Pollinators in Estonia

Eneli Viik, who works for the Centre of Estonian Rural Research and Knowledge (METK) is our guest blogger today. She develops and promotes activities aimed at preserving the biodiversity of agricultural landscapes and has made a major contribution to the biodiversity monitoring of agri-environmental measures. Eneli is a valued speaker at international and domestic events and has prepared a publication introducing Estonian bumblebees.

Adult hoverflies are important pollinators while larvae contribute to natural pest control. There is very little data about hoverflies biology and abundance in Estonia and only a few experts. (c) Arne Ader.

“The most important natural pollinators in Estonia are bees (bumblebees and solitary bees) but butterflies, hawkmoths and hoverflies also contribute to pollination. How are they doing in Estonia?

“There are 276 species of natural bees known in Estonia. According to the fifth IUCN evaluation of species vulnerability 5% of them are extinct in the region, 3% critically endangered, 4% endangered, 12% vulnerable, 6% near threatened, 64% least concern, 1% data deficient and 5% not evaluated.

Bombus veteranus has decreasing trends in Estonia and belongs to IUCN category „near threatened“. Bumblebees have got quite a lot of attention through monitoring, studies and projects in Estonia.
(c) Urmas Tartes. 

“More specifically, the list of bumblebees contains 21 species of true bumblebees and 8 species of cuckoo bumblebees. According to IUCN criteria 16 species of true bumblebees were evaluated in 2020 to be of least concern, 2 near threatened, 1 vulnerable, 1 endangered and 1 extinct in the region (Bombus laesus). Out of the 8 cuckoo bumblebee species 6 are least concern, 1 is near threatened and 1 was not evaluated.

“Bumblebees have been monitored in the context of national environmental monitoring since 1996, and since 2020 with updated methodology across more sites. Since 2006, bumblebees have been monitored also in connection with Rural Development Plan agri-environment schemes with evaluation focusing on agricultural landscapes. This work has been coordinated by the Centre of Estonian Rural Research and Knowledge. Bumblebees have also been studied under different national and EU funded studies and projects. 

“True bumblebees have received more attention than cuckoo bumblebees. Based on available data the status of bumblebees generally is quite stable. On the other hand, some species (including Bombus veteranus and two long-tongued species B. distinguendus and B. hortorum) have decreasing trends and have become more vulnerable.

(247 solitary bee species have been found in Estonia but there are only a few experts and no monitoring. 
(c) Margit Mõttus.

“At the time of fifth IUCN evaluation in Estonia there was a shortage of data about solitary bees. To improve the knowledge, a revision of Estonian bee fauna was carried out in 2018—2020. Based on the results of 247 solitary bee species found in Estonia, it was concluded that 12 species are endangered, 6 critically endangered and 13 extinct in the region. The endangered and critically endangered species are very rare local species with very few findings recently. In general, the knowledge about solitary bees is still scarce: there are only a few experts available and no monitoring currently.

 Inachis io is a common species in Estonia. Butterflies are quite well known and noticed in Estonia.
(c) Arne Ader.

“103 butterfly species out of Estonia’s known 116 species were evaluated in 2017—2018 according to IUCN criteria: 87 butterfly species are least concern, 3 near threatened, 2 vulnerable, 7 endangered, 1 critically endangered and 3 extinct in the region. Species in the endangered and extinct categories are there due to climate changes and/or because they are associated with habitats like dry alvar meadows and heaths — areas which in Estonia have decreased. Valuable input for the evaluation was received from Estonian butterfly distribution mapping carried out in 2016—2017 which included more than 1200 sites across Estonia. According to butterflies communities monitoring in the frame of national environmental monitoring programme the abundance trend in 2004—2019 was even slightly positive. Since 2020 monitoring methodology was changed and more sites are monitored annually.

“In case of hawkmoths 11 species from 17 were evaluated according to IUCN criteria (6 are rare migratory species). All evaluated species were of least concern. Actually, only 4 species of hawkmoths can be considered as considerable pollinators in Estonia and according to the monitoring of moths communities in the frame of national environmental monitoring programme since 2003 these species trends are stable.

“There are 221 species of hoverflies known in Estonia but there is very little data about their biology and abundance. Therefore, it was not possible to evaluate the IUCN vulnerability status of most of the species and the trends are currently not known. There are only a few experts on hoverflies and no monitoring in Estonia.

