Aberdeen’s natural progress

Of late Aberdeen City Council’s Environmental Services team has adopted a more natural approach to managing many of the city’s greenspaces. That’s good news for nature, and the people of Aberdeen.  As the team in the north-east are quick to point out, managing urban spaces specifically for nature is an effective conservation strategy to help protect biodiversity, while spending time in nature-rich green spaces helps improve our mental and physical health.

There is a rapid coming to terms with the need to take action across Scotland to manage greenspaces more sustainably. There are two towering drivers. One is to mitigate against the impacts of climate change, the other is to support biodiversity. 

Fernielea Green Space natural wildflowers.

In the biodiversity mix are our pollinators. Our bumble bees, solitary bees, hoverflies, butterflies, beetles and moths are under pressure, with habitat loss, disease, pesticides and climate change on the charge list. The philosophy adopted in Aberdeen, which restores and creates habitat, would work well across the country and take some of the pressure off pollinators. 

Aberdeen’s changes are, by adopting common sense approaches such as reducing grass cutting, planting trees, shrubs, and wildflowers, boosting habitats for many species. What’s more they do so in a way which doesn’t exclude people and supports the urban environment.

That latter point will strike a chord with many to are increasingly looking to good green infrastructure to provide nature based solutions and improve city living.  In Aberdeen the act of planting more trees alone improves the local air quality and reduces rainwater run-off.

The is no doubt that Aberdeen’s goals were hampered by the Coronavirus outbreak. The subsequent lockdowns meant that their Environmental Service was effectively stood down. This placed significant restrictions on much of the work that the service carried out. But in the background it was providing an opportunity to take stock of how the city manages its greenspaces and contemplate changes that could be made. And we know that across the globe the challenges of lockdowns reconnected people with nature.

Steven Shaw who is Aberdeen City’s Environmental Services Manager, was one of those who seized the moment to turn things on their head.

‘When the service resumed,” he says, “it was seen as a perfect opportunity to trial a different way to manage green space, with a focus to do so in a more natural way, to help with climate change mitigation and increase biodiversity benefits, but ensuring also that the Aberdeen public continued to enjoy access to good greenspaces.“The simplest way to manage these open spaces for nature was to reduce grass cutting and encourage nature to bloom.  Many of the areas were, and remain, popular areas for walking, running, cycling and dog walking, and are away from the surfaced path network. To maintain access for these activities, wide paths have been cut though the areas of longer grass.

“Routes for these paths were chosen by following ‘desire lines’ where usage revealed the natural paths people were taking. This was often a link between points of interest or access to any existing surfaced path network. The extent of mown paths will be regularly assessed on a site-by-site basis. If more paths are requested the service will look to include them.”

An example of a mown path through biodiversity friendly grassland

An impressive list of sites across Aberdeen are now managed in a more natural way and benefit from relaxed mowing regimes and new planting.  Sites benefitting from the new approach include 

  • Stonehaven Road 
  • Riverside Drive
  • Garthdee Road 
  • Heatheryfold
  • Maidencraig
  • St Fitticks Park
  • Westfield Park
  • Raeden Park
  • Parkway former Trunk Road Verges
  • Culter Bypass
  • Fernielea Park
  • Kingswells Bypass
  • Eric Hendrie Park
  • The Woodies, Broomhill Road
  • Skene Road Verges
  • Riverview Drive

It is an impressive list, and what’s more it is particularly pleasing that the Aberdeen team didn’t just assume they had got it right. They surveyed the sites to see what changes had taken place, and noted the species thriving. That provided cast-iron confirmation that they were making a difference.

Around 80 species of wildflowers and plants were found in the list of sites. Those flowers included northern marsh orchids, buttercups, hawkbits, dandelions, scentless mayweed, ox-eye daisy, meadowsweet, cow parsley, bugle, sorrel, red clover, white clover, and birds-foot trefoil. Inevitably this had a beneficial knock on effect for a host of pollinators ensuring that there was variety and something in flower at different times.

