Tee-ing things up for nature

When it comes to helping nature you have to hand it to John Milne, head greenkeeper at Rothes Golf Club. He was recently nominated for the Conservation Greenkeeper of the Year by the Golf Environment Awards, and prides himself on making his course as pollinator-friendly as possible.

John Milne 1John is well-travelled and has experience of golf courses stretching from Scotland to Cyprus, Mallorca and Australia. Now settled near his home town of Elgin he knows the Rothes course particularly well –  he played it as a boy and worked here back in 2003.

What measures has he taken to help pollinators?  The main step has been to ease back on mowing some areas around the rough. This has allowed a host of native wildflowers to gain a foothold and the species count has soared as a result. For example last summer John could celebrate an attractive blaze of yarrow and harebell in an area where the small change of just stopping continual mowing was creating a big impact.

A glance at the Rothes green keeping facebook page shows an impressive array of flowers and insects.  Bumblebees of various varieties, hoverflies, moths, orange-tip butterflies and goodly number of ringlets vie for attention in what is a homage to golf and nature. Some of those species you might expect. Perhaps less so the regular seasonal sighting of mining bees.

If you were to list the pollinator-friendly plants on John’s golf course you would be compiling a lengthy list – thistles, ladies smock (cuckoo flower), devil’s bit scabious are just a few of the plants that now flourish here.

By embedding a bug hotel into the building of a new tee John was hoping to snatch an opportunity to create a home for wildlife, and the inclusion of softer touches like the bird feeders within clear view of the clubhouse are another welcome addition. As with anything in life there are few guarantees of success, but by being willing to try different approaches John increases his chances of helping biodiversity and engages others with the subject.

Creation of good habitat is one thing, managing it is another aspect. Cutting and lifting, excessive sunshine or rain, these are typical challenges in improving the ecological performance of rough grass areas. And of course John is all the while balancing improving the aesthetics of the golf course, with seeking to increase biodiversity and maintaining a sound level of play-ability.

Aggressive grass growing conditions, and a lack of equipment, can mean that John has to step back in time and revert to traditional man-hours and hard labour to tackle the rough.  It was a herculean exercise of this nature that has got John considering the merits of planting yellow rattle in order to tackle the sward more naturally (yellow rattle being a native plant which is parasitic on grass roots, known as a ‘meadow-maker’,  and will suppress grass growth).



With these levels of commitment and planning it is little wonder that John was highly delighted to get a glowing ‘well done’ when  Rowan Rumball, a Sports Turf Research Institute Ecologist, visited last September to judge the environmental and ecological improvements at Rothes.

The north-east is proving a hot-bed for progressive golf course management. Of the four nominees in the Conservation Greenkeeper of the Year category three are from this region of Scotland (Rothes, Banchory and Montrose) with a course in East Anglia’s Ipswich making up the quartet. Richard Mullen at Banchory gained a further mention in the Operation Pollinator category.

The 2020 Golf Environment Awards are celebrating their 25th anniversary in 2020, and continue to recognise golf clubs and individuals that strive to undertake environmental best practice. Past finalists’ projects have ranged from simple but effective, to grand scale schemes.

Head of Ecology at STRI, Bob Taylor, said: “I cannot believe it’s twenty five years since we first set up the Golf Environment awards. Moreover, the awards have become the leading accolade for ecological and environmental excellence within the golf industry. Many golf greenkeepers tell me the awards represent something to aspire to, they provide an opportunity to market the good works they do. For me the awards represent a growing community that all come together at the awards celebrations discussing works and passing on ideas. Anyone is welcome to attend the awards, and one thing is certain you will leave inspired by the great work clubs are doing.”

The award to the Conservation Greenkeeper of the Year will be made in Harrogate on 22 January and, no matter the outcome, John is a winner as far as nature is concerned.

