The first cut is the neatest

Not far from the remnants of the Romans Antonine Wall are several meadows that would have brought a smile to the face of even the meanest centurion.  They are the work of East Dunbartonshire Council, and there are more in the pipeline.  

Like a well drilled army a routine will be applied to the new meadows. After the ground is prepared. squadrons of pollinator-friendly plants will be introduced either as seeds or plugs. Further down the line the meadows will be cut once a year and the arisings removed. It’s a reliable method which will allow beautiful flowers including Northern Marsh Orchid, Bog Cotton, Greater Trefoil, and Marsh Bedstraw to flourish. 

For pollinators it all represents a welcome banquet, but a lot of hard work lies behind these stunning meadows.

A mini-baler in operation

Jackie Gillespie, Streetscene Project Officer with East Dunbartonshire Council, reflected on the unique challenges that 2020 presented.  “Lockdown meant we were unable to carry out the works in May which would have been ideal as we enjoyed such good weather at the time,” she ruefully recalled. “Work eventually started in August and the weather was so wet that some areas were under water. This has meant that germination is patchy in some areas but we will revisit and re-sow Spring 2021.”

As with so many Local Authorities, the work to create wildflower meadows relies significantly on forging a good partnership. 

Cut and Lift machinery

In the case of East Dunbartonshire the allies come in the shape of Buglife Scotland who were awarded funding by NatureScot through the Biodiversity Challenge Fund. Working with the Council, Buglife have sown a mix of wetland and neutral grasslands.  An impressive 19,000 square metres were sown in a variety of sites, within parks and open space in Milton of Campsie and Kirkintilloch.

Planting and sowing can be a mixture of muscle power and machines. 

Buglife part-funded a machine bulb-planting exercise which saw a biodiversity-friendly mix of spring bulbs planted at Kirkintilloch High School and Milton of Campsie. There was a Dutch influence in this work. Lubbe, a Dutch bulb company, supplied and planted around 176 square metres of their ‘Bee Surprise’ mix. It’s a mix that pollinators, and people, are sure to love, containing early splashes of colour in the shape of crocus, scilla and small tulips.

The ever-popular John Muir Pollinator Way , Scotland’s first B-Line, runs through this district and stretches of the route benefitted from a range of enhancements in 2020. With the launch of the completed B-Lines map for Scotland  the work in East Dunbartonshire is adding to a very exciting and ever expanding network of pollinator highways.

Chief amongst these was the planting of 5,700 jumbo sized wildflower plugs. A combination of Ragged Robin, Devil’s Bit Scabious, Ox-eye daisy, Cowslip and other nectar rich species formed what for pollinators is a heady mix. These were originally to be planted by Community Groups and Schools, and it was a great shame that Covid 19 halted this and the only way to proceed was to employ contractors to carry out the planting instead.

But despite the challenges East Dunbartonshire’s Streetscene Technical Support pressed on with two more wetland meadows in Lennoxtown, transforming 3,000 square metres beneath the Campsie Fells in the process.

Six miles north-west of Glasgow lies the popular suburb of Bearsden. Long associated with the aforementioned Antonine Wall, it may have just acquired another notable feature. A total of 5,000 wildflowers were recently planted and will form an impressive swathe in the Heather Drive Open Space area. 

An example of power harrowing, from Kincaid Park.

Local residents have grown to love the Heather Drive meadow and so too have a range of butterflies.  Ringlet, Meadow Brown, Small White, Orange Tip, Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock have all been recorded on this site, no doubt lured here after the maintenance regime was changed to suit pollinators needs.

Meadow turf is a less travelled route to success, but very effective. Whilst most projects grow wildflowers from seed or from plug plants, the easiest way to establish a wildflower meadow is probably to lay wildflower turf, which you can buy from online suppliers. That’s the approach that was taken in Bishopbriggs. A total of 160 square metres of Biodiversity lawn turf was laid and has been very successful.

Our Roman centurion might have hankered for the Piano Grande in Umbria. However, were he here today, he would be hard-pressed to deny that by creating a rich abundance of wildflowers East Dunbartonshire is doing its bit for pollinators.

Further reading

You can find our 2019 blog about pollinator-friendly actions in East Dunbartonshire @ 

and our initial blog covering East Dunbartonshire from August 2018 @

Bees in the sun, bees in the rain

By Athayde Tonhasca

For most animals and plants, the number of species increases from the poles to the Equator. This pattern, known as the latitudinal diversity gradient (LDG), is one the best documented features of life on Earth. At one extreme, lush and species-rich tropical rainforests and coral reefs; at the other, species-poor, barren polar areas. Ecologists have proposed several theories to explain the causes of LDG, which include solar radiation, competition, predation, rates of speciation (the formation of new species in the course of evolution) and other factors. But the debate is far from settled.

