Pollination in the cold

What do you do about pollination if you are an early flowering mountain plant such as the Purple Saxifrage which comes into flower on the high slopes of Ben Lawers just as the snows are melting in March or April?  Iain MacGowan has the answer and it’s quite a surprise.


The answer is that you depend upon flies – not hoverflies which we often think of as being the main non-bee pollinators but rather dull black flies related to house flies.

Unlike most other flies many of this group over-winter as adults in sheltered situations such as crevices in rocks and can emerge from their resting state relatively quickly if the weather warms up just a little.


They are on the wing long before bees or other pollinating insects emerge and rely on these early flowering saxifrages as a nectar source.

However it’s not just in the early spring that these rather inconspicuous flies are important.

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In mountain situations, above the altitude where heather is abundant, and in more northern parts of the world these types of flies are often the main pollinators. The combination of often cool windy weather and a relatively low number of flowering plants means that is a difficult environment for bees which have a relatively high energy requirement for themselves and their brood.

Flies on the other hand can just ride out bad weather by finding shelter. 

So we depend on these little rather obscure insects to pollinate many of our specialised mountain plants.

ice saxifrage

Tiree bumblebee buzz

The great yellow bumblebee is creating quite a buzz on the Isle of Tiree in the Inner Hebrides. A four year project to monitor its population and habitat, and create new foraging habitat, has been embraced by the island’s residents and visitors. Janet Bowler, project manager for Hebridean Flower Power and Tiree’s Great Yellow Bumblebee Project, is our guest blogger today and reveals a tale of determination, community spirit and success.

GYBB queen - John Bowler

Great Yellow Bumblebee Queen by John Bowler

The great yellow bumblebee (GYBB) Bombus distinguendus is one of the UK’s rarest bumblebees. Its distribution has declined by 80% in the last century. Where once it lived throughout the UK and Ireland, it is now restricted to the north coast of Scotland, some northern and western Scottish islands, and the west coast of Ireland. The cause of its decline is most likely due to agricultural intensification and the subsequent loss of clover-rich flower meadows. Tiree’s expanses of machair, which includes a variety of clover and clover-like flowers, make an important refuge for this enigmatic bee, but even here, the species appears to be struggling. It is thought that the availability of its favoured flowers at critical times of the year may be limiting breeding success, and so in late 2016, RSPB Scotland invited a local ecologist to carry out a short project to create additional early forage for the species.

creating a mini-machair at Baugh Church

Creating a ‘mini-machair’ at Baugh Church

We soon realised that the work had huge potential for community involvement, and so in 2017 we launched ‘Tiree’s great yellow bumblebee project’. Funding awarded by the Tiree Community Windfall Fund, Grow Wild and Tesco Bags of Help enabled members of the community to learn how to conduct bumblebee surveys, identify local wildflowers, sow a bespoke mix of seeds of flower species known to be favoured by GYBBs, buy propagation equipment and gardening tools, and construct signs for participating gardens. RSPB Scotland continued to be involved by providing ecological advice and survey support.

Tiree homes are scattered throughout the island, usually within bee’s-reach of GYBB nesting and hibernating habitat, making their gardens ideal for creating a ‘mini-machair’ network. Gardens at the school, medical practice, church and old folks’ home also joined the network, along with patches of croft land. In total, around 40 areas were planted up with GYBB ‘super-food’.

GYBB worker - Paul Wood

Great Yellow Bumblebee worker by Paul Wood

Bumblebee surveys conducted from mid-May to the end of September revealed some astonishing results. We recorded 105 GYBB over the summer of 2017, and a whacking great 370 in 2018. Until then we hadn’t realised just how important Tiree was for the species. Eagle-eyed bee enthusiasts also discovered two active nests – a very rare find for the island. A motion-sensitive trail camera, borrowed from the Tiree Ranger Service, allowed us to record the comings and goings at one of the nests – probably the first time this has been done anywhere.

making garden signs in tech class

Making garden signs to raise awareness

A busy and successful couple of years was rounded off with two celebrations: a ‘bumblebee dance’ in the community hall for all participants and supporters, and an invitation to the Nature of Scotland Awards in Edinburgh, where the project received ‘Highly Commended’ recognition in the Community Initiative category.