Further reading

You can find out about Richard Mullen’s work at Banchory in our earlier blog @ https://scottishpollinators.wordpress.com/2019/09/04/on-course-for-nature/







The pink hawks sampling our lilacs (Vladimir Nabokov)

The elephant hawk moth (Deilephila elpenor) is not yet common in Scotland, but its range is expanding, writes Athayde Tonhasca in our latest blog. This colourful moth flies at dusk and night, feeding on honeysuckle and other sweet-smelling flowers that open and produce nectar at night-time. 

Elephant hawk moth © Wikipedia Creative Commons

Elephant hawk moth © Wikipedia Creative Commons

Hawk moths (family Sphingidae) are large and strong flyers. They can swerve with great agility, producing a soft whirring sound as they pass by. While most nectarivore (nectar-eating) insects land on the flower to feed, the elephant hawk moth hovers in front of the flower and extends its long, straw-like proboscis to suck its nectar. Stationary flight is quite demanding energetically, so the moth must be efficient when searching for food. But it has a special power: it can see colour at very low light levels, in conditions in which we humans are completely colour-blind. This ability allows the moth to quickly recognize rewarding flowers regardless of changing light conditions.

The elephant hawk moth pollinates the greater butterfly-orchid (Platanthera chlorantha) and the lesser butterfly-orchid (P. bifolia). However, as it is the case for moths in general, we don’t know much else about its pollination services. Hawk moths use their long tongues to access flowers with long corollas, which typically are out of reach for other pollinators. These moth-plant interactions are important for evolutionary biology because moth tongue length seems to coevolve with plant corolla length, a phenomenon first postulated by Charles Darwin. So the elephant hawk moth may have a greater ecological role in Britain – we just don’t have the data yet.

Elephant hawk moth caterpillar. It is usually dark brown, but there are bright green forms. © Wikipedia Creative Commons

Elephant hawk moth caterpillar. It is usually dark brown, but there are bright green forms. © Wikipedia Creative Commons

The caterpillar – which inspired the species name by its resemblance to an elephant’s trunk – feeds mostly on rosebay willowherb (Epilobium angustifolium) in a variety of habitats. The caterpillar is quite big and conspicuous, so it relies on a ruse to reduce the risks of being eaten. When disturbed, the caterpillar retracts its head, which expands a pair of eye-like markings (eyespots) on the first two abdominal segments. Eyespots are found in a variety of Lepidoptera and other animals, and they have been shown to intimidate predators. This could happen because they resemble the eyes of the predators’ own enemies, or merely because they look startling and bizarre.

Either way, the caterpillar has a chance to live another day.



Forvie pollinators

The end of the year approaches, winter’s grip tightens. How about a festive treat, reflecting on the lovely days of summer when pollinators were around? At Forvie National Nature Reserve the team installed a pollinator trail and it proved a big hit, especially in the August sunshine when Dave Pickett penned this blog.

Pollinators need our help. And we need them. They are the bunch of insects mostly bees, hoverflies and some flies, that help with the pollination of flowers. There is real pleasure in seeing pollinators work away on flower heads and listening to their sounds. But they are more than something nice to look at, they play a vital role in our food and farming industries.


But wild pollinators are in trouble. They suffer from fragmentation of habitat, changes in the way land is used, diseases, use of pesticides and also climate change.

However, we can help them. At Forvie we have a meadow managed specifically to provide food for pollinators. It has developed over a number of years and now is managed to best suit the wildflowers – by cutting late in the year and then raking and removing the cuttings. This allows the flowers to be there for the insects to use and then set their seed before the plants are cut. By removing the cuttings we stop the bigger, tougher, ranker plant species taking over.


And now we have a trail set up at the visitor centre, with information boards around the meadow explaining more about pollinators and what everyone can do to help. It is worth lingering around the trail as there is a real buzz (ha ha – see what I did?) about the place – bumblebees, hoverflies and a host of others working the sea of flowers. As well as pollinators there are a mass of butterflies using the flower heads as well. You will see that the plantings actually go all round the car park too, and when you arrive it gives you a genuine ‘nature reserve sense of arrival’. So though Forvie is a huge site you don’t actually have to go very far to get up close to nature.

