Wild About Pollinators
What is pollination and what animals are pollinators?
Pollination occurs when pollen is moved within flowers or carried from flower to flower by pollinating animals such as birds, bees, bats, butterflies, moths, beetles, or by wind. Insects (bees, wasps, moths, butterflies, flies and beetles) are the most common pollinators.
Pollinators look for pollen and nectar to feed themselves and their young. In the process, as they fly from flower to flower, they bring pollen from one plant to another. Pollination is essential for fertilisation, without it there would be no seed or fruit production. Pollinators enable our crops to grow, flowers and trees to bear fruits and seeds, which in turn provide food for birds and mammals.
Why do pollinators need our help?
Irish pollinators are in decline. A 2006 assessment revealed that across the island, 30 of our 99 bee species are at risk of extinction. The problem is serious and threatens our food production, potentially causing a severe negative economic impact on the agricultural sector, and the health of the environment.
Ireland’s countryside is becoming more and more managed, more uniform, and perhaps even more sterile. A tightly mown lawn is like a desert for pollinators. As we develop more land for housing and infrastructure, and intensely manage our agricultural land, natural environments, and all those that inhabit it, are being ‘squeezed out’.
To avoid losing more native and local wildlife, and to help pollinators to recover, we can all make change right outside our own doors. Private gardens and estates represent a huge potential habitat and refuge for Ireland’s pressured wildlife.
How can we help pollinators?
By making simple changes we’re not only helping the bees and butterflies, but are also establishing a new ‘norm’ for how the landscape could look. ‘Pledging your garden for pollinators’ means you have chosen to make it a healthy pitstop for pollinators in the landscape. By taking some simple actions, you will help to provide much-needed food and shelter for our pollinating insects, while creating a beautiful, colourful garden.
Rewilding, and leaving plants to grow as nature intended, is one of the simplest ways to help wildlife recover, wildflowers to grow and pollinators to thrive. Instead of having a manicured lawn and every inch of the garden planned and pruned, leaving even a square in the corner of the garden to grow wild as a mini-meadow is helpful.
We can also all mow less, or not at all! Start the summer with “No Mow May” and enjoy the amazing wildflowers that bloom. Watch the pollinators do their work. Throughout the year, mowing every 6 weeks allows wildflowers time to grow, which in turn attracts pollinators to the area. We call these “short-flowering meadows”.
Mowing paths through the lawn, instead of mowing from one end to the other, is not only quicker and easier, but creates a corridor for people to walk through a mini-meadow. If you don’t have a garden, you can still create a pollinator-friendly pot or window box.
Many people love gardening and take great pride in their outdoor spaces. Gardening also improves mental well-being. You can help pollinating insects and still have a beautiful garden, as there is a wonderful array of pollinator-friendly flowers to choose from, which will provide both colour and food for pollinators throughout the year. Planting these is a great way to do a good deed, while still enjoying work in the garden.
Estates can have a section of common green areas dedicated to wildlife and let them grow naturally to attract more pollinators. Where there are trees in the estate, leaving a metre verge unmowed all around the tree provides a stunning surrounding teeming with wildflowers. Reducing the use of pesticides and sprays is essential, and many groups have taken on manual removal of wild plants instead. These small actions save the lives of many pollinators.
A common sight in any Irish town are roadside verges, which provide refuge for many plant and animal species. The importance of roadside verges is highlighted as the number of natural meadows decreases. Allowing more of these roadside mini-meadows to rewild and bloom would lead to an explosion of colour and life in our countryside and along Irish roads this summer, providing native species for many of our pollinators.
On a national level, the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan calls for all residents of Ireland to take part in helping the pollinators that are essential to our lives. The Plan involves all of us, from farmers to local authorities, to schools, gardeners, sports clubs, community groups and businesses, to work together to protect our pollinators. The first plan began in 2015, and the current plan is in place for 2021-2025. Locally, estates and community groups can have local Pollinator Plans in place, tailored to suit their areas and local habitats.
Citizen Science initiatives welcome participation in monitoring our pollinators from adults and children alike. Throughout the summer months, anyone can carry out a Flower-Insect Timed count which takes only 10 minutes, and provides us with information on the numbers and species of pollinators that we have around us. Monitoring these helps us in turn to protect areas that need protecting, and give an insight into how a natural environment is coping.
What plants are good for pollinators?
Dandelion is the most important plant for insects in early spring. From mid-March until mid-May it provides vital food for bees and other early-flying insects such as butterflies. Later, when the flowers disappear, birds feast on the seed-heads. Dandelion seed is a favourite with birds such as the Goldfinch and Greenfinch. The plant’s leaves are also food for some moth larvae, including the lovely Garden Tiger moth.
Willow is a wonderful tree for bees as it provides lots of nutritious pollen in its tiny flowers in early spring when there is little else in flower. We may not recognise the Willow’s soft yellow profusions as ‘flowers’ but they are actually made up of hundreds of tiny flowers bursting with pollen and nectar!
Bramble provides vital food for pollinating insects in late summer, and berries for birds and mammals in autumn. Perhaps a corner of your garden could include a bramble patch? You can even clip it back each winter to keep your bramble zone contained. And you can enjoy the blackberries along with the hungry birds in autumn!
Clover provides plenty of pollen and nectar for bees. It used to be called bee’s bread!
Ivy provides good cover for nesting birds, and also hibernating butterflies. It flowers late in the autumn. Bumblebee queens in particular need Ivy, as they need to put on weight before hibernation. In late winter, when food is scarce, Ivy berries are a very important food source for birds.
What plants are not so helpful?
Daffodils, Tulips, and traditional bedding plants like Geraniums, Begonias, Busy Lizzy, Petunias, Polyanthus or Salvia splendens have virtually no pollen and nectar and are of little value to pollinators.
Native plants are called that because they occur naturally in Ireland. Many alien species (meaning non-Irish) are not useful for our pollinators, because they simply cannot use the pollen or nectar that is found in the alien species. They may look nice in our gardens, but to help local wildlife, it would be better to invest in local species.