It is important to emphasise that there is not always a ‘one size fits all’ solution to sites. All these areas will therefore receive a site-specific maintenance programme.  This will include a mixture of different regimes, from areas being left alone, to grass being cut and uplifted once a year, through to grass that is cut twice per year.  Of course, for the mixed use agenda to thrive grass paths and access points will need to be regularly cut and maintained.  It’s that willingness and determination to go back and see what has worked and what needs tweaked that will serve Aberdeen well.

There is also a ‘softer’ dividend in the form of partnership working. As Steven noted “The new methods are ideal in developing skills and confidence around managing land for nature and biodiversity.  What’s more they are highly visible and lead to increased interaction and engagement with other like-minded organisations enabling the Aberdeen Council team to strengthen green connections and networks between organisations and partners.”

He goes on to explain that “Changing the management regimes of public greenspaces is a move which is gaining momentum up and down the country. From ‘No Mow May’ to relaxed mowing there is a growing realisation that amenity grassland can work much better for nature with some tweaks.

“With increasing awareness of climate change, there is a need to take action to manage greenspaces more sustainably.

“Aberdeen’s Environmental Services believe that a managing spaces for nature is positive greenspace management and here to stay across the city.  The new natural areas in Aberdeen are evidence that we are moving towards a greener, healthier city, and this has to be good news for Aberdeen’s people and its nature.”

Parks from London, to Newcastle, to Aberdeen are on the front line in the battle to better green our cities. Our greenspaces were a vital resource for communities in the pandemic, and they are a permanent opportunity for our hard pressed wildlife.  That’s why the strides being made in the way Aberdeen manages its greenspaces should be applauded and encouraged.

Cheaters and cheated in the pollination game

By Athayde Tonhasca

Somewhere on the southern British coast, an early spider-orchid (Ophrys sphegodes) blooms. It’s time to attract insects to transport its pollen to another flower so that fertilisation happens. But most pollinators are not interested: the orchid produces negligible amounts of nectar, and its pollen grains are stuck together in inconvenient masses known as pollinia, a feature of orchids and many plants in the milkweed family. On top of that, the flower’s labellum – the lowermost petal – looks like a legless spider, which is not at all an inviting sign. 

An early spider-orchid © Stefan.lefnaer, and its flower © Orchi, Wikimedia Commons. 
An Ophrys apifera flower with its pollinia clearly visible © Esculapio, Wikimedia Commons.

The early spider-orchid does not offer the temptations usually found in many flowering plants to attract pollinators. But it has one trick up its sleeve, and it’s an effective one: its flowers release an aroma bouquet comprising dozens of alkanes and alkenes. These organic compounds, consisting of carbon and hydrogen atoms, are the main constituents of the natural waxes that help waterproof plants and regulate their water content. For the orchid, these chemicals have another important property: they mimic the scent of virgin female buffish mining bees (Andrena nigroaenea). You can see where this is going: male bees will be very interested in paying a visit.

A male buffish mining bee © gailhampshire, Wikimedia Commons.

About a quarter to a third of the estimated 30,000 orchid species in the world resort to trickery to be pollinated. They may use food deception, ‘pretending’ to give away edible stuff: some species for example release scents similar to nectar volatiles, thus attracting queen bumble bees to their nectar-free flowers. Other orchids – such as the 140 or so species of the genus Ophrys – rely on sexual deception: they produce flowers that look or smell like female insects, luring males to a non-existent receptive partner. Chemical mimicry is just part of this ruse: once the male is persuaded to approach, visual and tactile cues entice him to land and grab the flower. This contact could be fleeting, but some orchid species induce males to a greater amorous display; they try to copulate with the flower. During the deed, known as pseudocopulation, the Lothario accidentally dislodges the pair of pollinia, which get stuck to its head and transported to another flower. You can join David Attenborough in watching this deceitful liaison taking place.

A male Dasyscolia ciliata (a scoliid wasp), pseudocopulating the flower of a mirror orchid (Ophrys speculum) © Pietro Niolu, Wikimedia Commons.