There is loads more information on pollinators, and what you can do to help, here on the SNH website. Why not have a look and see what you can do?





Enjoy that?  Well, the eagle-eyed amongst you will know that Dave was working on a six-month secondment at Forvie and is more often associated with Flanders Moss National Nature Reserve … where he has also installed a pollinator trail. So as an extra treat, here’s a reminder of Dave’s reflection on the pollinator trail near Stirling back in the height of summer:

A welcome meadow for pollinators and people

The wildflower meadow at the Flanders Moss car park has been looking good this summer. Or at least until the fierce sun and lack of rain caused it to brown off a bit.
The meadow has been developed over the last three years, following the landscaping of the car park, and it acts as an attractive welcome to the reserve — but there is much more to it than just that.


Firstly, the mix of wildflowers is the same as would have been found historically on the hay meadows all around Flanders. A century ago there would have been hundreds of flower filled meadows but through agricultural intensification the flowers have been lost from them.

This loss of habitat, and other factors like pesticide use and climate change, have reduced populations of pollinators such as like bees and hoverflies, and these are important insects having crucial roles in farming and food industries. So every chance to restore a small area of habitat for these attractive insects should be taken.

This summer has seen good numbers of honey bees, bumblebees, hoverflies and butterflies using the various wildflowers that are starting to appear.

And most exciting of all was the appearance of the rare day flying moth, the beautiful Argent & Sable, making use of the buttercups, and providing a real seal of approval for all of the work put in by volunteers and staff alike.


The meadow at Flanders has been developed through planting a mixture of wildflower plugs but also through collecting seed from wildflower species such as knapweed, meadow vetchling, and yellow rattle, from sites nearby.   In line with the traditional way of management the meadow will be cut in the autumn to remove the vegetation layer and open up gaps for seeds to germinate.

Below are some images of the pollinators helping themselves.


Create your own bee house

Our colleague Stewart Pritchard is something of a DIY enthusiast.  To date bird boxes and bat boxes have been his specialty, but intrigued by the swathe of  bee houses on the market, he wondered if a DIY version was possible.  He created a model for us and in Spring we placed it next to our ‘conventional’ bee house, and hey presto the solitary bees took up residence.  We thought we’d share his model in case you want to give it a try.

I - bees - solitary - nest - wood block

Timber – Any tree species will do, but the wood must be untreated and dry.

Dimensions – working from a 150 mm wide board, cut sections 180 mm long.  The board should be at least 20 mm (narrower risks failures if the drill goes a little off-straight), but no more than 25 mm needed.

Stewart's model

Nest holes – 6 holes of 8 mm diameter and 150 mm depth in to the shorter, end grain, one end only.  If a bench drill with a lift greater than 150 mm is not available, bench-drill shorter holes to 60-80 mm as guides then hand-drill the remaining length.  The 6 holes should be parallel and in 2 groups of 3 equally spaced, leaving a slightly greater space in the middle for the screws.  Smooth the entrances with a v-shaped countersink.

Holes for mounting – the bee houses are to be fixed with 2 screws for which holes should be drilled.  The screw holes are drilled offset so that when the bee house is placed against a support and the holes are aligned horizontally, the bee holes open downward at approximately 100. This setting protects the nests from excessive moisture.

I - bees - solitary - nest - wood block_2

Remember to space out the nesting holes so as you leave a bit more space in the middle for nailing or screwing your bee house to a post. 


Promoting pollination with bee houses

Besides the familiar bumblebees and honey bees, which live in colonies, there are approximately 250 species of solitary bees in the UK. They are called ‘solitary’ because each bee builds individual nests for their larvae, although some may do so communally.

