Stories about the declining bee population and its effects on the environment trickle through the news cycle nearly every day. To keep track of the latest bee news and make sense of the issues, we’re highlighting the major bee stories each week, with analysis from the Guardian’s Alison Benjamin, co-author of A World Without Bees, Bees in the City: The Urban Beekeepers’ Handbook and Keeping Bees and Making Honey.
What happened: Two professors from a University of Sussex laboratory are urging wannabe-urban beekeepers to consider planting more flowers instead of taking up the increasingly popular hobby. The scientists say that a dense population of bees in areas with fewer feeding plants puts more pressure on the species, potentially doing more harm than good.
As a self-labelled “townie” his advice to bee enthusiasts in the city is to “consider the availability of forage, the presence of other hives nearby, getting adequate competence of beekeeping and above all: do it slowly.”
“Learn to do it right and you’ll get much more out of it.”
Why it matters: Many people want to take up beekeeping in towns and cities to help save bees, but there are better ways to help. By planting nectar and pollen-rich flowers throughout the year you can help all types of bees, not just honeybees but also wild bumblebees and solitary bees.
You can also lobby your local council to get trees planted that are bee-friendly, such as hazel and alder whose catkins provide a vital source of pollen in the spring, when the bees need this protein to feed to their young, expanding colony. And you can lobby for councils to make it part of building regulations that all new development have pollinator-friendly roofs.
Unfortunately the trend for decking over backyards and turning front gardens into driveways as well as sprawling housing estates and office and retail parks have all robbed bees and other pollinators of vital forage in urban areas.
Harvard engineers have developed robotic bees.
What happened: Engineers at Harvard’s microrobotics lab are designing what may be the future of plant pollination – robotic bees.
We are at least a decade away from seeing robobees being used in real world applications. Eventually we’d like to see many of these robots work together similar to a colony of bees pollinating flowers. The robobees project will produce utility for society far beyond flying robot bees.
Why it matters: Bees have been around for more than 60m years. Humans are a long way from achieving what nature has evolved to do. We forget that at our peril. We would do better to find a solution to the demise of our bees and other pollinators (by improving and increasing forage and habitat and by reducing pesticide use) rather than pin our hopes on engineers to come up with a man made alternative. The ecosystem is made up of millions of finely balanced interactions. We can’t replicate that with robotic bees.
What happened: The so-called “beepocalypse” is on the cover of Time magazine this week but while the plight of the honeybee is getting lots of attention, the crisis facing other species (like wild bees) is just as important and going unnoticed.
The threats [to wild bees] are much the same ones faced by managed honeybees: pesticides, lack of wild forage, parasites and disease. The difference is that there are thousands of human beings who make it their business to care for and prop up the populations of honeybees. No one is doing the same thing for wild bees.
Why it matters: Many organisations such as the Co-op Group, Pesticide Action Network, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, and the Bee Guardian Foundation are now harnessing the awareness raised by the plight of honeybees to campaign for the survival of other pollinators such as wild bees and butterflies.
There is growing awareness that they have just as important a role to play as honeybees in pollinating flowers and crops. Honeybees cannot do it alone. Some wild bees have evolved to pollinate a certain flower and they only appear for a few weeks at the same time of year as the flower is in bloom. We can buy wild flower seed mixtures to help grow forage for all pollinators and download information about how we can increase habitats for these wild insects. The honeybee has proved the catalyst for raising awareness about the fragility of our ecosystem and why we should love all pollinating insects.