The buzz around pollination

Bees are under threat in Ireland, but a handful of experts are now marshalling an army of volunteers all over the island to protect these miniature wonders, writes Amy Lewis. The next time you consider swatting away a bee, instead pause to appreciate these miniature wonders. These insects, of which Ireland has 99 species, provide a plethora of benefits to humans worldwide.

Picture: National Biodiversity Data Centre.

Most noted is their role as crop pollinators; of the 100 crops that provide 90% of the world’s food supply, 71 are pollinated by bees. Indeed, the honeybee is also responsible for honey production. However, the benefits of bees extend far beyond food, as Dr Úna Fitzpatrick explains.

“Bees also pollinate 78% of the wild plants in the landscape. The countryside would look very different in terms of how attractive the landscape is without them,” explains Dr Fitzpatrick, who is senior ecologist at the National Biodiversity Data Centre and project co-ordinator of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan.

Those wild plants provide the fruits and seeds for birds and mammals so by protecting pollinators, you’re protecting the whole ecosystem. Without them, a lot of other elements of biodiversity would suffer.

One third of Ireland’s bee species — which includes 77 solitary bees, 21 bumblebees and the honeybee — are currently at risk of extinction. Habitat loss and degradation, starvation due to wildflower decline, disease, poisoning by pesticides and other chemicals, and climate change are pushing them to the brink.

Thankfully, efforts are being made to reverse this decline, particularly through the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan 2015-2020 (AIPP). Initiated by Dr Fitzpatrick and Professor of Botany at Trinity College Jane Stout in light of their parallel research, this plan identifies 81 actions aimed at making Ireland more pollinator-friendly.

“We were researching why the decline was happening, we knew what to do about it. You either bury your head in the sand or try to do something,” explains Dr Fitzpatrick.

What started small is now a plan overseen by a 16-member steering group and supported by 90 governmental and non-governmental organisations, including local councils, businesses, and schools. Last year’s mid-term review states that support has exceeded expectations.

Prof Stout says that they’re “delighted and amazed” with this engagement, noting a variety of reasons for its success.

“When we first put the plan together, we had people sign up to the things that we wanted to do,” explains Prof Stout, who in 2018 was one of nine ecologists worldwide to receive a British Ecological Society award for public engagement for her work on bee decline. “They were already committed and engaged at that early stage.” Timing was also key, according to Dr Fitzpatrick and Prof Stout, who recognise the growing public interest in pollinators.

“It’s also very tangible. People see insects and bees in their gardens. They can also appreciate the link between what bees are doing and the food that’s being produced,” adds Prof Stout.

The fact that involvement is simple and not costly is another attractive factor. Chairperson of Clonmel Tidy Towns Martin Behan is one of the many enthusiastic people on board. The group’s simple efforts to benefit bees in the locality soon developed momentum and drew in the wider community, he says.

Planting pollinator-friendly plants such as crocuses and snowdrops, promoting native flowering trees, creating a wildflower garden and apple orchards, reducing mowing, and swapping spraying for manual weeding are some of the many actions they’ve taken. The community efforts, which involved council staff, local businesses, schools and others, hasn’t gone unnoticed; in September, they won the overall national Tidy Towns Pollinator Award.

“It was a whole town effort, that’s what swung it for us.” Even the youngest members of the Clonmel community have played their part through school involvement. “Kids are so interested. We were delighted. They’re the future environmentalists,"said Mr Behan.

Visitors are alerted to the actions through signage.

“We put it up to make people realise that the grass verges and brambles are left there for wildlife." Behanadds that they’re trying to move away from the idea that “untidy” landscapes are a bad thing.

Bernadette Guest, the heritage officer with Waterford City and County Council echoes the view that a change of mindset is needed. For example, she notes that dandelions — an extremely important food source for bees — are often removed.

“A key thing for bees is to have a good food supply from spring until autumn,” she says. “People welcome spring daffodils, which have no value for bees, but then go and spray dandelions. We need to change this mind-set and see that the dandelion isn’t the enemy.”

Across Waterford, Ms Guest, her colleagues, and many community members have taken aspects of the AIPP on board. For example, a pollinator plan has been devised for the Waterford Greenway, which includes reduced mowing, avoiding pesticides, planting pollinator-friendly plants, and the installation of bee hotels constructed by local men’s shed groups. Dungarvan town and Waterford Nature Park, Kilbarry, are other standout bee havens.

“Many environmental issues are overwhelming, and you wonder how can I do something?” says Ms Guest. “This is something where, once informed, you can go out and achieve something.”

Ken Norton, PRO of the Federation of Irish Beekeepers Associations, says the plan is helping to educate and spread the message about bees. With a variety of threats contributing to bee decline and still more to learn, addressing the problem is a complex issue, says Professor Neil Rowan from Athlone Institute of Technology (AIT).

“If we all come together, scientists, environmentalists and lay people, collectively we will make a big impact,” says the director of AIT’s Bioscience Research Institute, who is independent from the AIPP implementation. He feels that the plan has so far been successful at bringing people and knowledge together. This is being noted elsewhere, with representatives from abroad reaching out to those behind the AIPP for advice.

One of the primary challenges to the plan is limited resources to meet the interest, particularly human resources.

Implementation is shared between Dr Fitzpatrick — who balances it with her work as senior ecologist — and a project officer position which is operated as a job share.

We’re constantly asked to give talks or training days. We have to say no to about 80% of requests which is a real shame.

The plan is chiefly funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, which funds resource development, while the Heritage Council and Bord Bia co-fund the project officer position.

The threat of climate change is another issue, as a changing climate can lead to a mismatch between the flowering of the plant and the emergence of pollinators. Making the habitat more pollinator-friendly will allow bees to move around the landscape to seek alternative food sources, says Dr Fitzpatrick.

Prof Stout says they hope to get more people involved, and also determine whether their actions are proving effective through bee monitoring. Additionally, the National Biodiversity Data Centre will trial a farmland pollinator project in Kildare, which has secured €1.26m under the Department of Agriculture’s European Innovation Partnership (EIP) programme.

On a wider scale, there’s a great amount of research going on. For example, Prof Stout and colleagues have commenced a research project looking at the exposure of bees to chemicals such as pesticides and their subsequent effects; she will also soon publish a paper on the economic and societal value of pollinators in Ireland.

Meanwhile, Prof Rowan has teamed up with researchers in the University of Minnesota for ground-breaking research investigating technologies that can mitigate complex parasites and viruses affecting bee health.

This partnership has led to an Environmental Protection Agency co-funded PhD in AIT which links in with Maynooth University.

“Whether in their garden or their office, the farm or the golf club, everyone can do a little bit and if everybody did a little bit, it could really help,” concludes Prof Stout.

Training workshops for the All-Ireland Bumblebee and Solitary Bee Monitoring Schemes — citizen science projects run through the Centre — will commence in spring. Those who wish to get involved in this or other aspects of the AIPP can visit www.pollinators.ie.

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