Tag Archives: willow

Trees for bees

The pollen and nectar sources available to bees depend upon the time of the year and the area of the country. The bees will enthusiastically exploit what’s available, but will struggle if there’s a dearth of either.

For much of this year I’ve been living on the remote west coast of Scotland, in an area with a very low population density and an even lower density of beekeepers … by my calculations less than 1 per 25 km2.

It’s very different from Fife (on the east coast of Scotland). It’s warmer and wetter here and there is almost no arable farming. One or two of the crofts on the coast might grow a bit of barley or wheat, but the few fields tend to be used for grazing and hay production. There’s probably no oil seed rape within 50 miles.

And there’s also no Varroa 🙂 … but I’ll discuss that another time.

Trees – in this case providing shelter from the westerlies – and bees

It goes without saying, since I’m spending so much time here, I now have bees here 🙂

Triffids and mad honey

The primary nectar source for honey is heather, which doesn’t yield until August. I have less than zero experience with heather honey – other than on toast – so have a lot to learn.

The land is on the edge of moorland with a mix of larch and scots pine, with a shrubby understorey of birch and some rowan. It’s awash with wildlife; pine marten, eagles, crossbills and the elusive Scottish wildcat 1.

Pine marten raiding the bird table

However, at least until a year or two ago, much of the land was covered in a triffid-like invasive mass of rhododendron. Swathes of the west of Scotland and Ireland are blighted by this shrub which was first introduced as an ornamental plant in the 18th Century.

Rhododendron as far as the eye can see – now cleared and planted with hazel and rowan

I’m biased, but I’d argue that rhododendron has no redeeming features. It seeds itself everywhere and smothers all other groundcover, leaving a near sterile environment. It’s terrible for wildlife. The flowers are briefly showy but not hugely attractive, either to me or to bees – whether wild or managed.

Oh yes, and the nectar produces hallucinogenic honey. I’ve even less experience of this than I do of heather honey … but in this case I have no desire to learn more.

So, I’ve been slowly clearing the rhododendron and replanting the cleared areas.

Trees for Life

A friend who used to keep bees in this are a few years ago commented that there was a shortage of early season pollen, meaning that colonies could sometimes struggle to build up. A colony that fails to build up well early in the season will struggle to reproduce i.e. swarm.

Of course, like most beekeepers, I don’t really want my bees to swarm.

However, I do want my colonies to be strong enough to want to swarm. That way, there will be loads of foragers to exploit the heather from late July. In addition, I’m particularly interested in queen rearing and building my stocks up, and for both these activities I need the colonies to have good access to pollen and nectar … and to be big and strong.

With no agriculture to speak of there are also no pesticides. Perhaps as a consequence of this there are a very large number of bumble bees about. These give me hope that there might actually be sufficient pollen, but more can only be beneficial.

And more will certainly be helpful if I end up with a reasonable number of colonies that could compete with the native bees for environmental resources 2.

I’m therefore busy planting trees in some of the areas cleared of rhododendron. Not quite on the same scale as the Trees for Life rewilding at Dundreggan, but every little bit helps 😉

Why trees?

Partly because they’ll take the longest to grow, so need to go in first, and partly because many of them are excellent sources of early season pollen and nectar.

It’s also the sort of epic-scale ‘gardening’ involving chainsaws and brushcutters, huge bonfires, cubic metres of firewood and lots of digging that I have an affinity for. I don’t have the patience for pricking-out and growing on bedding plants, or weeding the herbaceous border 😉

Native trees

I’m keen to re-plant with native trees and shrubs. I know they’ll do well in this environment and they can be readily sourced, either locally or at little expense.

As will become clear shortly, the ‘expense’ part is a not an insignificant consideration with the grazing pressure from deer in this area.

I’ve initially focused on just six species; alder, hazel, wild cherry (gean), poplar, willow and  blackthorn.

Of these I’ll skip over the blackthorn (Prunus spinosa). Although the white spring flowers produce nectar, I chose it to make a spiky hedge and for the distant opportunity of making sloe gin. However, I’m going to have to try again as the bareroot whips I planted last winter have done almost nothing.


