Despite the global pandemic, lockdown and geographic dispersion of researchers (who are currently scattered across Ireland, UK, Zambia, Ghana, Italy…), the Irish Pollinator Research Network (IPRN) gathered for its annual research symposium on 20th January 2021. Smoothly organised by TCD postdocs Jordan Chetcuti and Stephanie Maher, the meeting featured 16 presentations, with 26 participants at any one time (not always the same 26!).
The IPRN was established in 2017. Since then, we’ve met at TCD in 2018, DCU in 2019 and MU in 2020.
This year, researchers from TCD, UCD, MU, DCU, NUIG, and NBDC gathered to share research outputs, plans and ideas. Presentations covered a range of topics (listed below with my own personal take-home note!), and there was lively and constructive discussion after each one:
modelling bees and their responses to pressures (is difficult because so many parameters to include and we still don’t know enough about basic biology of bees to parameterise models perfectly)
how pollinators interact with plants and soil communities (ecological interactions are complicated, and we need to know more about soils and species traits)
how bees are affected at a proteomic level by stressors such as pesticides and pathogens (we need to know more about bee immune systems, commercial formulations need more testing, and proteins/pathways have weird names!)
analysing pesticide residues in soils, nectar and pollen (chemical extraction methods depend on both the matrix and the analytes of interest)
how bees are affected at an individual behavioural and colony level by pesticides and climate (bees don’t always do what you expect in flight cages!)
pollinators and pollination of flowering crops in Ireland (landscape surrounding fields/orchards can influence pollinators and pollination services)
schemes to promote pollinators on Irish farmland (with relatively little effort, farms can become much more pollinator-friendly)
pollination in African woodlands (although many woodland species are valuable to locals, role of pollination is not well understood, and different plant species react differently to pollination).
One thing that was apparent was the huge amount of work that has continued over the past year, despite the pandemic. A massive round of applause for all researchers for continuing to do amazing research despite restrictions, illnesses, constraints and other personal and national traumas…
Another thing that struck me was that there is so much synergy, collaboration and friendship in this network. We are there to support, help and advise each other, not to compete with one another, and that was apparent. This is so refreshing and I am feel very proud and privileged to work in this group. Keep it up everyone and looking forward to gathering at UCD next year!
To find out more about the IRPN members, see links to PIs below:
Jane Stout, TCD: Pollination ecology, plant-pollinator interactions, pollinator diversity and drivers of decline, landscape and agroecology, pollinator conservation, valuing pollinators and pollination services
Dara Stanley, UCD: Plant-pollinator diversity, interactions and conservation, pollinator behavioural ecology, agroecology, impacts of pesticides on bee behaviour and provision of pollination services.
Jim Carolan, NUI Maynooth: Cellular and molecular level effects of various stressors (pathogens, parasites and pesticides) in both native and commercial bees, bumblebee conservation, DNA barcoding and genomics.
We don’t see many insects during the winter, but their legacy is evident in terms of the fruits and seeds that they have helped to produce earlier in the year. Without insects, we wouldn’t have many of our Christmas foods, drinks and decorations. This is because many of the plants that produce our Christmas treats rely on insects pollinating flowers earlier in the year.
Without insects, we wouldn’t have bright red holly berries to decorate our Christmas puddings, mistletoe with its characteristic white berries to kiss under, cranberries to liven up our turkey, chocolate, marzipan or many of the spices and other goodies we associate with Christmas.
This is because insects are needed by most plants for cross-pollination, which results in the production of fruits and seeds. Since plants cannot move to find mates themselves, they rely on insects to bring male and female together.
Holly (Ilex aquifolium) is unusual in the plant world because male and female flowers occur on separate shrubs. As bees drink nectar from male flowers, they get pollen on their bodies and when they move to a female plant to continue to feed, they deposit that pollen on female flowers. The pollen causes the female flowers to be fertilized, and to form fruits (or berries) containing the fertilized seeds.
Similarly, mistletoe (Viscum album) also holds its male and female flowers on separate plants. Plants are partially parasitic and live on the branches of other trees but still rely on insects (not just bees, but also flies, bugs and beetles) for pollination and thus berry production.
In fact, both mistletoe and holly fetch higher prices at market if they have berries on them, and so insect pollinators are of economic value at Christmas time as well.