“At the moment there is no strategic document for natural pollinators in Estonia, but in the frame of LIFE-IP project ForEst&FarmLand national pollinators’ action plan will be worked out by the end of 2024.

“So far, the actions to favour pollinators are mainly related to agricultural land where different measures can be applied in the sphere of EU common agricultural policy. 

“A list of some examples of measures, requirements and restrictions up to 2022 would include the following: 

  • obligation to grow leguminous crops, 
  • leaving 2—5 m wide grassland field margins, 
  • limitations to the use of glyphosates or other pesticides, 
  • compulsory trainings to raise awareness, 
  • supporting organic farming, 
  • supporting the management of semi-natural habitats, 
  • including biodiversity elements in horticulture, 
  • maintaining landscape elements, 
  • maintaining certain share of permanent grasslands. 

“There is also a measure ‘establishing foraging areas for bees’ the main target of which is honeybees. So, there are actually no measures specifically targeted at natural pollinators. Pollinators are indirectly favoured also through the legislation related to pesticides.

“There are also some other small-scale activities outside agricultural land. For example, in recent years, the city of Tartu has started activities promoting urban biodiversity: flower-meadows have been created in the city-centre and spring-flower patches in shady parks to raise public awareness about the importance of species diversity. 

“An important factor in maintaining pollinators is also citizen science and interest in pollinators. There are some materials about bumblebees and butterflies of Estonia but none for solitary bees, hawkmoths and hoverflies. A citizen science project about bumblebees was carried out in 2014 to raise citizens´ awareness and as a result of the project a Facebook group “Our bumblebees” was created (later renamed for “Our bumblebees and solitary bees”). In the group people can share photos, get support in assigning the species and share other relevant information (more than 1200 members). 

“Another similar Facebook group is for “Butterflies and moths of Estonia” (more than 3300 members). The Estonian Fund for Nature focused in 2018 on their voluntary actions related to semi-natural habitats restoration as well as on bumblebees and along with giving some lectures made bumblebees movies. 

“There are some citizen science platforms where nature observations, including pollinator observations, can be entered. Observations of protected species are cross-checked by an expert and entered into the Estonian Nature Information System. Popular science articles also help to raise public awareness about natural pollinators and give suggestions how to favour these useful insects – for example, suggestion not to mow the lawn so often and let the flowers bloom but also growing food plants specifically for pollinators in their garden.

“During 2020—2021 the Centre of Estonian Rural Research and Knowledge participated in a project financed by the Nordic Council of Ministers. Countries participating were Norway (the lead partner), Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Estonia and this cooperation was called the North-European bumblebee network. The project included different awareness raising activities: producing online and hand-out materials, movies and webinars.

“In order to maintain Estonian pollinators’ populations, it is necessary to consider their species-wise characteristics. Thus, diverse landscapes are needed to ensure many different habitats with nesting sites but also diverse and abundant food resources throughout the activity season.”

Thanks to Eneli for a fantastic insight to what’s happening regarding pollinators in Estonia. We will keep a close eye on how things develop and wish our counterparts in Estonia all the best with their projects.

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.

Tidings of Comfrey and joy

At this time of year if I want to photograph bees I often head for nearby clumps of comfrey.  Along the banks of the River Tay they are easy to spot, and a magnet for insects.  These stands of blue, and occasionally pink, white or purple, flowers are seemingly irresistible for bumblebees. 

Comfrey is one of those plants that enjoys a long association with people too.  The Romans and Greeks were known to have many uses for the hairy leaves which they believed could both stem bleeding and heal broken bones.  The word comfrey is said to have its roots in the Latin for ‘growing together’.

Today, however, it is likely to be gardeners who would sing the plant’s praises.  As a fertiliser it enjoys rave reviews. For those who enjoy composting it is a great resource and apparently lots of fun. Although from what I read it requires patience, as it performs best in a fairly slow composting fashion. 

The key to its composting credentials is as a rich source of potassium, making it suitable to nourish garden flowers and fruits, including tomatoes, which as every gardener will testify take a bit of feeding.

Although it begins flowering in May it is not unusual for profuse comfrey leaves to be around until the first frosts. Fast forward a couple of months and your ears will be reverberating to many a Christmas Carol, don’t make the mistake of thinking the lyrics in ‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen’ are saying ‘comfrey and joy’, it is I am assured ‘comfort and joy’. Though no doubt you will be anticipating some comfort and joy if your composting endeavours have gone well.

