Finding Roots

🐝 London’s Urban Bees 🐝 And Why You Should Care About Them

Written by Isobel Watts | Thursday 20th May 2021 | Reading Time: 10mins

#WorldBeeDay | #Savethebees

You’ve probably seen a few bees along your travels around London, but there might be more than you think. The number of city bees has increased dramatically in recent years, and there is evidence to show that they are thriving in this urban habitat because of the benefits it offers over rural areas.

You might find bees a bit scary or think that they’re just a nuisance, like a lot of people, but they are actually one of the most important animals in our ecosystem. They are vital to maintaining a stable food supply, environmental balance, and biodiversity. But many of the 275+ species of bees in the UK are endangered and are facing an uncertain future.

World Bee Day was set up by the UN and is celebrated every year on the 20th of May to spread global awareness about the importance of bees and to encourage people to do more to help protect and preserve them and other pollinators. Check out the UN page on World Bee Day to get involved in the events they have to offer and to learn more about it.

We’re here to tell you a bit more about urban bees and why bees are so important to all of us, as well as giving you a few tips on how to protect and preserve them as best we can.

Bees in London

You might not think that any city, let alone a busy one like London, would be an ideal place for bees to live, but there is plenty of evidence that suggests otherwise.

The population of London’s kept honey bees has tripled in the last decade, with over 5,500 hives registered in 2019. London currently has the densest bee population of any city in Europe, possibly even in the world. And it’s not just recently that bees have been at home in London. It is likely that they have been kept in the city for hundreds of years, introduced by monks who used their wax to make candles, and their honey for food and making mead.

Why Are There So Many Bees in London?

There is a common misconception that urban environments do not allow bees to thrive, but the millions of parks, gardens, and green spaces that London offers provide a great place for bees to live. Estimations suggest that city bees can actually be up to 3 times more productive than those who live in other parts of the country.

The reason that bees do so well in the city is because of the types of plants that grow here and the length of the seasons. The variety of plants in London’s parks and gardens gives bees a wide range of sources of pollen and nectar over a longer foraging season, as they flower at different times throughout the year. Cities like London also trap heat, meaning that urban bees can start foraging earlier and continue later into autumn than their rural counterparts. These longer seasons and the varied food supply give the bees a better chance of finding enough food to get them through the winter, and the lack of harmful pesticides found in agricultural areas means they have a higher chance of survival.

The biggest challenge in maintaining London as this bee-friendly haven is keeping the foraging areas clear. In a city that loves to build, keeping green spaces open and available for bees to find their food is likely to be an ongoing issue.

What Kinds of Bees Live in London?

With over 275 species of bees in the UK, you might be surprised by the number of bees that are hidden away in the gardens, allotments, and rooftops of London. Some London parks support up to 50 different kinds of bees. Take a look at the London Beekeepers Association’s Who’s who of London’s bees to find out more about the different species of wild bees you might find around the city.

Many of the bees in London are either kept honey bees, bumblebees, or solitary bees. The honey bees live in hives managed by urban beekeepers, in gardens and on rooftops of places like St Paul’s Cathedral, Tate Modern, and the Royal Albert Hall, as well as office blocks. The bumblebees and solitary bees in London are wild, and make their homes in the numerous gardens and hidden hideaways that London has to offer.

How Do Bees Find Food in The City?

Many of London’s honey bees rely on chestnut and lime trees, flowerbeds in parks, and brambles along train lines to provide the majority of their sustenance.

When searching for food, if a bee doesn’t already know where to find it, they will simply fly around for up to 6 miles from the hive, using their sense of smell to find a good source of pollen or nectar.

When the honey bee finds a good foraging spot, they tell the rest of the hive by doing something called a waggle dance. They use their relative location to the sun as a reference point, to create an angle between the sun and the food source. When they return to the hive, they waggle their thorax along this angle line to tell the other honey bees where to go to find the food. The harder the bees waggle, the better the quality of the food, and the longer they waggle for, the further away the source is. Using the waggle dance means that the hive as a whole spends less time searching for food, meaning that they can thrive in the city and are able to support between 20,000 and 60,000 honey bees in their colony.

Whilst the honey bees use the waggle dance, it is thought that bumblebees pass on information about food sources through sharing the pollen that they find. Bumblebees also live in much smaller colonies of around 50-400 bees.

So, Bees Are Thriving in The City…

They look after London’s plants and flowers, keeping it green and helping to freshen the air. They help us feel closer to nature in amongst the hustle and bustle of busy city life, and they are happily making London their home.

But it’s the rest of the country’s bee population that is suffering. Rural bees are the ones doing most of the work: pollinating our crops, providing us with food, and maintaining the balance of our ecosystem.
According to the UN, around one million species of bee face extinction. In the UK alone, the bee population has shrunk by around a third in the last 10 years, with the WWF finding in 2019 that 17 species were regionally extinct, 25 others were threatened, and a further 31 species were of conservation concern.

