Buzz from the hive…

By Marcus Phelan

The Winter frost has arrived and the hives on the Trinity roof are now lulled and still. Just as the College community welcomes the lighting of the Christmas tree with mince pies and hot drinks so too must the honeybee colonies protect themselves from the perishing cold. In her last post Susie described the expansion of the apiary over Summer. I am happy to report that the colony led by one of Queen Medb’s own progeny and the nuc kindly donated by Kilternan beekeepers are heading into Winter in good shape; as well as Medb herself, of course.

Stores of honey (with a little helping of fondant) will provide sustenance until the abundance of Spring returns. The fondant or ‘bee Christmas cake’ is suffused with pollen, as the carbohydrates of the sugar must be supplemented with protein-rich pollen to provide a balanced diet. This helps to strengthen the colony in the absence of naturally occurring pollen. Ivy and other late Autumn pollen producers have dwindled by now. So the larder is well stocked with provisions for the long cold months ahead.

But what do bees do to protect against the cold? The answer lies in an amazing adaptation that allows the honeybee to maintain the temperature of the ‘cluster’ in an overwintering hive. Bees have the ability to decouple their wings from their muscles thus isolating wing movement. By then activating the wing muscles they can produce heat rather than movement, generating warmth within the hive. The interior temperature can be maintained at 20-30 degrees Celsius despite outside temperatures dipping below zero.

As the bees wait out the colder part of the year us beekeepers must prepare for the year ahead, hopeful of a successful emergence in Spring. Plans are already afoot in the apiary to assist in further research programmes and the Trinity bees are certainly earning their keep, as well as enriching the College environment.

Nollaig Shona Daoibh from the Trinity Beekeepers!


Ha-bee christmas
Ha-bee Christmas (by Emily Phelan)

Urban bees

By Cian White

During Bloom in the Park this summer, I took a break from the Birdwatch Ireland stand to have a gander around and see what was on offer. I wandered into Keeling’s Fruit tent, hoping there would be some Raspberries I could ‘sample’ but was surprised to see the main attraction was a small shoe box sized container. People were huddling around it, some of the children tapping the perspex lid and whooping enthusiastically. Turned out it was a bumble bee colony of the Buff tailed Bumbebee, Bombus terrestris, all higgledy piggily, pots of nectar and pollen strewn about, the untidy cousin of the regimented honey bee, Apis mellifera. These bumblebees are commercially bred to pollinate greenhouse fruits allowing us to buy the most Irish of summer delights; Wexford Strawberries.

With no sign of said fruit to sample and my interest piqued by the commercial hive, I set out to find some of their wild relatives in a garden that had been specifically planted to support bees, the pollinator garden. With 20,000 people at the event that day I wasn’t expecting much, maybe five or six workers of the White tailed bumblebee, Bombus lucorum, the commonest of our bumblebees. In fact, what I found was astonishing, the flowers literally buzzing with hundreds of bees, the red tailed tiny workers of the Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) mixing it up with the orange fluff balls of the common carder bee (Bombus pascorum). There were more bumblebees in that one garden than I had seen anywhere else before. In all I counted 6 species of bumble bee in 10m2 of wildflowers, adding Bombus hortorum, Bombus lapidarius and Bombus terrestris, more than a quarter of the 20 bumble bee species in Ireland.

This wasn’t just peculiar just to the Phoenix park. As I cycled home along the dodder later that day, I came across a 100+ strong colony of solitary mining bees, busily excavating their burrows. Another further 100m on and Honey bees swarming a flowering shrub. I was impressed, pollinators seemed to doing well in Dublin.

From Melbourne to Berlin, New York to Vancouver cities are becoming refuges for the beleaguered wild pollinators (Hall et al., 2017). In London, the Olympic Park Meadows show how landscape designers and gardeners are adopting more pollinator friendly planting schemes. In Chicago the Lurie Garden is being hailed as an ‘urban model of responsible horticulture’, with ecological knowledge being utilised to sustainably manage this green roof. The amount of public support for pollinators is pretty astounding; after just two years the orange dots on the map for the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge blots out most of the US, each an action to help conserve pollinators. The All Ireland Pollinator Plan has had enormous buy in which we hope will help halt the decline of Irish pollinators.

