All-Ireland Pollinator Plan Engagement Survey

We need your input! TCD MSc student, Lizzy Elli, is researching motivations and engagement with the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan…

The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan (AIPP) was launched in 2015 and the support for it has been phenomenal. As the plan reaches the end of its first five-year phase, we’re trying to find out why people have got involved.

The AIPP Engagement Survey will generate data for Lizzy’s research project, which aims to elucidate user motivations to engage with pollinator-friendly activities. The survey is targeted at those who have already participated in activities outlined by the AIPP. Critically, this research will enable us to understand what it is precisely that motivates people to act when it comes to pollinator friendly activities.

This research is not only useful for developing phase II of the AIPP, but it has far reaching applications across various sectors such as businesses, schools, and others by illuminating how and why people interact with certain activities. With the information obtained from this survey, we can create more tailored action programs that are more effective and user-friendly. Specifically, the results of this study will be used to produce an even more engaging and efficient AIPP in phase II, enabling us to help protect Ireland’s threatened pollinator species!

The study is conducted with the National Biodiversity Data Centre. The survey is anonymous and data collected will be used for the sole purpose of this study.

If you have any interest in the AIPP, please click on the link below and take the survey! It only takes 5-10 minutes to complete and the responses will be used to create a more pollinator-friendly Ireland!

Thank you!

All Ireland Pollinator Plan logo


Biodiversity in West African parklands promotes pollination of shea

This blog by Aoife Delaney was first published in The Applied Ecologist.

With demand on shea parklands increasing, We explored the pollination services to shea and how we can better support this resource of both ecological and economic importance. Our new research was recently published in Journal of Applied Ecology.

P1010379Shea parklands occupy over 1 million km2 in the Sudano-Sahelian semi-arid zone of sub-Saharan Africa, from Senegal in the west to Uganda in the east, and are home to up to 112 million people.  In this ancient form of agroforestry, trees of value to humans are scattered throughout cultivated fields and fallows.  The trees are not generally planted, but specimens are retained when fields are cleared after fallow periods that have traditionally lasted up to 15 years.

The dominance of shea trees in parklands of West Africa reflects their value to society.  The fruits ripen at a time when there are few food sources available, and the butter derived from shea nuts is the primary cooking oil for 88% of rural dwellers in Burkina Faso. It has been estimated that about 10kg of shea butter is consumed per person every year in the shea zone. Given that 20kg of fruit may be expected to yield 1.5kg of butter, the collection and processing of shea fruits requires considerable human effort, and this effort is almost exclusively furnished by women. In most households, the women who collect and process shea fruit own any related income, and they are more likely than men to set aside money for educating children in the family.

Today, shea parklands face unprecedented changes: population density in many parts of the shea zone has increased and the expectation of financial return from farming has grown. Fallow periods have become shorter as there is more demand for land in cultivation. With less time for regeneration, fewer saplings remain when fields are cleared. Simultaneously, the international market for shea butter is increasing, prompting attempts to commercialise shea cultivation.  Now more than ever, it is vital that we understand the ecological services that support fruiting of shea.


Shea benefits strongly from pollination by insects, primarily bees, to produce fruit.  This link between shea trees and bees means that shea is connected with conditions in the wider environment because bees need a range of resources to survive.  We investigated the relationship between pollination services to shea and the diversity of trees and shrub species in cultivated fields as well as the amount of uncultivated habitat near the fields. We found honey bees more frequently, and other bees in greater abundance, in sites with a greater diversity of trees and shrubs.  We also found that fruit production of shea was limited by lack of pollination, and that this limitation was greater at sites with less tree and shrub diversity.  These findings show that more pollination occurs in fields with a greater range of trees and shrubs. This might be because a location that has a wide range of different species is likely to contain a variety of plant-based resources used by bees, like nesting sites, pollen, nectar and resin, throughout the year.

Unexpectedly, given the role of local site-level diversity in driving pollination service, natural fruit set was lower at sites close to larger areas of uncultivated land. However, this may be because shea is a food source for fruit-eating wildlife including birds and mammals that might be more prevalent in larger, uncultivated areas. Thus although local biodiversity promotes pollination, and landscape biodiversity may promote natural levels of frugivory.  Since only 42% of shea fruit is estimated to be harvested by people each year, this leaves a share for nature, but intensification of shea exploitation needs to consider both these biotic interactions.