The Threats Facing Our Bees

The reasons for this population decline are many, but it is widely agreed that intensive farming and use of pesticides is one of the main causes of bee deaths and colony collapse. Pesticides are harmful to bees because they often contain potent chemicals that impact their abilities to forage properly, putting strain on the hive, limiting the amount of pollen they can collect, and causing premature deaths. When pesticides impact the colonies in this way, on average around 30,000 bees will be lost per hive.

Another big problem for bees is the loss of diversity in natural landscapes due to modern agricultural practices. Farmers favour vast fields of the same crop, however for the bees, this means nutritional deficiencies and the length of their foraging season is drastically reduced. Once the crops have been harvested, the bees are left with no food supply and have to search further afield, causing them a great deal of stress.

Other threats facing bees include climate change impacting the way that the flowers grow, urbanisation destroying habitats and blocking bees’ pathways, air pollution restricting their sense of smell, and the risk of highly contagious and harmful viruses spreading between hives.

Thankfully, the Covid 19 lockdown put an unintentional halt to some practices which are harmful to bees, such as mowing roadside verges. Bees depend on full, flower-rich verges to sustain them, as just one hectare can produce 60kg of nectar. That’s enough for over 6 million honey bees! Fewer cars on the road also reduced the air pollution which prevents bees from finding food, and it meant that less bees were killed by road traffic.

Despite this, the future of our bees is uncertain, and the risk of extinction is very real. But why does it matter?

Why is the Declining Bee Population a Big Deal?

Pollination is a really important process for the survival of our ecosystems. Almost 90% of the world’s wild flowering plants, 75% of global food crops, and 35% of agricultural land depend, at least partially, on animal pollination. Humans, livestock, and other animals rely on fruit, vegetables, and crops that are pollinated by bees to survive. Pollinators are not only vital to our food supply, but also play a key role in conserving biodiversity.

Bees are one of the most important pollinators in the UK, because they are able to pollinate on a much larger scale than other methods such as the wind, birds, butterflies, bats and other insects.

What Does This Mean for Us?

Bees are absolutely vital to our food security. Albert Einstein is often credited with saying that ‘If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would only have four years left to live’. Whether he really said this or not, if the bees did disappear, we would certainly be in trouble.

90% of the world’s population is fed by crops pollinated by bees, and about a third of what we eat comes from these plants. Without bees, staples such as fruit and vegetables, nuts, beans, and even cotton would be almost impossible to grow, and many medicines derived from flowers would be lost. We are dependent on food and produce which only grows because of bees and their hard work.

The economic impact of wild bee extinction would be enormous. It is estimated that in order to manually pollinate their crops, farmers would have to spend £1.8 billion every year.

Luckily, the complete disappearance of bees isn’t an imminent threat, but their depletion will have a huge effect on the stability and cost of our food supply, as well as the health of the environment. The decline in bees is a problem that affects us all. We should all be doing what we can to protect and preserve these vital pollinators for the benefit of ourselves and the world around us.

What Can We Do to Help?

Although this is a large-scale problem, it doesn’t mean that we can’t all do our bit to help protect our pollinating friends.

1. Grow plants and flowers.

This is probably the best and one of the easiest ways to help out your local bees. Bees’ favourite foods are flowers, but they can also get pollen and nectar from other plants and herbs. Having a Finding Roots MicroGarden in your outdoor space will provide them with much needed nutrients on their travels. The seasonal plants in our MicroGardens will also give the bees a choice of food sources over a much longer period of time.

2. Spread the word.

Talk to friends, colleagues, landlords, public centres, and anyone you know who has an outdoor space. Encourage them to keep wild spaces and grow flowers where they can, whether it’s a few pots or beds, or a full rooftop garden! Get involved in local planting programmes, organising large scale efforts or applying for grants to adapt public spaces for bee-friendly planting. The bees will thank you for it.

3. Buy or make a Bee Hotel.

These provide a refuge for bees to rest, build their nests, and lay eggs and will be enjoyed by types of solitary bees as well as the tree bumblebee. Attach the hotel to a wall or fence at least 1m above ground level and place your MicroGarden underneath so that there is a food source close by. You’ll know when you’ve got some residents when the tunnels become full of mud or leaves. This means it’s probably full of eggs and food!

4. Buy local.

Buying honey or hive products from local or independent beekeepers will not only support the bees, but can also be beneficial for you. Local honey will include a blend of local pollen, which, when consumed, can help to strengthen your immune system and reduce symptoms of pollen allergies. 

5. Know how to perk up a bee.

When you come across an exhausted bee, an easy way to help them out is by giving them some sugar water. The sweet solution mimics the quality of bees’ food and will give them a quick energy boost so they can get up and continue pollinating. When you find a tired bee, move it out of harm’s way or to a nearby plant, then place a few drops of sugary water solution next to it. You can make this by mixing equal parts water and white granulated sugar. You can even buy portable containers for this solution that you can take out and about with you.

6. Make a bee water fountain.

Fill a dish with shallow water, then place pebbles inside so that they stick out. The bees will rest on the stones and have a drink before continuing on their journey.

So, there you have it.

Urban bees are doing surprisingly well in our city, but the population as a whole needs our help. There are loads of easy and satisfying ways that you can get involved and make a difference, helping out both our urban bees and their rural friends. We hope you’re as buzzing to help as we are!