Sexual deception seems like a counterproductive tactic. By putting all its efforts into attracting only male buffish mining bees, the early spider-orchid misses out on every other potential pollinator (this orchid is pollinated by other bees in continental Europe, but the argument is the same). The Orchidaceae is the only plant family engaged in sexual deception, yet the strategy has evolved repeatedly within the group; so it must be advantageous. Scopece et al. (The American Naturalist 175: 98-105, 2010) suggested that pollination efficiency is the answer. By measuring pollen transport of 31 orchid species in Australia and Italy – all known sexually deceptive orchids are from Australia or Europe – they observed that deceived pollinators tend to be reliable; they go from one orchid flower to another of the same species, wasting little time and few pollinia in the process. Orchids with many pollinators had more pollen taken from their flowers, but more of that pollen is accidentally dropped or deposited in flowers of the wrong species.

Sexual deception works for the orchids, but how about the cheated pollinators? They don’t seem to benefit at all from these encounters, which may interfere with their reproduction. Some orchids induce vigorous pseudocopulation that ends up in ejaculation, which is an energetically costly wastage. 

L: A male Darwin wasp (Lissopimpla excelsa) pseudocopulating a Cryptostylis subulata flower. R: A flower after a pollinator visit: the pollinia were removed, pollen was deposited on the stigma, and a blob of ejaculate was left behind © Gaskett et al., 2008. The American Naturalist 171: E206–E212.

Flower visitors learn to avoid deceptive orchids, so perhaps the number of encounters with fake sexual partners is not sufficient to affect males’ overall mating success. Or the balance between plant and pollinator is maintained by the insect’s genetic system: most sexually deceptive orchids are pollinated by a haplodiploid species (males and females develop from unfertilized and fertilized eggs, respectively). If females don’t mate, they don’t produce female offspring, but male offspring is not affected; and if females are fertilised with insufficient sperm, they usually produce more males than females. Therefore sexual deception may lead to a male-biased sex ratio for the pollinator, which would compensate for those males worn-out from overenthusiastic dates with flowers. 

There’s more to the success of sexual deception than specialised pollen carriers and male-female sex ratios. The strategy depends also on synchronisation. As it is the case for many bee species, male buffish mining bees emerge from their nests before females. So the interval between male and female bee emergence is crucial. If the orchid flowers before it, there will be no pollinators around; if after, the orchid will have to compete with the real thing – female bees. Fertilisation rates for sexually deceptive orchids are naturally low; if the phenologies of orchids and bees get out of sync, say for example as a consequence of climate change, pollination rates may plunge. 

Orchids’ amazing variety of forms, colours and shapes fascinated Charles Darwin: “it really seems to me incredibly monstrous to look at an orchid as created as we now see it. Every part reveals modification on modification” (letter to American botanist Asa Gray). So it’s not surprising that Darwin chose orchids as the subject of his next book after On the Origin of Species. His observations, field experiments and discussions with a network of botanists, gardeners and commercial growers convinced him that orchids’ diversity was linked to animal pollination, at a time when the prevailing view was that plants mostly self-pollinated: “In my examination of Orchids, hardly any fact has so much struck me as the endless diversity of structure,—the prodigality of resources,—for gaining the very same end, namely, the fertilisation of one flower by the pollen of another.” (On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilised by insects, and on the good effects of intercrossing, 1862). 

Since then we have learned a great deal more about orchids’ shenanigans to get themselves pollinated, which granted them epithets such as bizarre, cunning, devious, ‘masters of deception’, and ‘purveyors of empty promises’. Darwin probably would have smiled knowingly.

Orchis mascula as an example of adaptations for insect pollination: the diagram from Darwin’s book shows all the petals cut away except the labellum, which extends back to form a tubular nectary below the column © Dave souza, Wikimedia Commons.

Mellow Meadow

The Battleby Meadow is going over now. It’s the natural order of things, nevertheless it can make you feel a little sad as you realise summer is fizzling out. Consolation comes in the shape of two pollinator-friendly flowers.  Nothing too showy, nothing spectacular, but special nonetheless. Bird’s-foot trefoil and knapweed epitomise the relaxing, uplifting, nature of meadows, set boldly as they often are against increasingly fading grasses.