Shea fruit represents an important ecological, societal and economic resource, and if there were more pollinators in the landscape, more fruit would be produced. Conditions beneficial to both honey bees and other bee species should be fostered to maximise pollination. We recommend that pollination services to shea are supported by maintaining a diverse assemblage of woody species in parklands. Our findings corroborate existing research, showing that the ecosystem services provided by tree and shrub diversity support the well-being of millions of people living in the Sudano-Sahelian zone of West Africa.

Read the full, open access article, Local‐scale tree and shrub diversity improves pollination services to shea trees in tropical West African parklands, in Journal of Applied Ecology.

See also EurekAlert and PhysOrg articles.

About the Author: Aoife Delaney was a postdoc based with Jane Stout in the Plant-Animal Insect Interactions Research Group at Trinity College Dublin. She worked with Juliet Vickery in RSPB on Building resilient landscapes and livelihoods in Burkina Faso’s shea parklands, led by BirdLife International, funded by the UK Government’s Darwin Initiative.

Bee orchids: habits and habitats in Ireland

Bee Orchids have some of the most fascinating and wonderful flowers of all plants in Ireland. They are relatively rare, but have been recorded popping up in the most unlikely sites recently – e.g. on roadsides where regular mowing regimes have been changed (e.g. from Co. Cork and Kerry in 2020), and in sites managed according to the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan (e.g. in Waterford). In fact, my motivation to write this blog was a photo sent to me by former postdoc Ruth Kelly, who just found a specimen in a scruffy site next to a railway line in Co. Armagh, and my mum, who has them growing in her 1970s housing estate lawn!

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Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera) flowering in Donegal coastal grasslands (photo: J. Stout 2014)

The unusual looking flower that gives this plant its name (Ophrys apparently comes from the Greek for “eyebrow” and apifera from the Latin meaning “bee-bearing” or “bee-bringing”) has evolved as as a result of its pollination system, which relies on sexual deception. The flower looks, feels and smells like a female bee (to a male bee) who is attracted, and attempts to copulate with the flower. In doing so, he unwittingly picks up a packet of pollen (orchid pollen is packaged into pollinia), and when he gives up on the current flower, and moves on to be deceived by another, he transfers it. Hence the plant disperses its pollen to other bee orchids. This pollination mechanism is known as “pseudocopulation”.

Although the Ophrys apifera flowers doesn’t look, feel and smell like bee to us, it does give enough “female bee” signals to fool the males – the “furry” texture of the rounded lower petal that looks and feels like a bee’s abdomen whilst she forages from the pink bloom, and the iridescent patterns that catch the light in a similar way to the folded wings of a foraging bee. Each of these signals on their own may not fool a male bee, but the flowers also emit a scent that mimics the female pheromones (see the wonderfully titled paper by Florian Schiestl “Orchid pollination by sexual swindle“). And this is what seals the deal. In fact, research has shown that the scents emitted by a closely related species (Ophrys exaltata) are not a perfect mimic of the female bee pheromones, but are actually more attractive to the male bees than female bees themselves!

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The flower that pretends to be a bee (photo: J. Stout 2014)

The genus Orphys contains a broad range of species across Europe, north Africa and western Asia, each of which has evolved specific signals to attract particular species of insect pollinator. The only other species from this genus present in Ireland is the Fly Orchid Orphys insectifera, which is found in a limited number of calcareous wetland sites (fens, peaty depressions in limestone pavements, and turloughs) in the midlands and west of Ireland (in England it’s found more often in woodlands and scrub) and, despite the name, attracts digger wasps to its flowers.

The Bee Orchid Ophrys apifera is widespread in central and southern Europe, but at their northern limits in Ireland and Britain. And here in Ireland, where flowers appear in June and July, we don’t have the bees that these orchids have evolved to fool (solitary long-horn bees, Eucera longicornis). So instead, this species has evolved the ability to self-pollinate in areas where the pollinators are not present. This occurs as the pollinia (the yellow blobs hanging from the top of the flower entrance) swing freely and either contract or bend as they age, or a gust of wind can blow them onto the stigmatic surface (as in the picture above).

Bee Orchids long been know from botanical hotspots like the Burren in Co. Clare and Bull Island in Dublin, and this perennial species tends to be found in open, semi-dry grasslands on limestone, and calcareous dunes. It’s a protected species in Northern Ireland, but not on the Floral Protection Order in RoI. Bee Orchids colonise sites disturbed by human activity, like roadside verges, old quarries, gravel pits and in urban settings. They prefers open habitats, and are out-competed by shrubs and trees if a site becomes overgrown. Thus to maintain populations of Bee Orchids, mowing or grazing needs to occur at the end of the season, and the cuttings removed.

