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Wildflowers – to plant or not to plant?

One of the most common questions I get when talking about bee decline, what causes declines and the consequences, is “what can I do to help?”. Given that one of the key drivers of decline is loss of forage resources, i.e. flowers that provide nectar and pollen, which is food for bees and many other pollinating insects, then the obvious thing to do is to increase the number of flowers for these insects.

But…  it’s not quite that simple:  not all flowers are equal.

Our native insects have co-evolved with native flowering plants, and so respond to their colour, scent, size and location, and thrive on a particular suite of species. Just like us, bees and other insects need certain nutrients in their diets to keep them healthy and to stave off illness, as well as for basic growth and functioning. Bees also need food throughout their lifetimes, some from the first flushes of early spring, others later at the end of autumn. So, a diverse, season-long diet of native species is best.

Marketed as ‘pollinator-friendly’, wildflower seeds and ‘seed bombs‘ are widely available from many well-intentioned supporters. Should these be scattered across our gardens, roadsides and amenity areas to provide much-needed food for bees and other insects? Actually, in many cases, no, they should not. For several reasons:

  1. Seed mixes can contain non-native species (“wildflower” is not the same as “native species” – it’s just something that can grow in the wild), that could become invasive and reduce diversity in our native plant communities, and not provide the right kind of food at the right time of year for our native insects.
  2. Mixes could contain native species, but from genetically distinct populations that are not adapted to the local conditions. Any seed set from these plants, or gene-flow between local and non-local plants, could potentially swamp the locally-adapted populations, which can be better suited to the local environmental conditions and able to cope with local biological pressures (e.g. disease, competition and herbivory).
  3. Seed mixtures could contain horticultural varieties of native species, that are bred for their colour, hardiness, ease of growth rather than their nutritional value to native insects. Some of these varieties contain less nectar and pollen, or less of the essential nutrients that our native insects need.
  4. Mixtures may not contain species that provide flowers right through the season, providing a bounty of food at one time of year, but nothing at other times (e.g. see this study, although US-based, the principles apply).

 

So what’s the best way for people to make sure they provide the right kinds of flowers to support our native insects?

Firstly, the best source of seeds is the local soil seed bank. This is where seeds are naturally stored, often in a dormant state, in the soil of nearly all habitats. Given the opportunity, these seeds germinate and grow. What we need to do is give them that opportunity. To do this, we often just need to do less. Stop mowing the grass and see what comes up. This has been demonstrated as a really successful approach by projects like “Don’t Mow, Let it Grow” and local communities and other land managers who have reduced their mowing regime (e.g. see case studies here). You might be surprised at what will come up in a lawn that has been mown for decades.

This is a ‘wildflower meadow’. Unfortunately, thanks to lush images of cornflowers and other showy non-native varieties on the front of packets of wildflower seed, we tend not to recognise our own native wildflower meadows. Natural regenration from the existing seed bank is always the best option, so reducing grass-cutting and removing clippings to reduce fertility is the best and most economic way to encourage wildflowers to grow.

 

Secondly, if you are trying to create a wildflower patch in soil that has previously been planted with non-native/ornamental species, or is dominated by a single fast-growing species that crowds everything else out, then help might be needed with some additional locally-collected seed. The Collecting and using pollinator friendly wildflower seed guide from the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan contains great tips and advice on how to find the right seeds to collect, how to collect and store seeds, and how to sow them.

Finally, where there is no seed bank (e.g. if the soil has been covered by plastic or buildings for many years), then you can consider buying native, local-provenance seed. This is easier said than done, however, as there are not that many places we can buy such seed. Many online sites claiming to sell native wildflower seed have small-print somewhere that says it might not be from native sources. Check what you are buying carefully, and don’t use non-native, non-local seeds in wild areas (roadsides, farmland, brownfield/open sites). Small patches in urban gardens that are already full of non-native horticultural plants are probably ok.

For other pollinator conservation dos and don’ts, see my recent blog.

 

 

About the author: Jane Stout is a Professor in Botany at Trinity College Dublin, an ecologist who has studied bees and their foraging behaviour for >20 years. She was one of the instigators of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan and is deputy Chair of its Steering Group.