Cranberry bushes (Vaccinium macrocarpon) produce both the male and female structures not just on the same plant, but in the same flower. However, they still need bees to transfer the pollen between flowers, because those male and female structures do not mature at the same time. Large bees, such as bumblebees, which can shake the flowers in just the right way to dislodge the pollen (producing a distinctive buzzing sound) are the best pollinators. This is known as “buzz pollination” and is important in other crops too (including tomatoes and blueberries).
Chocolate-producing cocoa trees (Theobroma cacao) produce small flowers on their trunks, and although flowers don’t produce a scent to attract pollinators, they produce a small amount of nectar and are visited and pollinated bytiny flies (midges). Although flowers contain both male and female structures, they cannot fertilize themselves, and these midges are needed for the production of cocoa fruits, which contain the seeds from which we derive chocolate. These trees grow in the tropics and flowers and fruits are produced throughout the year, although it takes 5-6 months for them to mature before they are harvested.
Marzipan (almond paste) is made of ground almonds (and sugar). Almond (Prunus dulcis) trees bloom in early spring and are visited by bees – both managed honeybees and wild bees. In fact, almond trees in California (where most of the world’s almonds are produced) produce better yields when both honeybees and wild bees are present in orchards. This is because they complement each other in their foraging. If there are no bees at all visiting flowers, fruit set can plummet by up to 90%.
Many of our Christmas spices, including cinnamon (Cinnamomum spp.), cloves (Syzygium aromaticum) and nutmeg (Myristica fragrans), essential ingredients in Christmas cakes, puddings and mulled wine, also need pollinating by insects. In the case of cinnamon and cloves, this is done by bees, but for nutmeg, it’s beetles that do the pollinating job.
So, as you enjoy Christmas this year, raise a glass to the insects that made all of this possible.
For more information on pollinators, their value and conservation, see the All Ireland Pollinator Plan www.pollintors.ie.
Honey is a complex natural product produced by many social insects such as bees (Apinae, Meliponinae, and Bombinae), honey wasps (Polistinae), and honey ants (Formicinae and Dolichoderinae). However, the most important source of honey sold commercially comes from only few of the 20,000 bee species – the honey bees (Apis spp.).
Honey benefits for humans
Honey has been exploited by humans since ancient times, and nowadays is a widely consumed product, appreciated for its taste and its health benefits. It contains a variety of ingredients, such as sugars, amino acids, minerals, enzymes and vitamins, which are beneficial to humans. The main sugars of honey (fructose and glucose) are digested more easily and quickly by the human body compared to other sugar types. In addition, glucose is the only form of sugar that can be used by muscles, so honey is an excellent source of energy for children and athletes. The minerals (potassium, calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, sodium, zinc and selenium) in honey help the body’s cells function, maintain healthy bones and teeth and prevent blood clotting. The main naturally occurring enzymes in honey (diastase, invertase, and glucose oxidase) enhance the digestion of food substances, especially carbohydrates such as sugars and starch. Also, honey contains many vitamins, such as ascorbic acid (C), thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), and pyridoxine (B6), etc., which contribute to the absorption of sugars by the body and to its proper functioning.
What is honey?
As a natural product, honey, even when it comes from a single hive, varies in terms its physicochemical characteristics. A recent study on Irish honeys demonstrated that the physiochemical properties varied according to floral origin, and whether hives were placed in urban or rural sites. The botanical origin and ripening conditions of honey are the main factors responsible for this variance, affecting its natural properties (e.g. colour, aroma, taste, tendency to granulate or ferment, density, viscosity and fluidity, hygroscopicity), but also its antioxidant and antibacterial action. Thus, by studying all the physicochemical, organoleptic and microscopic characteristics that define a specific honey category, we can assign an identity to honey and evaluate it qualitatively in accordance with the international legislation. It is important for the consumer to know how the quality of honey is determined, and to maintain a good value for money, given the widespread practice of adulteration in imported honeys.
According to the broader definition given by Codex Alimentarius (2001), honey is defined as “the natural sweet substance produced by honey bees from the nectar of plants or from secretions of living parts of plants or excretions of plant sucking insects on the living parts of plants, which the bees collect, transform by combining with specific substances of their own, deposit, dehydrate, store and leave in the honey comb to ripen and mature“. On a European level, the Council Directive (2001/110/EC), defines honey as “the natural sweet substance produced by Apis mellifera bees (“bees”). Honey consists essentially of different sugars, predominantly fructose and glucose, as well as other substances such as organic acids, enzymes and solid particles derived from honey collection“.
