To bee, or not to bee?
The summer months when bees are buzzing is a busy time for a pollination ecologist, but not in the way you might think
Workers bees and a queen bee (with a yellow spot on her back), from a hive at the Louth Bee Keepers’ demonstration in Castleknock. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
“Are you off now for the summer?” As a university professor, I get asked this question a lot at this time of year. People are often surprised when I tell them that this is when things are at their busiest! I’m a pollination ecologist, which means that I study the interactions between plants and insects, especially bees. Since bees hibernate during the winter and flowers only bloom in the summer, these brief months when the students are off campus and the bees are buzzing around are the only time of year I can get outdoors and actually do some science first hand. Except these days I don’t get the chance very often.
The higher you get in academia, the less you get your hands dirty. Most of my research time is spent in the office planning experiments and applying for funding, managing the researchers who are actually outdoors conducting them, writing and talking about the findings, and occasionally gazing wistfully out of my office window and remembering the halcyon days of my PhD studies, when I spent my time in flowery meadows, chasing insects with my trusty net. Ah, those were the good times . . .
Every now and then, though, I do get the opportunity to go back to my field ecology roots. The last time was in Burkina Faso – a landlocked and extremely poor West African country. It was 38 degrees in the shade and dry as a bone, and while it’s about as unlike Ireland as it’s possible to get, I was there to study a situation not unlike ours at home: how land management and agricultural intensification affected populations of bees, and how this in turn has affected the pollination of an economically significant crop.
Everyone knows that bees are important for food production: 75 per cent of global food crops, which result in roughly a third of all crop production, are pollinated by bees and other pollinators moving pollen between flowers, enabling fruit and seeds to develop. In Ireland, bees are a crucial link in the supply chain of apples, raspberries and other soft fruits, which is why bee decline (a third of Irish species are threatened with extinction) is a major problem for the bottom lines of food producers and the healthy diets of people.
Protecting the wild bees who do the job for free makes more sense than spending money buying in commercially produced hives of bees, who may also bring with them diseases and parasites that can make our native wild bees sick, or employing people to do the job manually, which is vastly expensive. This is one of the reasons we developed the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, which aims to make Ireland a place where bees can survive and thrive. By protecting what we have in terms of pollinator-friendly habitat, providing extra flowers and nesting sites and reducing the use of agrochemicals, we can go a long way to ensuring these insects are strong and healthy to keep doing their important work.
In Africa, I was studying shea – the tree from which we get the rich, fatty butter that is used in a wide range of confectionary products, but also in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals worldwide. Shea trees rely on bees to move pollen between flowers so that shea nuts can form. The nuts are then collected by women in the community and processed into shea butter to be used locally and also exported. So in this case, the bees are also helping to provide products with socio-economic significance to some of the poorest women in the world.
Like in Ireland, Burkina Faso’s bees are increasingly hungry and homeless, threatening shea production and the livelihoods of these women. Our job as researchers was to figure out first of all whether maintaining fallow land and other bee-friendly habitats increases the number of bees visiting flowers, and hence their pollination. And second of all, whether if we had more bees, this would increase the shea yield, and thus income for local communities.
But when I say “we”, I really mean my post-doc researcher. I spent a week out there setting things up, and then left her in a remote town hours from the capital Ouagadougou to do six months’ hard graft of surveys and experiments.
So while I’m in my office this summer, slaving over paperwork and gazing mournfully at the bees buzzing by my window, I half long for fieldwork and chasing bees around with a net, but I confess I also half wish that I did have the summer off.
Jane Stout is a professor in botany at the School of Natural Sciences in Trinity College Dublin