Others view comfrey, a member of the borage family, as a useful addition in the battle to control slugs. A patch of comfrey is seen by some as a ‘distraction plant’ to lure slugs away from more prized species. But spare a thought for the poor slug, there are many types in the UK and the number of species which are considered pests is in single figures, yet this gastropod is almost universally vilified 

Many of you will be familiar with the UK Pollinator Monitoring Scheme’s FIT Count (Flower-Insect Timed Count) and if you cannot find any of the 14 target flowers listed above you are free to choose another target that is attracting insects at your location. Comfrey is one of the flowers listed in that list of alternatives, just be sure to note that you have used this flower species if submitting a result. The sharp eyed might even not parasitic wasps and lacewings hanging around comfrey.

Distinguishing between common comfrey (symphytum officinale), hybrid comfrey and Russian comfrey is a task for experts. Fortunately pollinators are not always that discerning, any bushy stand of comfrey it seems will satisfy their needs.

For some pollinators the bell shaped flowers are a boon. This hardy perennial thrives in damp areas and for bumblebees with long tongues its lengthy flowering period (roughly May to August) is extremely helpful.  However, other bees are known to access it’s flowers. Dave Goulson’s writings on comfrey are always approving, and he notes “…one of the very best plants for bees. Visited by long and short-tongued species, the latter often robbing from holes bitten in the tops of the flowers.” 

Comfrey it seems is providing comfort and joy after all.

Further reading

Athayde’s blog on nectar robbing

Windswept and interesting

Speak to any National Nature Reserve manager in Scotland and one thing is for sure – they will all tell you that their reserve is, whisper it, actually the best in the country.  Now, I’ve no inclination to take sides, and each and every reserve I’ve visited has been fantastic, but I have to concede that there is something about the tremendous variety at St Cyrus NNR that grabs your attention.

Sure it can be a site of blustery winter storms, and the salty winds promise untold harm to your complexion, but when you have long expanses of beach, rolling sand-dunes and a backdrop of towering inland cliffs you know that you are somewhere special, somewhere to be savoured.

Diversity is the name of the game here. Birds, plants, sea life, scents, sights and sounds jockey for position.  If pollinators are on your wish list then a visit in summer is recommended. The place is simply awash with wildflowers and performs sterling service as a haven for insects. 

Reserve manager Therese Alampo won’t disagree. In fact she will regale you with tales of birds, butterflies, moths, sand dunes, seals and flowers until the sun dips behind you. Selling the virtues of the many paths that criss-cross the reserve comes naturally, as does the insistence that one trip is never enough.  She ought really to be selling tickets … the commission would be incredible.

The pollinator trail is well worth sampling. There are currently eight stopping points on a trail that piggy-backs on existing floral trails.  Subjects covered include the tawny mining bee, unkempt corners, the much maligned ragwort, hoverflies, leaf-cutter bees, and valuing our wasps.

There’s a buzz and a hum at St Cyrus. Pollinators feast on the nectar and pollen banquet.  And the fun starts right at the car park, for within yards of leaving you are likely to come across mining bees making good use of the exposed soil around a fence line. Then it is onto a boardwalk that lifts you over what some might call a scruffy area, but others celebrate as a natural oasis.

Before Covid struck the reserve offered a children’s quiz that added a fun sense of purpose to many school outings around the reserve. As Therese explains the information on offer at the reserve is eagerly soaked up, be it in the shape of quizzes or information panels. “Every day we see people stopping to read the information on the short trail” notes Therese, “sometimes simply capturing an audience that may just be on the way to the beach.  I love people’s reactions to the trail and the fascination, particularly to the wasp panel, ‘Really, wasps are useful? I never knew that!’ It’s lovely to provoke that sense of interest.”

Therese isn’t the only enthusiast for the reserve. Noted local photographer, Pauline Smith, has wowed people for several years now with her stunning macro shots of the insect and flower life on the reserve.  Our blog, and indeed the pollinator information panels at St Cyrus, have been lucky to tap into her amazing skills.

Photographer in residence at St Cyrus National Nature Reserve, Pauline not only takes awesome wildlife photos, but enjoys a deep understanding of the reserve’s nature. When not getting up close to insect life she is a scientific copy-editor and that eye for detail serves her extremely well as a photographer.