Based on those definitions, honey can be divided into two main categories:
Blossom or Nectar honey, produced from the nectar of either one kind of flowers – uni-floral (e.g. oilseed rape, brambles, orange, cotton, sunflower, heather etc), or of the combinations of various kinds of flowers – multi-floral.
Honeydew honey, produced from secretions of living parts of plants or plant sucking insects on the living parts of plants (e.g. honey of pine, fir, oak and other forest plants).
A notable difference occurs between the two honey definitions. While Codex Alimentarius (2001) mentions that honey is produced by “honey bees“, which is more generic term, the European Directive mentions specifically the species “Apis mellifera L.”. This is because A. mellifera is the honey bee species that occurs and is domesticated for honey production in European Union (EU), while other honey bee species may occur and are being exploited for honey production in other parts of the world (e.g. A. cerana in South Asia).
Honey production by the species A. mellifera
A worker honey bee, after emerging from its cell as a mature adult, lives for almost six weeks in the summer, spending the first three weeks of its life inside the hive as a “domestic honey bee”. After this period, she becomes a collector and works the second half of her life outside the hive collecting nectar, pollen and water (Fig. 1). Honey production is the most important work of honey bee collectors. They fly diligently and tirelessly from morning to dusk in all directions and at various heights and distances up to 10 km from the hive in search of plants that produce nectar. When the nectar source is found, the honey bee sucks the nectar from the flower with her proboscis and temporarily stores it in a special receptacle inside her body, called the honey stomach, foregut or crop. To gather a full crop load of nectar, a bee forager may visit up to 1,000 flowers, and may make around 10 trips per day. When the honey stomach is full, the forager honey bee returns to the hive. Upon her return, she adds the enzyme invertase to the collected nectar. This action initiates the process of turning nectar into honey. The enzyme breaks down the sucrose found in nectar into simpler and more digestible sugars for honey bees, which are mainly glucose and fructose. Back in the hive, the honey is delivered to the nurse honey bees, who store it in the honeycomb cells. Once it enters the cells, the water must be evaporated, for the dehydration process to begin. In order to do that, nurse honey bees flutter their wings, dissipating the extra moisture and turning it into honey. Once this process is completed, the nurse honey bees will cover the top of each filled cell with a thin layer of wax and close it airtight for future use.
Figure 1. A forager honey bee (A. mellifera) collecting pollen and nectar from a Cistus sp. plant.
Hence, honey is becoming an increasingly scarce commodity and, as a natural product with a relatively high price, honey is among the top 10 foods with the highest adulteration rate in the European Union. Consumers, often unknowingly, do not receive the natural product they paid for, while adulterated honey found in the market may pose a threat to food safety, food security, and ecological sustainability. A conscious consumer should be aware of the problem of honey fraud and how to get suspicious of it.
The general term “food fraud” can be taken as encompassing a wide variety of activities referred to adopting the wording contained in European Regulation (2017/625) as “fraudulent or deceptive practices” by businesses or individuals for the purpose of gaining some form of undue advantage and/or causing harm. The EU Commission has also developed a criterion for identifying instances of food fraud that accounts for features such as identifiable violations of EU rules (as set out in Article 1(2) of Regulation (EU) 2017/625), deception, economic gain and intention. Directive 2001/110/EC limits human intervention that could alter the composition of honey and thereby allows for the preservation of the natural character of honey. It prohibits the addition of any food ingredient to honey, including food additives, and any other addition other than honey. Similarly, that Directive prohibits the removal of any constituent particular to honey, including pollen, unless such removal is unavoidable in the removal of foreign matter. Those requirements are in line with the Codex Alimentarius standard for honey (2001). Νon-compliance with the above mentioned guidelines constitutes honey an adulterated product.
