In 1958, as a 15-year-old schoolboy in County Kilkenny, I was given a school project by the principal of Mooncoin Vocational School, Seamus Doran, a Rural Science teacher who went on to become the president of the Federation of Irish Beekeepers’ Associations. Seamus asked me to measure the population of bumblebees by observing a section of hedgerow over a period of time. I did and did the same the following year, and the following year. In fact, I never stopped. 63 years later, I continue to measure the bumblebee population in the same locality. The health of the bumblebee indicates the health of the environment, and the state of the bumblebee population is now critical.
There are 99 different categories of bees in existence in Ireland. 77 are solitary bees; another category – Apis mellifera mellifera – is commonly known as the honeybee, and 21 categories are bumblebees. For a long time, until 1997, I observed that the population of bumblebees was steady, and I refer to this period as ‘100% population’. However, in the period from 1997 to 2020, the bumblebee population dropped by a staggering 80%. For every ten bumblebees that were there until 1997, there are now just two.
There is no question why. Just like humans, bumblebees need food and shelter, but their habitat is being decimated annually, and in many areas completely destroyed. Unlike humans, however, the pollinator cannot protest. Furthermore, like any species faced with extinction, when they are gone, they are gone and that is the end. All too often, priority is given by state organisations to the so-called efficiency of the concrete fence, or bare ground, where the hedgerow once stood. Starving our pollinators can no longer be excused by a lack of awareness with so much publicity now given to this emergency.
It is mistaken to view this crisis as about honey production. Beekeepers were the first to speak out, but the consequences of the declining bee population will have a catastrophic impact on the entire planet. Consider how fruit grows; in the first instance, its flower is pollinated. An animal, bird or fish can travel to find a mate, but the flower depends on the bee for its reproduction. When the bee does not arrive to pollinate the flower, the species of flower will disappear, leading to a gradual breakdown of the ecosystem.
It is not too late, even today. What is needed now is to restore our hedgerows, the natural food-gathering corridor for pollinators and wildlife; and also a means of sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. This action, taken now will guarantee the future of all pollinators, mainly bees. Every garden owner can do this by opting to encourage the growth of their hedgerows, rather than cutting them to almost ground level. This will allow the growth of the trees within them, and provide a living environment for pollinators, birds and other wildlife. Any garden can contain a ‘bee patch’. Families and schools can make a ‘bee patch’ in a corner, teaching the younger generation of its importance. Fruit trees can be incorporated into a ‘bee patch’, but otherwise a ‘bee patch’ is achieved simply by letting nature select what grows there. On a larger scale, national authorities, greenway authorities, Irish Rail, sports clubs, Tidy Town committees, landowners, and residents’ groups can help to save our pollinators with thoughtful ground maintenance and development.
If nature is allowed to provide, it will provide. In the spring, bees emerge from hibernation, and need food and shelter to survive. Shelter for the bumblebee and solitary bee is high vegetation – mainly high grass. At this time, food for the bee is nectar and pollen, gathered from willow trees, blackthorn, gorse bushes and dandelions. It is vital that during the spring months of mid-March to the end of April that the dandelion is allowed to grow, and not be cut until the flower has gone.
By May, more trees will provide nectar and pollen. These are hawthorn, sycamore, horse chestnut, apple, pear, and other soft fruit trees. From mid-June to the first week of August there is the clover plant, and blackberries on the bramble. These are pollinators’ main source of food for this time of the year. Drawing to September, the availability of heather gives us heather honey, and finally, in the coldness of the approaching winter there is one of the greatest plants of all, the ivy. Ivy found in hedgerows has a small flower which provides food for the winter. This is crucial for pollinators, as they require this to sustain themselves throughout the hibernation period. It is not only pollinators who depend on ivy at this time of year; birds are also highly dependent on the ivy’s fruit and shelter at this time.
The message is to stop, and consider our pollinators, before grass and hedges are cut. Losing pollinators means we could ultimately be left without fruit as well as seasonal crops. To put this into perspective, without bees Ireland will not be in a position to produce items such as apples, pears, strawberries, tomatoes, pumpkins, and green beans etc. In fact, it is calculated that in monetary terms bees make a contribution of €14 billion per annum to the European economy. Of far greater importance is the bees’ incalculable contribution to the ecosystem. For the survival of our pollinators for generations to come, their habitat must be saved and sustained. It is not an insurmountable task nor an insurmountable cost. Remember that bees have been pollinating our crops and fruit trees since the beginning of time – at no cost to us.
Chairperson of the South Kilkenny Beekeepers’ Association