Interview with Dr Bridget O'Neill

Entomologist, TCD Centre for the Environment


1. How did you become interested in entomology and phenology?

I was always interested in entomology.  I was one of those little kids always running around outside and I had a fascination with anthills in particular.  I suppose I just never grew up really.  I did not have a scientific interest in phenology until I came to Ireland, but I was always aware of when different insects emerged each year.  I did find it interesting to see which climatic events could cause delays in emergence or early emergence.

2. You're from the USA, how does phenology in Ireland differ from in the USA?

Well there are a lot fewer species to watch out for for one thing.  Plus Ireland is a lot smaller so you expect the same phenophase to happen across the country at roughly the same time.  In general though there is a slightly different attitude towards the science of phenology here.  It’s a bit more respected and accepted, in the States it’s just starting to get its footing as a science.

3. What's been your favourite part of working in Ireland?

I really love the tea breaks.  Honestly they’re a great time to meet up with everyone in the office you might not talk to otherwise and get a different point of view on what you are doing.  In the States it is really easy to get tunnel vision with your research and here you are kind of forced out of that at least once a day which is better for research and your sanity.

4. On your analysis of insect behaviour on the island of Ireland, is there any notable features on such that indicate that longer-term climate change, as opposed to year on year weather variability, is already having an impact in Ireland?

For my research I’m focussing on the phenology of Irish moths, and yes, their phenology has been changing significantly over a number of years.  Year to year weather variability definitely has an effect on the first sighting date for different moth species, with moths first being seen earlier in warmer springs and later in colder springs.  But even with this, most of the species we have looked at have been slowly moving up in the year over the past thirty years.  You might have blip in the record every few years with weather variability, but everything is still moving in the same direction.

5. I have heard it said that bees and butterflies appearing early in the spring, and indeed, tree/vegitation leafing earlier than usual can be a sign of a good summer ahead. Do you think there is any truth in this, or is this just down to the weather conditions at the time?

I think it’s just down to weather conditions at the time.  This year everything was out at least a week or two earlier than it normally is in the spring, and look at the summer we’re having so far.

6. Children today often have less freedom and opportunity to observe the natural world. How phenologically aware do you think that Irish children are?

I think it really depends on where they are.  I live in Dublin and I would say the kids I see every day are not very phenologically aware at all.  They know that flowers bloom in the spring and fruits are ready in the summer, but that is about it.  Friends of mine down in Waterford though are dairy farmers and their children are extremely aware of the natural world, so it really can depend on how exposed you are to nature.  Here in Dublin the National Botanic Garden does do a lot of events for families which are really good for natural awareness.  Project Greenwave is also a great program in primary schools that helps kids keep track of weather and phenology.  So hopefully with more programs like these, and just getting outside more often, kids will be able to appreciate nature in Ireland.

7. Congratulation on setting up the Irish Phenology Network. Could you tell us more about this and its successes?

Actually the Irish Phenology Network has been around for about 30 years, we just broadened it a lot over the past two years.  The IPN originally just focused on the International Phenology Gardens in Ireland.  These were gardens connected to a European-wide network that all recorded phenology of the same tree species.  There were four founded in the 1960s and two more were founded about five years ago.  Since this project has started at Trinity we expanded the network, adding 10 more IPGs around the country, and 12 gardens that are looking at the phenology of native Irish species.  We also founded Nature Watch in collaboration with the National Biodiversity Data Centre in Waterford.  This is a phenology monitoring website open to anyone in the country.  There are 10 plant species, 5 birds and 5 insects that we are interested in that we are asking members of the public to keep an eye out for.  Whenever you see one of these species, just enter it and what stage the phenology is in on the website.  The website has information on phenology in general and what to look for with each of the species, information on climate change and the project at Trinity College.  We’ve gotten some press, mostly in newspapers across the country, and listings in newsletters such as this one.  The website is only a year old so it is still growing, but we received a fair number of observations this past spring on birds returning to Ireland, insects out and about and first flowering.  Things have slowed down a bit now, but there is still fruiting to keep an eye out for, and leaf colouring and fall in the Autumn.  It’s still too early to start analysing the data, but with a few more years we can start to say how things are changing in Ireland.

8. Botanical phenological records in Ireland can be said to extend back to the Annals and the early centuries AD with many references to harvest yields, fruit yields and times of famine.  In your opinion, what use if any are these historical records to modern researchers in this field

These are incredibly valuable records for modern researchers.  Such long-term records of course can be used to look at changes in climate in Ireland.  But they also can be used to look at changes in farming practices, changes in land usage, population changes for humans, plants and animals, distribution changes of species or species extinctions, rates and types of diseases and pest damage on crops and even changes in economics as wealthier groups can demand different crops planted for food, forage and export.

9. Have the recent harsh winters had any appreciable effect on the phenology of plants and insects in Ireland?

Not really actually, at least not for insects.  Although winters have been very cold with a lot of precipitation, they are still ending at roughly the usual time.  And early spring months have been rather warm the past few years, so phenology is preceeding at the same pace.  Cold winters with a lot of snow can actually be beneficial for many species.  When winters are warm dormant animals, from insects to bats, can emerge early, for just a few days or for the rest of the winter.  When this happens they are using energy that they may not be able to renew if their food source isn’t available.  This will make them weaker in the spring when they are supposed to emerge and it will take them longer to rebuild those fuel stores for future growth or reproduction.  Cold winters ensure that these animals remain dormant, and keep their fuel stores high for spring emergence.

10. What is your earliest weather memory?

I grew up in New Hampshire, just north of Boston, so most of my early memories of weather involve heavy snowfalls.  Lots of sledging and ice skating made a very favourable impression of winter.

11. What is your favourite weather type and why?

I love thunder storms which there aren’t nearly enough of here in Ireland.   My father and I used to sit on the porch during them growing up (it was a covered porch of course) and watch the lightning and count till the thunder came to see if they were getting closer or farther away.  And the lightning bolts are always so beautiful.

12. What interests have you outside of phenology?

In science or in life?  I’m a biologist so anything to do with life or nature I find fascinating.  I’m also an avid hiker and nature photographer.


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