Types of honey fraud
Indirect honey adulteration pre-harvest
Anything that suggests improper feeding of honey bees with sugar during honey production or addition of sugars to honey falls into this category (Fig. 2). The sweeteners that can be used for this purpose are invert sugar syrups, high fructose corn syrups, syrups of natural origin such as maple, cane, sugar beet, molasses, etc. At present, these sweeteners are mainly feed syrups, produced by the hydrolysis of corn starch, cane sugar or sugar beet. Good beekeeping practice ensures that sweeteners used to feed the honey bees in the context of the stimulant feeding during the main nectar flow period should not be made to such an extent as to distort the honey. Nevertheless, the additional feeding in order to increase the yields in honey production is a serious form of fraud. Even untimely stimulant feeding may cause adulteration to the final product. This happens because sucrose syrup or isoglucose and other commercial feeds when administered to honey bees during the time they collect nectar and store it, are incorporated into honey and degrade its quality, distorting the final product. In general, the over-feeding of honey bees with syrup during the flowering period is a form of honey adulteration which is easily detected by the chemical characteristics of the product. In their attempt to increase the amount of honey produced, beekeepers sometimes feed the honey bees with sugar syrup in a ratio of 1:1. When this quantity exceeds the established standard limits, the quality characteristics of the honey are altered and if a relevant control is carried out – based on the quality criteria for a certain honey type, then the beekeeper will have to face serious penalties. Thus, feeding of this kind should be stopped at least one month before the forthcoming flowering period. Intense feeding during the summer months in order to fill the “gap of flowering”, may also affect the quality of the honey collected in the first harvest of autumn.
Figure 2. Supplementary feeding of honey bees with sugar solution during a research experiment.
2. Direct honey adulteration post-harvest
There are two cases in this category both aiming for higher commercial profits for honey producers. The first case concerns the possibility of blending the produced honey with various cheap sweeteners (like the ones already mentioned above), under the use of heating in order to achieve homogenization of the final product. Then, this blended mixture is resold as “genuine” honey. At a European level, almost a year ago, a supermarket chain withdrew pots of its own-brand honey amid concerns that it contains adulterated ingredients. In the second case, the honey production industry, uses glucose, caramel color or simply adds honey aroma to syrup through chemical treatments in order to produce a sweet substance resembling to honey. Another form of post-harvest adulteration is when honey is filtered or pasteurized in order to extend the shelf life. During this process, pollen is removed and along with it, all the benefits of its consumption.
3. Different botanical or geographical origin from that written on the label
Since honey bees visit various plant species, the honey produced is a mixture of different plant sources. Usually, honey is classified as being unifloral when at least 45% of pollen grains arise from a single species (with few exceptions). Consumer’s choice is linked to unique organoleptic and aromatic properties of honey that depend principally on the botanical and geographical origins of the product. Hence, the geographical categorization of honeys can raise its commercial value and contribute to the micro economy of the region. When certain types of honey (due to the varying preferences of consumers) are sold under higher prices in the market, honey producers may often provide the wrong botanical source of honey in order to mislead the consumer.
According to the European Directive 2001/110/EC, if honey originates from more than one member state or a country outside the European Union, this should be indicated in the product label as “blend of EU honey”, “blend of non-EU honey” (Fig. 3), or “blend of EU and non-EU honey” (Fig. 3). This provision is not valid in Codex (2001) leaving room for fraudulent listed information on the label. As for the so-called “local honey” it may not always be “local honey”, but cheap or low-quality honey imported from other countries, and then packaged and distributed locally (Fig. 4). Generally, legal standards and specifications for food, including the quality of honey, as well as tests for controlling honey adulteration vary widely between countries and continents.
Figure 3. Honeys with the indications “Blend of Non EU honeys” and “Blend of EU and Non EU honeys” on their labels.
Figure 4. The indication on this label is “Non-blended EU honey”. This closely resembles the indications that should be provided according to the guidelines of the European Directive 2001/110/EC, however, it does not clearly indicate the European country of origin.
Honey that contains misleading information on the label. In 2011, a multinational investigation on honey market fraud, uncovered the largest food industry fraud – Fifteen people across multiple countries were indicted for illegally diverting more than $80 million worth of honey from China to the United States. The practice of re-labelling the product with the intent to hide the country of origin is a considerable problem in the case of honey imported into the US, and is referred to as “honey laundering“. Another example is a honey that may deceitfully be labelled as “organic” notwithstanding the presence of antibiotics, pesticide, heavy metals or pesticide residues in the final product. Given the widespread use of chemical products in crops, it is difficult to guarantee that the honey produced by honey bees is “pure” (Fig. 5). When choosing honey in a store, it is almost impossible to distinguish pure from adulterated honey by simply looking at the contents in the jar or from the label. Unfortunately, a label with the indication “pure honey” on it, does not guarantee the content. Names such as “fresh” or “raw” honey may indicate that the honey in question is freshly harvested and has not been heat treated. Also, many honey production companies add high fructose corn syrup to their honey, which is made from genetically modified corn, and this may never be recorded on the label of the final product. According to the Irish Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, honey offered for sale to the consumer must comply with the European Communities (Marketing of Honey) Regulations 2003 (SI No. 367 of 2003). These regulations aim to ensure the honey is of acceptable quality and accurately labelled, especially in terms of origin.
