Jane Stout is a professor in botany at the School of Natural Sciences in Trinity College Dublin
Workers bees and a queen bee (with a yellow spot on her back), from a hive at the Louth Bee Keepers’ demonstration in Castleknock.
Photograph: Cyril Byrne
“Are you off now for the summer?” As a university professor, I get asked this question a lot at this time of year. People are often surprised when I tell them that this is when things are at their busiest! I’m a pollination ecologist, which means that I study the interactions between plants and insects, especially bees. Since bees hibernate during the winter and flowers only bloom in the summer, these brief months when the students are off campus and the bees are buzzing around are the only time of year I can get outdoors and actually do some science first hand. Except these days I don’t get the chance very often.
The higher you get in academia, the less you get your hands dirty. Most of my research time is spent in the office planning experiments and applying for funding, managing the researchers who are actually outdoors conducting them, writing and talking about the findings, and occasionally gazing wistfully out of my office window and remembering the halcyon days of my PhD studies, when I spent my time in flowery meadows, chasing insects with my trusty net. Ah, those were the good times . . .
Every now and then, though, I do get the opportunity to go back to my field ecology roots. The last time was in Burkina Faso – a landlocked and extremely poor West African country. It was 38 degrees C in the shade and dry as a bone, and while it’s about as unlike Ireland as it’s possible to get, I was there to study a situation not unlike ours at home: how land management and agricultural intensification affected populations of bees, and how this in turn has affected the pollination of an economically significant crop.
Everyone knows that bees are important for food production: 75 per cent of global food crops, which result in roughly a third of all crop production, are pollinated by bees and other pollinators moving pollen between flowers, enabling fruit and seeds to develop. In Ireland, bees are a crucial link in the supply chain of apples, raspberries and other soft fruits, which is why bee decline (a third of Irish species are threatened with extinction) is a major problem for the bottom lines of food producers and the healthy diets of people.
Protecting the wild bees who do the job for free makes more sense than spending money buying in commercially produced hives of bees, who may also bring with them diseases and parasites that can make our native wild bees sick, or employing people to do the job manually, which is vastly expensive. This is one of the reasons we developed the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, which aims to make Ireland a place where bees can survive and thrive. By protecting what we have in terms of pollinator-friendly habitat, providing extra flowers and nesting sites and reducing the use of agrochemicals, we can go a long way to ensuring these insects are strong and healthy to keep doing their important work.
In Africa, I was studying shea – the tree from which we get the rich, fatty butter that is used in a wide range of confectionary products, but also in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals worldwide. Shea trees rely on bees to move pollen between flowers so that shea nuts can form. The nuts are then collected by women in the community and processed into shea butter to be used locally and also exported. So in this case, the bees are also helping to provide products with socio-economic significance to some of the poorest women in the world.
Like in Ireland, Burkina Faso’s bees are increasingly hungry and homeless, threatening shea production and the livelihoods of these women. Our job as researchers was to figure out first of all whether maintaining fallow land and other bee-friendly habitats increases the number of bees visiting flowers, and hence their pollination. And second of all, whether if we had more bees, this would increase the shea yield, and thus income for local communities.
But when I say “we”, I really mean my post-doc researcher. I spent a week out there setting things up, and then left her in a remote town hours from the capital Ouagadougou to do six months’ hard graft of surveys and experiments.
So while I’m in my office this summer, slaving over paperwork and gazing mournfully at the bees buzzing by my window, I half long for fieldwork and chasing bees around with a net, but I confess I also half wish that I did have the summer off.
DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE
Office of the Secretary
Washington, D.C. 20250
NATIONAL POLLINATOR WEEK
June 19 – 25, 2017
By the Secretary of Agriculture of the United States of America
WHEREAS pollinator species such as honey bees, native bees, birds, bats, and butterflies are essential partners of farmers and ranchers in producing food and are vital to keeping items such as fruits, nuts, and vegetables in our diets; and
WHEREAS healthy pollinator populations critical to the continued economic well-being of agricultural producers, of rural America, and of the U.S. economy; and
WHEREAS pollinator losses over the past few decades require immediate attention to ensure the sustainability of our food production systems, avoid additional economic impact on the agricultural sector, and protect environmental health; and
WHEREAS it is critically important to encourage the protection of pollinators; increase the quality and amount of pollinator habitat and forage; reverse pollinator losses; and help restore pollinator populations to healthy levels;
NOW, THEREFORE, in recognition of the vital significance of protecting pollinator health, I, Sonny Perdue, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, do hereby proclaim June 19 – 25, 2017, as National Pollinator Week. I call upon the people of the United States to join me in celebrating the significance of pollinators with appropriate observances and activities
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this 24th day of May 2017, the two-hundred forty-first year of the Independence of the United States of America.