However, as is the case for many biological patterns, there are exceptions. And bees are one of them.

Time and time again, regional surveys around the globe have shown more bee species in dry and warm regions than in the humid and warm tropics. Despite the scarcity of data for some countries, these results have been consistent; there are many more bees in the deserts of South-western USA and the Mediterranean Basin than in the South American and African jungles. Recently, a group of scientists put together over 5.8 million records of the 20,000 or so known species of bee around the world to map their global distribution. The resulting image is an exceptional snapshot of the world’s biodiversity, and it confirms the pattern found in several independent, smaller-scale surveys: bee species richness is highest in dry, temperate and mid-latitude areas, decreasing sharply towards the equator. Israel for example, with very hot, dry summers and few rainy days, has the highest number of species per area of any country.

Bee species richness projections © Michael C. Orr et al. Global patterns and drivers of bee distribution. Current Biology, 2020; doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2020.10.053

Ecologists have mulled over explanations for such an unusual biodiversity pattern. It could be that bees don’t cope with high humidity. Most species store their larval food (usually pollen mixed with nectar) in cells excavated in the soil. The cells are lined with waxy or paper-like materials, but these barriers are thin and may not prevent fungal attacks in humid environments. Also, larval food stores may deteriorate more easily because of moisture absorption. 

Bee species concentrate on areas of high solar radiation and high plant productivity, as long as they are not forests. Perhaps because forests offer less pollen and nectar, and fewer nesting sites (e.g., bare earth on sunny spots). Predation on bee larvae by ants may be more intense in forests, especially in the tropics, where ants have the highest diversity and biomass. These are hypotheses: we don’t know for sure the factors determining bee species distribution.

A South African desert in bloom, a bees’ haven © Winfried Bruenken, Wikipedia Creative Commons

While bees differ from most life forms in their latitudinal diversity gradient, British bees differ from most bees. They live in habitats of short seasons, thus with a low incidence of solar radiation, and face a harsh climate of cold and humid winters. Our solitary bees adapt by passing most of the time tucked away in their nests as larvae or as adults encased in cocoons, to emerge in spring. Their flying stage is very short, lasting from a few weeks to a couple of months, which they spend frantically collecting food for their young. Bumble bees also hibernate to go through unfavourable conditions (only the queens: all workers die at the end of the season), and are better adapted to the cold. Bumble bees produce internal heat, and their chunky and hairy bodies are well suited to maintaining their body temperature.

A British landscape: not very sunny, not very dry, but good enough for our bees. © Tim Niblett, Wikipedia Creative Commons

Surveys and the map of global diversity tell us that bees are creatures of dry, sunny and open surroundings. Our bees share none, or very little, of this Mediterranean paradise. But they have evolved to cope with the cold, damp and long winters, and to the seasonal scarcity of food. So they thrive, regardless of their hardships. That is, as long as we don’t mess up their habitats.   

Our distinguished but endangered bumble bee

By Athayde Tonhasca 

Among all the fears brought to the British people by the Second World War, one seemed insidious and imminent: famine. Shortage of imports led to food rationing, which dragged on until 1953. The government, determined to reduce the country’s dependency on foreign products, passed the 1947 Agricultural Act with the support of all political parties. This legislation guaranteed prices for the main agricultural goods, and encouraged farmers to maximize food production through mechanisation and chemical inputs.  

Thanks to the greater availability of commercial fertilizers, crop rotation with legumes was no longer necessary. Flower-rich hay meadows gave way to intensively grazed grassland. The landscape became blanketed with large, monotonous monocultures, where non-crop plants were not tolerated. Crop yields and farmers’ income improved dramatically, but the countryside changed forever: over 90% of unimproved lowland grassland has been lost, and today about 35% of Britain’s land area is covered by arable crops and grassland. This process of profound agricultural expansion and intensification had an inevitable impact on biodiversity, and one species was hit particularly hard: the great yellow bumble bee (Bombus distinguendus). 

The great yellow bumble bee © Jan Ove Gjershaug/Norsk institutt for naturforskning, Wikipedia Creative Commons

This bee does not need a great variety of flowers, but their supply must be uninterrupted from May to September. No single plant provides nectar and pollen throughout this period, so there must be a succession of suitable species. However, lots of flowers is only part of this bee’s requirements: it also needs areas with tussocks, taller grasses and small mammal burrows as nesting and hibernation sites. Habitats for the great yellow bumble bee are found on unimproved, semi-natural grassland; areas of limited grazing, late cutting, or under crop rotation. Unfortunately, this is the very type of habitat that has been inexorably lost to intense farming and grazing practices. So decline was inevitable. Once distributed all over Great Britain, today the great yellow bumble bee is confined to the edges of north and northwest Scotland. The species clings on in areas of low-intensity crofting and low-lying arable land near the coast (machair), where clovers, vetches and knapweeds are still plentiful.