Wasps, butterflies, solitary bees, caterpillars and bumblebees have all fallen under Pauline’s near forensic gaze. The images she captures show not just the beauty of nature, but the complexity and detail in the structure of so many of our invertebrates. From camouflage to intricate mouth parts, she is capable of shining a light on the minutest detail. That takes well-honed field craft and a connection with nature. 

Pauline has been enjoying the reserve daily since 2017. She first came to St Cyrus NNR to walk her dog, but was immediately hooked by the huge variety of wildlife supported by the reserve. She hones in on the macro world because she is fascinated by those small details, such as the intricacies of a caterpillar’s foot or the impressive moustache of a male mining bee, that can be revealed by a macro lens. 

Her favourite pollinators are solitary bees, with leafcutters and the gold-tailed melitta being particular favourites. Pauline finds the most challenging thing about macro photography to be getting her subjects to stay still long enough to obtain both aesthetically pleasing bug’s-eye-view photographs and photographs showing enough distinguishing features to allow the species to be identified, which is no mean feat (even with detailed photographs) for solitary bees. Pauline’s commitment to never interfere in the behaviour or habitat of her subjects in pursuit of her envisaged photographs makes her exploration of the macro world an immersive experience, as she enjoys so much time simply observing and learning about her subjects while she waits for natural shots of them going about their ‘buzziness’.

St Cyrus became a National Nature Reserve in 1962. The dune grassland, well-drained and nutrient rich, supports over 300 species of plant. Vetches, speedwell, ragwort … the list of pollinator friendly flowers is expansive. Abandoned churches and fishing stations tell the tale of human association with this site and today it is a highly popular visitor destination.

The pollinator trail is designed to help you get the most out of your visit. And as for the pollinators?  Well, they are certainly well catered for and we hope that trail will help raise awareness of not only this range of insects, but what you can do to help them thrive in Scotland.

Find out more about St Cyrus National Nature Reserve

Find out more about the Pollinator Strategy for Scotland

Images 1 and 2 of St Cyrus Panels, images 3 (composite) and 4 by Pauline Smith.

Organic Growers of Fairlie

By Nancy McQueen

Organic Growers of Fairlie is a sustainable community garden with space to grow vegetable and fruit both outside and in polytunnels. We hold workshops and events that everyone can take part in and have established woodland and forest walks. This is now a super rich area for wildlife and a sheltered quiet spot for those wishing the tranquility and peace that a woodland can offer.  This is how Keep Scotland Beautiful sees our garden.

We are rewarded with a multitude of pollinators such as bees, butterflies, moths and hoverfles. There are also many sightings of voles, frogs, bats and hedgehogs which all benefit from the natural environment created by sustainably planting for people with the environment in mind. These are a multitude of natural pest controllers.

This environment has been created over many years by enthusiastic gardeners and volunteers.

The previously derelict site was historically a train yard, and also used for boat repairs.  Contaminants were found in the soil when we first started gardening here fourteen years ago.  The three acre site was also one third covered with Japanese knotweed.  

We were instructed not to walk on the soil and were not able to grow anything  edible  in it either. It was necessary to grow in raised beds and make our own compost or buy it in.  The whole site was covered in wood chip, donated by tree surgeons, and it quickly composted into good soil of a great depth. The site was cleared of Japanese knotweed mainly by persistent and careful hand removal. A grant from Scottish Natural Heritage of £10,000 was helpful in starting the allotment, however our main funders were Hunterston PowerStation, and we were one of the first to receive a grant from The Climate Challenge Fund.

Local children planted many native trees we received from the Woodland Trust along the garden edges, and wood chip was put down to create a woodland nature trail along the perimeters.  A shelter belt of native trees was planted at the front of the garden.  We now have a small woodland at the back we are developing which contains a tree nursery. It was here we released adopted hedgehogs from a wildlife rescue centre. Now after fourteen years the trees are maturing well. There is also a local area we are developing as a community woodland.  

Our gardeners conserve rainwater with water drainage from our roof into bowsers and make organic compost using our own vegetable remains.  Fifteen to twenty tons is produced a year. Two hot bins produce compost as well as a liquid feed.  We have members who are making compost and worm-tea using composting worms and wormeries.  Young gardeners are being mentored in composting and maintaining wormeries as well as other gardening and environmental skills. They work on a ‘Grow and Learn’ Award from The Caley.  Knowledge gained is shared with anyone interested or other groups. We have had groups of youngsters achieve the John Muir Award.