But why would we want to conserve pollinators, especially in urban environments? Well, first they are damn adorable – just watch this video. And secondly, they provide us with an important service: pollination. Those apple and pear trees, all the blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, the list goes on, in the gardens and community allotments around Dublin are all pollinated by these incredible insects. The last global estimate of this service was €153 billion (Gallai et al., 2009), but some very exciting research that Dr James Murphy is doing in Prof. Jane Stout’s lab here at Trinity is going to blow that number out of the water (there’ll be a blog post, don’t worry). They provide us with a plethora of tasty fruits, without which society would 100% scientifically collapse (could you imagine no coffee or chocolate?). Joking aside, they do contribute massively to the global economy

But with two thirds of people expected to live in urban areas by 2050, the most important role that pollinators could have in cities is as mascots. They are simultaneously cute and provide an easy to understand ecosystem service, making them the perfect educational tool, an entry point for understanding and appreciating the natural world.

As part of my PhD I hope to investigate Nature-based Solutions. This is a new word for what many people would know as green roofs, constructed wetlands, bioswales or even urban parks. The most famous example would be the High Line in New York. Nature-based Solutions are an alternative to traditional grey infrastructural solutions and have the advantage of delivering many associated benefits such as carbon sequestration, flood mitigation, amenity creation or biodiversity conservation. For example, a green roof planted with native wildflowers can mitigate floods, pull down some carbon, remediate the urban heat island effect and provide a foraging area for pollinators. Imagine a city with a network of green roofs, bioswales, rain gardens, parks and wetlands that supports nature, which in turn help cities to adapt to and mitigate against climate change or pollinator declines. That’s the goal of Bi Urban, a social ecological enterprise based in Stoneybatter whose goal is to create a ‘Lifeline’, an ecological corridor, or to you and me, a nature trail, to connect the royal canal to the Liffey, giving both the residents and the local flora and fauna a place to enjoy and live. There has been a huge movement to start urban beekeeping, with Dublin being very much involved. Bi Urban are already have selections of honey produced in the different districts around Dublin; my personal favourite, the Cabragh variety.

While Nature-based Solutions sound like a panacea for many societal issues, the scientist in me is sceptical. I want evidence that they work, that do what they say on the tin, provide solutions. How much carbon can they sequester, will they mitigate flood damage, can they improve air quality? Connecting Nature, an international consortium headed up by Dr. Marcus Collier here in Trinity, aim to do just that. One common solution to help reverse pollinator declines is the bee hotel. Loved by all as they make us feel like we’re helping the struggling bees. Yet the research, what little of it there is, is not conclusively positive, with bee hotels in Canada helping the spread of invasive bees, and in France only used by two already common bee species. In an informal Facebook poll of Insects and Invertebrates Ireland most of the bee hotels were empty after years of instalment. With only 10 of the 97 species of bee capable of nesting in bee hotels in Ireland, I’d like to investigate whether they are the best way of conserving bee populations and hope to set up an experiment for the coming season.

If you, like me, would like to continue to see a diversity of pollinators in our urban environments we need to provide them with food and shelter. I hope to find out what how to best provide these requirements, so we can enjoy their presence and fruits of their labour, pun intended, for generations to come.

This is all they need, a place to rest and some food, they’ll do the rest 😊


Literature cited:

Baldock, K. C. R., Goddard, M. A., Hicks, D. M., Kunin, W. E., Mitschunas, N., Osgathorpe, L. M., Potts, S. G., Robertson, K. M., Scott, A. V., Stone, G. N., Vaughan, I. P. & Memmott, J. 2015. Where is the UK’s pollinator biodiversity? The importance of urban areas for flower-visiting insects. Proceedings of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences, 282(1803), pp 10.


