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Longread

How to dodge a bee-pocalypse

Longread

Words by Sophie Wright

Illustrations by Stephanie F. Scholz

The bee dilemma is one of the great global crises of our time. A mysterious phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder has wiped out countless honey bees in the past decade, while wild bees are also vanishing at an alarming rate. From unravelling our food supply system to disturbing ecosystems, a ‘bee-pocalypse’ would change the world as we know it. What can we do to help? Swarms of initiatives across the world are taking matters into their own hands to create bee-friendly cities that welcome back this dwindling population.

Ten years ago, beekeepers in the US noted a spike in empty hives.

Scores of adult bees were disappearing without a trace, leaving behind the queen and its brood. Without its worker bees, hives couldn’t sustain themselves and would collapse. Though recent studies have shown an improvement in the figures, the impact of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) was an alarm bell. The decline of the world’s pollinators by 90% in the past two decades is proof that we have become unwelcoming to a crucial part of our ecosystem. While studies into CCD continue, fingers point towards the destruction of natural habitats, poor nutrition, viruses and parasites and the use of pesticides in intensive agriculture. Unsurprisingly, these factors also harm wild and solitary bees who don’t live in bee farms.

“Pollinators are at the heart of biodiversity".

What would a bee-less world look like?

For a start, bees pollinate a third of everything we eat. Harvests of most fruit and vegetables, many nuts, plants used to make oil as well as coffee, cacao and tea would fail without pollinators. But pollination is not only beneficial for our own food supply. Integral to our food chain, bees ensure the reproduction of thousands of plant species and are responsible for – and dependent on – a lot of our green and flowered spaces. Many of these plants provide a food base for birds, other insects and other species. Pollinators are basically at the heart of biodiversity, an essential part of our survival and wellbeing – something worth fighting for. And there’s a lot that can be done.

A shared responsibility for protecting the future of the bees has been driving a new wave of urban, citizen-led projects and urban beekeepers across the world. Co-author of A World Without Bees and co-founder of London-based Urban Bees, Alison Benjamin sees beekeeping as a way of reconnecting with nature. Raising awareness and helping to make London a bee-friendly city, Urban Bees work with communities, charities and businesses educating people about bees, training beekeepers and thinking about how to transform our environments to help bees and pollinators. Underlying Urban Bees’ mission is a belief in the benefits of living in a green city, and a desire to remind city dwellers of our dependence on nature. Since starting her own journey into beekeeping, Benjamin says her health and wellbeing has greatly improved.

What’s more, the city can be a fertile home for all sorts of wildlife. “The problem that individuals can best address is to make urban areas better for wild bees by planting plenty of trees and flowers that provide year-round forage and by creating habitat, such as bee hotels, where solitary bees can check in and lay their eggs in hollow tubes, or leaving an area undisturbed of old leaves where bumblebees may make a nest,” she says. According to Benjamin, urban areas can often be better for bees because there is less pesticide use and more diversity of food throughout the year in green spaces – if they are made bee-friendly.

“I see the city in a different way as somewhere we live and share with nature,” Benjamin explains, describing her ideal vision for the city as a place “where they are built for everyone living in them, not just humans, but for the birds, pollinators and other creatures”. A symbiotic, equal relationship that cherishes and supports the work wildlife does for us. “My vision would be that every roof would provide habitat for wildlife, new or retrofitted, parks are reconfigured or newly created for us and wildlife, and new developments provide not just homes and restaurants for us, but also shelter and food for wild bees and other wildlife,” she says.

“My vision would be that every roof would provide habitat for wildlife".

Rallying a community together and getting the public involved are crucial steps in creating these harmonious cities.

Urban Bees is just one of the many initiatives busy with transforming cities into pollinator paradises. Across the channel in the centre of Rotterdam, Europe’s largest rooftop-farm sits atop the Schieblock office building. Part of a city regeneration project called the Luchtsingel, the DakAkker is one of four progressive projects that reimagine overlooked areas of the city with a green future in mind. The farm grows a colourful and diverse range of herbs, vegetables and plants that are delivered to local restaurants and sold at festivals, and also plays host to a botanical garden and six beehives. This lush green rooftop provides the perfect habitat for the bees, who produce honey that is sold at a nearby shop, as well as other neighbourhood pollinators. Maintained by beekeeper Wouter Bauman and a bevvy of volunteers, the DakAkker offers courses in urban farming and beekeeping for kids and adults alike.

In Germany, the organisation Mellifera Berlin has been researching sustainable, ecological beekeeping practices since 1985 as well as strategies on how to combat disease and how to protect bee habitats. Now that they feel the crisis has extended beyond professional beekeepers, their various projects and initiatives strive for a collective approach, encouraging people to come together on as large a scale as possible and act on this “common responsibility”.  With a “bee revolution” in mind, activities range from beekeeping workshops, tours and a handy 10 point plan of how individuals can address the problem on an everyday basis to more political initiatives. The project ‘Netzwerk Blühende Landschaft’ (‘Network Flowering Landscape’) encourages city services to scale back on pesticides and cut back on the destruction of green spaces, providing research on which plants and flowers would be beneficial to the area. An important dimension to the project is the belief in the unfulfilled potential of urban spaces. A leader of the Berlin branch Silke Meyer explains: “When we meet beekeepers from the countryside, we often hear that cities are paradise for bees. Here in cities, there are no pesticides, no monocultures – they find food all year and various blossoms in streets, parks and gardens.”

The bee revolution also extends into public space. Every year, in cooperation with Mellifera, a performance takes place at the demonstration ‘Wir haben es satt!’ (‘We are fed up with it’) takes place in Berlin drawing tens of thousands of people, to raise awareness and lobby for the improvement of living conditions for bees. With initiatives like these on the rise, the city of the future could be bright, colourful and welcoming – for all of its inhabitants.

 

Busy bees, read our latest mission article on the Seed Revolution.