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.