Carré, G., Roche, P., Chifflet, R., Morison, N., Bommarco, R., Harrison-Cripps, J., Krewenka, K., Potts, S. G., Roberts, S. P. M., Rodet, G., Settele, J., Steffan-Dewenter, I., Szentgyörgyi, H., Tscheulin, T., Westphal, C., Woyciechowski, M. & Vaissière, B. E. 2009. Landscape context and habitat type as drivers of bee diversity in European annual crops. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 133(1), pp 40-47.


Gallai, N., Salles, J.-M., Settele, J. & Vaissière, B. E. 2009. Economic valuation of the vulnerability of world agriculture confronted with pollinator decline. Ecological Economics, 68(3), pp 810-821.


Goulson, D., Nicholls, E., Botías, C. & Rotheray, E. L. 2015. Bee declines driven by combined stress from parasites, pesticides, and lack of flowers. Science, 347(6229), pp.


Hall, D. M., Camilo, G. R., Tonietto, R. K., Ollerton, J., Ahrné, K., Arduser, M., Ascher, J. S., Baldock, K. C. R., Fowler, R., Frankie, G., Goulson, D., Gunnarsson, B., Hanley, M. E., Jackson, J. I., Langellotto, G., Lowenstein, D., Minor, E. S., Philpott, S. M., Potts, S. G., Sirohi, M. H., Spevak, E. M., Stone, G. N. & Threlfall, C. G. 2017. The city as a refuge for insect pollinators. Conservation Biology, 31(1), pp 24-29.


Matteson, K. C., Ascher, J. S. & Langellotto, G. A. 2008. Bee Richness and Abundance in New York City Urban Gardens. Annals of the Entomological Society of America, 101(1), pp 140-150.


Cian White is a first-year PhD student in Prof Stout’s lab at Trinity College Dublin, co-supervised by Dr Marcus Collier.

It’s time to appreciate the little things in life

People might not think they are cute or cool, but the world really is a much better place with insects in it.

Nothing brings you back down to earth quite like 11 year olds. I recently asked a group of Dublin school children what they knew about insects – the creatures that, as an entomologist, I have dedicated my entire professional life to studying. The resounding response? “They are ugly!” Nothing about them having six legs, or that they can fly, or even that they are small. No, straight up, ugly.

You can probably imagine my face. Incredulous, dismayed, quickly racking my brains for the facts that might inspire them to look beneath the gnarly exoskeleton and see the amazing, fascinating, brilliant examples of 400 million years of evolution. They are the most diverse animal group on the planet! Over one million described species! Maybe another 20 million un-described species worldwide! Compare that with a measly 10,000 bird species and frankly paltry 5,000 mammal species.

And what about how different they all are? The smallest wasps are so tiny that 10 could fit end to end on a pin head, and the largest stick insects are up to half a meter long! And what about how amazing they are? They can be as loud as a jet engine, produce their own light, farm their own food, and there are about 10 quintillion (that is actually a real number) of them on the planet. And anyway, many of them are beautiful! What about butterflies? Dragonflies? Iridescent rainbow bees?!

euglossine bee Costa Rica Laura Russo
Euglossine bee from Costa Rica (Photo: Laura Russo)

But it made no difference. They were ugly – end of. Insects are not cute. They are not cool. Despite Disney Pixar’s best efforts with A Bug’s Life, insects are facing a branding crisis, a colossal marketing fail. We urgently need to make insects hip. Why? Well, as with pretty much all other living things, far too many of them are under threat.

Recent reports from Germany showed a 75% decline in insect biomass over 25 years, and just last week, a study found a nearly 60% decline in butterflies on English farmland over just 10 years. You may greet this news with a hearty “good riddance”, but the world really is a much better place with insects in it.

Regular readers of this column will know that insects are essential pollinators, providing us with highly nutritious fruits and vegetables, as well as luxuries like chocolate and coffee, cosmetic and pharmaceutical products.

But there’s even more to our six-legged friends than this: silk comes from the cocoon of the silk moth, red food dye from scale insects feeding on cacti, paper is produced from wood pulp in a remarkably similar way to how wasps make their nests. Want to know how long a person has been dead? Ask a forensic entomologist. They can work out how many days it has been since a person died by the sorts of maggots that are present in the decomposing body – different species of fly mature at different rates, and the composition of different species of fly larvae can help identify time of death.