Most solitary bees nest in the ground. But some bees, and some wasps as well, build their nests in natural cavities, from cracks in stones to hollow stems of dead plants or holes in wood made by boring insects. These cavity-nesting bees and wasps readily occupy artificial nests made of drilled wooden blocks, paper tubes, or bundles of reed or bamboo stems.

In Scotland, the red mason bee (Osmia bicornis) is the most likely occupier of bee houses. This bee is active from late March to early June, peaking in May, during mass-flowering of fruit trees such as apple and pear. The red mason is spreading rapidly through Scotland. For this species, the internal diameter of tubes or holes should be ideally 8 mm, with a length of at least 15 cm. Diameters between 2 mm and 10 mm are suitable for a range of other species.

The house should be positioned in full sun, facing southeast or south. This is important; bees rely on the sun’s heat to warm up and become active.

Wind-blown rain can wet the walls of the house’s cells, exposing the young bees to diseases. Thus a bee house should have an overhanging roof to keep it dry

The ultimate relay race

It wasn’t quite a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 classic ‘The Birds’. However, in July and August many Scots suddenly found themselves in the midst of a sea of butterflies. It was, of course, an entirely natural phenomenon, and the visible evidence of another great Painted Lady migration.


By any measure 2019 was a stand-out year for Painted Lady butterflies. Helped by favourable weather conditions, and plentiful food sources, successive rolling generations made what was eventually a staggering 7,500 mile return journey from North Africa, supplemented by numbers from eastern Mediterranean areas, to northern Europe and back again.

It wasn’t just in Scotland that spectacular numbers were noted and plastered across social media. Over in Ireland the National Biodiversity Data Centre, which monitors Ireland’s Wildlife, noted the influx too. Indeed in the region of  500,000 painted ladies were counted in the UK as part of Butterfly Conservation’s annual Big Butterfly Count between 19 July and 11 August. Consider that this is just the result of those who took part in organised counts and you wonder what the actual number was!

Whilst this was a remarkable event, we do get occasional ‘Painted Lady summers’.  Back in 2009 it was reckoned that around 11 million arrived on our shores.

Events of this kind alert new audiences to the beauty of butterflies and their fascinating life cycle. They also offer a chance to demonstrate that close to home we have our own amazing stories to tell in the natural world. Television audiences are familiar with the long-distance monarch butterfly migration in North America, but will doubtless have been staggered, and surprised, to note that the Painted Lady multiple-generation trip is twice as far.


Of course the hidden beauty of this migration is that it isn’t single butterflies starting and completing an epic journey. Whilst the Painted Lady you saw in Scotland will have emerged here, the vast migration is only possible through offspring making this a journey of stages. By the time the Painted Lady migration ends in north Africa there will have been successive generations of the butterfly (perhaps as many as six generations). And it doesn’t stop there, next spring, around April, it will all start again.

Sadly the numbers next year are unlikely to be anything like as high. These ‘Painted Lady summers’ are reckoned to occur with a frequency of around once in a decade.

Insects have an essential role in our environment, including as pollinators, and as food for other creatures. Butterflies are amongst the most fascinating of our insects. Their life-cycle is a wonder of nature and the migration of the seemingly delicate Painted Lady to Britain from Africa was a chance to draw new audiences to these beautiful creatures.

Did you know? We were treated to a second influx in late summer, as individuals from Scandinavia began the return trip southwards.  New technology has allowed us to increase our knowledge of Painted Lady butterflies. We often don’t see the butterflies migrating south because they can be up to a kilometre above our heads. They select the altitude which gives them the best tail wind and can achieve speeds of up to 50km an hour

Follow @ScotPollinators on twitter for regular updates on pollinator news and links.

Where do insects go in the winter?

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost

Snow covered woodlands, Battleby, Perthshire, January 2015. ©Lorne GIll/SNH

When temperatures fall, life can be very hard for our insects. Some species try to escape the cold by seeking shelter in protected places such as holes in the ground, under tree barks or even inside our homes; others, like bumblebees and some moths, generate internal heat by biochemical processes, just like we do. However, these strategies are not enough to protect such small creatures when it gets really cold.