Like many orchids, Bee Orchids form symbiotic relationships with mycorrhizal fungi, which extract nutrients from the soil and transfer them to the plant via its roots. The use of fungicides could reduce the prevalence of these mutualists, which may limit where the bee orchids can grow. Other pressures on Bee Orchid populations include ploughing of grasslands, and if mowing occurs during flowering or before the tiny, wind-dispersed seeds have formed and been released, populations can decline.

Despite their remarkable flowers, the plants can be easily overlooked unless you are looking for them. But because the flowers are so bizarre, and can’t be confused with anything else, Bee Orchids can excite even the least botanically minded people.

mum's bee orchid
Bee orchids growing (and protected ) in my mum’s lawn! (photo: V. Stout 2020)

For more information see “The Orchids of Ireland” by Tom Curtis and Robert Thompson or “Ireland’s Wild Orchids – a field guideby Brendan Sayers and Susan Sex.

Edit: coincidentally this wonderful video by John Feehan was published on the same day as this blog – part of the Wildflowers of Offaly series.

About the author: Professor in Botany, Jane Stout leads the Plant-Animal Interactions Research Group in Trinity College Dublin, and teaches botany, entomology and plant-animal interactions to undergraduate students.

Biodiversity at the Áras

Last year, we started a biodiversity audit at Áras an Uachtaráin, the iconic home of Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins. This was at the request of the President himself, commissioned by the Office of Public Works, who manage the site.

President Higgins was at the Rio Earth SummitRio Earth Summit in 1992, and has been an advocate for biodiversity protection for a long time. He gave an impassioned speech at the National Biodiversity Conference last year, highlighting that we face “profound challenges” and that we all need to be leaders within our own spheres of influence (see my previous blog post here for a summary of the conference).  

So, starting late summer 2019, we began a process of documenting the biodiversity of the 130 acre site in the Phoenix Park in Dublin. The first task was to appoint a project manager, and I was very lucky that Dr Aoibheann Gaughran was both available and interested in the position. The first task for Aoibheann was to create a GIS-based habitat map of the site, and identify all the different the habitats types present (grassland, woodland, parkland, wetland etc.).

The next step was to document all the different species. No-one is an expert in every taxonomic group, and one of the delights of this project has been bringing together a team of specialists to survey the plants, animals and fungi (see below).

the team_2

Our surveys were interrupted by the COVID 19 pandemic and closures, but we are now back at it and enjoying the privilege of working in the Áras grounds.

Naturally, there has been a lot of interest in the project, with the President’s team keeping an eye on us, as well as the media (see links from the President’s website: News release and pictures, RTE news, and the Irish Times.

The “Mooney Goes Wild” show on RTE radio has featured the project several times:

  • Introduction to the project: Margaret Gormley (broadcast 20 January)
  • Mushrooms: Prof. Paul Dowding (broadcast 27 January)
  • Bird life: Prof. Nicola Marple (broadcast 30 March)
  • Spiders and Badgers: Dr. Aoibheann Gaughran and Collie Ennis (broadcast 20 April)


The project is due to be completed in September 2020 – keep an eye out for our results!


About the author: Professor in Botany, Jane Stout leads the Plant-Animal Interactions research group at Trinity College Dublin and is co-founder of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan and Chair of the Board of Directors of the Irish Forum on Natural Capital.

Time to Build (Accounts!) – an update on the INCASE project

INCASE (Irish Natural Capital Accounting for Sustainable Environments) project ecologist DR CATHERINE FARRELL reports on the work done so far in taking the basic information sets available for the different natural systems in Ireland and building the picture around their extent and conditions. The next steps for INCASE are set out here…

(blog first published on INCASE blog 15.05.20)

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The Irish landscape: a mosaic of natural, semi-natural and built habitats – mapping these fragments (extent and condition) is a fundamental element of natural capital accounting

It’s been a busy year. Last June – fresh as a newly sprung daisy – I sauntered through the front gates of Trinity College Dublin, ready to take on the brave new world of natural capital accounting as part of the INCASE project team. Flash forward almost 12 months and those revered Trinity gates are closed as the global human community finds itself immersed in a pandemic.

Life goes on though and thankfully we have been working away on the INCASE project to bring forth a first draft (otherwise known as an organised mess) of our extent and condition accounts in time and on track for the autumn of 2020.

Once the lockdown began in March, what was one to do but take advantage of a diary emptied of meetings and conferences and set about building the basic blocks for our accounts?

