Last December, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution which declared the 20th of May of each year as World Bee Day. So today marks its inaugural celebration. Every year on this day, the attention of the global public will be drawn to the importance of preserving bees and other pollinators.
In Ireland alone, pollinators are valued at €53 million per year to the Irish economy. Bees are one of the most valuable pollinators, yet their numbers have undergone substantial declines over the past 4 decades. Just last week, data released from the National Biodiversity Data Centre, indicated that our bumblebee populations in 2017 were at an all-time low. There are 97 bee species in Ireland: the honeybee, 20 species of bumblebee, and 76 species of solitary bee. So what is causing this decline in their numbers?
Unfortunately, agricultural intensification is the main culprit. An increase in demand for food following the World Wars, saw millions of acres of flower-rich grassland and meadows ploughed over and replaced by single species grass and crops.
In Ireland, we removed thousands of kilometres of hedging, expanded field boundaries, and mono-cultured our way to a shrinking biodiversity. The developments that came with the Green Revolution into the 1960s saw vast increases in production from improved crop varieties and the development of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. None of this favours pollinators.
It is disheartening to think that grants still existed for hedgerow removal in Ireland as recent as the mid-1990s. Hedgerows are important – they provide food, shelter and allow for movement for many of our insects and animals. If allowed to flower, the bees will be present in their thousands, feeding on the nectar. Unfortunately, many of our hedges are cut so severely, they are left barren in terms of food for our pollinators. Simply leaving them an extra year, could help dramatically, allowing plants such as hawthorn, blackthorn, elder, and wild rose to flower and seed.
Rural Bird Species
According to the Crann Hedgerow Project, 55 of our 110 rural bird species build their nests in hedgerows; but only if they are of a suitable height and density (Teagasc data suggests that birds will not nest in hedges less than 1.5m high). In addition, hedge management is generally poor due to a lack of skills-based knowledge.
For convenience, management is done with a flail, if done without skill and due care, will weaken the shrubs in the hedgerow. There are many examples around me of short hedges standing on bare woody legs – of little value to anything.
With more hedge cutting on the horizon as this Government (supported by Fianna Fáil) continue to push through with the destructive Heritage Bill, one would have to question our country’s commitment to anything other than big business and profiteering.
Unfortunately, pollinators are not currently protected under EU Directives or National legislation, leaving many of our native bees teetering on endangered lists, with no supports.
What can we do?
There is some light at the end of the tunnel. The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan was launched in 2015 and aspires to protect our pollinators and the services they provide. It was developed by state departments, NGOs and semi-state bodies, and a public consultation process was initiated once the initial draft was produced. There are five objectives:
- Making Ireland pollinator friendly (farmland, public land & private land)
- Raising awareness of pollinators and how to protect them
- Managed pollinators – supporting beekeepers and growers
- Expanding our knowledge of pollinators and pollination service
- Collecting evidence to track change and measure success
There is a useful booklet available, on how farms can help pollinators, and it can be downloaded here. It is well worth a read to see if you can implement any of the suggestions on your farms.
Organic Farming can also help. Pollinators need flowers, and flowers need pollinators. If we remove the flowers, then we are removing their food supply. It has been shown that organic farms have up to 50% higher levels of biodiversity, and the absence of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers means wildflowers have a greater opportunity to thrive and grow. The high clover swards on these farms also help our bee populations.
Unfortunately, if the government continues its drive for increased food production with its misguided FoodWise 2025 strategy, then it is hard to see any solution to our declining bee numbers. Apart from a few fruit and vegetable farmers, and some crop growers, the majority of the food we produce in Ireland does not rely on pollinators. Grass and cereal do not need animal pollinators and rely instead on the wind, so the production of meat or milk does not depend on bees. The importance of pollinators is devalued by our Government, and unfortunately by many of our farmers, who view wildflowers as weeds, and insects as pests.
If we are serious about bees and their pollinator friends, then it requires effort from all sectors of the farming community, not just some. It would be unfair to expect our low input farmers, or the “organic guy” down the road to be the sole supporters, while their intensive neighbours continue to butcher their hedges and synthetically force their land to produce mono-crop leys or cereals year on year. Fairness is required, and creating more pollinator-friendly environments to support our bee populations is vital – all over our countryside.
By Pippa Hackett PhD BSc Green Party / Comhaontas Glas Spokesperson for Agriculture, Food, Forestry, Heritage and Animal Welfare.