The Silk Moth. By Bibliographisches Institut, in Leipzig – Meyers Konversations-Lexikon, 4th Auflage, Band 14, Seite 826a (4th ed., Vol. 14, p.826a), Public Domain,

And if it wasn’t for flies, along with a variety of beetles, who help break down dead plant and animal material, we’d be overrun with animal dung. When cattle were first introduced by European settlers into Australia, people soon realised they also had to introduce dung beetles to get rid of the cow pats. Back home, rat-tailed maggots, actually the larvae of the bee-mimicking drone fly, feed on manure. As they feed, they break down the manure into fragments which can then be recycled by microorganisms to provide nutrients for plant growth. Soil-dwelling insects help to turn the soil, aerating it and distributing nutrients. Ants are particularly good at this job – they can contribute more to soil processing than even earthworms.

Insects are also food for an awful lot of other, more familiar, cuter and cooler animals. Birds and bats catch flying insects on the wing, fish feed on insect larvae in rivers and streams as well as the adults on the surface, and a whole host of land-dwelling animals rely on insects as a source of food – frogs, lizards, armadillos, hedgehogs and shrews, to name just a few.

As you can probably tell, I could go on like this for quite some time. But the point is, beauty is more than skin deep. Insects are awesome and incredibly important in healthy ecosystems. Isn’t it about time we started appreciating the little things?


By Jane Stout

This article originally appeared in The Irish Times 23.11.17

Birds, bees and butter: pollination services in shea parklands of Burkina Faso

By Dr Aoife Delaney

Pollination is a great example of how, in ecology, everything is connected.  Plants depend on insects to reproduce and insects depend on plants for food.  By supporting each other, plants and insects support a lot of other organisms which live on or in them. Accordingly, many of the best conservation projects take an integrated approach to protecting ecological systems.  The project I am currently working on as a post-doctoral researcher with Prof. Jane Stout is a good example: assessing the impacts of landscape structure on pollination services in Burkina Faso, West Africa.

Nicknamed “Trees, Bees and Butter”, this project is a collaboration between BirdLife International and their partner in Burkina Faso, Naturama, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), Trinity College Dublin and the University of Ouagadougou. It is part of a larger, Darwin Initiative- funded project in which The Society for the Protection of Birds in the Netherlands (VBN) and the Global Shea Alliance are also partners. Given the prominence of BirdLife, the RSPB and VBN it is not surprising that bird conservation was the original driver of the work, so why have I focussed on bees and pollination?

Sharp declines in migrant bird populations in Europe over two decades raised concern among bird conservationists.   When they investigated, they found that there could be problems in the wintering grounds in West Africa, where scrub and forests have been cleared for agriculture and fallow areas have become smaller and shorter-lived.  Only the fruit-bearing trees remain dotted through the fields.  Similar trends have been associated with wildlife losses elsewhere, and they are difficult to reverse because farmers need to make a living.  However, if conservation friendly land-uses are shown to benefit local farmers, it might be possible to manage land better for people and for nature.


Shea parklands in southern Burkina Faso.

This is where pollination comes in.  Pollinating insects in West Africa depend on flowering trees as a source of food and shelter. When an area is cleared of most of its trees, leaving only species of economic importance, the resources available to pollinators are restricted and their populations might fall.  The remaining trees could struggle to find pollinators for their flowers, in which case fruit yield of pollinator-dependent trees would fall after scrub clearance. Pollinator-dependent fruit trees include shea (Vitellaria paradoxa) which is common in West African shea parklands and is economically valuable due to the growing use of shea butter in cosmetics and confectionary.

