Denis (Bee Keeper and Senior Grower)
Darragh (Assistant Growing manager)
The Importance of Pollination
On the Keelings Farm, we rely heavily on pollination. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to grow our berries! Pollination is the transfer of pollen between the male plant anthers (pollen-bearing structures) and the female plant stigmas (pollen-catching structures). This allows for plants to reproduce. Although some species such as grasses use the wind to distribute their pollen, the majority of flowering plants benefit from interactions with animal pollinators. That’s where the ‘Friends of our Farm’ come in. The most important pollinators in Ireland are insects, particularly bees, hoverflies, butterflies, moths and other flies.
Hoverflies are native to Ireland and are one of the most welcomed pollinators to our crops as they fly much earlier than other pollinators, mainly in the outdoor crop environment. They get their name from hovering around flowers when feeding on nectar and pollen. To protect themselves from predators, hoverflies mimic the appearance of bees and wasps. However, they are harmless to people and most other animals. Their larvae are also great at controlling aphid (greenfly) populations in our plants.
Ladybirds are another one of our friends, as they eat aphids (greenflies). The greenfly is one pest that can do a lot of damage to our plants. Ladybirds also love nettles, and so we leave areas of them around the farm to support their population.
Butterflies / moths
On our farm, we aren’t too fond of butterflies and moths, as their caterpillars are a major crop pest. However, we still like to attract them to our farm, as they play important roles in several ecosystems. For example, on the Keelings Farm, we use the cinnabar moth to control Ragwort. The caterpillars of the cinnabar moth eat Ragwort and control it for us to some extent.
Bees – The Honey Bee and Humble Bumble Bee
Now onto the most important pollinator of all, the bee! Bees pollinate about 66-71% of our commercial crops and provide about 1/3 of our food supply in our supermarkets. On the Keelings Farm, we use honey bees and bumble bees. We have 330,000 bumble bees and 3,000,000 honey bees! Honey bees are the only bees capable of providing honey for commercial production and live in colonies of up to 60,000! On average, a honey bee will make 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime, and to make 1kg, it takes 4 million visits to flowers! We sell the honey made from our bees in our Farm Shop.
Although we’re unable to harvest honey from our bumble bees, when it comes to pollination, they come out on top. For example, a strawberry flower may only need one visit from a bumble bee, whereas it will need multiple visits from a honey bee before pollination is realised. Bumble bees live in much smaller colonies usually of 350 and hive underground. Unfortunately, one third of our bee species are threatened with extinction from Ireland. This is because we have drastically reduced the amount of food (flowers) nesting sites in our landscapes.
Relationship between our wildflowers and pollinators
At Keelings, we recognise the importance of wildflowers for attracting many different types of pollinators. There are over 800 native and introduced wildflowers found in Ireland. Studies show that native wildflowers are four times more attractive to pollinators than non-native flowers. Wildflowers are also tough. They don’t need as much watering, they get their fertiliser from the landscape and are tolerant to pests and disease. A wildflower landscape can be filled with bluebells, wild garlics, daisies, poppies, clovers, dandelions, cows parsley and many more!
We started our very own wildflower project in 2018. Prior to this, there were areas of conservation designated for flora and fauna on the farm. For example, for years, we have always provided areas for Willow trees to grow. Willow trees are an excellent source of early nectar for our honey bees and also benefit the wild bumble bee population, as it’s the first source of nectar for a bumble bee when she wakes from her hibernation.
Although the main role of our wildflowers is to attract more pollinators and sustain our current inhabitants, it was also originally set up for 4 reasons:
1) To create a natural barrier between our glasshouses and growing tunnels. For example, as the wildflowers are on the outskirts of our growing tunnels, pests will inhabit these areas first. They use the wildflowers as a resting place before moving onto our berry crops. By looking at the populations present on our wildflowers, we are able to indicate and react quickly to any potential infestation
2) To attract predators such as lace wings, lady birds, hoverflies, whirlygigs, some native wasp species (not the common wasp), etc. These remove any pests that are present before they can migrate from the wildflowers and into our crops
3) For pollination
4) Staff moral and to show some nice colour and points of interest around the farm
Different wildflowers will flower at different times and act as an early and late food source of food for pollinators. They also provide natural predators a home, such as the hoverfly larvae, which keep our pest populations down. Some of us on the farm use this link, which is great for identifying native Irish wildflowers.
Common Blue Butterfly