footpath, The John Muir Way, to deliver a pollinator way.

With funding from Greggs Foundation, and Scottish Government, Buglife has created 32 sites (seven more than initially planned), totalling almost 8 hectares, along the route. Over 300 people have been involved in planting events, and when it comes to teamwork the combined industry and efforts of Buglife, the Central Scotland Green Network, and the local authority, are clearly delivering huge benefits for nature.

Both the The John Muir Way and Falkirk Parks are part of Buglife’s nationwide and impressive B-Lines project.  In essence they create ‘insect pathways’ running through our countryside and towns, restoring and creating a series of wildflower-rich habitat ‘stepping stones’.

Central Scotland B-lines is the newest kid on the block and this project will create and transform habitat for pollinators along further stretches of the John Muir Way including sections in East Dunbartonshire and South Lanarkshire.  The work is one of 14 projects across Scotland to have been granted funds from Scottish Natural Heritage’s Biodiversity Challenge Fund.

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If Falkirk has grabbed the headlines it would be only fair to say that Buglife have been active in the west of Scotland too.

Garnock’s Buzzing is creating over 15 hectares (roughly 15 international rugby pitches) of wildflower meadows. It’s a joint initiative that draws upon the expertise and skills of North Ayrshire Council., RSPB, the Scottish Wildlife Trust, SEPA and Historic Environment Scotland.

Staying the Ayrshire area there are plans afoot to create two meadows in the parks of Kilbirnie. This work will take place in the autumn and include involvement from local school groups.

The involvement of the next generation is a key aim of Scotland’s Pollinator Strategy.

Working with schools offers an opportunity to explore the importance of pollinators, highlight the challenges they face, and encourage positive actions to help address those issues. A series of training workshops and FIT (Flower-Insect-Timed) counts will bolster efforts to engage new audiences with our vital pollinating insects.

Providing food sources for our hungry pollinators is crucial to ensuring they can thrive in Scotland, and that can take discussions beyond wildflower meadows and species rich grasslands into one which promotes an acknowledgement of the value of weeds for pollinators.

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Buglife are delivering a hugely important message in changing perceptions and raising awareness of this often misunderstood topic.

Clearly Buglife have been busy and look set to be so for some time. That, as ever, is great news for our vital pollinators.

Join the UK Pollinator Monitoring Scheme!

José van Paassen provides our guest blog today, looking at the UK Pollinator Monitoring Scheme. Their 1km square survey takes a systematic approach, using pan-traps to take samples of insects from a set of 75 1km squares across England, Scotland and Wales. There are still squares available to adopt in Scotland, so read on if you want to know more about how to get involved.

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Square 51 Laggan

It is 2pm. I have set up the pan traps for the Pollinator Monitoring Scheme (PoMS) four hours earlier, and have two more hours before having to pick them up.

Today I am surveying a square on the North coast of Scotland – one of the prettiest places in Scotland in my opinion. The sea here is extremely blue and looks very inviting after hiking to and from the PoMS square, even though it will be very cold. The heathlands are just about to turn purple with the flowering heather, changing the views completely and no doubt attracting many interesting bees and other insects.

Every PoMS survey square is different, there are 75 survey squares scattered across Great Britain, and 22 of them are in Scotland.

Surveying a square is a good day out – it always has to be nice weather to survey! – and a great contribution to gathering data on pollinator abundance and diversity.

Square 161 near Tongue

Square 161 near Tongue

Each square is ideally surveyed four times each summer, from May to August. The survey consists of setting out five sets of pan traps across the 1km square (the locations are shown with GPS coordinates and notes on a detailed map of the square), assessing flower abundance around the traps, and conducting 10-minute Flower-Insect Timed counts on 50×50 cm patches of flowers.

Most squares in Scotland are already taken up by volunteers, whom I or one of the PoMS team will have met on site to go through their first survey together and hand over equipment, but there are still a few available.

Square 42 Bettyhill

Square 42 Bettyhill

There are two beautiful squares on the North coast, near Bettyhill and Tongue (number 42 and 161 on the map). There are also still three squares available around the Aviemore area, one near Grantown-on-Spey (number 86, good lunch spots near the river!), one near Feshiebridge (number 128, very pretty valley), and one near Laggan (number 51), which is a stunning upland site with lots of orchids, sundews and hoverflies disguising as bees and wasps.

I feel very lucky being able to go to all these places in summer and would highly recommend people to take up a PoMS survey square near them. It is amazing to see what’s buzzing, and how it changes between the months as you become familiar with an area that has likely never been surveyed for pollinating insects before. It brings you to great places, and, if you dare, refreshes you with an ice-cold swim.

