World Bee Day – 20th May 2023

Did you know that there are more than 20,000 species of bee on the planet? And 100 different species just in Ireland? Did you know that only a few species live in social groups and make honey, that only female bees sting, and that stinging isn’t a fatal endeavour for most bee species?

When people think of bees, they tend to focus on honey, hives and stings, and various oft-quoted myths. They don’t realise that bees are a hugely diverse group of animals that have incredibly interesting lives.

Bees are a morphologically diverse group of insects – ranging from species that are a tiny ~2mm long, to species that are a massive 19x that size (about 38mm long). They are ecologically diverse too – some nest in the ground, others in holes in trees, and some even in the nests of other bees (these are called kleptoparasites, behaving in a similar way to cuckoo birds – killing the rightful occupants and laying their own eggs).

The one thing they virtually all have in common is that they need flowers to feed from – they get their energy and make honey from nectar, and get protein for growth and repair from pollen. Except ‘vulture bees’, which are a small group of closely related North American stingless bee species that feed on rotting meat. They use the meat as their protein source, but still make honey from nectar. So all bees need flowers to complete their live cycles (and, many flowers need bees too).

They are really an amazing group of insects, much more than just honey and hype.

And they have become cool. They adorn furnishings, clothing, crockery, water bottles – the list is endless. They typify pollinators – animals that move pollen between plants and enable seed and fruit production – and so are important to our agricultural system. And have become foci for conservation initiatives all over the world. They even have their own day in the year (20th May – World Bee Day).

But strangely enough, we don’t know everything there is to know about bees. Far from it. Most of what we know comes from a small handful of managed species – the honeybee, the buff-tailed bumblebee, the red mason bee. Even in Ireland, we don’t know nearly enough about most of our bees. When the most recent conservation assessment of Ireland’s bees was made in 2006, 16 species couldn’t be assigned a threat status because we didn’t know enough about them. Of the bees that we did know enough about, more than a third of them turned out to be threatened with extinction.

Want to learn more about Ireland’s bees? Have a go at our World Bee Day #BeeBingo, and look out for eight species active at the moment!

Since then, concerted efforts have been made to find out more about Ireland’s bees, and to protect them. Lots of research has been done (with eight PhDs completed on Irish bees in the past 12 months), and lots of practical conservation efforts undertaken, mostly under the auspices of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan.

Trinity College Dublin has played a leading role in this. Professor Jane Stout in the School of Natural Sciences has been researching bees, their behaviour, and the causes and consequences of their decline for the past two decades. In this time, she and her research group have published dozens of scientific papers, and Prof. Stout co-founded the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan with Trinity alumnus, Dr Úna FitzPatrick at the National Biodiversity Data Centre. This has galvanised action the length and breadth of Ireland to protect and restore pollinators.

Trinity plays its part in a practical way too – the iconic lawns at the front gate have been transformed into ornamental meadows and low- and no-mow regimes have been implemented in other areas to allow wildflowers to flourish. Even in the city centre, both of these approaches can provide habitat for bees and other wildlife.

So this World Bee Day, take a closer look at these amazing insects, they are, of course, important pollinators, helping to maintain ecosystems and produce human food crops, but they are also fascinating and wonderful creatures in their own right.

About the author: Professor Jane Stout is Vice-President for Biodiversity and Climate Action at Trinity College Dublin, and has spent most of her professional career studying beestheir ecology, conservation and importance to people.


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