Over the next two years we will review the success of the ‘mini-machairs’, continue to conduct bumblebee surveys and grow more GYBB ‘super-food’. We also plan to enable older children to run their own project: producing an illustrated children’s story book in Gaelic and English about the plight of the great yellow bumblebee.

garden signs

Ayrshire’s magnificent Nectar Network

We are heading west in our blog today, Ayrshire to be precise.  In the land famous for Rabbie Burns, golf, and farming there is a project that captured the dynamic spirit of this area perfectly – the Irvine to Girvan Nectar Network.

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Quite simply the project aims to establish connected nectar and pollen-rich sites along the beautiful Ayrshire coast to ensure the long-term survival of pollinating insects.  Delivering such an ambitious project, which embraces a landscape scale approach to conservation, relies on solid partnership working, and the collaboration between businesses, NGOs and local authorities is reaping rewards for pollinators.

It is extremely heartening that so many diverse organisations and bodies were willing to lend their weight to this project. Local wildlife groups and activists are to be congratulated on raising awareness of the value of our vital pollinating insects. They highlighted the staggering fact that over 95% of the UK’s wildflower meadows has been lost in just the last 40 years or so, and sought to tackle that central issue head on.

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Enlarging, improving and connecting areas of green space to create a series of green networks for pollinators is great news, particularly when the connectivity of sites is placed at the very heart of a project. Habitats where pollinating insects can thrive are now very restricted. Nectar gives insects energy to travel across the landscape so a lack of refuelling sites prevents this. An isolated insect population is a vulnerable one because, if it dies out for whatever reason, the site cannot be recolonised from nearby.

The Scottish Wildlife Trust manages and oversees a project which ultimately brings together various individual plots into one whole. Thus 32 sites are managed by 21 different operators and an additional 10 organisations or individuals support the project in other ways. Having both North and South Ayrshire Council at the heart of this work is a particular strength.

Ayrshire is one of Scotland’s golfing hot spots. It is therefore significant that there is fantastic involvement from the golf sector which resulted in generous funding from golf’s governing body, The R&A, from 2015 to 2018 which allowed for a part time project officer and some project materials. The R&A’s support has been extended for a further three years to help add more sites to the network and increase those participating in and contributing to the initiative

Practical on-the-ground measures included Glasgow Gailes, Western Gailes, Dundonald Links and Royal Troon golf courses all sowing new wildflower areas in spring 2018. One notable feature was that the works didn’t affect play at all, and in total 14 golf courses embraced the concept of stripping out areas of tough grass and replacing them with wildflower seeds (and it should be noted that the bare earth in some locations is a potential habitat for mining bees).

Material costs can be a big consideration in a project of this scale. Kidney vetch, the sole food plant of the Small Blue butterfly, has been included in the North Ayrshire coastal seed mix to support re-introduction of this declining species.  It is, however, expensive.  To counter this cost a nursery was established and the seedlings are doing well. Now the key to continued success will be monitoring the growth of surrounding grassland and intervene where necessary.


Raising awareness of the project is a crucial element of achieving success. Social media plays a huge role here, but so too does word of mouth and gathering people together. Thus a popular pollinator awareness day was run at Ayr/Ailsa Hospital where a large bug hotel was constructed, and plug plants put in round about it.  That’s the kind of visible community involvement that really reaches out to people and presses home key messages.

Adopting pollinator friendly-practices takes many forms. One telling contribution was the earmarking of 10 hectares of Stevenston Beach Park for a change in the cutting regime. Here North Ayrshire Council allowed the grass and flowers to grow until late summer when it was cut and removed. This was in response to discussions with local environmental volunteers but the council was also careful to consult everyone so that the practice was widely accepted by the whole community.


Clearly the project is ambitious, but it is also very sensibly grounded and realistic. By concentrating on the link between the two Ayrshire towns of Irvine and Girvan the chances of success increased. This is a manageable geographic limit, and demonstrating success in this area could well act as a catalyst to further actions elsewhere in the region. That ‘walk before you run’ approach is highly commendable.


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Of course, it is people that lie at the heart of delivering this project.  And everyone has something they can bring to the table. Those have land are well placed to create and improve habitat for pollinators.  Owners of equipment and materials can make a valuable contribution, and the time given up by volunteers is absolutely vital. Finally there are costs associated with most projects so those who fund activities are undoubtedly making a huge impact.

We’ve found ourselves in a far from ideal place with regard to pollinator numbers. How fantastic then to see that groups like the Nectar Network are going full steam to meet the challenges head on. With this kind of approach the future is looking much brighter.


