Saving the bumblebee; a biodiversity plan for skerries

Charlie Heasman; 4th Oct 2020

Large Carder Bee,; South Strand, Skerries

Back in 2019 Sustainable Skerries was awarded a grant from the Community Foundation of Ireland in order to develop a Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) for the town.

The money was to cover phase 1 of the plan: to engage the services of a professional ecologist to assist and advise the project; to conduct mapping and site surveys; liaise with landowners and stakeholders and organise a series of public information events and talks. Work was to begin in Feb 2020 and be completed by Jan 2021.

We are actually fairly well advanced with most of this except for the public meetings and talks, which have been rendered impossible with the covid situation. What’s more, the situation is not going to change in the foreseeable future and this is deeply unfortunate because it makes it very difficult to reach the very people we wish to engage with: the people of the town. The deadline has subsequently been extended to July 2021 but that is unlikely to help in this regard.

The only answer is to do everything online; whether by email, social media or our website. Welcome to this Blog post.

So what is the Plan and why?

A clue is in the title of course; another in the photo.

To start off our aim was fairly simple: to establish a National Pollinator Plan type scheme in the town.

The National Pollinator Plan is specifically intended to reverse the decline of bumblebees in Ireland and has been widely taken up by towns and communities up and down the Country. You may have already noticed the purple “Managed for Pollinators” signs from time to time.

The Plan is coordinated by the National Biodiversity Centre in Waterford and in order to gather data on bumblebee populations they encourage interested members of the public to engage in a little “citizen science” by waking monthly transects. This involves picking a route of approximately one kilometre, sticking to it, and walking it at least once a month while counting bees and recording them by both species and sex. My wife and I have been doing this for the past two years and now walk three such transects. Next year it will be four; more about that later.

Ireland has 21 species of bumblebee, some still common; others in danger of extinction. No one site will have all 21 species; you wouldn’t, for instance, expect to find a Mountain Bumblebee in the town. Four or five is pretty average; we quickly established six. Admittedly these were all members of the so-called “Big Six”, the six most common species, but it was a good start.

Red Tailed Bumblebee, one of the 6
Buff Tailed Bumblebee, another of the 6

Then in June of last year, in the Ballast Pit, we came across something we weren’t sure about: four Common Carder Bee queens all on a single clump of Kidney Vetch. We were fairly certain of the species but four queens at once? In June? We took a photo and sent it in for verification.

The reply came back that they were indeed queens but not of the Common Carder Bee, Bombus pascorum, they were the Large Carder Bee, Bombus muscorum. We’d just found a seventh species.

This might not sound too exciting until you realise that this bee is on both the Irish and European 2014 Red Bee Lists as threatened. Given that this List is six years out of date and the bee has shown an annual rate of decline of 5% ever since, it is likely that if it were reclassified tomorrow it would as endangered.

We decided to look and see if we could find it elsewhere so we took ourselves off to the South Strand. Where we found it straight away. The first photo was taken there. By a better photographer than me I might add!

It is also present in the Allotments and we’ve found a small population just out past Skerries Point.

So we have not just one, but four populations of an endangered bee in Skerries. We can safely say that all four are separate populations because this bee travels a maximum of 500 meters from the nest and these sites are a lot further apart than that.

Now take into account that Ireland is considered the last stronghold of B. muscorum in Europe, and Skerries, so far as can be ascertained by NBDC, is probably one of the last strongholds, if not the last stronghold in Ireland and it does get exciting! We are in a unique position to play a major role in saving one of Ireland’s 21 bumblebee species.

Of course, you don’t just save one. By taking the right action you help conserve everything else. Not just bumblebees but pollinators in general, birds, insects and so on. Nature tends to be pretty inclusive and all things are interlinked.

NBDC are hugely supportive of our efforts and are hoping that what we achieve in Skerries might serve as a model for other communities to follow. I would like to see Skerries put firmly on the map for its bees just as it was always famous for its seals.

So what’s the plan?

The first thing to do with scattered populations of any species is to join them up. In this way inbreeding (thought to be a contributory cause of decline in B. muscorum) is avoided and if the species dies out for any reason in one area it can be repopulated from another. The second thing to do is improve and expand its habitat.

To this end we are proposing a biodiversity corridor through the town. No bulldozers will be required so your houses are safe; we simply enhance what is already there. The Barnageeragh Road, running past the Ballast Pit and out through to the new Hamilton Hill Estate lends itself perfectly. Pre-existing wide grass verges need only a minimal change of management; planting around the base of trees rather than spraying with glyphosate (don’t get me started!), and utilisation of unused green corners will do the trick. If we can extend out in the other direction towards Townparks and the allotments we will have succeeded.

Which is better, this?
Or thisr?

As I write this things are already progressing. At one end the allotments are getting odd unused corners seeded with wildflowers and at the other end we are partnering with Educate Together to establish a wildflower meadow in the grounds of the school. The latter is particularly exciting because a) it is a fairly large area of some 1,000 sq metres and b) it is right beside the road where everyone can watch it develop.

Further down the road Fingal are independently establishing another wildflower meadow, this one just past the Water Treatment Works.

While all this is good news for our biodiversity corridor it does not preclude those who don’t live along it. Quite the opposite; everyone can play a part. If you have a garden, large or small, great! We can help with pollinator friendly planting advise. Even if you don’t have a garden you can help. We are proposing an “adopt a tree” scheme whereby people can plant round the bases. We might even be able to run a competition. This will depend on agreement from FCC; we’re impatiently waiting on a long promised meeting with them.

We cannot hold a public meeting to discuss and inform further or to get your views and input, but we can host a Zoom meeting online. If you are interested, and we really hope you are, get in touch and we’ll see how we go. email charleseheasman@gmail.com

3 Comments on “Saving the bumblebee; a biodiversity plan for skerries

  1. Great news I submit sightings of Bumble bees and butterflies to biodiversity Ireland, I check the ballast pit regularly have found bombus lucorum.

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