Scientists are urging city residents to grow flowers, not keep bees.  They think an excessive number of city hives, as seems to be the case in London, could be doing more harm than good. 

Spurred on by widespread coverage of declining bee numbers, urban beekeeping has never been more popular. However, an article in the latest edition of the Society of Biology’s magazine, The Biologist, explained that the boom in urban beekeeping is not the answer to honeybee declines. It could even be bad for honey bees and other flower-visiting insects as it risks overtaxing the available nectar and pollen supply, and potentially encourages the spread of diseases. 

In the article, Professor Francis Ratnieks and Dr Karin Alton, from the Laboratory of Apiculture & Social Insects at the University of Sussex, suggest that we should channel the amazing enthusiasm for bees into growing more flowers.

Professor Ratnieks says: “Both honeybees and wild bees have been declining. Although the causes are complex the most important seems to be loss of flowers and habitat. Since World War Two the spread of intensive farming has greatly reduced areas rich in wildflowers, such as hay meadows. In the UK, 75% of the total land is now agricultural, so the lack of flowers is a major problem for our bees.

“If the problem is not enough flowers, increasing the number of hives risks making that problem worse. The honeybee is just one of many insect species which feed on nectar and pollen. Having a high density of honeybee hives is not only bad for honeybees, but may also affect bumblebees and other species feeding on the same flowers.

“If a game park was short of food for elephants, you wouldn’t introduce more, so why should we take this approach with bees?”

Many restaurants, galleries, businesses and shops use rooftop hives as a means of visibly greening their business or as team-building for staff, including The Tate Modern, Fortnum and Mason, and Lloyd’s of London.

At approximately 10 hives per km2, compared to approximately 1 per km2 in England as a whole, hive density is very high in London, the centre of urban beekeeping. In the five years from 2008 to 2013 the number of hives in Greater London doubled from 1,677 to more than 3,500 (data from BeeBase, a register of apiaries maintained by the UK’s National Bee Unit).

With the number of urban hives on the increase, there needs to be sufficient food. Although urban areas have gardens, parks and other green areas, they also have a high proportion of buildings, roads and other non-green areas. Even the green areas often have very few flowers.

High colony density in London and an influx of inexperienced beekeepers also runs the risk of spreading certain honeybee diseases, especially American foulbrood (AFB), a highly contagious bacterial infection of honeybee larvae. AFB is rare in Britain, but a high density of hives managed by novice beekeepers creates a situation in which it could easily spread if it got started.

Dr Karin Alton says: “When a shopping centre in Exeter became home to two bee hives this year it set up three raised beds with bee-friendly plants on the roof. But this was less than 20m2, and is completely inadequate. Our calculations indicate that each new hive placed in London would need the equivalent of one hectare of borage, a plant that attracts mainly honey bees, or 8.3 hectares of lavender, a plant that attracts mainly bumblebees but some honeybees.

“We need to bear in mind that the honeybee may have declined but is in no imminent danger of extinction, unlike some other critically endangered insects in the UK. There are better ways to help our declining honeybee population than encouraging beekeeping to the point of overstocking certain areas.”

Rather than encouraging more hives, a better alternative would be to translate the concern that people have for bees by providing more flowers and habitat.

Dr Rebecca Nesbit, press officer at the Society of Biology and entomologist, says: “We must remember that there are around 250 bee species native to the UK, along with many other insects which feed on flowers. By focussing our efforts on providing what these insects lack, we can help not only honeybees but all flower-visiting insects. Everyone can get involved, whether you have a garden, an allotment or a window box. Plant the right flowers and the bees will fly many miles to find them.” 

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