World Bee Day – are we preaching to the converted?

May is a busy time for international days – May 10th is International Migratory Bird Day, May 18th is International Museum Day, and of course May the 4th is Star Wars Day. But now we have a new one… May 20th is World Bee Day.

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There has been a UN-declared “International Day for Biological Diversity” since 1993, to increase understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues (it’s also in May – on the 22nd). But this year, 2018, the UN declared May 20th “World Bee Day”, on the back of a proposal and three years of effort by Slovenia. Although initially proposed for honeybees and beekeeping, the concept was broadened to all bees, and in fact all pollinators.

There was a ministerial conference in Slovenia to mark the day, where representatives from 22 countries from all continents and international organisations discussed the situation, activities, and the required measures to protect bees in the world. They even produced a joint Declaration on how important bees and other pollinators are for crop production and food security. Nothing particularly new given the comprehensive recent IPBES report, but along with the work of the Coaltion of the Willing on Pollinators, it’s bringing the issue to governmental level.

And there were activities around the world to celebrate World Bee Day, including here in Ireland, which were picked up by local and international media:

The National Biodiversity Data Centre released new analysis of their Bumblebee Monitoring Scheme data, which suggests that common bumblebee species are in decline. The Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine released a newsletter on their activities and put out a press release welcoming the arrival of honeybee hives to their Backweston Campus, and the Department’s contribution to the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan.

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The Irish Universities Association also released a press release highlighting some of the bee research being conducted in Irish universities, including that done by the Irish Pollinator Research Network. In Trinity, we also highlighted how we are working to help pollinators by publishing a news item on our current research.

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And the media responded with articles, including those in the Irish Times, Independent and The Sun.

Since the objective of World Bee Day was to raise awareness of the importance of bees, this is all good.

However, there is still a surprising number of people who don’t like bees – think of them as stinging pests, best rid of. They don’t know we have 20-25 thousand species worldwide, and that they are fascinating, beautiful creatures, who do such an important job in terms of pollination – see Laura Russo’s recent post on the Amazing World of Bees.

Are we just preaching to the converted with all the Bee Day publicity? All this enthusiasm I encounter for bees at meetings and workshops – is it just from people already interested in nature? How do we reach the rest of the population? By publicising that road verges and parks are being managed for pollinators, we can help raise awareness among those who would not attend events or read articles – for example, a local council is advertising that they are not cutting and spraying to protect wildlife. One story which has captured a surprising number of people’s imaginations is that of Fiona Presly, who has become an online star for making friends with a bumblebee (a story which was featured in Antenna, the journal of the Royal Entomological Society, along with a fascinating commentary by bee behaviour expert, Lars Chittka).

We can also talk about the value of bees to our economy, and to our well-being in a more general sense, as well as to the wider environment (e.g. through projects like Pollival). Or get people involved in the research, via citizen science projects (e.g. like Count Flowers for Bees).

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But given the threats to bees, other pollinators, and let’s face it, most wildlife, it’s important that people are educated about the environment, its value, what’s causing its degradation, and what we can do about it. Bees can be seen as a flagship for biodiversity – their value is tangible because of the pollination services they provide. We need to bring together more examples, more disciplines to really get people more involved in nature conservation. This is what Ireland’s national biodiversity conference New Horizons for Nature, which was announced on international biodiversity day, intends to do. But since palpable benefits from natural ecosystems are hard for most people to get their heads around, I welcome World Bee Day, as a way to keep raising awareness of these wonderful creatures specifically, and the natural world around us more generally.

 

Jane Stout is Professor in Botany, Trinity College Dublin

 

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