The urban beekeepers protecting the ecology


For some people, the sound of buzzing bees instils fear, panic and crazed swatting.

With the British bee population plummeting, you may not miss that hum around your picnic in Victoria Park this summer. But without it there may be no picnic at all.

There are already three species of bees that have become extinct in the UK and there are a growing number of pollinating species globally that are in danger of going the same way due to man-made pressures.

In the last decade their numbers have fallen considerably as agriculture relies on pesticides that are harmful to bees and destroy their habitats.

In 2013 there were 267 species of bees recorded in Britain. Some of the rare species, such as the brown-banded carder bee and the hairy-footed flower bee, are being protected on conservation sites in Hackney.

The borough is home to several beehive conservation sites including the Community Tree Nursery and Forest Garden on Hackney Marshes, St Mary’s Secret Garden and Hackney City Farm.

“One in three mouthfuls we eat is pollinated by bees,” says Alison Benjamin, founder of Urban Bees, which promotes sustainable urban beekeeping and works across a number of the borough’s parks.

Busy little bees

Bees help put much more than just honey on your plates; Credit: Markus Trienke via flickr

Experts say that, without the bees, many of us will lose some of our favourite foods, including coffee, chocolate and apples.

The government has already taken a step forward by banning the use of substances that are harmful to insects, but the local community has also played a surprising role in saving the bees.

“They are the unsung heroes of the countryside, providing a critical link in the food chain for humans and doing work for free that would otherwise cost British farmers £1.8bn to replace,” says Alison.

“When the news hit the headlines people wanted to know how they could help. There was a huge rise in urban beekeeping.”

Temperatures in the city tend to be warmer than in the countryside and urban parks such as Haggerston provide a home to various exotic flowers that are high in pollen and nectar and are there almost all year long.

According to Alison, the amount of farming land in the UK has fallen dramatically due to intensive farming practices and urbanisation.

“There’s a great opportunity for cities to become the new countryside. Flowers are an insect supermarket,” explains Alison.

Beekeepers in the city

Hackney City Farm provides hives for the bees and in return they are able to pollinate cherry and plum trees from Haggerston Park to Victoria Park.

Over 140 volunteers helped by planting a food forest, a man-made expanse of food-producing trees and plants, in an underused area of Haggerston Park. The park already has many plum trees, which are high in pollen and nectar.

Gardens and parks in urban areas provide good sources of nectar and pollen. Common garden flowers are favoured by bees so anyone can build a bee sanctuary in their garden.

“Traditionally, beekeepers have been male, retired, bearded and living in the sticks. Now there are many people like myself who are beekeeping,” says Alison.

Speaking on behalf of The Bumblebee Conservation Trust on their website, naturalist and television presenter Chris Packham says few people realise how important bees are:

“They are charming little things and a pleasure to see, but they also do an essential job which many people take for granted. If bees continue to decline then we face ecological turmoil.”

Experts say that not all hope is lost and since many of the causes are man-made, they can be avoided.

“Their decline is primarily due to changes in land use, intensive agricultural practices and pesticide use, alien invasive species, diseases and pests, and climate change,” says Roo Cleland, development manager of the Conservation Trust.

Hackney Council advises that the best way to protect the bees is to make sure that there are places for them to feed and find shelter.

“Hackney is home to honeybees, as well as species of solitary bees and bumblebees, some of which are nationally rare,” says Hackney Council.

“We have created a number of new urban meadows in the last few years, with the help of volunteers, park user groups and schoolchildren. These provide a continuing source of food for insects such as bees.”

If you like the idea of helping the bees but the idea of going near one terrifies you, you can help by buying locally-grown honey from Stoke Newington Farmers’ Market.

Featured image credit: Kamillo Kluth via flickr

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