Contact poms@ceh.ac.uk if you are interested in joining us for an August survey, before it’s too late!

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On the road to better times

Road verges have been in the news of late. There is a growing realisation that these areas, if managed sympathetically for nature, can be places where wildflowers and wildlife can flourish, and high on the list of potential beneficiaries are pollinators.

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Much of what you may have read or seen will doubtless have been centred on England. There has been widespread coverage of actions in the likes of Rotherham, Newcastle and Sheffield across the media. And much of this is down to the energy of Plantlife who had been campaigning determinedly to make the most of our verges.

Now there are good news stories emerging in Scotland too.

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Take the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route/Balmedie to Tipperty project for example. This 36 mile route provides a much-needed bypass around Aberdeen, and was one of the biggest construction projects seen in Scotland. Given the scale of the project, there were inevitably some challenges, but in equal measure it offered opportunities.

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The funding partnership of Transport Scotland, Aberdeen City Council and Aberdeenshire Council set a fine example from the off. They have overseen the project around Aberdeen which was procured as a Design Build Finance and Operation (DBFO) scheme using a joint venture partnership of contractors.  The consultants managing the scheme on Transport Scotland’s behalf were Jacobs.

The work in the north east followed what is now Transport Scotland’s favoured model. This requires the use of native plant species, of local provenance, in all works on Scotland’s trunk road network. It’s an approach which has been championed for the past two decades, and the majority of new works now include significant areas of wildflower seeding as an integral part of project plans.

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You can see the benefits of this approach clearly around Aberdeen.

At Derbeth Overbridge, which carries a new access road over the bypass, there are large numbers of ox-eye daisies and white clover on the embankments and cuttings. For hard pressed pollinators clovers and oxeye daisies are a most welcome addition to their resources, and both were firmly part of the planning here.

The Balmedie to Tipperty dualling section of the A90 attracted lots of favourable comments as the verges were looking spectacularly colourful earlier this summer with great swathes of poppies and sea mayweed. The area around the Balmedie junction was a particular highlight.

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In isolation these sites are good, viewed as part of a larger picture they are great. As one of my good friends in Aberdeen said recently “The great thing about roads is that they are all connected, so they have huge potential to be a valuable part of a pollinator habitat network.”

Not far from Derbeth Overbridge is a sizable patch of kidney vetch. A coloniser of poor, bare soil it is a great source of nectar and pollen for bees and hoverflies. It is one thing for good food sources to emerge, it is quite another for them to avoid the mowing machines. But here too the news is good. Mowing seems to be confined to a narrow strip adjacent to the kerbside and around signs and such like. As a result things like white clover are abundant along the bypass verges and this relaxed and complementary  mowing regime is certainly paying dividends for pollinating insects.

Few projects are perfect and there is – as Glen Campbell sang in Rhinestone Cowboy – compromising to be done.  But even so there is a lot of a positive nature that the Aberdeen bypass can reflect on.

In the course of any construction project there is a balance to be struck which we measure in terms of net biodiversity gain or loss. But this project certainly tried to ensure the balance was on the positive side.

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The installation of wildlife bridges at Kingcausie and Kirkhill was a first for a Scottish trunk road and is a sign that the need to provide safe crossings for wildlife (and thereby join habitats) is rising up the agenda quickly. You may have seen this on the continent, now it is making inroads on our own shores.

Transport Scotland has had this kind of positive outcome in their sights for some time now. Over a period of time, successive schemes combined with a verge management policy that actively encourages the development of species rich grass swards have taken centre stage.

Through the introduction of mowing regimes that minimise cutting in areas where there are no operational or safety issues, you can begin to see a noticeable increase in the flora content of our road verges.

Arguably this has been particularly evident this year – perhaps partly related to optimum weather conditions – with many roads around the Scottish network displaying abundant displays of wildflowers, native grasses and other desirable ground cover species.

You can always build on success.  Hence the high profile and ongoing A9 Dualling Programme has seen Transport Scotland aim to establish a Supply Contract for all the native seeding requirements across the whole series of schemes using local origin collections.

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But let’s dwell on success and return to Aberdeen.  Relaxed mowing regimes, abundant food sources, connectivity … little wonder the Aberdeen bypass is catching positive headlines, and pollinators are amongst the creatures clearly benefitting.