Alder (Alnus glutinosa) produces large amounts of early season pollen. It also thrives in damp ground and we have plenty of that. I’ve planted quite a bit of alder and it’s all doing pretty well. There is already a lot along the banks of nearby streams and in boggy areas at the side of the loch, so I know it will do well in this area. In fact, the few dozen I’ve planted are insignificant in comparison to what’s growing locally, but I wanted to create an area of mixed alder and willow carr 3. I planted 30 cm bareroot whips last winter and those that have survived the deer have doubled or trebled in height.


Alder, once established, seems reasonably resistant to browsing by deer, presumably because they find it relatively unpalatable. The long-term plan is to coppice the alder – it makes good firewood when properly dried. It has also historically been used to make clogs, but I’ll be cutting it back before it’s grown enough for anything but the tiniest feet.


Like alder, hazel (Corylus avellana) is a good source of early season pollen. Most readers will be familiar with the catkins which appear as early as mid-February. The area shown in a picture (above), now cleared of rhododendron, has been planted with hazel. It’s a south-facing slope with thin soil but most seem to be doing OK so far.


There are a couple of mature hazel nearby and I managed to find a few seedlings which I transplanted, however the majority went in as bareroot whips.

Hazel is popular with deer and with the red squirrels. The fact I needed to buy barerooted trees probably reflects the fact that the squirrels get most of the nuts, and those that do germinate are then eaten by the deer. It’s a tough life.


Gean is the Scottish name for the wild cherry (Prunus avium) 4. It flowers in April and is a great source of nectar and pollen for the bees. I’ve only planted a few of these, in scattered groups of three, or along the side of the track. Despite gean not really flourishing in acid, peaty soil they seem to have established well and are already approaching shoulder height. Gean, like rowan 5, is also great for the birds and the thrushes will probably get the majority of the fruit that sets.

Poplar or aspen

Poplar or aspen (Populus tremula) is a favourite of mine. The leaves have pale undersides and are held on long, flattened petioles. As a consequence they flutter in the faintest of breezes and are a wonderful sight, particularly planted against a backdrop of dark brooding conifers.

Poplar or aspen (Populus tremula)

In fact, poplar is so attractive I’d have planted it even if it was of no interest to the bees.

Poplar is wind pollinated and the bees probably only get a little pollen from it. Some species also produce early season sap that is a major component of propolis apparently. Finally, poplar are susceptible to a rust or fungus called Melampsora, and the bees collect the spores if they need protein and there’s no pollen to be found.

Inaccessible aspen

The standard way to propagate poplar is by root cuttings. There is relatively little poplar around here, and none I could have easily grubbed up the roots from. However, after a bit of searching I discovered Eadha Enterprises in Lochwinnoch, near Glasgow. Eadha is derived from the old gaelic word for aspen. They are a social enterprise specialising in aspen production from stocks of known provenance. The cell-grown saplings I received, which are going in this winter, are derived from trees on the Isle of Arran.


In contrast to the relative difficulty of propagating aspen, you have to try hard not to propagate willow. A foot long, pencil-thick cutting – taken more or less any time of the year – will root very quickly. Even if left in a bucket of water for a fortnight.

Willow cuttings ready for planting

I’ve planted a lot of willow from local trees (probably goat willow, Salix caprea, but they hybridise so freely you can never be certain) and planted it in variously boggy bits of ground, alongside some of the alder. Willow is generally dioecious (male or female) and you need to plant male trees for the pollen. I planted some female as well as they both produce nectar.

Willow male catkins

In addition to just planting them directly, I grew a few on in tubs in potting compost. These developed good root systems and grew better.

Pot grown cutting ready for planting

However, willow is a favourite of deer and the cuttings I’ve planted have periodically been hammered by both red and roe deer.

Sabre planting and oversize cuttings

The obvious way to prevent deer damage is to build a 6 foot high fence but, because of the rocky nature of the ground, this is impractical (which is an easier way of saying eye-wateringly expensive).

If you visit the Scottish highlands you’ll be familiar with the site of small burns cascading down gulleys in the hillside. Often the the sides of the gulleys have dense growth of alder, birch or willow.

This is not just because of the nearby water supply. After all, much of the land receives 2000 mm of rain or more a year.

The other reason the trees are there (and not on the open moor) is that the gulley is steep sided and the trees therefore experience less grazing pressure. You can recapitulate this by so-called sabre planting 6. In this you plant trees of 1m+ height perpendicular on slopes of at least 40°. The slope makes the growing tips less accessible and they gradually grow out and away, straightening up as they do.