 

This article originally appeared on the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan webpage on 19.09.19

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Postdoc position: Developing risk assessment models for Bombus and multispecies risk assessment tools

We are seeking applicants for a post-doctoral research assistant (PDRA) position to develop an agent-based model for Bombus, to complement similar models for honey bees and solitary bees, contribute to integrative analysis of bee health and production of tools for risk assessment, and develop a multi-species Environmental Risk Assessment tool, as part of an EU Horizon 2020 research project. The successful applicant will be based in the research group of Professor Jane Stout in the School of Natural Sciences, Trinity College Dublin, will work closely Professor Chris Topping and his team in the Department of Bioscience, Aarhus University, and will join the dynamic and interdisciplinary PoshBee[1] team.

poshbee logo

The PDRA is required to: design (create a formal model), develop (implement the formal model), and test an agent-based model for Bombus within the ALMaSS framework, utilising landscape simulation models for a large part of the EU. The final model should integrate multiple stressors, including explicit incorporation of pesticide-related effects to predict impacts of changed agricultural management on bumblebees. The model is to be developed in cooperation with ALMaSS researchers associated with PoshBee and EcoStack H2020 projects, to create a simulation modelling system to inform risk assessment procedures for bees in agricultural systems.

Key skills

Essential:

  • Proven programming ability in an object-oriented language, ideally C++.
  • Experience in developing scientific programming and/or modelling projects.
  • Good communication abilities will be important to be able actively engage the geographically distributed team.
  • Structured approach to project planning and execution
  • Languages skills – must be fluent in English.

Desirable:

  • Ecological/behavioural knowledge of bees, particularly bumblebees.
  • Programming in Python, GIS skills, experience with R, and application of mathematical and statistical analysis will all be helpful skills to have.
  • Knowledge of pesticide environmental risk assessment, or toxicology.
  • Flexibility to be able spend periods in Denmark.

 Salary: This appointment will be made at point 1 of the PDRA scale from the Irish Universities Association Researcher Salary Scales i.e. €37,223 per annum (gross) for 18 months from 1st August 2019.

 To apply: please send letter of application, outlining suitability for the post, and a CV, to Prof. Stout stoutj@tcd.ie by 14th June 2019.

Project description

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 PDRA will contribute to a workpackage on systems and agent-based modelling approaches to assess the synergistic effects of multiple stressors on bee health.

 

[1] This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 773921

Bees are in decline, but what can I do? The Dos and Don’ts of pollinator conservation

It seems as if everyone is concerned about bees. With 50% of our Irish bee species in decline and 30% threatened with extinction, we are right to be concerned. A recent survey found that >90%* of Irish citizens want to protect bees & benefits they provide. And the number of news stories over the past week alone (which happened to be Biodiversity Week, incorporating World Bee Day) is testament to the fact that people are interested in bees.

But one of the most common questions I get asked is “What can I do?”.

So, here are some links to practical things you can do to help bees and other pollinators (and a few things not to do):

1. Encourage bees and other pollinators at home, in your work place, local community or school by implementing the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan guidelines. These are tailored for specific audiences and provide information on providing food and homes for bees, with practical tips and advice, written by the experts, based on evidence. All the guidelines are free to download.

herb garden.png
Herb gardens can provide lots of resources for bees and other pollinators – especially if you let them run a bit wild (like mine…)

2. Contribute to creating the evidence base by becoming a citizen scientist – you can count bees, flowers or the bees visiting the flowers. Whether you have 15 minutes or much longer to invest, there is something you can do…

3. Stop using biocides in the garden at home – ditch the bug spray, ant bait, and weed killers and use non-chemical control methods. Most insecticides are not target-specific – meaning they kill beneficial insects as well as the pests. Some pesticides are also very persistent and contaminate soils and water courses for years to come, as well as getting into the nectar and pollen of plants. So if in doubt, don’t use them. View dandelions and clover as food for bees not weeds, view aphids as food for ladybirds and blue-tits, and distract colonies of ants away from your home (they are amazing creatures with incredible societies – see here for some suggestions to non-chemical control).

 

Don’t do these things…

1. Feed bees sugar water – a drop of sugar water to revive bees on a cool spring day is ok, but they shouldn’t feed on it for long and you shouldn’t put out containers of it during smmer. It doesn’t contain all the nutrients of nectar and is like junk-food for bees.

2. Start beekeeping to “save the bees” – honey bees are not in decline, need care and attention from trained beekeepers, and poorly managed hives can contribute to disease and depletion of resources for wild bees. By all means keep them if you want to make honey, take up a new hobby and are prepared to invest. Just don’t do it thinking you are helping to conserve bees.

3. Expect a full-house in a bee hotel – only 10/77 of our native solitary bees will nest in a garden nest box. Most of the other species nest in the ground – try leaving some bare earth banks, piles of grass clippings, undisturbed vegetation instead.

Pollinator Plan Infographics_Bee Hotels
From the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan www.pollinators.ie

4. Chuck “wildflower” seed bombs around – unless you know what the seeds they contain are, and where they are from, you could be doing more harm than good to the local plant population. Non-native plants can look unnatural along road-sides, not provide the right kind of resources for native insects, and outcompete or damage native plants. Your best bet is to stop cutting/mowing and leave the native plants to flourish.