Comfrey is grown for plant feed. Leaf mould and seaweed are used as mulch. It is a coastal garden. Recycled coffee grounds and rock dust help revitalise the soil.  These are all activities  which benefit the environment and encourage the pollinators needed for growing our crops.

We have bat and bird boxes in the garden and bug hotels and bats are seen in the early evening. A bat viewing night was held.  Our pollinating plants are many and have been chosen to attract pollinators throughout the seasons. Crocus bulbs in the spring, pot marigolds in the summer and ivy in the autumn/winter are a few of these.  Clover which attracts many bees is left while mowing the grass. Long grass is kept in some areas for natural habit.  Many nettles for butterflies to lay their eggs are retained. Night scented stock and evening primrose are grown to attract insects for bats to feed on as well.

We are involved in other projects where we have planted for pollinators throughout our village including Fairlie Station garden, two small picnic areas, a green space play area where soft fruits, apple trees and mints are grown for community use. A volunteer from our group improves an area in a neighbouring village as well. One volunteers has established community seating area with attractive planting. Young people have been involved in growing plants for many of these areas such as borage and planting them with wildflower seed which they maintain as well. 

These areas have beautiful wildflower displays which everyone enjoys. We have handed out 40 packets of wildflower seed this past year to encourage a pollinator trail in the village and also about 50 wildflower seed bombs to youngster. The local primary school and the garden co-operate with projects such as making seed bombs and nature surveys. Citizen science surveys have taken place on our site, and we also created a small pond in the garden. 

Our polytunnels are filled with marigolds and nasturtiums to attract pollinators but they also attract birds that feed on them.  A wren was found nesting under a lettuce leaf with a cluster of eggs so we need to be careful.  Most members are so pleased they forgo their gardening until the chicks have fledged. Nesting in the polytunnels is a regular occurrence in the spring.

Two members began to create a wildflower meadow at the front of our garden about four years ago in a grassy area of poor soil. Some plants such a rattle where grown from seed and planted as plugs to get established.

The area has matured over the years and has long attractive grasses interspersed with splashes of colourful plants such as thistles, vetches, vipers bugloss, oxeye daisy, lady’s bedstraw, trefoil and queen of the meadow and more.  Multitudes of bees are found feeding during the summer and butterflies such as the common blue.  

Goldfinches feed on the thistle seeds and other birds which eat small insects are regular visitors.  Ground beetles hide in the grass during the day and feed on slugs and flatworm which is an invasive species in the garden.  Pipistrelle bats eat moths and midges at night.  Frogs use the meadow as a shelter and eat slugs.  Hedgehogs use the meadow to pass through.  

Wildflower seeds are collected in the autumn for next years planting and the meadow grass is cut back in the autumn. There are recycled boxes where we plant wildflower seeds. The biggest challenge in 2021 for gardeners was three months of hot weather without rain. The tiny wildflower seedlings in boxes needed constant watering to thrive which volunteers did regularly.  

In the future we would like to work with the council to have dedicated wood ‘bee boxes’ filled with compost for growing wildflowers in areas in the village where ground planting isn’t possible. We would also like to help the Primary School with a dedicated area for wildflowers. We’ve come a long way in 14 years, and we have ambitions to do much more yet.

Sunflower riches

Until recently sunflowers for me conjured up either images of the ever-impressive backdrops to the Tour De France, or the work of the enigmatic Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh when he lived in Arles.  Lately however I’ve seen so many of them in Scotland that my ‘French connection’ has been, if not broken, certainly lessened.

Provence is a European heartland for the sunflower. Although when I say sunflower, I should quickly acknowledge that there are actually many, many varieties out there.  On closer inspection, rather like Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings, there are more sunflowers than first meets the eye.

A few months ago I was returning from Dundee having enjoyed a stroll around the Ninewells Community Garden, my route back to Perth took me via Errol.  Here I came across several field margins given over entirely to a sea of glowing sunflowers.  

That wasn’t the first time this summer that I’ve come across a field margin awash with these yellow beauties, so beloved of pollinators. In Islay I stumbled across more striking field margins around Balinaby near Loch Gorm. They are popular as they offer so much for bees and other pollinators as well as bringing a smile to passers-by.

