Allowing weeds to grow and flower in our lawns is one of the recommended ways to save bees from extinction and to help prevent starvation.
With one third of our 98 species of native bees facing wipe-out, an All-Ireland Pollinator Plan has been devised to encourage gardeners, farmers, schools and councils to create havens and resources for the island’s threatened species.
Evidence from the United States has shown that dandelions and white clover on lawns can support 37 different species of bees.
In the study, white clover was important for honeybees and bumblebees whereas solitary bees, honeybees and hoverflies predominated on dandelion.
However, if you cannot stomach having your whole lawn covered in dandelion, (which is an excellent accompaniment in salads), the Pollinator Plan encourages us to leave small areas of the lawn uncut to allow flowering weeds to blossom and provide food for bees.
We can also grow more flowers, shrubs and trees that provide nectar and pollen for pollinators.
The advice is to make sure that your garden has at least one flowering food source from spring right through to winter like willow (early spring and currently blossoming), dandelion shortly after, clovers (early summer), lavender (late summer), ivy (autumn) and mahonia (winter).
Dr Una FitzPatrick, from the National Biodiversity Data Centre in Waterford IT, said the problem is serious and requires immediate attention to ensure the sustainability of our food production and to protect the health of our environment.
The rescue plan, which has over 25 recommendations, will be a success if bee populations enjoy a revival within the next five years.
“We spent 40 years creating the problem so we are not going to solve it overnight,” she said.
Pollination itself is the transfer of pollen grains, the male sex cells of a flower, from the anther where they are produced to the receptive surface of the female organ of a flower. either on the same flower or another one. Bees are good pollinators for many reasons.
Their hairy bodies trap pollen and they spit on their front legs and then brush the pollen into a sticky ball that they store on their back legs in pollen baskets which they carry between flowers and eventually back to the hive to help feed the young.
The bees require large quantities of nectar and pollen to rear their young, and they visit flowers regularly in large numbers to obtain these foods.
In doing so, they concentrate on one species of plant at a time and serve as good pollinators for this reason.
Their body size enables them to pollinate flowers of many different shapes and sizes.
Honey bees are most active at temperatures between 14 degrees C and 35 degrees C.
Winds reduce their activity and stop it completely at about 25 miles per hour.
When conditions for flight are not ideal, honey bees work close to their colonies or don’t work at all.
Although they may fly as far as 7km in search of food, they usually go no farther than 1.5 to 2km in good weather.
In unfavourable weather, bees may visit only those plants nearest the hive. They also tend to work closer to the hive in areas where there are large numbers of attractive plants in bloom. A honeybee will make about 12 pollen collecting flights a day in peak season.
One third of our bee species, including the honeybee, 20 bumblebees and 77 solitary bees are threatened with extinction and the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan is trying to reverse this trend.
Besides preserving threatened species, the economic value of bee pollination is also a huge incentive.
Pollinating bees help to keep homegrown food prices relatively low and could be worth more than €7 million a year to the apple crop in Northern Ireland, and €3.9m for oilseed rape in the Republic.
Méabh Boylan, An Taisce’s green-schools biodiversity officer, said: “The importance of pollinators to humans cannot be overstated as pollinators are responsible for making approximately one in every three spoonfuls of food that we eat.”
In the pollinator plan, national transport chiefs have also agreed to reduce roadside mowing on main roads and to open south-facing railway embankments for bee nests in further attempts to create bee highways along road networks and railway lines.
This bee highway scheme makes the Republic and Northern Ireland one of the first regions in Europe to adopt such a wide-ranging plan and it mimics similar ideas being tested in Norway and in parts of Britain.
Farmers are also encouraged to maintain flowering hedgerows that contain hazel, willow, blackthorn and hawthorn. Bramble is an excellent source of food in the summer so cutting of hedgerows should be every three years or cut only a third every year.
The base of hedgerows shouldn’t be sprayed. By cutting field margins and buffer strips only once or twice in a season and preferably before April and then in early September gives wildflowers a chance to set seed and retains late forage sources for the pollinators.
Dr Jane Stout, associate professor in botany at Trinity College Dublin, has said: “If we want pollinators to be available to pollinate our crops and wild plants for future generations, we need to manage the landscape in a more sustainable way and create a joined-up network of diverse and flower-rich habitats as well as reduce our use of chemical insecticides.
“And this doesn’t just mean in the countryside, but in our towns and villages as well.”
The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan can be downloaded from the Biodiversity Ireland website and a very interesting children’s version is also downloadable.
For those interested in beekeeping or the plight of Irish bees, log onto the website of the Irish Honey Bee Society to find out about meetings and membership.