Bees are of vital ecological and economic importance as highly efficient pollinators, but they are under increasing threat from pesticide use, habitat degradation and loss, and the spread of invasive species, including novel diseases. Given their invaluable contribution to pollination, the UN General Assembly has designated this Sunday May 20 as World Bee Day, in the hope of raising awareness about bees and other pollinators.
Pollinators are important in Ireland — not just for agricultural production of crops such as apples, strawberries, and oilseed rape, but also for the majority of wild plants, which create the wild habitats that Ireland is famous for. Worryingly, there have been global declines in many species of bees with knock-on consequences for pollination services in recent years.
Researchers from the School of Natural Sciences at Trinity, led by Professor in Botany, Jane Stout, have been spearheading bee-related research in Ireland. Last year, for example, Trinity launched its own Campus Pollinator Plan, which supports the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan’s (AIPP) main objectives by making Trinity pollinator-friendly and raising awareness about pollinators.
Professor Stout and her team are now contributing further by conducting additional research across four new projects. They are:
- Investigating how very low (drinking water safe) levels of fertiliser and herbicide affect flowering plants, and the nectar and pollen they produce, and how this influences which bees and other flower visitors interact with them. To do this, EU-funded postdoctoral researcher, Dr Laura Russo, has eight sets of experimental plots set up all around Dublin and is monitoring these plots throughout the summer.
- Assessing how bee communities vary across gradients of urbanisation, and which flower species these bees are visiting. The team wants to determine the patterns of urban land use that support diverse communities of bees. They are also looking at the urban to rural interface, and at how intensity of agriculture affects bees. PhD candidate, Cian White, is working on this as part of the EU Horizon 2020-funded Connecting Nature project.
- Investigating how hedgerow structure relates to the insects that are found visiting flowers in hedgerows and in adjacent crops, so as to make recommendations on optimal hedgerow management for bees and other flower-visiting insects. PhD candidate, Sarah Gabel, funded by an EPA-Irish Research Council scholarship, is leading this work.
- Working with researchers from Teagasc, DCU, NUIG and GMIT to investigate how farming intensity and hedgerow structure can influence bees on farmland in two major catchments in Ireland. The overall aim is to improve ecosystem service delivery from biodiversity enhancing measures on farmland.
Professor Stout said: “It’s fantastic that the world is celebrating these wonderful insects today – people love bees and are usually fascinated to find that we have nearly 100 different species here in Ireland, and most don’t live in hives and make honey. Bees are such important pollinators, and the research that we do helps underpin practical conservation initiatives, such as guidelines produced by the AIPP, and inform agricultural and environmental policy.”
“But with half our Irish bee species in decline, raising awareness of bees and what they do for our society, as well as reversing that decline, is very important. One of the biggest drivers of bee decline is loss of flowers to feed on. People can help by encouraging flowers in both public and private spaces as per AIPP guidelines, and can contribute to our research through a citizen science project Count flowers for Bees. This project doesn’t require any expertise, and by helping to count flowers, people can help us to understand which habitats are good for bees, and thus how to plan the best ways to manage our landscapes.”
For more information about the All Ireland Pollinator Plan, see: www.pollinators.ie, and for more information on the Count Flowers for Bees citizen science project, see: https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/eileenfranklin/count-flowers-for-bees