First step – review what’s out there that we can use. Luckily for us, there has been an extensive amount of groundwork done across Europe under the EU Mapping and Assessment of Ecosystem Services projects (EU MAES). The MAES team has done the heavy lifting around what is available at the EU level to establish extent and condition accounts. But what is available at EU level isn’t sufficient for what we need at the local Irish level, and the typology used is different to what we use here. The EU MAES project developed a high-level map of ecosystem types and extent of those types. The types follow the Corine Land Cover mapping classes – which is fine if you live in space and you just want to know where solid ground is so you can land your spaceship (avoid the bogs!). But if you are on the ground in Ireland, you need to get into the finer detail of what makes up the terrestrial systems of grassland, croplands, forests and woodlands and built / urban, as well as the freshwater (wetlands, peatlands, rivers and lakes), and marine systems; and then what lies beneath (geosystem) and above (atmospheric systems). That’s a lot of systems and a lot of detail.

So, we have been building the basic information sets around what is available for the different natural systems in Ireland. With the help of our friends and colleagues in the NPWS, DAFM (Forest Service), Government Departments, Research Institutes, BIM and Geological Survey Ireland, we have a clearer picture of how we can map different units as well as the main drivers (policy instruments such as agricultural and forestry targets), pressures (think population growth, land conversion, climate change) and their resulting condition (state – think polluted water course versus crystal clear stream) .

Let’s focus on Freshwater ecosystems for a moment – this ecosystem type includes rivers, lakes, swamp, peatlands, wet heathlands, turloughs and a few other bits. Each of these unique natural systems has evolved and developed in the context of the time, landscape, geology, hydrology and climate. Each has specific characteristics, and each has been ‘used’ or ‘modified’ by humans for a specific purpose, and therefore affected in a myriad of different ways. The drivers of change, the resultant pressures, and how those pressures manifest the impacts and resultant present-day state (condition) are complex stories to say the least.

So where are we at? With the help of our new GIS analyst and data manager, Lisa Coleman, we are gathering and building the stories for extent and condition. Of course, while developing extent and condition, we will continue to work on the services in the background but it’s important to get the foundations right!

Here’s what we will (hope to) do over the next few months (pandemic permitting!):

For the extent accounts:

  • Starting with the sub-basins of the Dargle catchment in County Wicklow, INCASE will test the EnSym model using the available datasets to establish extent (cover) of grassland, cropland, peatland, heathland, woodland, forest, built and freshwater habitats, as well as coastal and marine (where feasible) habitats; and geological assets.

  • INCASE will use nationally available datasets (including the new OSI/EPA Landcover which is due for completion any day now!) to establish this ‘first cut’ of the extent maps.

  • INCASE will use the NPWS MAES HAR 2016 as a reference / baseline as well as accessing those datasets already processed in 2016 for ease of use by INCASE.

  • INCASE will explore the resolution for INCASE based on discussion around use and applications (Integrated Catchment Management) with the EPA Catchments Unit.

  • The final topology for the different natural systems will be developed over the course of the extent mapping. Note: Fossitt 2000 is widely used in Ireland but is being gradually superseded by the newly developed IVC classification. It is unlikely INCASE will be able to map to Fossitt Level 3 or the IVC comparable levels of detail and some ground-truthing will be required.

  • Ultimately we will link the Irish typology to the IUCN Global Ecosystem Typology as outlined in SEEA-EEA revision.

And then condition…

  • Condition indicators will be selected from existing data sources that reflect the ‘functional’ aspects of each natural system.

  • Diversity is obviously a key indicator of resilience; INCASE will use NPWS habitat and species extent data where available, as well as condition (Article 17 reporting) and National Biodiversity Data Centre data.

  • The SEEA-EEA recommends the use of 6-10 condition indicators, however we will begin with what is available and reliable during the course of the project.

  • Examples of condition indicators will include drainage (peatland), vegetation cover and/or erosion (peatland and heathland), canopy cover and species composition (woodland and forest), management (grassland and cropland), water quality (freshwater) and green and blue infrastructure (built systems). Proxies for condition will also be used and these will include pressure, land use and management.

  • These condition indicators will be used as baseline to establish the condition of the different natural systems (good or bad – Note: this is INCASE working terminology!) as well as data gaps and needs for further reporting.

  • Highly managed systems (referred to as Intensive Land-Use systems / Artificial systems) in IUCN GET) such as cropland, forest, intensive grassland and built systems will be treated in a different way as these are artificially modified to deliver food, fibre, timber, fodder, fish, living space etc. For these ‘less natural’ systems, which are managed for their capacity to deliver commercially valuable goods and services, condition indicators will be explored to reflect whether these services are delivered in a sustainable way; that is without damaging other natural systems and their functional characteristics and /or their capacity to deliver ecosystem services.

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