‘Above all, send the bees love. Every little thing wants to be loved’ wrote Sue Monk Kidd, in her beautiful book, The Secret Life of Bees. Such a message holds great weight today. The humble bee, often described as the hardest working creature on the planet – and for very good reason – is striving for survival in our ever-changing world, writes Bernie Commins
Ninety per cent of the world’s food is provided by 100 crops, 71 of which are pollinated by bees! In Europe, 84 per cent of the 264 crop species are animal-pollinated and 4,000 vegetable varieties exist thanks to pollination by bees. And here, in Ireland, bees and flies are the most important pollinators. These nuggets of important information are contained in the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan 2015-2020 (AIPP) which was devised to address and reverse the decline of pollinators – of which, bees are the most effective. The AIPP is a shared plan involving more than 80 partner organisations, which has received support and funding from Bord Bia and the Heritage Council.
Simply put, this plan explains that, pollinators are a hugely important cog in our agriculture and food industries; for biodiversity; for our economy; for health and wellbeing, and for our wildlife and landscape, in general. In fact, pollinators are estimated to contribute €53m annually to the Irish economy, according to the AIPP, which also points out that this may not be a true reflection of the real value as it does not consider ‘the value of pollinators to forage crops (clovers), in pest control (eg., the role of hoverflies in protecting winter wheat crops), or to private gardeners and communities who grow a wide range of pollinator-dependent fruits and vegetables.
In Ireland, we have a total of 97 wild bee species comprising 20 bumblebee species and 77 solitary bee species. In addition, we have just one honeybee species. However, one third of the wild species are threatened with extinction, according to Irish data. This is a problem for all of us and it needs to be addressed.
Monaghan-native, Philip McCabe, is world president of Apimondia, the world bee-keeping federation. He is intent on redressing the global decline of bees. Mr McCabe recalls an analogy for declining insect numbers, which he made in 2005. It related to the number of dead insects on our windscreens after a long journey – or lack thereof.
“Now, 12 years on, it is even worse. You don’t see any bugs on the windscreen. So, what has happened is that the entire insect population is disappearing. We have fewer bumble bees, we have fewer solitary bees, we have fewer hoverflies and other flies. The general trend is that insects are gone,” he tells Irish Farmers Monthly.
Wrecking the buzz
Some of the issues facing bees today, derive from an increasingly unwelcome Irish landscape and environment, says Mr McCabe. From an agricultural perspective, the use of certain pesticides, which in themselves are not harmful to the bees, can limit their food sources; and tight pruning of hedgerows and ditches, and their removal in some instances, as well as the degradation of habitats, can render the bees homeless. Outside of Ireland and Europe, the use of genetically modified organisms (GMO) is another major threat for the survival of bee species, says Mr McCabe.
Ireland’s National Biodiversity Data Centre (NBDC) reports that the ‘availability of food plants and nesting sites has been drastically reduced through conversion of low-intensity farmland and semi-natural land to intensive farmland’ in Ireland, and that ‘declines have occurred across all habitats from grasslands to woodlands, sand dunes, peat lands, and mature hedgerows’. The NBDC also states that, the general decline in wildflowers has led to bees dying of hunger because they have significantly reduced food sources.
“The value of pollination by bees is recognised in many European countries, and countries around the world. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been recognised to the same extent in Ireland,” says Mr McCabe.
Recently, the AIPP published Farmland Guidelines: Actions to help Pollinators, which outlines evidence-based actions that farmers can employ in order to protect our bees. Hopefully, this will, in turn, help us all to value their pollination contribution.
Dr Úna Fitzpatrick, from the NBDC, who is responsible for coordinating the AIPP, explained that they worked with farming organisations in order to produce the Guidelines which were launched at the 2017 National Ploughing Championships.
“We went through an extensive consultation phase with farmers to come up with straightforward, evidence-based actions to help our native bees,” she said.
Dr Fitzpatrick said that, the AIPP is not just about conserving bees, but is also about protecting the livelihood of farmers and growers who rely on this free ‘pollinator’ service.
“This allows consumers to buy Irish fruit and vegetables at an affordable price,” said Dr Fitzpatrick.
As well as contributing directly to the Irish economy through crop pollination, pollinators such as bees, also contribute to our clean and green landscape that we pride ourselves and our agriculture on.
