Another Life: Spring sees launch of new all-Ireland ‘pollinator plan’
Michael Viney: With 186 biodiversity proposals, the plan seeks more land for pollinators on farms and council properties
A bumblebee buzzes around in the warmth of the polytunnel, concentrating on a bed of overwintered broad beans.
At the first chill breaths from the Arctic, a solitary bumblebee was buzzing around in the warmth of the polytunnel, disdaining all escape through the draughty gaps at the doors.
I watched her attendance at the bed of overwintered broad beans, now grown tall and sweetly in bloom. She was nuzzling the flowers at random but did not, on closer look, actually enter any. Instead, as a white-tailed queen, she bit a hole at the base of the petals and stuck her tongue through to lap at the nectar without disturbing the flower’s pollen.
Such thievery is common to bumblebees with short tongues and to some of the honeybees of spring. Measuring the length of bees’ tongues is notoriously difficult: one study of “the allometry of bee proboscis length” measured 786 tongues from 100 species.
Matching the tongues of bees to particular kinds of flower can be a complex pursuit. The bee in my tunnel, Bombus lucorum, has the most efficient short tongue for probing white clover. But there are enough hairy, nectar-thirsty bees to cross-pollinate our food crops and enter the deepest tubes of our wildflowers. Bombus hortorum, the common small bumble of Irish gardens, has a tongue of up to 2cm, fit for foxgloves and honeysuckle.
For all of them, nectar is the immediate reward. The pollen grains, mixed with saliva into pellets and stuck on their hind legs, are carried back to the bees’ small underground nests (max pop 50) as food for their larvae. Honeybees pack more pollen into bulging saddlebags to bring sustenance back to their hives.
There are far finer intricacies in the variety of pollinators – hoverflies, beetles, wasps, flies, butterflies and moths. Varied chemistries of nectar and pollen mediate between them. But bees, wild sorts above all, are now the big emblem of public concern for the natural world. One-third of Ireland’s 98 wild species are threatened with extinction.
This spring sees the launch of a new all-Ireland “pollinator plan” for 2021-2025, a second, five-year phase of conservation (at pollinators.ie). It follows a similar campaign of remarkable success, the warmth of public and official response quite overwhelming the two women scientists who devised and promoted it.
With the backing from 88 per cent of people and a vast range of organisations eager to share in the action, Dr Una Fitzpatrick and Dr Jane Stout have ridden a wave of promise and approval. Dr Fitzpatrick guides operations from the National Biodiversity Data Centre at Waterford; Dr Stout explores pollination ecology as professor of botany at Trinity College Dublin.
The long menu of things to do advanced and achieved in the first phase of the plan, devised with the help of a 16-member group, has more than doubled in the second phase proposing 186 actions to help biodiversity. Many of them seek yet more land for pollinators on farms and council properties and in new sectors such as hospitals and nursing homes.
Meanwhile, new research has found fresh measures of potential harm to bees. A research team including Dr Stout has analysed samples of Irish honey for traces of neonicotinoid pesticide, toxic to bees and now nominally banned in Ireland.
The study, published recently, found neonicotinoid residues in 70 per cent of samples, a figure not far behind European honeys. It was also first to show that honey from urban areas can be more contaminated than that from the countryside.
The difference was, perhaps, made greater by comparing farming samples from the west with honey from the east, including hives in Dublin. But while all the residues were below any level hazardous to humans, they were still enough to have negative effects on bees and other insects.
Their detection prompts calls for urgent concern in “domestic, sport and amenity contexts”, which presumably includes urban gardens. Anyone still spraying pesticide for aphids, for example, might check the can for clothianidin, imidacloprid or thiacloprid, the three neonicotinoid compounds found in Irish honey.
As spring brings plants to life, there is plenty in the Irish landscape to show the success of the pollinator plans and encourage its project officer, Juanita Browne, in the next phase. Hedgerows, verges, wildlife lawns of parks and gardens all promise rich seasons of flowers.
Among the first to offer nectar to bees and other insects are the brilliant golden coins of dandelions, no longer weeds but wildflowers. They are glowing in drifts along some Mayo roads, but also, for certain, in many suburban lawns and on once-sterilised civic spaces. Flowering now in rare profusion, they vindicate the central motto of the pollinator plans: “Don’t mow – let it grow.”