Bird’s-foot trefoil is known to many as a larval foodplant of the common blue butterfly (it is also a food plant for the rather unflatteringly named dingy skipper, and green hairstreak). Found in grasslands, verges, brownfield sites, and heathlands, it is a low-creeping plant and a member of the pea family, which is reflected in the similar style  of flower.

This plant enjoys a rather fetching and easily understood nickname.  An older relative might well recall that it was once popularly known as ‘bacon and eggs’ due to vivid yellow and orange colouring of the flowers. In Shetland the name ‘cat’s claws (Kattikloo)’ appeared, less flatteringly it has also been memorably named ‘granny’s toe-nails’. 

Bees actually have to work some nifty footwork to gain access to the rich nectar and pollen the plant offers. As an earlier blog by Athayde explained ‘It has an irregular corolla with two lateral petals and two lower ones, which are united at their edges to form a landing platform. Once on a flower’s platform, bees prise open the lateral petals to get access to the pollen inside. The bee’s intention is to take all pollen to its nest and store it as food for the larvae, but some grains will become attached to the bee’s underside and released in the next flower visited, ensuring pollination.

“Only some insect species, mostly solitary bees and bumble bees, are able to deal with the complex flower morphology of legumes. As a consequence, some bees became highly specialized on these plants; in fact, the decline of several bumble bee species has been linked to the reduced availability of clover, bird’s-foot-trefoil and other legumes. 

“In Scotland, three of our scarcest bee species are believed to be completely dependent on bird’s-foot-trefoil’s pollen; the pine-wood mason bee, the mountain mason bee and the wall mason bee.”

Knapweed presents fewer challenges for insects.  But as with bird’s-foot trefoil this perennial flower has a range of interesting common or historic names including ‘Hardheads’, ‘Blue bottle’ and ‘Iron knobs’. These names share in common an acknowledgement of the tough heads on these plants. 

You can find knapweed in meadows and pastures, along road verges, on railway embankments, and in scrub and urban waste grounds. 

From June to September this tussocky plant, which resembles a thistle, draws in butterflies, beetles and bees, and there is plenty of it on the Battleby Meadow. We should celebrate this as the bright purple flower head is made up of hundreds of tiny tubular flowers or florets brimming full of nectar. 

In some respects knapweed is one of those plants that keeps on giving; soon it will be providing seeds for the cheery looking goldfinches scouring the retreating meadow. 

There has been a big take up in ‘No Mow’ campaigns of late and for those who embraced allowing their lawn to become a mini-meadow and flowering oasis there is a strong chance that bird’s-foot trefoil and knapweed will feature. Bird’s-foot trefoil, with it’s fairly short stems, it is a very popular splash of colour in these natural lawns.  If you allow a little more height then knapweed is a possibility.

Should you make a bee line for your local meadows, or indeed the Battleby Meadow, chances are you can catch a glimpse of these two popular plants without too much difficulty. Better still what a great opportunity to try a Pollinator Monitoring Scheme FIT-Count (Flower, Insect, Timed Count). Knapweed is one of the target flowers in that project. Whatever you choose to do, enjoy the sight and sounds of two pollinator-friendly gems.

This Side of Paradise

“My irregular lawn, well shaved by Gatsby’s gardener” observed Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald wrote his masterpiece in the 1920s, and for many years after the well-shaved lawn became part and parcel of popular gardens. Now, as they will tell you in Glasgow, that neat and tidy philosophy is wilting fast.

The Jazz Age, Long Island, life of Gatsby is long gone, today more and more of us are looking to go easy on the mowing, let the flowers flourish, tolerate a bit of untidiness.  Often with the specific aim of helping pollinators. Glasgow is one Scottish city that has totally embraced a pollinator friendly approach to greenspace management – they even have their own Pollinator Plan and grasp that pollinators are a key part of Scotland’s biodiversity.

Take a walk around this vibrant city and you will see charming pictorial meadow strips (1m wide) which have sprung up across Scotland’s largest urban community. Created at the front of uncut grass, harbouring a variety of species and aesthetically pleasing heights, they are seeded with cornfield annuals and have been a big hit, the emphasis is on ‘big’ as they total 7,500 square metres over 23 sites. 

