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Cabragh Wetlands: A time for flowers in the countryside

A time for flowers in the countryside

A time for flowers in the countryside

There is a crisis looming in world agriculture due to the lack of natural pollinators.

This is the time of flowers. Bird song will soon recede and our focus will be on the technicolour canvas that Cabragh will become in the months ahead.

Behind that colourful palette is the core of our existence on earth. Pollination is the central activity of the natural world and from now on the colours, sounds, designs, etc of nature are totally geared to that one activity. Not alone is it central to the natural world but any reduction in the activity of pollination puts the very existence of life on the planet in jeopardy.
Insects have been pollinating flowers for over one hundred million years and are now inseparable. Some have developed together to the point where only one insect can pollinate a particular flower but not all are specialized to such an extent. In general, one group of insects visits one group of flowers.

Among the pollinators are birds and bats but insects are the most important. 90% of all flowering plants are pollinated by insects including one third of all crops grown for human consumption. Beetles are not effective pollinators as their bodies are too shiny and sometimes damage flowers.

Flies pollinate a lot, so do butterflies but bees are the most important. Beautiful butterflies are attracted to bright colours but they like a landing platform and sit on the edge of flowers and so are not very effective pollinators.

Many flowers are designed in such a manner that a visiting insect inevitably carries pollen from the male to the female part of the plant. Orchids have developed complex bizarre arrangements to assure this. Some secrete nectar to attract small bees, then prevent them from escaping with a curved slippery wall and finally placing stiff hairs to assist them to climb out through a narrow exit, thereby dusting the stamen with pollen.

Another amazing ability of some flowers is colour shifting whereby the flower changes colour after being pollinated and thus directs the pollinators towards unvisited flowers.

Some flowers have other wily tricks! The bee orchid resembles and smells like female bees and the male in frustration will fly from one flower to the next and in the process pollinate the flowers. Incidentally, the range of the bee orchid has extended northwards with the advent of climate change. Even flowers with no smell, like fuschias, are designed to dust a bird’s head with pollen as it hovers.

Bees deliver pollen to more flowering plants than any other group of insects. They are well adapted with their heavy bodies that trap pollen grains and many species have special pollen sacks on their hind legs. Bees are attracted to bright yellow and blue flowers. They cannot see red but can detect UV colours which show them nectar guides.

Although honey bees are the most important pollinators, wild solitary bees are also very important. Bumble bees are capable of buzz pollination where they land on a flower and vibrate. Insects need to warm up their muscles to fly and bumble bees can generate heat by flexing their muscles without moving their wings. Consequently, they can work earlier in the season, earlier in the day and further north. They have evolved closely with many wild flowers such as the foxglove whose flowers are just the right size for the bumble bee to enter. The very popular garden flower, snapdragon, is designed for a bumble bee of just the right weight to trip the opening mechanism.

You, as a gardener, can help this most wonderful and essential process. Nice tidy gardens with large lawns are not pollinator friendly so let a corner of your garden grow wild. Shrubs such as dogwood, cherry, plum, willow and poplar will provide nectar early in the season when food is scarce.

Provide food for caterpillars e.g. nettles, thistles, clover and dandelions. Provide shelter and water. Above all else, hold back on the insecticide and the pesticide, even the organic ones. Any verge or hedgerow is presently teeming with colour as are the traditional meadows in stark contrast to the reseeded sward meadows of more recent vintage.

There is a crisis looming in world agriculture due to the lack of natural pollinators. Ireland exports many bee colonies to heavily industrialized agricultural countries. There are increased worries about genetic diversity, species diversity and eco-system diversity. This growing anxiety has not vanished with the Covid-19 problem. With the slowdown in human activity we see the re-emergence of nature, clean air and improved water quality. The post pandemic challenge will be to keep it that way and ensure that the conditions for plant pollination are optimised in Ireland and across the world.

Hold firm.
Slán go fóill.

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