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Save the bees: don’t be an urban beekeeper

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Georgina Wilson-Powell

10 November 2016

Bee populations are in decline. Battered by disease, pesticides and a loss of habitat, we know bees need our help. But what should we be making a beeline for?

The award-winning Bermondsey Street Bees are abuzz. Not only do they produce delicious honey from their South London roof but they’ve become the bees’ knees when it comes to consulting on where to place hives and how to care for modern day bees. From London hotel rooftops to Soho Farmhouse’s country estate in Oxfordshire, Dale Gibson and Sarah Wyndham Lewis, have overseen hive installations and consult on where to host apiaries (that’s bee-keeping to you and me). Incredibly knowledgable about the plight of our pollinator friends, we chatted to them about how to save one of our keystone species.

Bermondsey Street Honey Pebble Magazine

According to the British Beekeepers Association, one out of three mouthfuls of food depends on bee pollination

Don’t plant wildflowers
“Wildflowers are a bit of a red herring,” explains Sarah. “Bees only forage for one species at a time, they can’t be deflected from that. Wildflowers might have varieties that bloom at the same time, which is useless for bees. The tend to grow quite far apart as well which takes up a lot of the bees’ energy. What is good for bees is densely grown flowers so they can visit a lot of them.”

London, and a lot of other major cities in the UK, actually have twice the density of bees compared to Europe so we need to plant more food before we add in more buzz.

Do plant trees...
Bees love a structural bit of foliage. One lime tree can give bees as much food as 300 square metres of garden flowers. “What we’ve done in a local edible garden is plant apple trees and red currants and herbs and people can go and sit at lunchtime and take shade but they’re all good forage for bees,” says Sarah. “You want something that will last and also add to your quality of life – a tree does that and also acts as a habitat for insects and birds and it scales up the whole ecosystem, obviously which the bees are a part of. It works to sustain a larger environment.”

...or creepers
People often forget about vertical spaces. In a city they’re an invaluable resource where you can plant creepers like ivy or honeysuckle, which bees love because they’re densely packed, one species food. Think about energy efficiency when it comes to bees.

Don’t keep bees
Bees need a radius of two miles to forage. In an urban environment you can put stress on the bees that already exist by throwing more hives into the mix without increasing the amount of food. Each hive needs to bring in 50kg of pollen and 250kg of nectar every year to survive. That pot of honey on your table - that’s the result of 55,000 miles of bee flights. However, if you're planting sustainable forage for your bees and take their flying radius into account, then that's another matter.

Bermondsey Street Bees Pebble Magazine 3
“Each hive needs to bring in 50kg of pollen and 250kg of nectar every year to survive”

Do keep a plate of muddy water outside
Bees get thirsty. Especially in winter. They prefer a shallow dish with mucky old water.

Do plant simple flowers
“Flowers that are perfect for bees are the simple ones, with a ring of petals and a solid great big patch of pollen in the middle like a daisy. It’s like a big landing pad for them,” says Sarah. “Daisies, asters, lavender - they’re all great.”

Do volunteer
“Not everyone has a garden or an outside space, but this doesn’t have to stop you. Join a local wildlife charity, their agenda might not be all bees, but you’ll still be making a difference,” says Sarah. “Understanding the eco-system, planting forage for them, these are good things - you’re not going to save the bees single-handily.”

Do plant flowers that extend the blooming period
Bees will be out gathering pollen from early spring to late autumn, they only stop when it gets below around ten degrees. Plant foliage that will bloom early or late so they have food right through the year, not just in summer. “You have to experiment with it a bit. If they absolutely love something then you can plant more of it. If you end up attracting other pollinators, then that’s not a bad thing either,” says Sarah.

Been inspired to get out there? Download a bee-friendly spring planting guide here.