Van Gogh can’t take sole credit for making sunflowers popular, but he certainly elevated their status. His painting ‘Vase with15 Sunflowers’ sold for several millions  in 1987 but it is was only one of several paintings made by the Dutch master that feature these bold and unmistakable yellow flowers. He loved sunflowers so much that he made a series of paintings featuring this striking flower one summer week in 1888 when he was forced indoors for several day by poor weather.  Less than a decade later Gustav Klimt also produced a notable painting featuring the sunflower. 

I doubt Van Gogh ever made it to Clydebank but if he was dropped into Melfort Park this summer he would have spied a few of his beloved sunflowers. The Melfort Park sunflowers were large enough to test my tip toes when it came to photographing them, but not quite the giddy 30 feet or so that the world’s largest sunflower grew to. 

But size isn’t everything when it comes to sunflowers. Regardless of height they certainly do their bit for bees crammed as they are with a rich harvest of pollen and nectar. So as well as enchanting children with an impressive spurt of growth to an absurd height the sunflower can be a fine introduction for youngsters seeking to watch pollinators go about their business.

The flower head of the sunflower is heliotropic (meaning it can follow the path of the sun). This was something that the poet William Blake noted in his ‘Ah, Sunflower!’

Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,

Who countest the steps of the Sun:

If all of this talk of sunflowers entices you to try growing your own then fear not, there is a lot of encouragement out there. The excellent Friends of the Earth pollinator pages recommend two types of sunflower which also feature on the Royal Horticultural Society’s Perfect for Pollinators plant list – the common sunflower (Helianthus annuus) and the cucumber leaf sunflower (Helianthus debilis).

Given that mixing your variety of sunflowers means you could have flowering versions from June through to October there is much fun to be had.  

You won’t reap the financial rewards that await the owners of Van Gogh or Klimt’s masterpieces, but you will be making space for nature and giving bees in particular a rich helping hand.

Further information:

Find out more about the world of heliotropic plants

Alys Fowler talks sunflowers in The Guardian @

Fabulous Forvie

Most visitors to Forvie National Nature Reserve, it’s fair to say, go in expectation of glimpsing a range of birds and enjoying the fringe of sand dunes.  But of late there has been increasing appreciation of the number of pollinators, and given the rich floral diversity perhaps that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.

Our colleagues at Forvie manage a rather impressive meadow specifically for pollinators. The wildflowers here benefit from a cutting regime that emphasises the value of a late cut and the removing of cuttings. This allows longer flowering periods and seed setting. By removing the cuttings, the team at Forvie ensure that bigger, tougher, ranker plant species don’t take over.

The meadow was increasingly drawing admirers, and the team set up a short trail next to the visitor centre.  Information boards explaining species, habitats and behaviours proved extremely popular; visitors would stroll round taking their time to absorb the information and pausing studiously like Magnus Carlsen over his next chess move. The range of pollinator-friendly messaging also targets visiting gardeners and community groups with hints on how they could do their bit for nature in their own space.  

This smorgasbord for bumblebees, hoverflies, solitary bees and honey bees and others insects is seldom quiet. The butterflies that linger on the flower heads are one of the highlights.   It also offers a splash of colour for visitors to savour. All of this takes place within a few steps of the main car park, and a wildflower trail over the heath makes for a real bonus.

Forvie’s soil is thin, sandy and poor in nutrients, which is ideal for wildflowers .  However, given the harsh coastal climate, many plant species tend to be small and low-growing. 

So to the edited highlights.

Look out for bird’s-foot trefoil. A member of the pea family, the flowers resemble those of the sweet pea, and emit a similarly pleasant fragrance. On a hot day the smell can be almost intoxicating, helping to attract insects to pollinate the flowers. Bird’s-foot trefoil has several colloquial names depending on where you are in Britain. In southern England it’s known as ‘bacon and eggs’, due to the flowers’ colouration – orange-red for the bacon, and yellow for the eggs of course! But in north-east Scotland it’s also called ‘craa’s taes’ (literally ‘crow’s toes’). This name reflects the shape of the seed pods which for some resemble a crow’s foot.

Other draws include orchids, and the reserve boasts a few. Northern marsh, heath spotted, and the charmingly named frog orchid are worth searching for. If blue or purple are the colours for you, then you will enjoy Scottish bluebells, germander speedwell, viper’s bugloss, self-heal and wild thyme.  If you are lucky you might catch a glimpse of purple milk-vetch in June and July.  For those who prefer a white palate you will be in good company, as an array of bees favour the splashes of white clover. And who could ignore the yellows with dandelion, mouse-ear hawkweed, lady’s bedstraw (in past times it was used for stuffing mattresses), and tormentil vying for your attention.