Figure 5. Honeys with the indication “pure” on their labels.
General malpractices reducing honey quality
In addition to the various counterfeits that honey can suffer, there are other manipulations that beekeepers must pay special attention to, in order to avoid degrading the quality of the product produced; for example, the unorthodox use of chemical interventions in the hive and in the warehouse for the treatment of honey bee pathogens and diseases (e.g. to protect against varroa mites and nosemiasis). All the chemical treatments used in the hive encumber both honey and other honey bee products with residues that degrade the quality of the final product. The season and frequency of application, its type, the presence of open honey cells in the hive, and the rate of nectar secretion significantly affect the presence and concentration of chemical residues in honey. The EU has established limits for the maximum quantities of residues in EU honey and these limits should not be exceeded. However, many honeys sold in supermarkets are imported from countries outside the EU (e.g. China and India), and it is common for such products to be withdrawn because they contain banned and even carcinogenic antibiotics.
Harvest of unripe honey
Normally the water content of honey harvested in countries with mild climates is less than 18%. However, in some countries the collected honey has more than 20% humidity due to climatic or collecting conditions. Directive 2001/110/EC stipulates that honey bees dehydrate and store honey, leaving it in the honeycomb to mature after having sealed the cells. When the beekeeper harvests before the honey bees have time to “store, dehydrate and let it mature”, the water content can be as high as 25%. Asian beekeepers frequently harvest unripe honey with high water content, reducing the work of non-forager honey bees, who become foragers at an earlier age, thus, increasing the harvesting capacity of the colony and the producer’s yields. This honey is easily fermented before it is even transported to the place of artificial evaporation (honey factory), a practice that is not in accordance with the directions of Codex Alimentarius (2001). Moreover, the resulting product does not have the desired characteristics of an authentic honey.
Overheating of the product
Nowadays most commercial honeys are produced by centrifugation at 25-32˚C, similarly to the temperatures in the honeycomb cells. The use of heating for sterilization and liquefaction can adversely affect the quality of honey, such as the evaporation of volatile compounds and the reduction of enzyme activity. Alteration of the quality characteristics of honey can be performed by submitting it post-harvest to high temperatures, as well as during transport for international trade. When a producer wishes to mix his/her honey with another honey type in order to obtain more desirable characteristics for the consumer and thus facilitate its promotion on the market, he/she may use heating to facilitate the blending process, risking to alter the quality characteristics of the final honey blend.
Generally, it is difficult to be certain of the authenticity of honey without evaluating the samples in a scientific laboratory by performing specialized analyses with scientific methods such as magnetic resonance, Raman spectroscopy, DNA-based, carbon isotopes, electronic nose or electronic tongue etc. Nevertheless, if you try one of the methods discussed above or have a reason to suspect that the honey you bought is adulterated, I suggest staying away from that honey. Adulteration with cheaper sugars reduces the natural high quality of honey and constitutes this product not safe for consumption. According to a recent review study, six sugar based honey adulterants (cane sugar, corn syrup, palm sugar, invert sugar, rice syrup, and inulin syrup) were found to have a negative impact human health. Specifically, they impair the proper function of many body organs (liver, kidney, heart and brain), by increasing human’s blood sugar levels, causing diabetes, abdominal weight gain and obesity, raising blood pressure and lipid levels, and leading to arterial stenosis. However, the exact adverse effects of adulterated honey consumption on human health, are not fully established yet, due to the absence of systematic and scientific studies and lack of public awareness.
In many cases a honey granulates, and from a liquid form it becomes a solid and a bit crunchy sweet mass. Honey is a super-saturated solution of sugars, so it is only a matter of time before it will become granulated. In addition, some honeys from nectar of certain flowers are particularly prone to granulation (e.g. oilseed rape, clover, orange etc.). Buying honey in the honeycomb is (perhaps) a way to be more certain of the quality of the product as consumers can be sure that the honey has not been adulterated with sugar solution post-harvest (Fig. 6). However, this does not eliminate the possibility of an indirect pre-harvest honey fraud. Ultimately, these practices have an impact on the viscosity of honey produced, which resembles the viscosity of syrup – but this is not the rule.
Figure 6. Acacia honey sold along with the honey comb.
“I bought this expensive honey. It must be of good quality“.
