Universities are buzzing about bee research as we celebrate World Bee Day May 20th

May 20th 2018 is the first ever World Bee Day. An initiative of the United Nations, it aims to highlight the importance of preserving bees and other pollinators and to ask everyone to take concrete actions to preserve and protect them. Bee populations in Ireland and across the globe have significantly decreased, making them more and more endangered. Of the 100 species of bees in Ireland one third of them are threatened with extinction. Researchers in universities across Ireland are playing their part working together and with community partners to ensure that bees survive and thrive.

Campus Engage is a national initiative set up by Irish universities to encourage university staff to mobilize partnerships with community organisations and the public to help them in finding solutions to pressing societal challenges through research.

Based at the Irish Universities Association, Kate Morris manages the Campus Engage Network: “There is a growing population of environmental researchers in Ireland, and across Europe, that are working with the public and community-based organisations to help collect valuable data to track cause and negative impact on Bee populations.  There is power in numbers, and growing understanding of the public that we too can take simple actions to make a change, to positively contribute to protecting the environment”.

The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, is an initiative of Prof Jane Stout from Trinity College, and Una Fitzpatrick at the National Biodiversity Data Centre, set up nearly 10 years ago following a study that indicated half of Irish bee species were in decline, and one third of Irish species were threatened with extinction.

The Plan is built on community engagement and calls to action schools, community groups and businesses to address 5 objectives:

  1. Make Ireland pollinator friendly
  2. Raise awareness
  3. Support beekeepers and growers
  4. Create the evidence base for action
  5. Track changes over time – in terms of the actions taken for pollinators, and in terms of monitoring bees across the island of Ireland.

According to Prof Stout; “Everyone loves bees these days so it’s great to work with farmers, schools, local communities, businesses and others to conserve bees. Our work relies on the good will of many different people – farmers, schools and businesses allowing us to sample or set up experiments on their land, providing us with information on how the land is manged; beekeepers providing us with honey samples to analyse; and citizen scientists helping us to “Count Flowers for Bees” – this is an ongoing project in which volunteers can log in, assess images of flowers, and contribute valuable data to help make a floral resource map of Ireland, identifying hotspots for bees. And in return, we do a lot of outreach and information sessions – with schools and the general public – on World Bee Day, I am kicking off a bee stewardship workshop series with a talk on bees and how they contribute to human well-being”.

The Pollinator Plan identified 81 actions and 68 organisations including government departments, charities, local councils, community groups and universities signed up to address these. Two years in, and over 90% of these actions are completed or in progress, and many more organisations have come on board. Prof Stout: “We have published sector-specific guidelines to inform people about practical actions they can take, and these are all based on evidence from research conducted here in Ireland where possible, or from overseas, and are co-created with the relevant stakeholders. We do an enormous amount of outreach, support on-going and new initiatives, and help co-ordinate the massive enthusiasm there is for bee conservation across Ireland”. The Pollinator Plan is currently working with the Tidy Towns organisers in running a pollinator competition with entries due in by May 23rd.

Bee Research in the Universities:

Professor Jane Stout, Botany, Trinity College Dublin:

Prof Stout has been at the forefront of wild bee research in Ireland for more than 15 years – she is a pollination ecologist who studies communities of plants and pollinators, and her work focusses on researching the drivers and consequences of bee decline, and what we can do to reverse that decline. Her work spans individual interactions between bees and flowers, and how bees react to the food they consume, to landscape-scale studies on how the structure and composition of the landscape influences pollinator communities, pollination services, and honey production, both here in Ireland and overseas. She has contributed to local, national and international research, policies and initiatives to conserve bees, particularly the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, and has many projects underway at the moment.

One of our current projects is investigating how very low (drinking water safe) levels of fertilizer and herbicide affect flowering plants, and the nectar and pollen they produce, and how this influences which bees and other flower visitors interact with them. This can help us to understand how agricultural run-off influences bees and other pollinators, and the ecological processes they contribute to.

 In other farm-land projects, we are currently investigating how hedgerow structure relates to the insects that are found visiting flowers in hedgerows and in adjacent crop. This is so that we can make recommendations on optimal hedgerow management for bees and other flower-visiting insects, to enhance biodiversity and ecosystem service provision on farmland. 

We are also looking at how bee communities vary across gradients of urbanisation, and at which flower species those bees are visiting.  We want to determine the patterns of urban land use that support diverse communities of bees. We are also looking at the urban to rural interface, and at how intensity of agriculture affects bees, and at how honey chemistry varies according to where hives are located.

