WORDS: Juanita Browne
We are told we are currently witnessing the ‘Sixth Mass Extinction’ – a loss of wild animals on a scale comparable to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Since 1970, we’ve lost 52% of the world’s birds, mammals, fish, reptiles and amphibians.
News headlines proclaim an ‘Insect Armageddon’, with scientists around the globe recording a dramatic collapse of 40% in insect numbers.
But what does this mean to us in Ireland? Do insects really matter?
And insects are annoying, right?
Is anyone really going to miss midges or mosquitoes, ants or flies? Perhaps not, but there is one family of insects that seems to contradict this general feeling of apathy towards declining bugs - the bees.
Instinctively we seem to know we should appreciate bees, and that we should be concerned by their disappearance. The insect declines that are being seen globally are also being seen in Ireland, but now an exciting shared plan of action – the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan - has seen councils, community groups, businesses, schools, farmers and park managers commit to taking actions to help pollinating insects.
Bees have been around for 70 million years. They are sometimes called ‘Hippy Wasps’ because they evolved from insect-eating wasps to become flower-obsessed vegetarian pollen-gatherers.
In doing so, the bees and the flowers evolved in such a way that they need each other, and bees are our most important ‘pollinators’ – transferring pollen from one flower to another, thereby kickstarting reproduction in crops, fruits and vegetables we humans rely on for a balanced diet.
Early Bumblebee, Bombus pratorum. Copyright Steven Falk
Bees contribute to our economy by pollinating the fruits, vegetables and rapeseed grown by Irish farmers. A number of years ago, a figure of €53 million was put on this economic input from pollinating insects in Ireland. No doubt this figure has grown since that evaluation and will continue to rise, as we are seeing diversification in agriculture and a rise in the land devoted to field vegetables, soft fruits and apples year on year.
It’s also important to realise that this figure refers only to the value of insect-pollinated crops harvested, but doesn’t take into account the intrinsic value of the free pollination services our bees provide to our wild plants and perhaps more importantly, the future value of their free pollination service.
Even if a farmer breeds cattle on their land today, shouldn’t their children or grandchildren be able to choose to grow crops in the future? If we don’t preserve pollinators, we are ultimately removing that choice for future generations of Irish farmers. And when the bees are gone, they’re irreplaceable.
So perhaps it is simply not possible to put estimate that annual figure for the economic value of pollinating insects. Bees are invaluable.
Bees are key to many ecosystems and food webs. When bees pollinate our wild plants in the landscape, in our hedgerows, meadows, parks and roadsides, they are not just ensuring those plants will produce more plants, they are also effectively a catalyst that create the fruits, nuts and seeds that feed our wild birds and mammals.
Helping bees means helping our other wild species, too. 78% of all our wild flowering plants benefit from insect pollination. Without bees, Ireland would look like a very different, less colourful place. The daunting implications of Climate Change makes it even more urgent that we work to protect and reverse declines in pollinating insects.
Protecting pollinators will help us to build some resilience into our future as an agricultural island as well as protecting the livelihoods of current Irish growers.
When we sell ‘Ireland’ to potential visitors or Irish products abroad, we are often selling an image of a natural ‘green’ isle, of a healthy landscape, full of wildflowers; stone walls, lined with foxgloves and primroses; and a patchwork of hedgerows and cattle and sheep roaming across untouched fields.
But if we want Ireland’s unique selling point to have real substance and not just be clever marketing spin, it is vital that we maintain our ecosystems, including those flowering hedgerows, wildflowers and trees that are so vital to that image. And bees are the basis of all of this. Without bees, we will be trying to sell a countryside that is simply a sterile shade of green – that is only a pastureland, devoid of wildflowers, and that is empty of mammals and lays silent without the buzzing of bees and the sound of birdsong.
While the importance of Biodiversity to tourism, or to marketing our agri-products abroad, can often be overlooked, there is a growing expectation from the well-informed tourists and consumers we are trying to attract that what they are being sold is very real and not simply what has come to be known as ‘green-washing’.
In Ireland, we have 99 bee species: one honeybee; 21 bumblebees and 77 solitary bee species. It is actually our wild bumblebees ad solitary bees that are responsible for most pollination.
Since the 1980s, half of our bee species have undergone huge declines. Where we once had mixed farming systems that were more wildflower-rich, we now have landscapes dominated by grasses cultivated for cattle.
In parallel with the intensification of land use over recent decades, the island also saw the removal of hedgerows, scrub, and wilder patches on farmland, and an increase in the use of pesticides. Bees, like us, need food and shelter to survive. They need landscapes with lots of different wildflowers, from which to feed, and safe places to nest, ‘safe’ also meaning free from pesticides.