 

READ MORE …

You can find out more about Transport Scotland’s approach to verge management in their excellent landscape policy document, Fitting Landscapes.  Transport Scotland recently supported PlantLife in the preparation of their soon to be published best-practice guidance on good management of road verges .

 

Images 1 and 3 courtesy and copyright Michalina Wojcik of Jacobs, Images 4 and 5 courtesy of Angus Corby of Transport Scotland.

Life, but not as they knew it

Dead lions, dandelions, treacle, pollen & cesspools – the many facets of the drone fly’s life By Athayde Tonhasca

Tis seldom when the bee doth leave her comb, in the dead carrion.

Henry IV, William Shakespeare

If you take a close look at a tin of Lyle’s Golden Syrup, you will notice something peculiar: the image of a dead lion surrounded by a swarm of bees, and underneath the slogan ‘Out of the strong came forth sweetness’. The image is based on the Biblical tale in which Samson kills a lion, and later finds a honeycomb inside it. This supposedly inspired Samson to write a riddle: ‘Out of the eater came forth meat and out of the strong came forth sweetness’. Apparently the story impressed Scottish businessman Abram Lyle, and so one of Britain’s oldest brands was born; its logo remains virtually unchanged since 1885.

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Lyle’s Golden Syrup. © Wikipedia Creative Commons.

The biblical quotation appealed to Victorian virtues, but the yarn about dead animals and bees is more than 2,000 years old: the Greeks and Romans believed that honey bees originated by spontaneous generation from oxen carcasses. The story inspired the poet Virgil around 29 BC: ‘from putrid gore of cattle slain/bees have been bred’. It also inspired Shakespeare.

The classical and biblical bees-from-carrion tale would be seen as just another myth from ancient peoples who didn’t know better if it wasn’t for the Russian diplomat and entomologist Baron Karl-Robert von Osten-Sacken. In 1893, the Baron suggested that ‘bees’ found around dead animals were in fact flies: not the expected blow flies and bluebottles, but the drone fly, Eristalis tenax.

The drone fly (a species of hoverfly) is native to Europe and one of the most common British hoverflies. In some years populations are boosted dramatically by immigration from the continent.  The name ‘drone fly’ comes from its resemblance, in appearance and behaviour, to honey bees. Males are territorial, chasing away other males and even bees, wasps and butterflies. The adults feed on pollen, especially from yellow flowers, and they are believed to contribute to the pollination of wild plants and some crops.

A male drone fly

A male drone fly. Like many fly species, males have larger eyes that almost touch, while female eyes are spaced apart. © Wikipedia Creative Commons.

After mating, females lay eggs near dirty, contaminated water such as manure lagoons, holding pits in livestock areas, ditches and wet silage. The larva has a long ‘tail’, which is a specialized respiratory structure that works as a snorkel, allowing the insect to breathe air from the surface. This respiratory appendage gives the larva its common name: the rat-tailed maggot.

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A drone fly larva (rat-tailed maggot). © Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Baron von Osten-Sacken has shown that under the right circumstances, female drone flies lay their eggs in water accumulated on or around animal carcasses. As these flies look, buzz and fly just like bees, it is easy to understand how they were mistaken for honey bees emerging from dead animals. Hence another ancient myth was created.

 

To learn more about the drone fly, go to

University of Florida’s Featured Creatures page.

Steven Falk’s Flickr album.

A walk on the wild side

Take a walk around Taynish NNR at this time of year and you’ll be in for a treat. Situated in the area of Argyll and Bute, it’s a flurry of flowers blooming and insects buzzing. Caroline Anderson, on the back of a recent visit, provides an insight on the insect comings and goings on the reserve.

7:15 a.m. and already 18°, the sun bursting through the trees bodes well for this visit to the pollinator trail.

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Lots of new growth around, the wild roses are blooming, there are new leaves on the oak trees and the cotton-grass glows in the early light.   As I walk along the boardwalk the damsels are already flitting about in the warmth, the darters, however, are still warming their wings – which is great for me!

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Further down the track in the burn next to the mill the hemlock water dropwort, which for humans is the most poisonous plant in Britain, is completely alive with pollinator insects.  Some of them wear the pollen like sequins and it glistens in the sun.

Down by the shore the butterflies are starting to wake up and the first of the day is a red admiral, enjoying the sun on its wings.  On the shore on a clump of nettles, there are lots of peacock caterpillars jostling for what’s left of the leaves. Back up the track and the speckled wood butterflies are on the wing, occasionally stopping for sustenance.

Whether one of the smallest  or one of the largest  insects they are all busily keeping our plants and trees pollinated which makes our countryside so beautiful.

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