Keeping the great yellow bumble bee well fed: common bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) in the spring, and common knapweed (Centaurea nigra) in late summer © LeafyHistory (L), Kate Jewell (R), Wikipedia Creative Commons

Because of the scale of population losses, this species is considered nationally endangered according to the criteria used by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It is the only British bumble bee in this unenviable category. 

Organisations and conservation groups, along with many dedicated, enthusiastic volunteers have contributed with expertise, labour and money to reverse the fortunes of the great yellow bumble bee and eventually remove it from the endangered species list. This work involves monitoring bee populations, protecting and enhancing its habitat and increasing the species profile with local people. Time will tell. 

Machair, great yellow bumble bee haven in the Isle of Berneray, Outer Hebrides. © hazelisles, Wikipedia Creative Commons

Plan to plant for pollinators

This may seem like a time of year when we can do little for pollinators. However, that’s not entirely true. Planning for next year can begin, and by introducing certain shrubs or trees into your outdoor space you could be taking out an ‘insurance policy’ for our hard pressed pollinators.

Early Spring and autumn are tricky months for pollinators as they emerge from, or prepare to enter, hibernation. You can help them hugely if you aim to have pollinator-friendly plants flowering in your garden around March and October. 

Trees and shrubs can be great nectar and pollen sources. We can often overlook the fact that not only are early and late flowering varieties plentiful, but that potentially they are veritable supermarkets for foraging insects thanks to their abundance of food concentrated in one location

Now is a good time to plant bare-root deciduous hedging plants, trees and shrubs. You don’t necessarily need a large garden to do so either.  There are a range of container sized trees and shrubs, and for those who have a little more space large semi-mature specimens are plentiful in choice.

In the gardening calendar there is a sense that we are entering that period that runs to late-winter and early spring, when we are in a ‘golden spot’ for planting shrubs. 

Even visually this time of year is good for planting shrubs and planning your garden, because with the greenery having died back, you can view your garden ‘canvas’ clearly and see exactly where there is a gap for new plants.

You may be nervous about planting at this time of year, but if you protect your newly planted hedges and shrubs from wind and cold they should take. Numerous websites offers good advice on how best to protect your new plants. 

The real joy is in picking varieties which will help pollinators.

To some extent we are spoiled for choice when looking to introduce spring flowering shrubs into the garden or container.  Any of these would be a welcome pollinator-friendly addition – Berberis, Blackthorn, Broom, Crab apple, Forsythia, Hawthorn, Hazel, Mahonia, Wild cherry, Winter honeysuckle, Rowan, and Willow.

Some are better than others but they are all good.  

You might feel you have to navigate through a bewildering array of varieties of, say,  willow for example, but many of them are really great for medium or small gardens. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust website is a wonderful source of ideas; it mentions the Kilmarnock willow, which tends to have a very compact shape. Birch, hazel and willow trees all sport fuzzy catkins and therefore an abundance of pollen and nectar when many other plants are still to flower. They are truly a potential feast for bumble bees and solitary bees

Many of our fruit trees and hedgerow shrubs flower early and prove a welcome resource for emerging queen bumble bees (remembering that not all of our bumblebee species emerge at the same time).  And what’s not to like about the short lived but bright pink and white flowers that adorn our fruit trees in early spring.

Hedges are fantastic for a range of wildlife and unlike fences don’t generally deteriorate over time or need costly painting and repainting.  For bees their tangled roots offer potential nesting sites but the succession of flowers from blackthorn to hawthorn epitomises the way in which their blossom provides not just a good food source for a range of bees, but a splendidly concentrated food source. 

And if your neighbours subsequently wonder if you have planted blackthorn or hawthorn you can regale them with the little hedge-lovers mantra that the flowers reveal all — “Blackthorn blossoms before its leaves start to show, unlike hawthorn, which blossoms after its leaves show.”

Of course, we want to avoid a hunger or burst scenario and thus ideally you would look to have a transition into summer shrubs and again the choice is wide. A list of pollinator favourites would include Buddleia, Bramble, Cotoneaster, Honeysuckle, Laburnum, Rock-rose, Raspberry, Blackcurrant and Flowering currant, Viburnum.

I particularly like honeysuckle as it often flowers late in the summer and its sweet-scented flowers offer food to moths, our occasionally overlooked night-shift pollinators, as well as long tongued bumble bees.

If you follow our twitter account you will have seen images of bees on the wing in October. Foraging at that time is difficult but there are autumnal flowering shrubs that can be a real boost for pollinators.  Ivy, Mahonia and Hebe all offer something.

With Ivy, an evergreen climber, the bonus coms in the flowers which look like bunches of green-yellow baubles. These offer a scarce late nectar source for queen bumblebees preparing for hibernation or honey bees out foraging on sunny days. At this time of year most other flowers have gone to seed.