Prices are not always a good indication of the quality of honey. In cases of honey fraud, which have occurred in Chinese honey exports in the past, traders had combined different types of cheap and low-quality honey with expensive honey in order to increase the yield. On the other hand, the emergence of large quantities of adulterated honey, is driving prices down through the abundance of cheap, so-called “honeys”. A study conducted by the Canadian Government in 2019 found almost a quarter of commercial honey brands had been adulterated. Illicit products are eroding market prices and consumer trust, while causing significant damage to the beekeeping industry.
“Honey with darker color shade is richer in nutrients”.
Honey color depends on the flowering vegetation of the area where honey bees forage for nectar (Fig. 7). The color of honey can also be affected by the management practices of the beekeeper (e.g. how frequently the wax is changed), or by contact with metals and exposure to high temperatures and light. Thus, the color of honey may not be a good indication of its quality. However, darker honeys usually have a stronger flavor and are often richer in antioxidant agents than lighter honeys.
Due to the current legislation, companies are obliged to assign an expiration date to the final product. But the truth is that unprocessed honey can be stored for long periods of time. So, once honey becomes granulated, it can be restored it to its previous state using the bain-marie heating method.
To conclude, it is up to you and your personal taste to choose the type of honey you want to consume. However, my advice is to always pay attention to all the information provided on the label (especially when you buy honey from the supermarket or if it is imported honey). I personally prefer consuming honey produced and packed in my local area, from the beekeeper of my town or from the official beekeeping organization in my country of residence.
Speaking about Irish honey, a recent study has shown that Irish heather honey had similar physiochemical characteristics to Manuka honey. So, why import 4,086 tons of honey from the other side of the world? Be a smart consumer, now you know!
About the author:
“Since I was a young child, I grew up close to my grandfather who was a beekeeper himself. Close to him, I inherited his passion and respect for the honey bee community and witnessed the amazing natural process of honey making. Later on, during my undergraduate studies (School of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Environment), I pursued doing my thesis on a honey bee related subject. It was when I learned about the different ways of honey adulteration and came across food fraud issues for the first time. Ever since, I became very sensitive in terms of what ends up in our table and how we, the consumers, can be more aware of our food choices.
Nowadays, I am also very sensitive in terms of what ends up in bees’ food, and I am still trying to figure that out with my study on ‘Characterizing pesticide residues in floral resources for bees’.“
To apply: please send letter of application, outlining suitability for the post, and a CV, to Prof. Stout firstname.lastname@example.org by Monday 23rd November 2020.
Pollinators face multiple threats including agrochemicals, pathogens, habitat loss and climate change. A major project PoshBee (Pan-European Assessment, Monitoring and Mitigation of Stressors on the Health of Bees) aims to understand the impacts of these multiple pressures on a range of bee species and develop novel tools to help reduce risks and negative impacts. Our findings will help to ensure that pesticides can be used safely while protecting wildlife, health and the environment, both in Ireland and internationally. The RA will contribute to a workpackage on systems and agent-based modelling approaches to assess the synergistic effects of multiple stressors on bee health.
 This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 773921
The world changed for all of us in Ireland last March, and while we take the good with the bad, and while we have all adapted ‘as well as can be expected’ to life in Zoom, sometimes you just have to grab your mask (and your cape) and get out into the real world. After a summer of trawling through data to develop Ireland’s first set of natural capital accounts, and with nature donning her fabulous autumnal glory, it was time to get out and meet the Dargle in all its earthy / watery form.
The River Dargle rises in the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains. For Water Framework Directive purposes, the Dargle sub-catchment has been drawn to include four very different rivers that drain south County Dublin and north County Wicklow. These rivers are the Kill Of the Grange, Shanganagh, Dargle and Kilmacanogue rivers (the latter rising in the Great Sugar Loaf), each with equally varied tributaries and character.
And so, with whispers of a stricter lockdown coming into force I grabbed my wellies and hit for the east coast while I still could. The M50 was eerily car free as I turned off at Junction 15 in the early morning rain. One of the pluses of this awful, restrictive pandemic has to be the reduction in traffic and consequential waste of commuters’ time. I hadn’t much time to think about that however, as motorway gave way to the narrow roads and, dare I say, boreens that I encountered not five minutes from the suburban centre of Sandyford.
