When I started working on bees, most people either asked “why?” or “is it true bumblebees can’t sting?”. I could easily answer the second question (no, it’s not true, they can sting you, but you have to really annoy them to make them do it), but the first was trickier. Because they are fascinating creatures, and understanding their behavioural ecology is academically challenging and exciting, didn’t seem like a good enough reason back in the late 90s.
And then everyone started to notice that bees were in trouble. This began with the high profile Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in North America (mass, sudden, unexplained death of honeybee colonies) around 2006, and later people realised that the honeybee was not the only species in trouble. Slowly the public and policy-makers began to realise what bee scientists had suspected for a while: that agricultural practices, disease and habitat loss were damaging a wide range of species, including the hundreds of other species of bees that are often overlooked in favour of their honey-producing cousins. It often comes as a surprise to people to realise there are 20,000 species of bee worldwide. On the island of Ireland alone, there are nearly 100 species, only one of which produces honey.
But producing honey isn’t the only useful thing bees do for us – they are important pollinators – they transfer pollen (which contains the plant’s genetic material) between flowers and enable plants to reproduce, to set seed and produce fruit. In fact, nearly 80% of wild flowering plants in temperate zones, and 75% of global food crops, are animal pollinated.
So, now when people hear I work on bees, they don’t ask “why?”, they expect me to save them. And given they are (still) fascinating creatures, and now we know how important they are in terms of food production, as well as maintaining healthy functioning ecosystems, it is easier to justify trying to do just that.
Easy to justify perhaps, but not so easy to do… In 2009, Una Fitzpatrick (former Trinity Scholar, PhD graduate from Botany and postdoc in Zoology in Trinity, and now Senior Ecologist at the National Biodiversity Data Centre), and I started drafting a plan to help conserve pollinators in Ireland. Eventually, after establishing a multi-stakeholder Steering Group to help, and many drafts later, we published the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan (AIPP) in September 2015. This call to action brought together many public and private organisations to help conserve pollinators in Ireland. The response to the AIPP has been overwhelmingly positive: bees have become biodiversity poster-boys – everyone wants to help conserve them now!
As one of the lead organisations developing the Plan, I was keen that we practice what we preach here in Trinity. Therefore I am delighted that we are now launching our own Campus Pollinator Plan, to contribute to the good work of the AIPP. From practical initiatives like pollinator-friendly planting and eliminating the use of insecticides, to educating students and the public, and doing the research (on both wild bees and using our own hives of honeybees!), we are hoping to make a big difference. Check out our website for what we are doing on campus, and keep an eye on this blog for updates.
Jane Stout is a Professor in Botany, in the School of Natural Sciences at Trinity College Dublin. She has been researching bees and pollination since 1996 and is deputy chair of the AIPP Steering Group.