The startling statistics have serious implications for the environment, the growing of crops, food production, gardening and the landscape. Parasites, viruses, diseases, variable weather conditions, agri-chemicals and climate change are some of the factors behind bee mortality.
As they collect nectar and pollen, honeybees pollinate the plants and contribute to the growing of many crops. Of the 100 crops providing 90% of the world’s food, 71 are pollinated by bees.
Dr Úna Fitzpatrick, chairperson of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan Steering Group, outlined the threat to bee numbers at the recent Teagasc National Crops and Cultivation Open Day in Oak Park, Carlow.
A new leaflet ‘How Farmers can help Bees’ was launched at the event in an effort to raise awareness of the problem. Dr Fitzpatrick said that by having more wildflowers “we can help protect bees and the livelihood of farmers and growers who rely on their ‘free’ pollinator service.”
Catherine Keena, Teagasc Countryside Management Specialist, said pollinators, especially bees, are important, but unfortunately are in decline: “We need more wildflowers in the countryside. Bees need food all year round, requiring a diversity of flowering plants in the landscape. Farmers can help bees by allowing space for wildflowers to grow and flower within hedgerows and field margins, around farmyards, along farm roadways and in field corners.
“The quest for neatness on farms should not override consideration for bees,” she said.
Gerry Ryan, Irish Beekeepers’ Associations president, said many beekeepers work closely with farmers, placing their beehives in fields of oilseed rape, peas and beans to improve pollination of the crops.
“It is important for tillage farmers growing these crops to provide pollinators with wildflowers outside the main crop flowering period,” he said.
The Federation has more than 3,100 members who over-wintered an estimated combined total of 21,390 honeybee colonies last year.
Irish over-winter honeybee colony losses have been monitored for the last eight years by the National Apiculture Programme.
It is co-funded by the European Commission and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.
The research is part of the international COLOSS network which is seeking the identify factors influencing honeybee colony mortality
Alice Mary Higgins, Independent, told the Senate last April: “There is a real concern that if pollination is compromised the output of orchards, market gardeners and farmers, and the marketability of their product, will be impacted directly.”
The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan 2015-2020 makes Ireland one of the first countries in Europe with a strategy to address pollinator decline and protect pollination services. It aims to deliver 81 actions to make Ireland more pollinator friendly and identifies actions that can be taken on farm, public and private lands.
Teagasc says there are opportunities on every farm to make space for flowering plants and to allow them to grow through good farming and environmental practices. It advise farmers to allow occasional individual whitethorn trees within routinely trimmed hedgerows to mature and flower; while retaining some escaped and relict hedgerows which flower freely.
Whitethorn flowers comprise a major source of food for bees in Ireland, with bramble in summer and late flowering ivy in autumn. Field margins and road verges are ideal locations for flowering plants once they don’t receive pesticides and fertiliser and are allowed to flower before cutting.
Farmed grasslands where plants are allowed to flower are valuable habitats for bees. Upland farms grazed at sustainable stocking rates are also full of flowering shrubs such as heather.
Specific pollinator conservation actions for solitary bees have been introduced to the new agri-environment scheme, GLAS.
Tillage farmers at the Teagasc open day were also reminded to spray crop protection products in the early morning and late evening when honey bees are less active, and to notify local beekeepers in advance of carrying out the operation.
The issue was also raised when close to 700 people from Ireland and abroad recently attended the Federation of Irish Beekeepers Associations 71st annual summer school in Gormanston, Co Meath.
Minister of State Andrew Doyle said good progress is being made on the actions set down for agriculture under the Pollinator Plan.
“The farming guidelines under the plan are currently being developed and will benefit all pollinators including honeybees,” he said, adding that his Department continues to provide a number of other supports for the beekeeping sector.
These include co-funding research under the National Apiculture Programme and the provision of grant aid to facilitate capital investments in specialised beekeeping related equipment.
Support for activities conducted by national beekeeping organisations and a free bee disease diagnostic service are also provided.
Meanwhile, he said his Department has called for research proposals across a number of thematic areas.
One topic seeks proposals to mitigate the potential impacts of pesticide use on terrestrial ecosystems including pollinators.
Another seeks proposals to help establish the purity of Ireland’s native honeybee population as well as examining mating behaviour.
Minister Doyle said this call for research proposals represents a great opportunity for Irish beekeeping and biodiversity. Collaboration and consultation with Ireland’s national beekeeping organisations will be vital to ensure successful delivery of any project that may be funded.
Meanwhile, some of the stats in a leaflet published by the Federation of Irish Beekeeprs Associations are worth considering.
A honeybee can visit up to 1,000 flowers to collect a load of pollen. It takes 100mg of pollen to rear one bee and a strong colony will collect 50kgs of pollen in a year. That’s evidence enough to justify the old saying: “Busy as a Bee”.