Dr Úna FitzPatrick explains how you can help to monitor our bee populations and test the impact of your actions for pollinators.
One third of Ireland’s 98 wild bees are threatened with extinction and our common bumblebees continue to show startling declines in abundance. Thousands of people across farms, councils, gardens, schools, businesses and communities have been taking actions under the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan to help pollinators by helping to create a landscape that provides food, shelter and safety for bees.
The actions suggested by the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan are all evidence-based and details can be found at: www.pollinators.ie We have made a positive start, but it will require vast numbers of small changes across all sectors, and it will take time. We need widescale replacement of food and shelter across the landscape and wild pollinators will need time to respond to this. It is vital that we track this journey so that we can transparently assess progress and continue to learn as we go along.
In taking actions, we are trying to ensure that our wild bees (bumblebees and solitary bees), as well as other insects, can survive and continue to provide us and future generations with their vital service. The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan was developed from the ground up and has one core aim – to have an island that can reverse the declines of the previous 40 years and that has more pollinators and more biodiversity in the landscape than before we all began this work.
Many of you have been generous enough to help by making changes to the way you manage farmland, public land or private land. In addition to taking action for pollinators, for those interested, there are also many important ways that you can help the National Biodiversity Data Centre track our progress:
1. Tell us what pollinator-friendly actions you have taken so that we can track food and shelter being returned to the landscape
For more information, visit: https://pollinators.biodiversityireland.ie/
2. Learn more about pollinators and submit your casual sightings of wild bees and other insects to the National Biodiversity Data Centre
For more information visit: https://pollinators.ie/record-pollinators/
3. Participate in the All-Ireland Bumblebee Monitoring Scheme
Why is it important: Bumblebees are Ireland’s most important wild pollinator. We know many of our rare bumblebee species are threatened with extinction, but it is also important that we understand how the abundance of our more common species is changing. This is a long-term citizen science scheme that was established in 2012 to track changes and detect the early warning signs of a general threat to bumblebees and to pollination services. It provides vital baseline data that will be used to assess the impact of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan over time.
How to take part: Walk a fixed route once a month from March until October and record the diversity and abundance of bumblebees that you spot. Your walk can be anywhere, but you should choose somewhere that is both enjoyable and convenient for you. The route you choose should be 1-2 km in length or a distance you can comfortably complete in 40-60 minutes. A walk of this length ensures that the bumblebees you see are representative of the community in your area. There are 21 different bumblebee species in Ireland, but most people will only spot 6-7 different species on their walks. It is particularly useful to walk routes where you are also making management changes in line with the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan as it will test the impact of these actions.
Requirements: More volunteers are required. Beginners are very welcome, but the scheme does require an initial time investment to learn bumblebee identification. The Data Centre provides free resources, workshops and online support.
Time commitment: Approximately one hour once per month between March and October
Difficulty level: Moderate-Hard
4. Carry out some Flower-Insect Timed Counts (FIT Counts)
Why is it important: There are concerns that the numbers of pollinating insects such as bees and flies are declining, but we need much more data to be able to track changes in abundance. You can help by doing a Flower-Insect Timed Count (FIT Count) which is designed to collect new data on the numbers of flower-visiting insects.
How to take part: Flower-Insect Timed Counts (FIT Counts) are very simple – you watch a patch of flowers for 10 minutes and count how many insects visit and then submit the data online to the National Biodiversity Data Centre. The scheme runs from April to September. Your location can be anywhere e.g., garden, farm, park, school. Doing this across various action sites and then repeating through the year and across future years will show you the impact of management changes on insect numbers and diversity.
Above: Sample record form and 50cmx50cm square marked out.
Requirements: None, suitable for all. You don’t need to identify the insects to species level, but only to tally within broad groups e.g., bumblebee, butterflies & moths, wasp, beetle.
Time commitment: 10 minutes plus 5 minutes to input data online
Difficulty level: Easy
Find out more: https://pollinators.ie/record-pollinators/fit-count/
5. Track how your natural meadow is progressing
If you have areas where you have reduced mowing and are allowing a natural wildflower meadow to develop on its own, it is very useful to scientifically assess how your meadow is developing. The National Biodiversity Data Centre does not store this data, but it is very useful for you to collect annually at site level so that you can see progress and the increasing diversity of wildflowers in your meadow. This may also be a useful exercise for schools as part of an ecology project.
Long-flowering meadows are cut once each year in September, and the cuttings are removed. Meadows managed in this way will allow wildflowers to bloom throughout the pollinator season and will also provide undisturbed areas for nesting. These can be large areas or strips/patches within a more traditional lawn. Small areas can be cut with a scythe or strimmer, and raked to remove clippings. Larger areas may require specialised equipment or an arrangement with a local farmer who may be interested in harvesting for livestock fodder. In large areas it is helpful to leave some small sections entirely uncut each year as nesting areas for other overwintering insects.
Methodology: To assess the species richness of your meadow, you should randomly select a few areas of your meadow and mark out a 1m square plot. You should then count the number of different plant species in that square and/or the total number of flower heads. This will give you an indication of how much floral resource is being provided by the action and repeating in future years will allow you to track progress in quality.
If you are starting from scratch, and allowing a natural meadow to develop on its own, it is likely to pass through various stages. It will be a valuable resource for pollinators/biodiversity almost immediately and will look increasingly good to humans year-upon-year once it’s being properly managed.
1-5 plant species/m2 (including grasses and sedges). Very grassy and has pernicious weeds (thistles, nettles, docks). High fertility soil caused by fertilizer application or a cutting and mulching regime. You need to manually remove pernicious weeds. Removing annual cuts will reduce fertility over time.
5-10 plant species/m2. Plants like Ox-eye Daisy and Buttercup are likely to be dominant. Your meadow is moving in the right direction and already looks good. Add Yellow-rattle seed if necessary. Yellow rattle parasitises the roots of a wide range of meadow plants, particularly grasses. It can be added after a wildflower meadow has established, to help keep down grasses and encourage other wildflowers.
10-15 species/m2. Species richness gradually increases, and plants like Red Clover, Bird’s-foot-trefoil, Selfheal, Vetches and Knapweed will appear. Once established, you could gradually add additional species by collecting seed from other pollinator-friendly wildflowers growing in the local area. Make sure to choose seed that suits the conditions and soil type. https://pollinators.ie/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/How-to-guide-Seeds-2018-WEB.pdf
Meadow begins to settle down and now resembles what we commonly picture as a ‘wildflower meadow’. It will become more diverse over time as more perennial plants start to appear. Typically reaching this stage takes at least 7 years and it can be up to 15 years before it reaches its full potential. You need patience, but these meadows are amazing resources for biodiversity and what a legacy to create!
The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan is implemented by the National Biodiversity Data Centre
Dr Úna Fitzpatrick is co-founder and Project Coordinator of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan and is a Senior Ecologist with the National Biodiversity Data Centre.