But amidst this heady floral variety a word of warning for prospective visitors. There are few guarantees in nature, and meadows can differ markedly from year to year

One thing is for sure, it’s never the ‘same old, same old’ at Forvie.  Why not pop a reminder in your calendar for 2022: ‘Must visit Forvie’?

Visit Forvie National Nature Reserve

With sincere thanks to Mark Williamson at Forvie NNR for his images and help with this piece.

Serious series

Parliament has Hansard, cricket has Wisden. The world of Natural History has the New Naturalist. This fabulous nature series has strong links to Scotland, for it is wound up in the fortunes of Collins, which began as a printing firm in Glasgow long before evolving into an international publishing house.

The New Naturalist came into being as World War Two ended and has endured for many reasons.  The scientific rigour, the lovingly crafted texts, the often beautiful illustrations. It’s a luxurious smorgasbord of quality.

First out of the blocks. in a series which now has well over 100 titles, was ‘Butterflies’, which hit the booksellers’ shelves in November 1945. It was an instant success.

With 48 colour illustrations it set a new benchmark for a book of this kind. The series appealed to the naturalist, the scientist, the student, and the book-lover alike. ‘Butterflies’ was an inspired choice as a ‘launch volume’ for the subject has an enduring appeal in Britain and it would be re-published four times – a remarkable testimony to quality.

With the splash made by ‘Butterflies’ the young series was up and running. It was a publishing sensation, and insects and pollination would feature more than once as the series evolved. Evidence came in 1947 when Volume 8 gave us the broad brush approach with ‘Insect Natural History’.

Nevertheless, it would be over 20 volumes later before insects were the focus once more, but when they were it was with another searing success. Book number 29 was titled ‘The World of the Honeybee’. Authored by Colin Butler, it was joined by ‘Moths’ in February 1955 – a mere nine months later. The former was admired widely for its content, the later meanwhile made an indelible mark with quite stunning cover artwork.

Volume 36 brought the eager readership ‘Insect Migration’ with an appeal that went well beyond Britain – and in the fullness of time the series would indeed be printed and published in other countries.

May 1959 was a high spot with the publication of ‘Bumblebees’. Again Colin Butler was involved, and once more the cover design earned plaudits all round. This aesthetic detail was by now a much-loved feature of the books, and the 1959 bumblebee wrapper was truly a classic.

Those with an interest in pollinators and pollination had to watch over a dozen volumes come and go before they got another which grabbed their specialist interest –  ‘The Pollination of Flowers’. Time had clicked on relentlessly, the series had endured some ups and downs, and the calendar registered that we were in April 1973.

‘Ladybirds’, ‘The Natural History of Pollination’, and ‘Moths’ (again) all appeared as the series racked up volume number 90. Moths, Mark II, was a popular repeat in the series.  In March 2006 ‘Bumblebees’ too was given a makeover and the subject revisited under the expert care of Ted Benton.

The artwork of the series by this time had grown to be a popular and increasingly celebrated sideshow. Husband and wife team – Clifford and Rosemary Ellis – were the early stars behind the covers, and they handed over to the equally talented Robert Gillmor.  His artwork on ‘Bumblebees’ (Volume 98) is arguably the finest in the series – but I may be biased!

Gillmor was an astute observer of nature, sold his art for a living (illustrating several Royal Mail stamps), and knew too that some things connected better than others with the public, and certain subjects – such as bumblebees – were good sellers.  As he neatly put it “You’ve got to be very dedicated to buy a picture of a slug.”

Some of the New Naturalist titles are very hard to come by today, some are exceedingly expensive.  A quick search on the internet for some titles is enough to take the breath away. 

The series is explored in detail in this sumptuous volume

Recently an excellent coffee-table book was published exploring this iconic series in considerable detail. Every volume is religiously catalogued, with a small colour picture of the dust jacket for each title, and exhaustive publishing specifics.  There are biographies of all the authors, every artist and their designs, and some humorous tales from collectors of the series, include household names such as Alan Titchmarsh.

The Collins New Naturalist run remains probably the most influential natural history series ever published. And in a series that spans 70 years there is almost certainly something for everyone.