Pollinators vital to the global food chain, stresses Michael D Higgins

Farming practices and urbanisation have placed insect world in acute danger, says president ahead of World Bee Day

Awareness of the environmental threat to Ireland’s bee population has increased but now it must be backed up by change in behaviour, according to conservationists.

Speaking ahead of World Bee Day on Monday, pollination specialist Prof Jane Stout said one in every three species of bee in Ireland was threatened with extinction, with 50 per cent continuing to see population decline.

President Michael D Higgins has joined the call for action saying: “Humanity depends on pollinators. They are vital to the global food chain.

“Yet, we must acknowledge that our actions - including farming practices, urbanisation, land management, environmental pollution and the climate crisis - have placed our insect world in acute danger,” he said in a statement to mark World Bee Day.


Prof Stout said the worrying decline was at a higher rate in Ireland than in mainland Europe, though full monitoring of species was not in place here.

On a more optimistic note, the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan was proving to be “an unbelievable success” in getting engagement on the issue, the TCD academic said.

The plan was helping to influence private and public land management to boost pollinators. Farmland remained the biggest challenge. Supporting pollinators were critical to food production but it was “still a low priority as far as the farming sector is concerned”.

Ireland had more hedgerows compared to Europe but a lot of land was in intensive farm production with the lowest level of forest cover, Prof Stout continued.

There were protected areas and legislation to protect wildlife but it was not enforced, or was in conflict with other legislation, she said. There was a need to think about biodiversity impact on agriculture and tourism policy “by bringing nature upfront and central”.

Species loss

The latest report from the National Parks & Wildlife Service submitted to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity last week confirmed a decline of 14 per cent in bee species over six years, with seven out of 20 bumblebee species at risk of extinction.

“The decline in bees, butterflies and other insects has largely resulted from the effect of monoculture and the drive to ever higher levels of [AGRICULTURAL]productivity characterised also by a loss or neglect of hedgerows, farmland edges and scrub,” it noted.

The report said the plan had particular success in schools and in raising awareness among gardeners, communities and farmers. “In addition, 90 Government and non-government organisations have signed up to make their lands or products more pollinator friendly.”

The plan "has flipped biodiversity conservation from gloom and doom to being seen as something that can be achieved with positive solutions-based approaches, said Dr Liam Lysaght, director of the National Biodiversity Diversity Centre (NBDC) which is working with volunteers in monitoring bumblebee and butterfly numbers.

He said hundreds of businesses and other parties were helping to boost pollinators, and improving the science behind biodiversity which was critical to addressing species loss.

It was too early to say, however, if population numbers were improving. In spite of projects by a diverse mix of groups including schools and local authorities, the initiative “is still not wide enough” to expect pollinator numbers to significantly increase.

“Every single farmer needs to be involved,” Dr Lysaght added. The recent UN report on biodiversity loss had underlined the need for transformational change. “We are nowhere near that.”

Nature conservation continued to be chronically under-funded by Government, he added. “A national biodiversity crisis has been declared, yet funding for it across the board is grossly inadequate.”

But there was a notable shift among the general public to a greater appreciation of biodiversity, as the NBDC had a 100 per cent increase this spring in the number of people observing nature and submitting sightings.

To mark World Bee Day, Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine Andrew Doyle has announced a "Host a hive, help the honey bee" initiative which aims to encourage forest owners to introduce beehives to their native woodlands. It is being run in partnership with Woodlands of Ireland and national beekeeping associations, and backed by the Native Irish Honeybee Society.

10 steps to save pollinators

Individuals, communities, businesses and farmers can contribute to the preservation of bees and other pollinators through a number of measures:

1 - Plant nectar-bearing flowers for decorative purposes on balconies, terraces, and gardens;

2 - Buy honey and other hive products from your nearest local beekeeper;

3 - Raise awareness among young people of the importance of bees and express your support for beekeepers;

4 - Set up “a pollinator farm” on your balcony, terrace, or garden; you can either make it yourself or buy one at any home furnishings store;

5 - Preserve old meadows (which feature a more diverse array of flowers) and sow nectar-bearing plants;

6 - Cut grass on meadows and lawn only after the nectar-bearing plants have finished blooming;

7 - Plant native flowering trees which provide important food for pollinators, as do hedgerows;

8 - Offer suitable farming locations for the temporary or permanent settlement of bees so they have suitable pasture – they will pollinate plants, which will thereby bear more fruit;

9 - Use pesticides that do not harm bees, and spray them in windless weather, either early in the morning or late at night, when bees withdraw from blossoms; 10 - Support citizen science initiatives to monitor pollinator populations in your area. The National Biodiversity Data Centre deploys volunteers all over the country to monitor bumblebee and butterfly populations – see http://records.biodiversityireland.ieFor other tips see: http://pollinators.ie/gardens/

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times