And that is just one string to Glasgow’s ever-productive bow in creating green havens.  At Hogganfield Park and Queen’s Park you will find greenspaces that are labelled as Pollinator Parks. It’s a bold sign that Glasgow takes its biodiversity duties seriously and is comfortable mixing park uses and introducing new nature friendly approaches.

There is a clear purpose to the council’s actions and they are adept at calling on the help of expert partners. Anthony McCluskey is a fine example of this method. Well known for his work with bumblebees and butterflies he works with Glasgow City Council to deliver ‘Helping Hands for Butterflies’ at the city’s Ruchill, Elder and Springburn Parks.

Perhaps pride of place in Glasgow’s suite of insect friendly project should go to the Green Connectors project,  Phase 1 of which was funded by the NatureScot  Biodiversity Challenge Fund.  As a result Glasgow City Council has been able to commit £1.5 million from its budget over five years to implement this drive across the rest of the city. Even to the most sceptical onlooker this innovative green infrastructure approach surely shows the level of Council support for pollinators. 

In a mosaic of projects some catch the eye for their uncanny success in drawing people and nature together.  Various Friends of Parks groups offer the council vital support in carrying out wildflower planting and Glasgow has embraced  the initiative that Buglife got underway in the shape of imaginative and much needed B-Lines running through the city. 

RSPB Scotland have been consistently good partners for Glasgow, and they cut and lifted the highly popular existing wildflower meadow behind Kelvingrove Art Gallery in a bid to reduce nutrients and enhance biodiversity. Additional TCV meadow management – a total of 6 days’ work (168 hours) was carried out at four sites – Elder Park, Glasgow Necropolis, Ruchill Park and Springburn Park

Glasgow is enthusiastically embracing the new relaxed mowing, better-managed greenspace philosophy. It can point to 13 large meadow sites across the city managed by a contract farmer and 15 smaller sites managed by The Conservation Trust with help from the Council. This habitat creation is exactly what we crave more of in the environmental sector.

All of these planting efforts and pollinator savvy approaches mark Glasgow out as a city that recognises nature has a problem and needs our help. Even Gatsby’s gardener would surely have approved of a shift that is gradually delivering an urban pollinator paradise.

Verdict: not proven

By Athayde Tonhasca

Wicked, bunny-eating Tommy Brock from Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Mr. Tod tarnished the image of the European or Eurasian badger (Meles meles). Fast-forward to our times, another crime has been added to the charge sheet of our badger: the spread of bovine tuberculosis (BT). The badger’s role as an infection reservoir and the effectiveness of badger culling to reduce BT have been the subject of heated and unresolved debate.

Tommy Brock, 1912.

Badgers are opportunistic eaters; they may dine on anything that’s of nutritional value and easy to catch, including invertebrates, grain, grass, mushrooms, fruit, carrion – and yes, an unfortunate young rabbit or any other small animal such as birds, frogs and tortoises. 

An animal as adaptable and resourceful as the badger would not pass up the rich offerings from wasp and bumble bee nests, which store lots of nutritious larvae and their food (prey items from wasps, some pollen and honey from bumble bees). Everything is gobbled down – even the nests – as the badger’s thick skin and hair protect it against angry stingers.

A bumble bee nest dug up and destroyed by a predator, probably a badger © ceridwen, Wikimedia Commons.

The badger’s capability to wipe out bumble bee nests is often cited as one more reason for culling. But how damaging are these nest raiders to bumble bee populations? 

Dietary analysis, i.e., the probing of stomach contents and faeces, demonstrate considerable local and seasonal variations in badgers’ food intake. But results from the UK agree on the most important item in the badger’s menu: the common earthworm (Lumbricus terrestris), with the redhead worm (L. rubellus) coming in second. It is believed that badgers change their foraging to adjust to fluctuations in earthworm numbers. When they are low, badgers are more tempted to nibble on a bumble bee or wasp nest. Bees and wasps make up 1 to 12% of dietary samples, again with large differences in the results.

