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.

Nectar network

The Irvine to Girvan nectar network boasts many projects. One interesting task centres around Belleisle and Seafield golf courses, particularly on making the rough more pollinator-friendly.  The courses have been surveyed recently by the Scottish Wildlife Trust working in partnership with South Ayrshire Council’s Golf Service, and the findings make for an interesting read.

Extensive scarification work was undertaken on the roughs in September 2018 .  Many of these areas were sown with wildflower in October 2018. With any project it is always a telling experience to revisit the site to see what has worked and what has struggled. And hence the golf course areas which were sown in 2018 were revisited in July 2019 to look for successes and challenges.

Red clover

Red clover

The surveys at the two golf courses was to prove valuable and given that there was also an intention to note the presence of any pollinating insects there would be a good insight gained into habitat and species.

Yellow rattle

Yellow rattle

At Seafield golf course several patches were inspected, and 50 plant species were noted in 9 distinct sites. It was interesting to note that of 17 species which were present in the seed mix that was used, 12 occurred on the ‘inspection visit’ and three of the 12 were widely evident (pignut, wild carrot and yellow rattle).  Red clover, bird’s-foot trefoil and lesser knapweed. fared relatively well but there was no sign of the devil’s-bit scabious or vetches that had been planted.

A few items which were flourishing at Seafield hadn’t actually formed part of the mix – including white clover, yarrow and harebell.  12 species of pollinators were noted whilst visiting Seafield, including three species of butterfly, three of bee and two types of hoverfly.  The digger wasp was one of the star finds.

Digger wasp

A digger wasp

When the team moved on to Belleisle they found rough that was more densely vegetated, and isolating the ‘sown’ areas was a deal trickier. Again three species in the mix that was sown thrived — lesser knapweed, yellow rattle and pignut. Five elements know to have been sown did not show, including red campion, devil’s-bit scabious and common vetch. Lesser stitchwort, which did not form part of the mix, had done well as had ribwort plantain and creeping buttercup. Four different species of butterfly and 3 kinds of bee were noted during the survey – others may have been present.

One of the Seafield plots that was analysed

One of the Seafield plots that was analysed

The surveys at the two golf courses were useful for gaining a picture on the success, or otherwise, of the mix sown. There was a sense that it might have been more economic, and more productive, to have narrowed the list in the mix. Given that plenty of non-sown items were evident it might be that simply sticking to the highly beneficial yellow rattle would be a good approach, particularly on light, well-drained soils.

The team have also concluded that more scarification would be a good thing — allowing the build up of grass to be cleared and helping move to a one-cut per year scenario. But overall their findings are fascinating and help prove that you never quite know beforehand what will thrive and what will disappear when sowing seeds.

Further reading:

Fnd out more about the Irvine to Girvan nectar network on the Scottish Wildlife Trust website.