“Some 78 per cent of our wild plants benefit from insect pollination, so without healthy populations of wild bees, the Irish landscape would be a much different, less beautiful, place. This indirect value of pollinators to branding Irish products and to our agricultural export business is enormous.”
The new farming guidelines were developed in collaboration with Bord Bia and, specifically, Origin Green, its national sustainability programme. Working with the NBDC, Bord Bia is now incorporating elements of the AIPP into its new Sustainable Quality Assurance schemes. Five actions have been identified to help bees and other pollinators contribute towards a farmer’s sustainability criteria.
1. Maintain native flowering hedgerows: minimum targets include allowing hedgerows to flower; allowing at least one Hawthorn/Whitethorn in each hedgerow to mature to a flowering tree; planting some pollinator-friendly trees. Some benefits to farmers of these actions include: providing animals with shelter and shade when necessary, which can help mitigate against stress-related illnesses such as milk fever, grass tetany and mastitis.
2. Allow wildflowers to grow around the farm: minimum targets include ensuring that there are always some wildflowers flowering in non-farmed areas. A benefit of this to farmers includes increasing the biodiversity value of the farm in areas where there will be no loss to production.
3. Provide nesting places for wild bees: minimum targets include creating/maintaining some nesting habitat for bumblebees, mining solitary bees and cavity-nesting solitary bees on the farm. Some benefits to farmers include: the ability to grow certain crops and many fruits and vegetables by ensuring the survival of wild bees; and creating habitats for other insects, many of which are beneficial for pest control.
4. Minimise artificial fertiliser use: minimum targets include only using fertilisers where required and not spreading unnecessarily; ensuring accuracy in fertiliser spreading and avoiding spreading close to the base of hedges or hedgerow margins as it prevents the growth of pollinator-friendly wildflowers; and using clovers, peas/beans or other herbal leys in some areas of the farm instead of chemical fertilisers. Some benefits to farmers include: reducing demand and cost of artificial Nitrogen (N) with legumes that will naturally fix N, eg. clover; and planting a species-rich sward with a diverse range of productive grasses, herbs and legumes (sometimes called herbal leys) can provide benefits to soil structure, drought resistance, nitrogen fixation, season-round yield.
5. Reduce pesticide inputs: minimum targets include reducing the number and frequency of pesticide applications; and spraying pesticides only in calm weather and using low-drift nozzles to avoid pesticide drift onto wildlife areas. Benefits to farmers include improving the credentials of your produce; helping to prevent pesticide resistance in the pest population; and helping to increase natural pest control.
This year, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) received approximately 19,000 applications across three tranches of the Green Low-Carbon Agri-Environment Scheme (GLAS) for the conservation of solitary bees through bee boxes and sand habitats. According to the DAFM, these actions fall under the Tier 3 category in GLAS and are, generally, granted. A farmer can receive €6 per year for the installation of a bee box, up to a maximum of five; and €45 per year for a sand habitat, up to a maximum of two.
Being kinder to the environment, in the ways suggested above, will undoubtedly help our bee friends.
“We need to be kinder to the environment, because if we are kinder to the environment, wild bees will survive, themselves. Of course, the only way that the honeybee will survive in Ireland is through a human caretaker by way of a beekeeper.
“I would love for more people to take up beekeeping, but I would also love for more people to be conscious of what they plant. For example, more consideration could be given to planting on motorways for environmental purposes, rather than the current tree-planting style which is more for aesthetics, I believe.”
Mr McCabe believes that farmers can certainly play a part, as happens in other countries.
“Potentially, they could set aside some land, perhaps, land that is unused, maybe full of rushes. It happens in other countries, the farming community will take land that may not be used and they will sow it with crops such as Tacsonia phacelia or borage. These are fantastic bee crops. It doesn’t take much work to mind them, and farmers can harvest some of these crops for feeding animals with also. So, there is value in them for the farmer.”
Mr McCabe said that while there is a strong rapport between the DAFM and beekeepers of Ireland, he would like to see similar develop between farming organisations and beekeepers, and for such organisations to be more aware of the importance of bees.
“There are approximately 4-5,000 beekeepers in Ireland and they have a very good rapport with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and locally, beekeepers would have good relationships with neighbouring farmers, but greater connectivity would be desirable between farming organisations and those who are proponents of the bee.”