Those boreens at the foothills of the Dublin Mountains were the entry point to a catchment landscape that revealed itself to me to be wonderfully diverse, contradictory and teeming with life. It’s hard to relay all my thoughts and ideas as I travelled through this area. Instead, I’ve captured them in headlines – my top ten learnings from a day in the Dargle:
1. Urban meets rural, in the space of five minutes.
When we were mapping the Dargle from the comfort of our homes, my colleague Lisa Coleman and I had focused on gathering the data in neat packages and bundles; the full array of natural capital – freshwater, woodlands, forests, grasslands, geo-forms – considering the goods and services that these assets provide us; building tables and accounts for the extent and condition of this natural capital, and thinking: simples, we have it sorted. Follow the guidelines and we’ll be grand!
I thought I knew the place, but I hadn’t a clue.
The first thing that struck me was how close the urban world is, how connected the northern Dargle catchment is to the powerhouse that is Dublin. These are the sub-basins of Kill Of the Grange, the Carrickmines Stream and Shanganagh River. These watercourses are born in the heathlands and forested foothills of Three Rock Mountain, flowing quickly through to the urban fabric of South County Dublin into the Irish Sea. In this urban context, property prices range from leafy suburbs to dense urban housing, and then even leafier manors as housing estates give way to the exclusive coastal views of Killiney and Dalkey (no, I didn’t see Bono, but I hear he was looking for me…).
Sugar Loafs in the morning light from Carrickollogan
2. Hedgerows, beautiful hedgerows.
I continued through Stepaside and Kilternan – villages so rural in character you could be forgiven for thinking you were down in deepest Kerry, or mystical Sligo. The boreens were challenging and my view restricted by wonderful, luxuriant, commendable hedgerows. We used satellite data to tell us where the tree cover in the catchment might be and came up with a figure of over 7,000 ha, or just shy of 40% of the catchment covered in trees. I had wondered could this be true, and my visit told me, yes it is. About half of this (~3,245 ha) is commercial plantation – dominated by wall to wall pines. Not very interesting nature-wise, but good for timber. And, while the total area of woodland habitat considered to be of EU Habitats Directive standard (native woodlands) is a mere 70ha or so, there are trees along every field boundary, and every valley, and anywhere they are allowed to grow. About 3,500 ha of them. That’s good isn’t it? It certainly makes for a wonderful autumnal display. Go now, if you can.
3. Anyone for golf?
Beyond the hedgerows there were some farms for sure, but what is really striking is the number of golf courses. On the coast, on the hills, in the valleys – small ones, big ones, lavish ones (no bog ones!). All amenity grassland of course, and well-manicured and managed. I could see some of them from the top of Carrickgollogan Hill – a Coillte Nature site in between Dun Laoghaire, Carrickmines and Old Conna Golf courses that has been zoned for welcome conversion to broadleaf species (it is presently a mixed stand of poor / good growing conifers). An old lead mine to the north at Ballycorus tells of distant times when shovels were more abundant than golf clubs.
4. A seaside town.
After a head-clearing view on Carrickgollogan, it was time to rendez vous with my catchment chauffeur (also known as Professor Jane Stout, absolute legend) for the rest of the trip. Between the golf courses and Bray, I passed slivers of native woodland – I couldn’t see them, but I knew they were there because we had viewed them on the maps so often. Tiny fragments of Old Oak and Alluvial woodlands (Knocksink Woods SAC) along with pockets of remnant fen (Ballyman Glen SAC) hanging on for dear life. Only for designation would they even exist?
What’s the future for these remnants? Is there a plan to expand them and revitalise them? Jane and I talked this out for the rest of the trip as we got to grips with all the nature conservation areas in the Dargle. Big questions: if most, or all, of the habitats of conservation interest in the catchment that are already designated (conserved), are actually in BAD conservation status and declining – shouldn’t Ireland (we) be doing something about that? How do natural capital accounts help to tell that story?
5. Spruced up heaths.
In thoughtful mode (and maintaining a safe distance), we continued our way past the Great Sugar Loaf, a splendid quarzitic geological form, through the picturesque tourist village of Enniskerry (gateway to the garden of Ireland) and up into the mountains.
I’ve spent a lot of my time on bogs, but I am (to my shame) less acquainted with heathlands. And yet they are extensive in the Dargle. And we know from our work on INCASE that these heathlands were once more extensive, and that most of the conifer plantations along the slopes of the Dargle, Glencree and Glencullen valleys were planted on heathlands. Those areas that remain unplanted are farmed to varying levels of intensity .