Mahonia is another standout, with its yellow nectar rich flowers a rare pollinator food source around as we head into winter.  With Hebe the simple rule is to ensure you plant a flowering variety, not all of them do.

It may be that you prefer bulbs to shrubs, well there is good news here too and bulbs such as crocus and snowdrop are a very valuable source of nectar and pollen for bees

So at this time of year be bold in the garden and think wildlife. For the here and now dismiss the temptation to be over-tidy. The leaves from your trees and shrubs are a valuable habitat for many small invertebrates, which in turn provide a food source for a host of birds. And if you plant new trees and shrubs you will offer food for insects and birds at key stages in their lifecycles.

The planting suggestions above are by no means exhaustive; a quick search on the internet will provide lots more ideas and tips and look for ideas that fit with your location.  But wherever you look remember that in making little changes in your garden selections you can make a huge difference to our pollinating insects.

From the ancient world to us, thanks to the honey bee

By Athayde Tonhasca

The Western or European honey bee (Apis mellifera) is deservedly celebrated as one of the most useful species to mankind. Besides giving us honey, wax, pollen and royal jelly, the honey bee is the world’s main crop pollinator and a significant pollinator of wild plants. But this bee has made a lesser known but historically important contribution to the culture and history of the Western world.

Bees from the genus Apis secrete liquid wax through specialised glands located in their abdominal segments. Once exposed to air, the wax hardens into flakes and falls off. Bees chew and mould the wax into honeycomb, the architecturally complex array of cells that store honey and pollen, and house the brood (eggs, larvae and pupae). 

Wax coming out of glands on the underside of the bee’s abdomen. © Wikipedia Creative Commons

Beeswax is obtained by melting the honeycomb, straining it to remove impurities, and pressing the residue to extract any remaining wax. The purified material is then poured into moulds to solidify. Beeswax is a natural plastic, used since prehistory as a lubricant, as well as for polishing, waterproofing, metal casting and embalming. Beeswax candles were an agreeable alternative to the existing sources of artificial light: smoky, messy and stinky torches, oil-fuelled lamps and tallow candles, which were made from animal fats. The popularity of beeswax candles rose with the spread of Christianity then fell after the Reformation, when candlelight lost its importance in liturgical practices. But beeswax still is a profitable commodity for candle manufacture, as well as for the preservation of fresh fruit and in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. 

The softness and pliability of beeswax gave the ancients a candle moment (lightbulbs were not around): flat pieces of wood, stone or metal could be covered with a thin layer of wax and written on with a sharpened stick. The tablet prototype was born. 

The Greeks and Romans improved the concept by using a wooden frame shaped like a shallow tray, which was filled with a layer of beeswax. Frames were fastened together with wires or twine, so that tablets could be opened and shut like a book; the edges prevented the waxy surfaces from rubbing against each other. A stylus made from iron, bronze or bone was used scratch words in the wax. 

Reproductions of a Roman wax tablet and a stylus. © Wikipedia Creative Commons

Tablets were portable and reusable writing surfaces; the beeswax could be warmed and the surface smoothed over. The stylus was flattened at one end so it could be used to scrape off any unwanted writing. For the Romans, a tabula rasa(scraped tablet) meant to start over, just as, centuries later, the slate and chalk used by school pupils gave us the term ‘a clean slate’. A good writer was said to have ‘a good stylus’. With time, ‘a stylus’ came to mean a distinctive characteristic of any kind, and so giving rise to our ‘style.’

Papyrus and vellum, the sturdy writing media of the time, were expensive and therefore out of reach of most literate people. Wax tablets were the affordable alternative, thus used widely for ephemeral communications such as letters, drafts, drawings and accounting ledgers. But permanent records such as wills and contracts were registered on wax as well. The earliest written documents recorded in Britain, dating from 50 to 80 AD, are Roman wooden tablets retrieved between 2010 and 2013 from a construction site in London (the Bloomberg Tablets).

A Greek man (~500 BC) and a Roman woman (~50 AC) with their wax tablets and styluses. © Wikipedia Creative Commons

Until the middle ages, virtually everyone who learned to write did so on a wax tablet. Livy, Ovid, Cicero, Martial and other classical authors mentioned tabulae ceratae (wax tablets) in their texts, so it is quite likely that much of their thinking was first drafted on beeswax. These writings were then copied over and over onto parchment and later on paper, so they survived over the centuries to inspire writers such as, by their own account, William Shakespeare, Dante Alighieri and Bernard Shaw.    

So, if next summer you find yourself sitting in a garden with a book in your hands while listening to the bees buzzing around, spare a moment to contemplate the possible connections. You will have another reason to cherish the honey bee.