Stay in touch:

The above blog gives just a flavour of what goes on in the Nectar Network –

follow it on Facebook @  www.facebook.com/IrvinetoGirvanNectarNetwork/

And on twitter @Nectar_Network

Further reading:

Scottish Wildlife Trust

The R & A

Butterfly Conservation – Small blue

Stevenston Conservation


Pollinator’s helping hand

Over 70% of Scotland’s land area can be labelled ‘agricultural’. It’s no surprise then to learn that the way farmland is managed has a significant impact on nature and wildlife. Given that there is significant pressure on our native pollinators at the moment the fact that many farmers enter into voluntary agri-environment agreements which help deliver a range of environmental improvements is good news all round.

hedgerow 1

The Agri-Environment Climate Scheme has been a route enabling Stephen Melville at Cuplahills to deliver benefits for pollinators whilst bolstering his farm’s economic position.   At this family-run farm six-metre grass margins have been added around every field, offering both shelter and potential nesting sites for bees. The addition of species rich grassland and 2km of mixed hedges helps too. It is worth noting that the hedge planting includes not just hawthorn, but a range of other species: the variety of hedges encourages a diversity that wasn’t there before.

With three patches of wild bird seed growing, and an area of habitat-mosaic in management, come summer the farm is alive with colour (and insects) thanks to the sheer variety of seeds, flowers and shrubs that have been introduced.

Stephen is refreshingly open when he acknowledges that it wasn’t simply a desire to improve the biodiversity on his farm that drove his application for Agri-Environmental Climate Scheme funds. It was also an opportunity to generate an additional income beyond arable farming that was a key driver. But having brought a base income into the farm he can reflect with satisfaction that he has also improved the habitat available for wildlife.


Kirsten Brewster, from Scottish Natural Heritage, worked on “Engaging farmers in biodiversity solutions”, an SNH led project working to understand how farmers value nature and what they see as important in terms of conservation. As Kirsten notes, “The good news is that the work at Cuplahills is not an isolated example.

Not too far from Cuplahills lies Parkhill farm which has been in Roger Howison’s family for 117 years. It comprises over 215 hectares of mixed farmland rolling down to the banks of the River Tay and was originally farmed by monks from the nearby Abbey.

Orchard buzz

Roger is embracing the principles of Agroforestry – combining agriculture and trees. He has made the creation of native woodland a priority, with one hectare of new trees planted in 2017 and another seven hectares to follow by 2019. The thinking behind this is to create corridors of native species that will act as both habitat for wildlife and shelter for the sheep and cattle that overwinter there. As part of the greening requirements the farm now makes greater use of field margins and buffers to create bigger wildlife corridors.

orchard 1

This will provide both foraging and nesting sites for pollinators in due course. That’s good news on a farm which has made an enthusiastic move into apple growing; a good choice given that the nearby village of Newburgh has a historic tradition of heritage apple orchards.  And of course orchard pollination has long been a ‘strong suit’ for pollinators.

Although setting his sights on a lower yield than a typical apple orchard, the flow of air between trees which have been planted in an ‘open’ system means that they won’t have to use many pesticides such as fungicides.  It is thus more environmentally-friendly and requires lower input costs.

Each row of apple trees has been meticulously spaced out by hand and sits on a strip of wildflowers to benefit and appeal to pollinators. The field also incorporates a large patch of clover and Roger hopes shortly to install beehives; a benefit for both his apple production and nature.

Awareness of the uncertainty surrounding the future of agricultural support has prompted the family to plan for a future without the Basic Payment Scheme as a source of income. More permanent holiday accommodation is being considered in the hope that a diverse business will provide options for Roger’s children to make a living on the farm.

Reaching out

Involving farmers in solutions for biodiversity makes good sense. They are the experts in their local patch. and know best the reality of running the farm business. Using farmers’ experience, knowledge and skills will help us work together to halt the declines of farmland wildlife.

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Kirsten says; “In the time that I was out interviewing farmers across Scotland I was delighted to see the vast array of activity that farmers are doing for the benefit of wildlife through both Agri-Environment Climate Schemes and greening measures as well as voluntary efforts which are not subsidised. Pollinators are a great place to start when looking to boost biodiversity on your land holding as they are the building block that so much life depends on.

The Agri-environment climate scheme (AECS) is currently open for applications. The submission deadline is Friday 12th April 2019 for single applications and Friday 31 May 2019 for collaborative applications involving 5 or more RPID registered businesses. Further information is available on the website: AECS

The Forestry Commission website has information on Agroforestry grant funding available: Forestry grant scheme