Shea on sale at the market in Po, Burkina Faso

We wanted to find out whether pollination services to shea are affected by changes to farming practices in shea parkland in Burkina Faso.  To do so, we first chose sites in areas which had different amounts scrub and fallow land near Kabore Tambi National Park.  Then we counted the insects visiting shea flowers to see whether sites with different landscape structures had different numbers or species of flower visitors.  We also estimated the effectiveness of flower visitors as pollinators by saturating some sets of flowers with pollen and leaving others open for insects to pollinate.  The number of fruits yielded by pollen-saturated flowers tells you the maximum amount of fruit you can expect if everything that can be pollinated is pollinated.  The fruit yield of open flowers tell you whether pollination services are close to delivering this maximum pollination potential, or are much lower.

Hand pollination

As shea only flowers for a few months each year, we wanted to know what other resources were important to pollinators in shea parklands, so we also recorded other flowering tree and shrub species in our sites, and what was visiting them.

A honeybee visiting thorn tree flowers

It is too early to talk about results just yet, but we did make some interesting observations in the field.  Many of the less profitable native trees and shrubs remain in the fields but do not produce flowers as they are cut back or browsed frequently. Their persistence in the landscape represents a potential future resource for pollinators.  Most of the pollinating insects we observed were tiny wild bees, much smaller than a honey bee.  Ensuring that these wild bees have access to nest sites might be an important part of securing pollination services.  As well as bees, we found a wide range of other insects in shea flowers – flies, ants and bugs in particular.  Although they might not act as pollinators, this demonstrates that shea trees are likely to house food for insectivorous birds such as the willow warbler.  Encouragingly, many village chiefs and local farmers were interested in finding out about nature friendly farming.

Nature in West Africa is under pressure as climate change and human population growth make themselves felt.  Compared to other parts of the world, agricultural intensification started relatively recently, and non-commercial species persist within cultivated areas.  If we act now and show that conservation of natural habitats can benefit agricultural communities, we could help Africans to achieve what Europeans have failed to do: develop farming methods which are good for people and the planet.  This seems like great expectations of a little project, but whatever my findings are, they will shed a light on a type of agriculture which is spread over more than a million square kilometres, supports tens of millions of farmers, and is changing rapidly.

This project is funded by the UK Government’s Darwin Initiative: a grants scheme that helps to protect biodiversity and the natural environment through locally based projects worldwide.

About the author: Aoife Delaney is a post-doctoral conservation scientist at RSPB, working with Prof Jane Stout at Trinity College Dublin on shea pollination in West Africa.


Pollinator fun for primary school students at Trinity College Dublin

By Jane Stout

As part of PROBE, the research show-case event at Trinity College Dublin, this year we welcomed sixth class students from four local schools to learn about insects and the jobs they do for us.  Through three workshops, the children learned about how bees communicate with one another, where they live and the role they play in pollinating our food crops.

The first workshop focused on honeybee dances, and the children were introduced to the honeybee “waggle dance” and then  small teams of students had to dance to indicate to each other where they had found “food”. The students enjoyed running around as “scout” bees to find flowers, and then communicating where they were by waggling.

Scout bees and waggle dancing

The second focused on where bees live, and many students were surprised that they don’t all live in hives. They had a great time building insect hotels, which they took back to their schools for their gardens. Although 11 of our Irish bee species would actually nest in these, they are great habitat for other wildlife in our gardens.

Insect hotels

Finally, students played a card game and had to guess how insect-dependent various foods were in terms of pollination. Globally, 75% of crop species benefit from animal pollination, mostly by insects. But the degree of dependency varies between crop species: some absolutely depend on insects to transfer pollen (e.g. apples), others just benefit from their visits by producing more or better quality seeds or fruit (e.g. oilseed rape).

Learning about the food we eat and what depends on pollination


At the end of the session, we told the students about the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan and what they can do to help stop the decline in pollinators in Ireland. The teachers brought back copies of the Junior version of the Plan so that they can start to make their schools and gardens more pollinator-friendly.

Sandra Austin (Marino Institute of Education), Joanna Crispell (Science Gallery) and Jane Stout (Trinity College Dublin) developed the workshops and student teachers from the Marino Institute of Education and science communicators from the Science Gallery helped run the event.

Waggle dance game inspired by and pollinator dependent food game inspired by