People and nature need each other

Heritage Week 2017 offers the opportunity for a closer relationship

You can can beat getting out and embracing nature. A participant in ‘Wild Kids’ Day’ organised by the children’s nature charity Owls at Turvey Nature Reserve, Donabate, Co Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson

My son and his friend were playing in our back garden recently when I heard his friend call out “Eek, there’s a wasp!” My son – cool as a cucumber – replied, “That’s not a wasp! It’s a worker bee – she’s harmless.” It was a proud parenting moment.

I have studied bees for two decades and if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that when it comes to buzzing insects, there aren’t that many of us who are compelled to get up close and have a good look at them. Knowing the difference between a wasp and the almost 100 species of bee – many of whom don’t sting, but do look a bit like wasps to the untrained eye – isn’t something most people aspire to. This is understandable considering how nasty a sting can be.

Yet the differences are worth knowing. Wasps eat other insects, and so help to control garden pests and other annoying bugs like midges. Bees visit flowers to collect nectar and pollen and in doing so transfer pollen between flowers, giving us better yields of strawberries, chocolate, apples, courgettes, tomatoes and coffee. And even the flies play a role. They have a bad reputation, but we’d miss them if they were gone: many act as decomposers, breaking down dead matter so that the nutrients can be recycled.

In fact, hundreds of species of insect and other creepy crawlies help us out in our gardens, parks and farmland every day. Along with other wildlife, they do jobs and create products that benefit human well-being and have a value to society.


And it is because of this value that we are starting to think of living and non-living aspects of nature as “natural capital”, an asset that’s just as important to modern life as other forms of capital (financial capital, human capital, etc). And by thinking of it in this way, we’re starting to take notice – and not just in our gardens.

In farmland, the role of pollinating bees, soil-maintaining earthworms, and predatory ladybirds might be well known. A farmer knows that this natural capital contributes to the farm’s productivity. But even in our busy, modern day-to -day lives, nature is important. Think of a breakfast consisting of a cup of coffee and a berry muffin: both have raw ingredients that have to be sourced somewhere. Coffee and most berries are bee-pollinated: if we lose our stock of natural capital (the bees), the flow of services (pollination of berry and coffee flowers) will decrease and less coffee and fewer berries will be produced; making coffee and berries more expensive.

Similarly, nature in the form of trees, watercourses, parks and other green and blue spaces in towns and cities, help to clean the air and water, act as climatic thermostats keeping urban temperatures down and as sponges to ameliorate flooding. This keeps our air-conditioning, insurance premiums and local council flood-defence bills down.

And getting out and about in nature, whether it’s a hike in the countryside or a stroll through an urban park, helps keep the body and mind healthy. Again, this can save us money on healthcare spending, both by individuals and by the State.

So people need nature, and increasingly, nature needs people. Nature needs to be nurtured and protected so that the benefits we get from it continue to flow. Nature can be a solution, but it needs looking after. It is heartening to see Heritage Week this year involves so many events that offer the opportunity for a closer relationship between humans and the natural world.

But many people say that we can’t afford to look after nature – it’s a luxury, they argue. What people need is jobs, homes, schools, transport and health services, money for school uniforms and food on the table. I would argue we can’t afford not to conserve nature. We as a society just need to look at how it benefits us, and how we value it in a more holistic way and consider the bigger picture. We live on a planet of finite resources. We can’t continue to consume our stocks of natural capital or there will be nothing left to replenish the flows from which we benefit.

Thus it becomes increasingly clear to me that we need to notice nature, to recognise that people and nature need each other. We need to consider nature as an asset in our decisions; a “need to have”, not just a “nice to have” – whether these decisions are which kind of berry muffin to have, or how to manage our gardens, or whether it’s bigger things like national climate or farming policy. And although I might not convince many of you of the wonders of the bees and wasps in your garden, getting interested in what’s out there is a good step towards a society that values and protects our natural assets for future generations.