Unfortunately, our landscape changes over the last 50 years have led to the extinction of two bee species and put one-third of our bumblebees under threat of extinction.
During the course of their research, two bee scientists, Dr Una FitzPatrick and Prof Jane Stout, were seeing these declines in bee numbers every year, and rather than simply continue to record these declines, they decided to try to do something about it. They put together a draft document that was to become the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, and engaged a 16-member Steering Group from various organisations, North and South, to provide input and put this conservation plan into action, in a way that had never been done before.
Launched in late 2015, the success of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan can be attributed to the fact that it is a shared plan of action across all sectors – calling for actions on farmland, public land and private land to try to make Ireland a place where pollinators can survive and thrive. Working with colleagues in Northern Ireland, the Pollinator Plan has been a wonderful example of a cross-border partnership.
FitzPatrick and Stout’s biggest win was to decide to draw up very clear accessible guidelines on how everyone could help, providing evidence-based actions written specifically for each sector. There is no project funding for the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, but with the voluntary help and support of the National Biodiversity Data Centre, and lots of generous scientists, agriculture experts, horticulturalists and advisors, the team have been able to publish evidence-based guidelines that can be used by gardeners, community groups, businesses, farmers, councils and schools.
By making these resources freely available and simply offering the tools with which people can help, they have facilitated one of the most successful conservation initiatives this island has seen.
Global insect losses have been attributed to a combination of habitat loss, industrial scale pesticide use and climate change. Faced with such huge obstacles, it would be easy to feel defeated before one even begins to try to help insects.
But what has been shown, time and again since the Pollinator Plan’s humble beginnings in late 2015, is that individuals can do amazing things. Across the country, through the work of the Pollinator Plan team, there is a growing awareness of the importance of pollinators and a growing army of volunteers who are willing to help.
Tidy Towns groups in every county have led the way in transforming hundreds of towns and villages around the country to make them more pollinator-friendly. Traditional annual flower beds have been replaced with pollinator-friendly planting. Mowing of public spaces has been reduced to allow wildflowers to grow, and existing habitats are now recognised and protected.
The great thing about bees is that they bounce back. If you create the right conditions, they will return, so community groups regularly report on how rewarding this work is. And the great news is that whatever actions you take for bees will also benefit all other types of wildlife too from bats to birds.
This means the Pollinator Plan is really a conservation plan for Biodiversity in general.
Video: How Local Communities can help Pollinators - Geashill, Co. Offaly:
The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan also offers a framework for businesses to sign up as supporters. Over 120 Irish businesses have now committed to taking actions for pollinators.
Local Authorities can also register as formal partners to the Pollinator Plan, thereby committing to biodiversity actions and protecting pollinator-friendly habitats. Farmland guidelines, published in 2017, outline zero-cost changes to farm management that will make space for nature once again.
Video: John Fogarty – Dairy Farmer on hedgerows
The one action that would have the greatest impact for pollinators and other biodiversity on farmland is to retain native hedgerows and manage hedgerows so that they flower in spring to provide food for pollinators. This means not cutting or flailing annually into a neat box shape, but instead cutting on a 3-yearly cycle and allowing them to grow in an A-shape. Good hedgerows also provide shelter for nesting and overwintering, and act as corridors that help pollinators and other wildlife move through the landscape. Hedgerows are a lifeline for nature on farms. Those that flower in spring will also fruit in autumn, providing food for birds and mammals.
Video: How Councils can help pollinators...
Gardeners are also changing the habits of a lifetime – instead of spraying or uprooting every dandelion in sight, they are now making room for them in their gardens and on their road verges. Instead of fertilising and spraying herbicides on their lawns, they are creating ‘wildlife lawns’ to encourage clover and birds’-foot-trefoil and buttercups to take up residence.
The manicured lawn - once a barren desert for insects - has been replaced by a buzzing carpet of wildflowers offering food for bumblebees and butterflies.
The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan is all about sharing information – the team behind the plan simply provide the advice and toolkits to allow others get out there and change their world. This is the beauty of this conservation programme – it is a shared plan, a call to action across all sectors, and everyone can help.
So whether you manage a park, or own a farm, or have a small urban garden, with guidance from the Pollinator Plan, you can look at that area and see how you can make it more hospitable to bees and butterflies – all by following the clear simple instructions which are free to download from www.pollinators.ie
Bees once shared the Earth with dinosaurs, outliving those giant reptiles and surviving for millions of years ever since, but today they’re disappearing. Through the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, we can all work together to change their fate – making the future look better for ourselves as well as the bees.