I’ve only discovered this strategy recently 7 and will be trying it in a couple of locations.

An alternative strategy, particularly suitable for willow, is to plant ‘cuttings’ that are already too big for the deer to reach the growing tips.

A ‘big’ willow cutting – there’s a game trail 2m from this that’s used every night.

To avoid grazing by red deer this means at least 1.5-1.8 m in height. The technique is almost the same as planting the foot long, pencil-thick cuttings … you just push them into the ground. It’s worth noting that you need to push them a good distance into the ground and stake them. About 50% of the big cuttings I’ve planted have apparently rooted. I’m pretty certain that those that didn’t failed because they were not staked firmly enough. This makes sense … as the leaves sprout they become wind-resistant and gales will quickly damage the developing root system through simple leverage.

Gimme Shelter

I’ve planted trees for bees before. We planted lots of goat willow and mixed hedging around our research apiary in Fife in early 2018. The combination of a major fire in my research institute the following year, and Covid this year, meant that the trees have been just left to get on with it.

Mixed hedging and willow and wildflowers (aka weeds, but the bees don’t know that)

And they have. This was a bare earth bank in February 2018. We still need a windbreak, but even that can probably be dispensed with in a year or so. Not all the trees have thrived, but I’m more than satisfied considering the neglect they received.

Oh deer

Scotland is overrun with deer. A review over 50 years ago stated that the optimum number of red deer the land could maintain was ~60,000. They defined ‘optimum’ in terms of avoiding agricultural damage, while allowing natural regeneration with no necessity for fencing. This would also ensure that there’s enough food for the deer during the winter months.

The current estimate is that there are over 450,000 red deer in Scotland. As a consequence there are many areas with no natural tree regeneration without installing expensive and intrusive fencing. In addition, the deer are often in lousy condition and/or starve to death in hard winters.

If you look carefully you can see a couple more coming down the track. There’s also a beehive in the video above, though it’s tricky to spot.

In addition to red deer we also have a smaller number of roe deer … equally attractive and almost equally destructive.

Don’t get me wrong, I love deer … particularly braised slowly with a good quality, full-bodied red and winter vegetables.

Not beekeeping?

OK, in terms of specifics, not beekeeping. However, I’d argue that beekeepers have a responsibility to maintain and protect their environment. This includes ensuring that their charges do not impact negatively on the native wildlife.

This area is towards the extreme north-west corner of the country and the introduction of a quarter of a million bees (~5 hives) will inevitably impact the pollen and nectar available for the established native pollinating insects.

I could choose to avoid the latter by ‘not beekeeping’, but I’ve instead chosen to try and improve the resources available in the environment. Time will tell if there is a shortage of pollen and if my bees thrive.

If they don’t, at least there will be a bit less bloody rhododendron 😉


If you’re interested in native trees I thoroughly recommend the Handbook of Scotland’s Trees by Reforesting Scotland. It has lots of good advice about collecting seed and planting, but also has details of uses for trees and folklore. Whilst it focuses on Scotland’s trees (the clue is in the title), most grow elsewhere as well, and it’s packed with information. If you are interested more generally in the history, uses and planting of woodlands it’s probably worth reading all 16,452 pages (a slight exaggeration, but it is a magnum opus) of Oliver Rackham’s Woodlands which is a masterpiece.


Shelter from the storm

The new bee shed is in an apiary with space for about a dozen additional hives around it. The apiary is fenced and heavily sheltered from cold easterly winds by a convenient strip of woodland. However, the site is open and exposed to westerlies. These can whip in across the fields and their impact is exacerbated by the apiary being elevated on a small mound a few feet above the low lying – and often flooded – adjacent land.

Laden foragers returning ...

Laden foragers returning …

The bees occupying the hives in the shed are protected from the full force of the westerlies by the shed itself, which is angled slightly to deflect the wind. However, those outside in the apiary get the full impact, and the wire mesh security fencing provides no shelter.

We’ve had one summer gale that lifted a few polystyrene hive roofs and caused a bit of damage. Better preparation might have prevented this; I should have heeded the weather forecast and strapped the hives to the stands.

Inspection deflection

The major problem isn’t gales though. Instead, it’s the impact of the wind on returning foragers and the irritation it causes the bees during inspections on a blustery day.