 Bee decline is not just a problem in Ireland, it is of concern across the world. To investigate what is driving that decline, we are leading a multi-country investigation into managed and wild bee health across Europe as part of an EU-funded project. And in West Africa, we are looking at how management of habitat influences pollination of the socio-economically important shea crop, which is processed into shea butter for the food and cosmetics industries.”

Dr Jim Carolan, Department of Biology, Maynooth University:

Dr Carolan is a molecular biologist interested in understanding how bees work on the inside and how the stresses encountered in nature affect them on the cellular and molecular level. “We are particularly interested in how the chemicals that bees may encounter in the field, for example, affect their nervous and immune systems. Considerable research has now been conducted that highlights the dangers certain pesticides pose to bees and we wish to determine whether other commonly used chemicals pose similar risks. This research is not just about finding what is hazardous to bees but also what is safe. This is important to know if we are going to develop policies and practices that minimise the risk to our declining bee communities”.

We are also interested in assessing how Irish, some of our bees actually are.” This work involves conducting genetic analysis on the buff tailed bumblebee Bombus terrestris from all across Ireland and comparing them to their European counterparts. Through this work Dr Carolan and his colleagues wish to confirm earlier research that indicates that Irish B. terrestris is quite distinct which will have major implications for bee conservation and the movement of bumblebees around Europe. “I think the most exciting aspect of this project is the coming together of researchers from many Irish institutions including Maynooth University, Trinity College Dublin, NUI Galway, University College Dublin, Carlow IT, The National Biodiversity Data Centre, The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and the Marine and many others.”

Ireland has a relatively small but highly active bee/pollinator research community and it is crucial that collaborations and the sharing of expertise are fostered. To achieve these aims, Professor Stout, Dr. Carolan and Dr. Stanley in addition to their colleague Dr. Blanaid White of DCU established the Irish Pollinator Research Network in 2016. Although they have different backgrounds and expertise these researchers are benefiting from this network and are actively collaborating on some very important projects. As Dr. Carolan states “We acknowledge the importance of taking a cross disciplinary approach to research and regardless of our differences we are united by the same goal- to save our bees”.

Dr Dara Stanley, School of Natural Sciences, NUI Galway:

Dr Stanley’s research focuses on the ecology and conservation of pollinators and their interactions with plants. There are a number of ongoing bee/pollinator projects in her lab:

We are currently interested in bees and pollinators in species rich grasslands. These habitats are one of the most important for bees and provide them with both flowers to forage on and places to nest. We’re working in the Burren to see whether agri-environmental management or landscape composition has the biggest effect on pollinator numbers in these grasslands. We’re also looking at one of Ireland’s rarest bumblebees, the shrill carder bee (Bombus sylvarum), and carrying out an in-depth study of its ecology in the Burren with the aim of informing a species-specific monitoring scheme for it in the future.

We are also interested in the contribution of both wild (wild bees, hoverflies etc) and managed (honeybees) pollinators to the production of Irish crops. We are investigating the importance of these pollinators to both apple and field bean crops in Ireland.

Finally, we are also interested in pesticide use and its implications for bees and other pollinators. Pesticides are an important component of modern agriculture, but at the same time their use can have implications for beneficial insects such as bees. We are interested in what these effects might be, but also how we can mitigate against them.”

Dr Mary Frances Coffey, Department of Life Sciences, University of Limerick:

The National Apiculture Programme (NAP) is an applied based research programme at University of Limerick which focusses on bee health or more specifically the control of Varroa destructor: an exotic pest which arrived into Ireland in the late 1990s and caused serious colony losses in managed honeybee colonies and caused many of the feral colonies to disappear. The main aim of the NAP is to develop an integrated pest management programme which is effective against the mite, whilst at the same time can be easily applied by beekeepers in the day to day management of their colonies but more importantly reduces beekeeper reliance on hard chemicals

Since an increase in colony losses is strongly correlated with insufficient control of Varroa, as part of NAP we have been monitoring winter losses using a standardised questionnaire completed by Bee Keepers across Ireland. This annual survey has allowed us to compile a reliable profile on the winter losses being experienced by beekeepers over the past 10 years and such information is necessary for the development of bee health strategies now and in the future.

As farming becomes more intensified, beekeepers were concerned with diversity and quantity of pollen available to honeybees. Pollen is an important protein source for bees, but the nutritional value of pollen differs between plants. To address beekeepers concerned we also got involved with another international study, CSI pollen which allow us to determine the diversity of pollens being collected by honeybee colonies in Ireland.


Contact: Lia O’Sullivan, Head of Communications, Irish Universities Association, lia.osullivan@iua.ie, 085 7141414

More Information:

All-Ireland Pollinator Plan

World Bee Day website