Questions posed by the SUAS EIP (we could see the Powerscourt Paddock plot in the distance) include what level of grazing is good for heathlands, can the heathlands in their current state sustain any grazing? What about burning? And my own question – how the hell do we deal with all that bracken? Bracken, once established, shoves everything else to the side and there is room for little else. A complete biodiversity quencher. Sadly, it seems to be more than common in this precious landscape.
Crowds of conifers to the left, heathlands to the right, here I am…
6. Bogs in the Liffey mist.
There’s comfort in what you know, and I was glad to climb further up into the Wicklow Uplands and get a breath-taking, albeit misty view, of Liffey Head Bog. Here we were, not half an hour from coastal golf courses and urban spread, in the welcome open bogscape of the Wicklow Mountains National Park. Stunning. The wellies were jumping with excitement, so we brought them out on the bog, to explore a view of Upper Lough Bray. I was on a quest to verify satellite imagery and I found that some of the data that was showing as patchy scrub was a mosaic of bracken and scrub. More bracken, eh?
The lough itself, and the walk, and the waterfall flowing down its western wall were food for the pandemic-afflicted soul. But the state of the mountain blanket bog was another dampener. Drained, bare peat, old turf banks. More questions. The lonely stonechat on the shores of the lough may have been trying to tell us something, I’m pretty sure it was along the lines of ‘get off my patch’!
A geological wonder: Upper Lough Bray
7. Bracken abounds.
Back in the car, it was a short drive to the head of the Glencree valley to take a view east down the wooded glen – here we were greeted by a mix of conifer and broadleaves, more of the former, though the autumn colours of broadleaves made for a rewarding stop.
But to the west behind us, the landscape was dominated again by bracken, where there should be heath. As we drove over the Military Road and into the Glencullen valley, we viewed a conifer plantation merged with overgrazed and burned peatland and bracken-infested heath. Not a healthy scorecard at all. Something is out of balance.
Bracken, bracken everywhere…but where’s the heathland?
8. Hidden valleys.
Having a local chauffeur is highly recommended, and on the way back to base we drove through the most wonderful ravine, locally known as The Scalp. This steep sided glacial valley is reminiscent of something from Lord of the Rings – great big boulders with pockets of native trees poking out awkwardly between. Another element of surprise and geological diversity in this rich landscape of the Dargle that had barely featured in our desktop data review. You can’t beat the real thing!
9.Crops, but not much.
For good measure we passed some croplands just to verify they were there for our mapping. And a few farmyards with bagged bales of silage and cattle feeders getting readied for the long winter. Farming is a feature of this catchment, but less so than in INCASE’s other focus catchments in Ireland – the Bride in east Cork, the Caragh in west Kerry and the Figile in north-east Offaly. But farming has left its impression on this landscape. Whether or not there’s greater revenue from owning a golf course or building a housing estate for the ever-expanding seams of Dublin instead one can only surmise…
Glencullen Valley: Farming and forestry collide, with more bracken
10. The Dargle floodplain, or is it?
On the way back from this too-brief tour of the Dargle catchment, we travelled back to Bray along the banks of the river that gives the sub-catchment its name. The Dargle has been known in the past to burst its banks and the people of Bray were flooded out of it in recent years in a bad way. That event has led to an extensive hard engineering solution to flooding that leaves me with even more questions. Where’s the floodplain? Or is that it covered in houses?
It was time to go home, back to the Midlands, away from the beautiful sea (which I didn’t even get to – next time!) and this beautiful, diverse and intriguing landscape of the east coast, south of our capital city Dublin. Joining the stream of traffic within minutes of the wooded glens of Glencree and Glencullen, and the dramatic Sugar Loaf, I was left with more questions than ever:
What is the role of our natural capital accounting in the Dargle catchment? Should we focus on one policy issue like urban planning and water quality? Or sustainable farming practices in the uplands?
How do we link the extent of the wide variety of natural capital with the services it provides – those that are obvious (food, timber), and those less obvious (climate, biodiversity, water quality)? This is the focus for the next phase of INCASE so watch this space!
When pretty much all the habitats that we met are facing increasing pressures from the needs of more people (and sheep!) in the catchment, how do we resolve the fact that those precious habitats – fragments of once more extensive and vibrant ecosystems – are already in BAD (and worsening) condition? Time to restore and invest in bringing our natural capital back to good health – but we need a resourced plan for that to happen.
One thing is for sure, there’s plenty of work for the INCASE team to do.