 

For more information, see www.pollinators.ie

 

*data from Pollival project – to be published soon…

 

About the author: Prof Jane Stout leads the Plant-Animal Interactions Research Group in Botany, School of Natural Sciences, Trinity College Dublin and is deputy chair of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan.

World Bee Day 2019

Happy World Bee day!

As well as launching our lab theme song, this World Bee Day, I was privileged to meet the President, Michael D. Higgins, at Áras an Uachtaráin. Along with Una Fitzpatrick, the Chair of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan from the National Biodiversity Data Centre,  we visited the walled garden in the Áras and discussed bees, the importance of pollinators and the plight of biodiversity in general. The President is a staunch advocate for nature (see his impassioned speech from the National Biodiversity Conference here), as illustrated by his press release today…

Michael D 19.05.19
L-R: Jane Stout, Michael D. Higgins, Una Fitzpatrick, in the walled garden at Áras an Uachtaráin

Statement by President Michael D. Higgins marking World Bee Day 2019

 “On United Nations designated World Bee Day, we are reminded not only of the important part played in our inter-dependent world by bees and other pollinators and the need to promote sustainable farming practices and hedgerow management but also of how we can all help by sustaining and providing a suitable environment for our bees.

 Humanity depends on pollinators. They are vital to the global food chain. Yet, we must acknowledge that our actions – including farming practices, urbanisation, land management, environmental pollution and the climate crisis – have placed our insect world in acute danger.

 So today, let us use World Bee Day, and National Biodiversity Week, to increase and spread the knowledge and the awareness of the importance of the living world, and commit to specific action to ensure the survival of all of Ireland’s native bee and pollinator species.

 As President of Ireland, may I thank all those who are already taking action, and who continue to work to conserve our environment in all its vital diversity, and may I express the hope that World Bee Day and National Biodiversity Week will inspire countless others to join them and discover how they, too, can be part of the urgent change that we must achieve for our generation and generations to come.”

 

See also this Irish Times article to mark the occasion…

 

Professor Jane Stout leads the Plant-Animal Interactions Research Group at Trinity College Dublin, and is Deputy Chair of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan Steering Group.

 

Bee-Blur(b): a song for World Bee Day

Monday 20th May 2019 is World Bee Day, and to celebrate, the Plant-Animal Interactions Research Group are launching this tribute to bumblebees (and Blur), much loved by members of the group… Please sing along to the tune of Blur’s Country House (Note we added an extra verse)…

 

And so the the story bee-gins
Mouse hole dweller, a pheromone smeller
Thought to herself whoah I’ve got a lot of honey
Feeeeeding my colony, undergrouuuund

I’m an egg-laying queen but I’m bored of the scene
I’m living life like a reproductive machine
Waaaaaanna get out and – fly arouuuuuuuund
It’s more her thing, a life on the wing!

She lives in a hole, a very cramped hole in the soiiiil
Watching baby bumbles hatch and the food she can snatch in the soiiiil
She wants to go above ground, smell flowers, fly around, above the soiiil
She’s gotta escape, into the landscape, above the soiiil

She’s out in the sun, foraging, having fun

Everything going brilli-unt

In touch with her own sense of libertyyyy

She’s checking out whitethorn, bumbling round blackthorn
Can’t stop cause it makes her feel wonderfully buzzed
Oh it’s a queen bee’s remedy

But hang on guys…. there’s pesticiiiiiiiiides!

NO!!!

She’s back in the hole, a very cramped hole in the soiiil…
There’s poison in her chest so she needs a lot of rest, in the soiiiil
She can’t drink eat lay, she’s wasting away, under the soiiil
She’s come to some harm on that bloody farm, above the soiiil

She’s got disease, it’s gory, and life’s a different story
Everything’s going wrong in the colony
Touched by their own mortality

They’re eating pollen, knocking back nectar
It’s laced with pesticides and second’ry metabolites
Oh it’s a apical parody
For the little bee
A new larvae, in the colony…

She lives in a hole, a very cramped hole in the soiiil
Laying eggs all the time, trying to stay alive, in the soiiil
Fighting hunger and disease, poisoning – poor bees! – in the soil
Oh, it’s insect hellscape, in agricultural landscapes, in the soil

Under the soiiiil (do do doooo)
Under the soiiiiiiiil (do do doooo)
Under the soiiiiiiiiiiiillll (do do DOOOOOO do DOOOOOOOOOOO)

Buzz, oh buzz off I am so sad, I don’t know why
Buzz, oh buzz off I am so sad, I don’t know why

(REFRAIN) She lives in a hole, a very cramped hole in the soiiil
Laying eggs all the time, trying to stay alive, in the soiiil
Fighting hunger and disease, poisoning – poor bees! – in the soil
Oh, insects are banned on agricultural land, above the soil

Picture1

 

Words by Hannah Hamilton and (less so) Jane Stout.