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23/07/2019

To beekeep or not to beekeep: That’s the question for UK towns and cities

It's become somewhat fashionable to support urban biodiversity by keeping honeybees on rooftops, terraces and city gardens. But urban beekeeping may be doing more harm than good, argues Phil Stevenson 

Public concern for bees has prompted a surge in amateur beekeeping in towns and cities. The hives on the roof of the Department for the Environment Food & Rural Affairs’ own HQ, Nobel House, are vaunted by ministers showing they are ‘doing their bit for the environment’.

But do 10,000 to 50,000 hungry bees on a city roof do anything for the environment? Or could they even be harmful?

If we want to protect bees, we need to think beyond honeybees.

There are about 275 bee species in the British Isles alone – all of which are important to food production or supporting natural habitats, including in towns and cities.

Honeybees outcompete wild bees for food, especially where food is limited. Honeybees forage on many plants so adapt to most environments, but wild bees often specialise in just a few, relying on native species. The ivy bee collects only pollen from ivy flowers.

"Attention to wild bees in urban planning must be encouraged through innovations such as bee-bricks and nest boxes, and allowing gardens and parks to become wilder"

Moreover, honeybees are so effective at collecting pollen they waste very little. The result is that they aren’t as good at pollinating as wild bees that typically carry pollen all over their hairier bodies.

A recent study showed that honeybees spread disease to wild bees, finding that around 20 per cent of flowers, which are primary disease transmission sites, near honeybee hives were infested with bee viruses.

The social media discourse is racking up among the expert beekeepers, too, especially in London. Concerns centre on the poor practice of amateurs, leading to disease proliferation that can affect other hives and more frequent swarming. There are now calls for rules similar to those in other big cities, including New York, Washington D.C. and Paris.  

But we must not demonise beekeeping: honeybees are essential for many crops. But the conservation narrative needs to emphasise diversity. Attention to wild bees in urban planning must be encouraged through innovations such as bee-bricks and nest boxes, and allowing gardens and parks to become wilder.

Reduced mowing in open spaces and parks permits proliferation of native flowers, and hedgerows and trees provide bees with masses of nectar and pollen. These measures should be included in city planning.

Crucially, we need to keep the conservation conversation alive; the more we know, the better support we can give to nature in our urban landscapes.  

Phil Stevenson is professor of plant chemistry at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and Natural Resources Institute, University of Greenwich

Photo| iStock 

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