Many insects just leave: some flies and butterflies undertake journeys of several thousand kilometres to spend the winter around the Mediterranean, returning to the UK in spring.

However, most insects cannot escape the cold British winters. For those that stay put, the greatest winter threat is the formation of ice inside their bodies. Ice crystals within their cells expand, destroying body tissues. If you’ve ever left lettuce or apples in the freezer, you will have seen the catastrophic effect of internal ice after they thaw.

To avoid freezing to death, insects have evolved the capability to go into diapause, which is a state of dormancy similar to hibernation. This can happen when they are eggs, pupae, larvae or adults, depending of the species. Diapause involves behavioural, biochemical and metabolic mechanisms, some of them complex and not completely understood.

We may think temperature prompts diapause, but in fact the daily interval during which the insect is exposed to light (known as photoperiod) is the main trigger. Temperature alone is not a very reliable yardstick; a cold spell may induce diapause too early, and a prolonged autumn may delay it. Either way, the wrong timing could be fatal.

When photoperiod reaches a threshold, a genetically programmed series of events kicks in as the organism prepares for diapause. In the case of an adult insect, it begins accumulating fats, proteins and carbohydrates to keep it fed until the end of cold period, and hormones and enzymes induce a thickening of the cuticle (‘skin’) to reduce water loss. The insect then will look for a safe, well-hidden spot.

As the insect enters diapause, oxygen consumption, feeding and movements are reduced. It then produces large amounts of cryoprotectant (cryo = cold) substances such as proteins, sugars and glycerol, which act as antifreeze – similarly to the products we use in our cars. In the same way that vodka in the freezer remains liquid, these compounds don’t freeze.

By lying dormant in tree trunks, under rocks and cosy holes in the ground, and topped up with natural antifreeze chemicals, the insect has a good chance of surviving the winter. These adaptations are far from perfect; overall winter mortality is high, and for many species just a few individuals can cope. In the case of bumblebees and wasps for example, only queens make it through the winter: all other members of their colonies die at the end of the season.

But the resilience of some insects is truly admirable. The flightless Antarctic midge (Belgica antarctica) produces large amounts of antifreeze sugars and loses up to 70% of its body water when conditions deteriorate. It becomes so dehydrated that it can’t freeze. The Arctic woolly bear moth (Gynaephora groenlandica) spends roughly 90% of its life in diapause, and it survives temperatures as low as −70 °C. But by far the champions of cold resistance are the insect-related Tardigrades, known as water bears. These fantastic animals can survive in suspended animation at −20 °C for 30 years. Not bad for a creature of less than 1.5 mm in size.

By Athayde Tonhasca

Hedge haven

You may have noticed a lot of thrushes about this winter, and possibly even a few waxwings. These winter visitors from the continent love eating berries in trees, shrubs and of course hedges.  With its flashes of yellow, white and red the waxwing is one of those birds that you will on occasion see in hawthorn hedges, and of course in spring the hawthorn hedge is a great resource for our pollinators.

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The loss of many farmland hedgerows shortly after the Second World War was disastrous for pollinating insects in our rural landscape. Flowering hedgerows are excellent for food, shelter and nesting sites, as well as providing a safe and convenient corridor for ease of movement. Rural communities lamented the loss of the flowers which were a distinctive and much-loved element of fruit-bearing hedgerows.  Perhaps less visibly obvious was that insects, birds and small mammals were denied a vital food source and home.

Today hedgerows are increasingly valued for their biodiversity benefits and the planting of new hedgerows is encouraged. But just as ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ neither is replacing hedgerows an overnight job.


It isn’t just the loss or rural hedgerows that should be of concern.  The loss of hedges in our towns and cities is an issue too.  And given that domestic gardens represent somewhere in the region of 20% of our townscapes there is good reason to fight the corner for hedges over fences.

