The Birr Castle Bee Management Project

Bee Managemnt Award

The Birr Castle Bee Management Project

The Birr Castle Bee Management Project

Birr Castle Bee Project Logo


How to Manage Forestry and Land for Bees

The Birr Castle Bee Project began in 2019, at a time when few outside the Irish Beekeeping community were aware of the problems bees faced in Ireland. The Estate, as innovative as ever, decided to research, create and implement, a plan designed to change every aspect of their land and forestry management for the benefit of bees.

Just 3 years later our work received a European Bee Award and was lauded by the Head of Natural Capital & Ecosystem Health and Environment at the European Commission as ‘you are already doing what we aim to do on a broader scale with the European Commission’s strategic initiatives. We thank you for your work and ask you to continue to be the practitioners and founders of good practices and management for pollinators.’

EU Bee Award Presentation

EU Bee Award Presentation

Here is how we did it

The Objectives of the Birr Castle Bee Management Project were both clear and vague, specific and general, simple but complicated.

We heard about the terrible plight of Bees in Ireland – their declining numbers and habitat loss, the impact of climate change, and of course the aptly named varroa destructor mite. Life seemed so hard for these little creatures, who are so productive and work so hard, but ask so little, that we swore to improve their lot in any way we could.

So, Bees need flowers, right? Yes, but it’s not as simple as that. There are 101 species of Bees in Ireland, so there are a lot of different needs. 19 are bumblebees, 81 are solitary, and only 1 is a native honeybee; but of those 6 species are critically endangered, 7 are endangered, 16 are vulnerable, and 13 are near threatened. Half of the bumblebee species are in decline, and half of the solitary bees are also in decline. This was getting complicated. How could we provide what each species needed?

Luckily, Birr Castle Estate is a single block covering 900 hectares of diverse habitat and geology. It includes no less than 8 Annex 1 EU Protected Habitats, from Oak Woodland, Meadows, Fenlands, and Raised Bogs, all scattered amongst extensive farmland and forests. We realised that with such a large area, and such variety, that Mother Nature herself could provide the solution if we provided the opportunity.

Birr Castle Habitats

Birr Castle Habitats

Our Objectives were/are:

  1. Provide/improve diverse nutrition
  2. Provide/improve nutrition for entire active period
  3. Provide/improve nesting habitat

We changed how we do everything, everywhere. We tried to make every corner of the Estate as natural as possible, and as time passed the habitat improved and diversified. We found that no two areas developed in the same way, with the same resultant vegetation, or attracted the same species. Our simple solution provided a very complex result, and the Bees are thriving.


  1. Survey the entire area:

The Estate was surveyed and mapped, breaking it down into its main land use types – forest, grassland, meadow, and bog. This map was then used as a basis for all future reports and plans.

  1. Identify habitats:

Each land-use-type area was sub-divided into distinct manageable blocks, and the different habitats in each were mapped and recorded.

  1. Identify negatives that are impacting bee habitat

In each block we tried to recognise anything that could be negatively impacting the Bee Habitat, e.g. chemicals, monoculture, etc.

  1. Identify positives that are impacting Bee habitat

We also tried to record anything that was positively impacting the Bees in each block, like sandbanks, standing deadwood,or hedgerows.

  1. Consultations

We talked to as many people as we could, explained what we were trying to do, and anyone who had an opinion was listened to.

  1. Create a Bee Habitat Plan

Any changes we could implement, in any management block, were put together into a workable Plan

  1. Create a Program/Schedule

Any operation or changes to implement were given a realistic timeframe

  1. Implement Bee Habitat Plan

Once the Plan was decided and agreed, it was given a start date, and things could start getting done.

  1. Monitor Results

Each block was monitored often, but any results were recorded and assessed every year, on the start date anniversary.

  1. Identify successes/failures

From the monitoring results, we got a clear picture of what was working and what was not

  1. Adapt Plan & Program where necessary

The results of the monitoring were then added to the Plan and Program for the next year.


Bee Plan Stages

Bee Plan Stages


As the Birr Castle Bee Project is only in its 3rd year, the work we have completed so far has had only subtle but hopefully long-lasting results. A casual visitor might not notice any changes, or maybe someone more familiar with the place might get a wilder, less tidy impression of the Estate. But the changes we have made, big and small, fast or slow, were made throughout the entire 900 hectares of the Estate, and I like to think that the Bees have noticed the changes.

In the Forests:

Continuous Cover Forest (CCF) Management

CCF is now policy on the Estate. There will be no more clearfelling large areas of trees. This method of management benefits the environment in so many ways, and there is no doubt it will benefit the Bees. To a Bee ‘every tree is an acre in the sky’, and they will never suffer the sudden disappearance of swathes of their habitat at Birr again.

Standing Deadwood

Sometimes it is easy to forget that a Bee’s natural home is in a tree. With that in mind we now leave standing dead or senescent trees in situ, whereas these would have been amongst the first stems removed during harvesting in the past. Given the choice, Bees far prefer having their hives in a tree – it’s safer, warmer, easier to line with propolis, and of course that is what they have evolved to do. It’s difficult to see which trees now have hives, as Bees are so house-proud, but we have identified several with hives that we hope will be used long-term.

