Get the buzz on helping bees and other pollinators

Populations of more than half of the bee species in Ireland are in substantial decline, two are extinct and 30% risk becoming endangered. Picture: iStock

Helping bees and other pollinators is easy and will make your garden more beautiful, says Peter Dowdall

We need to rethink our perception of beauty. That’s certainly the message coming from Biodiversity Ireland when talking about its All-Ireland Pollinator Plan. We should love the wildflowers growing on our roadside verges and not accept tightly mown, or even worse, sprayed with glyphosate, areas as beautiful.

Ninety per cent of the world’s food comes from one hundred crops; 70% of these and 78% of wild plants are pollinated by bees. These in turn, sustain birds and other wildlife and so we begin to understand the rich tapestry and thus whatever we do to protect the bees results in helping to promote biodiversity in general.

It seems crude to use numbers and dollar signs when talking about bees and pollinating insects for we all know that they are in fact truly invaluable, for if we lost the bees tomorrow, then even if we threw all the money in the world at the problem, we couldn’t get them back.

There are 99 bee species in Ireland of which one is a honey bee, 29 are bumblebee species and there are 77 different species of solitary bee all buzzing around our towns and countryside pollinating as they go.

It is the solitary bees which we, as gardeners need to zone in on. Many of the honey bees are protected in hives and are minded by beekeepers but the solitary bees which are less efficient collectors of pollen actually make better pollinators for our plants as they keep dropping the pollen onto other plants, exactly what us gardeners want them to do. As of now, populations of more than half of the bee species in Ireland are in substantial decline, two are extinct and 30% risk becoming endangered.

There are several reasons for this unhappy situation, a decline in flower numbers in our countryside, increased use of pesticides, pest and disease problems and the changing environment caused by climate change.

The good news, however, is that helping bees and other pollinators is easy, straightforward and will help to make your garden a more beautiful space in many ways.

Twenty-one of the bumblebee species nest underground in long grass and so leaving an area of grass uncut during the winter months will provide a safe place of refuge for them. During the spring the queen emerges, feeds, lays eggs and begins to make the nest. During this period, she needs to visit six thousand flowers a day to sustain herself and food is scarce. The catkins of the willow and the flowers of the dandelion are very important at this time. So, we do need to change our perception and see the dandelion as beautiful and sustaining life and not as a weed to have chemical poured upon it.

During the summer the nests are growing and the workers are very active. So too are our gardens; they are in full bloom and should be awash with pollen. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case as intensively hybridised cultivars tend not to contain much, if any pollen. So, we need to look for plants which are good for pollinators. It’s not that there is no place for bedding plants — quite the opposite, it’s that we need to be careful when choosing bedding and summer-flowering perennials that we are choosing wisely.

“Bacopa and Bidens are two fantastic bedding plants that I would never be without for colour and they have also proved to be fantastic for pollinators,” said Peter Cuthbert, who spent his working life with the parks departments of Dublin County Council and later Fingal County Council. Peter has dedicated the last few years to researching which plants attract which pollinators and which ones are better than others and has recently been bestowed with the title Pollinator champion.

Later in the year when the queen is getting ready for her winter slumber she needs to fatten herself up and the best food source of all at that time of the year is Ivy, so don’t be in a rush to remove it from walls and wild areas.

“Don’t mow, let it grow” is an initiative started in Northern Ireland which encourages local authorities to change the management of roadside verges and meadow areas. They haven’t created any new meadows, rather by changing the mowing routine, allowed the magic of nature to take control and now hundreds of species of wildflowers are re-emerging.

A survey of people in Northern Ireland shows that 81% prefer the long grass with wildflowers so perceptions are already changing and 98% said the quality of green space is important to them when choosing a place to visit and to live. Several local authorities in Ireland have signed up to the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan and hopefully all will do so before too long and with that may come proper funding from government in terms of conservation and education.

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