We can be pretty confident that urban hedgerows (big or small) in domestic gardens contribute positively to the benefit of nature in towns and cities. At their most basic they provide nesting, shelter and travel corridors. When you add in the fact that they help remove particulates from the atmosphere then the case for hedges is increasingly strong.

A mixed hedgerow, with a variety of trees and shrubs, can have value through the entire life-cycle of pollinators. Blackthorn for example flowers early in the year – just in time to provide a vital food source for emerging bumblebee queens, solitary bees and honey bees. Farms with hedgerows help pollinators and enjoy many other benefits.

A hoverfly feeding on hawthorn blossom. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Hedges provide shelter for livestock (in both cold and extremely hot weather), , ,  increase the potential for carbon capture and storage in woody biomass, improve water infiltration rates to soil, reduce the potential for flooding and create wildlife corridors across farms. They provide habitat for essential wildlife, including beneficial insects and pollinators. As we increasingly look for Integrated Pest Management solutions pollinating insects provide natural pest control.

We know that pollinators, be they in a rural or an urban setting, need good food sources from early spring to autumn, in order to complete their life-cycles.

Flowering hedges that contain pussy willow, hawthorn and blackthorn are great for those insects on the wing early in the year, whilst come April and May hawthorn and wild cherry can be superb food sources for pollinators. Add to the mix dog rose, guelder rose and hazel and the potential for a hedgerow to be an all-year larder is clear.

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It isn’t just the flowering of hedgerow plants that is important. At the base of hedges in amongst the tussocky grass, or vacated mammal holes, bumblebees might nest.  Bare earth under a hedge (especially if south-facing), might also provide potential nesting sites for solitary mining bees. A range of pollinators from beetles to moths and butterflies will also find those sites useful for overwintering.

In short hedges can be havens for pollinators

hedgerow 1

Managing hedgerows to benefit pollinators

Key to hedgerows being a bonus for pollinating insects is allowing them to flower. Many hedges only really flower on wood that is at least a couple of years old.

As well as planting or managing a range of native flowering shrubs it is important to rotate how often and when hedges are cut. This will reduce costs and be better for wildlife. Many varieties of  tree and shrub species only flower on second year growth, hawthorn and blackthorn, for example, benefit from not being cut every year.

Allowing hedgerows to flower, by moving away from the model of a tidy, short hedge, towards managing one which isn’t flailed annually is one very positive action that farmers can take. Trimming hedges every two or three years instead of annually or rotating areas trimmed increases the flower and fruit crop.  Cutting hedges when in receipt of basic payment scheme support is not permitted between 1 March and  31 August under cross-compliance rules, to prevent damage to nesting birds.

Plugging gaps in hedgerows with native flowering shrubs keeps a wildlife corridor intact and leaving the occasional tree to grow above the rest of the hedge will add diversity.   A recent survey of Scottish native wild apple trees found a number associated with field margins.

Consider cultivating flower-rich strips next to hedges. Flowers such as knapweed, clovers and vetches are great for pollinators.

Aim to cut hedges in rotation, across the farm and aim for an ‘A’ shape, where the densest area is at the base. This will encourage the hedge to thicken up and provide valuable shelter beneath the hedgerow.

By managing a hedge to help pollinating insects you benefit insects, birds and mammals as well as encouraging pollinators onto your farm. Further information on all aspects of hedge management can be found on the Hedgelink website.

Further reading:

The RHS have a guide that talks about hedges in some detail @ https://www.rhs.org.uk/science/pdf/climate-and-sustainability/hedges-for-environmental-benefits.pdf

The RSPB also have an excellent resource which explores the natural shelter that hedges provide and offers advice on selection and maintenance of hedges.

The OPAL website has a lovely article looking at some of the facts and folklore behind hedges.  It also has various excellent resources to help with identification and plant association –