Ecotones Everywhere

An ecotone is just a transition area between two different land use types, like between grassland and forestry for example, they have always existed at Birr Castle, but now they have a significance. We realised how important ecotones are to Bees, and most wildlife, due to their high diversity, and now we recognise how important they are; instead of seeing them as ‘wasted space’ like we did in the past.

We used to try to reduce these areas, squeezing as much production as we could, but now we are allowing them to expand and develop naturally. And as each one develops, it develops different vegetation depending on its location and surroundings – each one is different, and offers something different to the Bees, thus increasing the nutrition available, and the length of time nutrition is available for.

Diverse Species

Commercial forestry is usually monoculture, and it takes time to convert these blocks into something more diverse through CCF. A stand of Sitka spruce might offer some sap to a Bee, but otherwise is closer to a desert for pollinators. So we have begun planting groups of diverse species, both trees and understory species, to introduce some variety of pollen and nutrients. We try to focus on native species – willow for the early spring flowers, rowan for the autumn berries, but also use hawthorn, blackthorn, and holly. Like our other measures, it will take time to fully develop, but we have made a start.

No Chemicals

It is standard practice while establishing young trees to carry out chemical vegetation control of competing vegetation, sometimes twice a year. Trees ‘get away’ far faster with the help of herbicides, and it’s considered a less expensive form of maintenance. But it is now accepted how incredibly damaging herbicides are to Bees, and their use is now prohibited in the forests at Birr Castle. Now the trees are manually ‘cleaned’ whenever required, slower, but a much happier solution all round.


Bee Project Results

Bee Project Results


On the Farmland:

Natural Field Edges and Bee Corners

We have created Bee Corners and widened the field-edges at Birr Castle, fencing off larger areas to protect them from grazing. We never fertilise of spray these areas, most are never cut, just left wild, but if they are cut it is only ever done late after flowering.

Hedgerows for Bees

Bees are now the priority for all the hedgerows on the Estate. We are trying to make them more diverse in both species and height by allowing saplings and wildflowers to develop at the base, while allowing mature stems to expand and spread.

Introduced Deadwood

The farmland on the Estate has always been very tidy and well kept, so it looked great but there was no deadwood anywhere. To solve this problem we cut some large trees that had fallen in the woods into 2 meter lengths and distributed them around the farmland edges. Like the deadwood for the Bees in our woodland, we are hoping these will become long-term hives/homes where the Bees.

General Bee Management

We have made a good start, implemented lots of changes, and laid the foundations for a better future for the Bees at Birr Castle. However, perhaps out greatest result, and the one that will have the most impact, is how much our perceptions have changed. Many of us took little notice of Bees, of how hard their lives were, or of their struggle to survive in a world dominated by humans.

The biggest result is that we think about Bees now. We consider them in everything we do. Simply being aware of them, really conscious of them – how important they are, how hard they work, how vulnerable they are – that’s what will make the real difference.


We believe we’ve achieved a lot here at Birr through our Birr Bee Management Project. Already, from the work we’ve done in these past 2 years, there are lots of noticeable changes all around us. The Estate looks and feels more natural, wilder, and yes, some do say messier. But we are satisfied with what we’ve accomplished so far.

Or at least we’re satisfied with what we think we’ve accomplished so far. We think the Bees are happier, healthier, and more numerous now, but we cannot be certain. Having received the European Bee Award 2022, of course we were delighted, and it would looked good on Instagram and Social Media, but what we really want is to put the award to work.

Simply by sharing about our work on our website and Social Media raises so much awareness not just in Birr, but all across Ireland, about Bees. We would hope that people can hear about what we’re doing for our Bees, and maybe start them thinking about what they can do for their Bees. Bees are so often forgotten, or disregarded, that making others aware of just how important they are, and how fragile they are, could make such a difference to their little lives.

We do what we can with what we have, but it isn’t much. We would love to have the facts about our Bees, not just the general impression we have at present. Our next steps will be to continue gathering as much detailed information as we possible can. What Bee species do we have, what are their numbers, are they healthy, are they improving? So many questions we need answers to. We want to gather that information and use it as a foundation to build all our future Bee data upon.

We don’t believe our Bee Project work is finished; we don’t even think it’s really even begun. Right now, we can say ‘look at all we’ve done for the Bees’. But what we want is to be able to say, ‘we did that, and it worked very well because…’ or ‘we tried that there, but it worked better elsewhere because…’. We want to know what we have, so in future we can tell how far we’ve come.

The Birr Castle Bee Project has only just begun. We don’t want it to be about what we’ve done, we want it to be about what we have achieved, not now, but years from now. The European Bee Award recognised our accomplishments, but also spurred us on to do so much more.

If you want your own Bee Management Plan, want to begin your own Bee Management Project, or would just like more information, just contact Ecoplan

Or, you can read more about the Principles of Ecoforestry and Forest Biodiversity Management in another Ecoplan article.

Bee Management

Bee Management

Sean McGinnis Ecoplan Forestry

Sean McGinnis Ecoplan Forestry