A badger, always on the lookout for juicy earthworms © kallerna, Wikimedia Commons.

Bumble bees have many enemies besides badgers: foxes (Vulpes vulpes), wood mice (Apodemus sylvaticus), stoats (Mustela ermine), hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus), moles (Talpa europaea) and shrews (Sorex spp.) have been noted for damaging or destroying bumble bee nests. And it’s not only mammals: great tits (Parus major) and other birds catch and eat bumble bees, especially queens; cuckoo bumble bees, conopid flies, parasitic wasps and other parasites add to the killers club. The effect of predators alarmed Charles Darwin: “The number of humble-bees in any district depends in great degree on the number of field-mice which destroy their combs and nests; and Mr H Newman, who has long attended to the habits of humble-bees, believes that more than two thirds of them are thus destroyed all over England.”(On The Origin of Species, 1859).

But despite Darwin’s concern, we don’t have a good understanding of natural enemies’ impact on bumble bee populations. Badgers may destroy 0.6 to 5.5% of bumble bee nests, especially of species with large broods such as the buff-tailed bumble bee (Bombus terrestris). But the bee moth or wax moth (Aphomia sociella) can do much worse: their larvae eat eggs, larvae, pupae and the comb of bumble bees and social wasps. In some situations, the host’s nest is wiped out. But from the little we know, neither badgers nor wax moths threaten the long-term survival of bumble bees: they are natural factors that help keep populations in check at unknown levels. A variety of studies about pressures on bumble bee populations suggest that danger comes from elsewhere: habitat loss, diseases, pesticides and climate change. 

Badgers divide opinions amongst the public, farmers, scientists and politicians for their possible role in the spread of BT and decline in hedgehog numbers. But whatever Tommy Brock may be guilty of, it does not include reducing bumble bee populations. His lawyer can scratch that from the to-do list.  

A bee moth larva, possibly a greater headache to bumble bees than badgers © Frederick Depuydt, Wikimedia Commons.

Irvine’s rich meadow mixes

I’m not great with Sat-Nav. On a recent trip to Irvine I had a difference of opinion with the technology and as a result missed my cut off. It was, however, a fortuitous mistake.  Soon I found myself driving through Troon where I passed stunning roadside verges. My day to visit the Irvine to Girvan Nectar Network was clearly going to be a success.

I was en route to join Scottish Wildlife Trust’s enthusiastic and energetic Lynne Bates for a trip around some of their highly impressive Nectar Network sites.  Lynne’s meadow knowledge, and botanical expertise, are a delight, and what followed was a perfect, glorious day in the sunshine.

Noisy gulls floated overhead, the flowers were blooming and the insects were out in force.  A day of discovery (for me) unfolded as we flitted from site to site absorbing the remarkable progress that has been made.

We began our tour by heading for Irvine Beach Park where we encountered a dragon.  Before you ask “Just how long was he out in the sun?”,  I should qualify that statement. Irvine beach park boast a fine stone dragon installation, and down the steep slopes beyond lie two different meadows adjacent to each other. 

Lynne explained that, although side by side, these meadows are quite different. “We established the dragon meadow in October 2020.” she explained, “We scarified a patch of land to create a meadow and sowed it with Scotia Seeds’ ‘Get Nectar-rich Quick mix’ as well as a generous helping of yellow rattle. The meadow showed reasonably well in 2021 and when we cut it at the end of the season we vowed to use the green hay to create another meadow. 

“This was to be located immediately beside the original meadow. So just across the vehicle tracks you can see an area that is quite different because we ploughed this additional half-hectare to continue our nectar corridor. From a compare and contrast angle it was good to use a different technique and different seed mix. The new area (which is closest to the dragon) was sown with the green hay as an experiment and the other half had our ‘Nectar Network mix’ sown.

