Since the 1980s, due to landscape changes, half of our wild bee species has undergone huge decline. One third of our ninety-eight wild bee species are now threatened with extinction in Ireland. Bees (and other pollinators, such as wasps) are declining because we have drastically reduced the areas where they can nest and the amount of food (wildflowers) our landscape provides for them. We also subject them to levels of pesticides that make it difficult for them to complete their life cycles. Eoghan Ó Dálaigh talks about the valuable role played by the humble bee in agriculture and in gardens and what we can do to aid its survival.
Pollinators play a key role in our natural environment. Seventy-eight per cent of all our wild plants require insect pollination. Without these, wild flowers, flowering trees and hedgerow plants, the Irish landscape would be a much less beautiful place. These plants provide food and shelter for our birds and mammals, as well as habitats for other small creatures, including many beneficial insects that control crop pests.
A growing number of books and informative literature has appeared about the plight of bees and their fight for survival in the face of herbicidal use in agriculture, gardens, landscaped golf courses, and so on. Colonies have collapsed on a massive scale, as bewildered insects, losing their homing instinct, have been unable to return to their hives.
As the bee goes from flower to flower, collecting nectar to fuel her flight and pollen to feed her family, she also moves pollen from stamen to pistil (male to female part), so that the plant can produce seeds. The writer and naturalist, Alison Benjamin, has written that a bees visiting a flower is “an act of nature playing out for millions of years”. The poet Kahil Gibran described this symbiotic relationship like this: “To a bee a flower is the foundation of life and to the flower the bee is a messenger of love”.
The role of bees in agriculture and in gardens is pivotal; they pollinate trees whose oxygen we breathe and which mitigate the climate crisis and also the flora that feeds other insects, birds and mammals.
In my lifetime, which is now more than seventy years, farming has become highly industrialised, eliminating many of our hedgerows where there was an abundance of wild plants and all types of insects. Where once we had wildflower meadows that provided food and habitat for bees, birds and butterflies we now have vast tracts of monoculture for silage making. Growing up on Heir Island and later on Turkhead, there were no lawns; there was no need for a lawnmower. Over the last half a century or more, we have become obsessed with neatness, close-cropped lawns, herbicides and pesticides. In the same era birds have become
extinct. Some of us remember the corncrake. Now we seem to be saying goodbye to the cuckoo. The curlew, lapwing, snipe, yellowhammer, lark are all in danger of becoming extinct.
Dr. Una Fitzpatrick, who runs the bumblebee monitoring scheme for the National Biodiversity Data Centre, warns that our bumblebees are literally starving to death. “We keep tidying up nature so we have lots of grassland, parkland and neat lawns with no dandelions, daisies, clover of wildflowers, and the bumblebee dies of hunger”. The bumblebee that comes out of hibernation in spring cannot get the nectar it desperately needs because there simply aren’t enough so-called ‘weeds’ and flowering plants. So all our pollinators are hungry for lack of food.
Just like us, pollinators need good and a safe place to live. Often this is because we cut, mow and spray so that everything looks neat and tidy to us. We’ve been doing this for so long that we think this is how our homes and countryside should look, but, unfortunately, it means that we are squeezing nature out. This means we will lose the important services nature provide, such as pollination. To have a healthy balanced diet, bees need to be able to feed on pollen and nectar from a range of different flowers from March through to October. Wild bees don’t make honey so they have no way of storing food. This means they are never more than a few days away from starvation – so that it’s very important that there is a continues supply of flowers for them.
The best sources of food for pollinators are native plants – trees, shrubs and wildflowers. Be kind to bees and help them all you can. As naturalist, Roger Deakin, has pointed out, they are close to all our hearts, and we should worry for ourselves and the world as they are disappearing quickly. All of us who are gardeners can make a big difference to help. We can have manicured lawns but we should ensure that we leave space where we allow the grass to grow with wildflowers and plants like dandelions, daisies and clover. As well as letting wild flowers grow, we can also plant some pollinator-friendly ornamental flowers and a lot of these are now marked ‘bee friendly’ in the garden centres.
I would like to suggest some ways that we as gardeners can help pollinators do their absolutely essential work: 1. Let dandelions bloom. If we could learn to love the dandelions and see them as a welcome splash of colour, many more of our pollinators would survive spring. 2. Reduce the use of pesticides. The earth is our mother; we should not poison her. 3. We should find out the best native wild flowers for pollination – clover, oxeye daisy, cornflower, knapweed, vetches, self-heal, among others. 4. We should choose pollinator-friendly plants for our flower beds, for example asters, marigolds, poppies, sun-flowers, verbena, single flower dahlias, snap-dragons, rudbeckia and so on.
The bumble bees are fountains of life and messengers of love. If you consider that dandelions and daisies are ‘weeds’, remove them by hand and hoe if you must. Lifeless, flower-less lawns are like desert places for all our pollinators. In saving bees, we are saving ourselves.