The buzz on feeding our precious bees

Outdoor Living

FOOD SUPPLY A buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) makes a beeline for some nasturtium flowers.

Nature and rewilding
Pat Fahy

Studying them year on year, Professor Jane Stout of TCD and Dr Una Fitzpatrick of the National Biodiversity Data Centre realised that bumblebee numbers were in serious decline here. With a full one-third of our 98 wild bees threatened with extinction, something needed to be done. The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan 2015-2020 was devised to inspire interested groups to take actions to help our precious pollinators by creating a landscape that provides food, shelter and safety for honeybees, bumblebees, solitary bees, butterflies and hoverflies.
Providing information on the small changes that make a big difference has created a network of connected people through the years with an interest in helping our wildlife in general. It has also galvanised support for Actions for Pollinators, an online mapping system that allows everyone – gardeners, farmers, councils, businesses, schools and local communities to register the actions they have taken for pollinators and put their pollinator-friendly locations on the map.
Next year, on May 19 and 20, ‘Ireland’s Buzzing: International Conference on Pollinator Conservation’ will be held in Limerick (it was due to be held this May, but it has been deferred). This major conference will discuss key successes of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan (AIPP) currently underway and will give people an opportunity to submit thoughts and ideas into the next AIPP.
The biggest problem our bumblebee still has is starvation. There just aren’t enough flowers with the modern changes to agriculture. Their metabolism – one of the highest in the world – means they are living on the edge every day, the added pressure of climate change will make their existence perilous into the future. Every effort needed on our part needed to see them through this difficult time with the hope of some breakthrough if we can get joined-up thinking on all levels.

Top tips
After consulting with many individuals and some trial and error, I can pass on some of the things we’ve learned  down through the years so that anyone can hit the ground running in the knowledge that your actions will make a difference.

Sowing wildflowers
The Cornfield Annual (Wildflower Mix) areas at Westport’s Angelus Park and Horkan’s Hill involved turning the sod – a time-consuming and labour-intensive method! We now recommend using cardboard for coverage to elimate competition by grass for the seeds to emerge. Sow around St Patrick’s day; three to six months’ coverage is required.

Collecting seeds
Collect native wildflower seeds (orchids being the exception) to propagate into plug plants using pots of suitable soil (depending on the species) or broadcast back into the meadow  area. All separated seed needs to be dried out for a couple of weeks in a paper bag or envelope, separating the seed from their pods, stalks etc. (Biennials do better if stored for a bit longer).
When collecting and sowing, try best to mimic the flowers natural time of dispersal. The more times the meadow or lawn has been cut and the cuttings taken away, the better chance the wildflowers have. And remember, all native wildflowers need to see a winter to bring on germination.

Save the areas
Identify areas rich in wildflowers and save them from the mower with a ‘Managed for Wildlife’ sign. A boundary of mown grass the width of a lawnmower will show that it isn’t a forgotten area.

Insect hotels
These are the classic way to show you care for the critters that are the foundation for all life. I recommend a closely packed log pile, which can make a nice garden feature neatly Stacked. We have 77 solitary bee species, and it seems to me that what they need most are suitable habitats. For most, this is an earthen bank free from disruption to their flight path, with inclinations from flat to sheer. This suits various species best, but the box of bamboo is still the flag of choice and best for visual impact; common reed and hollowed bramble are other materials that can be used.

Pollinator friendly hanging baskets based on Nasturtiums and Bacopa, which thrive in the harsher-than-normal conditions. Dead-heading to remove a flower before it goes to seed brings on new flowers full of nectar, but this takes nutrients out of the compost. This means a monthly feed (contrary to some recommendations), but you’ll have the bumblebees buzzing a path to your garden, something that I’m looking forward to again this year.

Pat Fahy is Biodiversity Officer with Westport Tidy Towns.