“You can see they look quite different.  Yellow and white dominate in the original 2021 meadow, whereas the new meadow has more red clover, self-heal and even viper’s bugloss and as a result is full of blushing pinks and purples”

A quick scoot along the track took us towards the popular boating pond that sits at the town end of the park. Here you find a meadow that has caught the eye of many a photographer. Whilst we enjoyed the pollinator display that was going on all around us you could hear the approval and appreciation of several passers by. “Beautiful to look at”, “so colourful” and “a wonderful resource for bees, hoverflies and butterflies” were just some of the comments overheard.

How could we follow this floral feast?  Well, the simple answer is quite easily. A short trip took us on to Irvine’s Lawthorn and Sourlie meadows. The first thing the visitor would notice if comparing these meadows to those at the beach park is the amount of grass in the mix. Scotia Seeds’ Mavisbank Meadow mix has been used here and this gives what many of us would recognise as a traditional meadow mix, rather than something that is a bit more pictorial. 

At Sourlie the site, which was previously dogged by boggy patches, was ploughed and directly sown in October 2021 and this is its first summer. It is quite something to behold, and again pollinators were clearly attracted in good numbers. The plan is for a cut and lift exercise at the end of the season and the arisings will simply be taken to a quiet corner of what is a sizable site. 

That makes good environmental sense, as Lynne was keen to point out.  “We didn’t want to take things off site as our aim is to be as sustainable as possible. And it makes sense in another regard too as the council don’t have their own composting facilities. This year we may use the arisings as green hay.

“The first thing residents and visitors will notice is that  Lawthorn and Sourlie are quite different from the Irvine Beach meadows. A more traditional meadow mix has been used, it has a high percentage of grasses with more perennial flowers so is not as showy. Yet look closely and you will see yarrow, yellow-rattle, self-heal, buttercup, a little bit of ox-eye daisy plus the basal leaves of knapweed amongst the grasses.  The beach park meadow is more pictorial, no grasses were sown in that. We wanted a high visual impact on that site and went with a mix that was just purely flower seeds.  Although having said that we know the grasses will come gradually and naturally, but there is yellow rattle in there to help control things and that meadow is much more colourful having a range of annuals such as cornflower, poppies, corn marigold as well as the perennials like viper’s bugloss, yarrow and carrot.  

And so on to Little Acorns Forest school site in the grounds of what was once  Scotland’s Agricultural College facility. Here a conundrum faces the team behind the Irvine to Girvan network.  A new meadow has proved more than a little popular with red clover … it has run riot. A purple haze greets the visitor, great for bumble bees but perhaps not the mixed meadow that was anticipated. As Lynne summarised “It will be interesting to see how it develops. The thing with meadows is you have no guarantee of what you will get year to year really, you can’t do much about it until it arrives. It is exciting, and the anticipation and guessing about what will thrive is part of the joy. But we might need to intervene here to get floral diversity we had last year.”

Our floral tour had yet more delights to savour on South Ayrshire Council roadside verges at Barassie. These are certainly eye-catching. A detailed, yet subtle, sign lets residents know what is happening.  Meadows on a day like this look fantastic, but less so before and after they flower. Explaining the journey, and the environmental benefits, is a vital part of getting public acceptance and support.

As Lynne was keen to point out the councils in this area are great partners in the quest to create meadows and increase nectar provision. “The councils here are great to work with,” Lynne noted. “It works really well that they want to be able to manage these greenspaces much more sustainably, and that we want to provide a nectar network.  They can show that making meadows will save money, cut carbon emissions, deliver significant biodiversity benefits, and add community value through much more aesthetically pleasing spaces for locals.  I’ve heard nothing but praise for these approaches.”

We brought the curtain down on a series of excellent stops by calling in at Dundonald Links golf course.  With preparations for the Scottish Ladies Championship underway things were surprisingly quiet – but my what a site.  A new accommodation village is awash with pollinator planting, with each lodge separated from its neighbours by hummocks that give privacy and a wonderful swathe of nectar rich flowers. Bees and butterflies were plentiful.  Add to the scene a flower-rich driveway and the amazing green roof that tops the club house and you have a wonderful site for insects. Views over the water to Arran come as standard.

Perhaps it’s just as well I couldn’t programme ‘nectar network’ into my sat nav – I don’t think technology could cope with the sheer volume in this neck of the woods.