Several of the hives face west so the bees often approach the entrance downwind. They can get a real buffeting and often have to make repeated crash-landings and attempts to reach the hive entrance.

A small mound of earth ...

A small mound of earth …

In marginal weather or on a cold day some inevitably get chilled and don’t make it back. The apiary has a compacted hardcore base and – unlike long grass – it’s easy to spot the bees ‘lost in action’.

Hive inspections are conducted from behind the hive. On a windy day – and it’s not always possible to inspect on calm days – the bees can show their disapproval when the crownboard is lifted. They’re not really aggressive, but can be a bit surly and are certainly less appreciative of the disturbance than those inside the shed.

It has become obvious that some additional shelter is needed.

Shelter belt



As a long-term solution we’ve planted a double row of mixed native hedging plants (predominantly blackthorn but with a smattering of hazel, crab apples and dogwoods) mixed 1:2 with goat willow (Salix caprea). The latter is fast-growing and provides excellent early-season pollen at a time when colonies need it for brood rearing.

We planted 60-80cm ‘whips’, cut them back to ~35cm, wrapped them in perforated spirals to deter the rabbits and pretty-much left them to it. We’ve had a dry summer so have inevitably lost a few 1. However, the majority are now at or well above the spirals.

We didn’t – but should have – used old carpet tiles or cardboard squares as a weed suppressor around each plant. This was due to lack of preparation on the day and lack of organisation subsequently. The plants would undoubtedly have done better if they’d been given a bit of help competing with the surrounding weeds.

The intention will be to cut this hedging back so that it provides a light screen and an abundance of pollen, rather than letting it develop into an impenetrable barrier around the apiary.

We’ll let it grow for another couple of years and then start staggered pruning as required.

In addition, and a little further from the apiary, we planted more willow which we’ll allow to grow larger – though probably still coppice it periodically. This will help landscape the otherwise rather unattractive earth mound and help it merge better with the trees to the east.


Although willow is relatively fast-growing, it’s not fast enough to provide protection from this autumn’s westerlies. Using the security fence as a support we’ve therefore installed a 2m high netting windbreak around part of the apiary.

Windbreak netting

Windbreak netting …

This netting was easily ‘zip’-tied to the fencing and is claimed to reduce windspeed on the lee side by 50%. From the outside – see above – it’s a bit of an eyesore. This is partly because the viewpoint is oblique and partly because it’s viewed against a dark backdrop.

And partly because it’s a bit ugly 😉

However, from inside the apiary – which is where I usually view things from – it’s far less obvious. We’ve had no strong winds since installing it but even with gentle westerlies the initial impression, in terms of the shelter provided, is positive. We’ll see how it performs in the winter gales.

Now you see me, now you don't ...

Now you see me, now you don’t …

The netting has the added advantage of forcing all the bees ‘up and over’ as they exit the apiary, making them even less of a problem to passers-by 2. The security fencing has ~15x5cm rectangular ‘holes’ in it and already forced most of the bees to fly above head height, but the addition of the netting reroutes them all.

I’ve previously discussed urban beekeeping and suggested engineering the flight lines of foragers by facing the hives up against a fence. As an alternative I’ve seen hives in a back garden encircled by a tall mesh net 3 that forced the bees up about ten feet before they set off foraging.

In that situation the net is present to protect the people outside. In my apiary it’s there to protect the bees inside … until the hedge grows.

The view from the west ...

The view from the west …


Shelter from the storm is the title of track on the 1975 studio album Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan – Nobel Prize in Literature 2016 and University of St Andrews Honorary Doctorate in Music 2004. Widely regarded as being one of his greatest albums 4 it has been interpreted as recounting the turmoil in his life due to estrangement from his wife Sara. Although – perhaps inevitably – Bob Dylan has denied this, his son Jacob said it was “my parents talking”.

Early season pollen

Colonies should be bringing in good amounts of pollen by now to help raise the all-important early season brood. The willows near one of my apiaries are buzzing with foraging honey and bumblebees during the warmest part of the day. I’ve also given a few colonies an additional boost of dried pollen simply spooned onto a piece of card. They soon find this and the majority use it up quickly.

Oddly a few colonies ignore it completely … in previous years it’s not clear whether this is related to colony strength, laying rate of the queen or the amount of pollen already stored (or something else entirely).