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.