Home is where the heart is

By Athayde Tonhasca

Most of the 20,000 or so known species of bee build their nests in the ground, excavating tunnels and constructing chambers where they lay their eggs. But one group of species, the mason bees from the genus Osmia, took another path regarding housing. Most of them occupy or expand naturally occurring cavities – such as crevices under or between stones, cracks in a wall, holes in dead wood, hollow stems and tree bark – to transform them into cosy, safe environments in which to raise their young. 

Mason bees are solitary, i.e., each female builds and keeps a nest on her own. But they often nest close to each other, and in large numbers. They release scents to mark their nest entrances, which allow each bee to find her home among many others nearby (the genus Osmia was named after the Greek for ‘odour’; osmonosology is the branch of medicine dealing with organs of smell and olfactory disorders). 

Mason bees are quite resourceful in converting a cavity into a nest: depending on the species, they can use mud, chewed leaf material, pebbles, petals, pith and resin in diverse combinations to build chambers, walls and a plug to seal off the nest. 

A bee house with a section removed to reveal red mason bee (O. bicornis) nest chambers built with mud. The yellow dust is pollen.

Different species of mason bees have specific building skills, which allow them to occupy a variety of habitats. The mountain mason bee (O. inermis), one of Britain’s rarest species, is essentially a boreo-alpine denizen: it lives on wind-swept, open slopes, with not many accommodation options. That’s not a problem for this bee: it nests in crevices on bare, well-drained rocky surfaces.

A mountain mason bee © Arnstein Staverløkk/Norsk institutt for naturforskning, Wikimedia Commons, and its habitat.

An equally rare close relative, the pinewood mason bee (O. uncinata), is at home in areas of Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) at lower altitudes. Here, the bee makes use of a material in ample supply: tree bark. Females drill their nests in the bark of living trees and dead stumps of Scots pine.

A female pinewood mason bee at her nest entrance © Müller et al., 2020. Alpine Entomology 4: 157–171, and her habitat © Richard Webb, Wikimedia Commons.

The lodging needs of mason bees can be quite specific: the hairy-horned mason bee (O. pilicornis) nests in fallen dead branches, while the large black-bellied mason bee (O. nigriventris) gnaws out its nest in pieces of larch (Larix decidua) and Scots pine lying on sun-exposed ground. 

Several mason bees and related species habitually nest inside empty snail shells. These structures are conveniently shaped to allow the arrangement of brood cells in a row, and easy closure at the shell aperture. Besides, shells are abundant, resistant and long-lasting housing units. In Britain, the gold-fringed (O. aurulenta), the two-coloured (O. bicolor) and the spined (O. spinulosa) mason bees are helicophiles (snail-lovers), and they go to a lot of effort to move shells to a good spot, build and provision the brood cells, seal the nests and sometimes camouflage them. You can watch a two-coloured mason bee at work here.

Opened nests of O. notata with brood cells side by side (14); O. pinguis with brood cells in a row (15); O. aurulentacovered with leaf pulp (16); Hoplitis fertoni with brood cells side by side (17, photo G. Le Goff); O. rufohirta with a single brood cell (18, photo P. Westrich); O. bicolor with a barrier of pebbles and earth (18, photo A. Krebs) © Müller et al., 2018. Journal of Hymenoptera Research 65: 61-89.

While many mason bees look for walls, bark, rocks or shells to find a home, a North American species, O. integra,goes for other more convenient, abundant and easy to work building materials. A female may nest on soft coastal dunes, or inside dried cow pats. Cow dung may seem an unusual choice, but it is soft, has no roots or stones to impede excavation, does not break apart easily once dried, and has good insulation. What’s not to like?

Osmia integra © Laurence Packer, Discover Life, and her home © Karora, Wikimedia Commons.

There are approximately 500 species of Osmia in the world and 12 in Britain. They are excellent pollinators, and some species are being widely used to complement or substitute the efforts of the European honey bee (Apis mellifera) in fruit tree orchards and other crops. These bees’ range of nesting options and their flexibility to adapt to local conditions make them dependable pollination agents.