“Honey bees do not mind being quite high up”: but is rooftop bee-keeping a good idea?

Bee hives atop Fortnum & Masons. Image: Getty.

What links the London Stock Exchange, posh grocer Fortnum & Mason and the Scottish parliament building in Edinburgh? All great institutions, of course, but they have also proudly introduced beehives to their rooftops. The Conversation

In the midst of worrying stories about declining bee populations, it has become a popular pursuit. Businesses and government install the hives with great fanfare to signal their green credentials. But is this actually a good thing for honey bees, beekeepers and the public?

For beekeepers it is clearly more convenient to keep hives at ground level. The bees do fine, and level locations are plentiful in most areas. Both ground and roof locations require beekeepers to carry out routine and seasonal management, such as hive inspections and honey harvesting. However, hive equipment is bulky and heavy. Steve Benbow, a commercial beekeeper in London, has described the effort of carrying hives to the roof of the Tate Modern art gallery via chambers, lifts, corridors, and a final ascent up four flights of stairs. Moving stuff is a lot easier at ground level.

High honey. Image: author provided.

Swarm behaviour

Then there are the swarms. Each spring, beekeepers have to manage this natural part of the life cycle in which a colony divides – swarming is how honey bee colonies reproduce. The swarm, when it leaves the colony, can contain 10,000 bees. Beekeepers manage their hives to prevent swarming. However, prevention is never 100 per cent. If swarming does occur, the swarm usually settles near the parent hive and can then be put into an empty hive and moved to a more convenient location.

Swarming from a rooftop probably makes little difference from a bees’ perspective. But the swarm is liable to be more of a public nuisance. Mark Patterson of the London Beekeepers Association told us that swarms from high-rise hives often settle high. He recounted episodes of abseiling down buildings, calling in the fire brigade and using window-washing platforms to collect central London swarms originating from high-rise hives.

Swarm! Image: Grande Illusion/Flickr/creative commons.

So much for our convenience, what about the bees? Well it is true that honey bees actually prefer to nest above ground level. Tom Seeley, a honey bee biologist at Cornell University, has shown that swarms are picky when selecting a nest site. By attaching plywood bait hives to trees he found that swarms prefer five metres above ground to one metre.

When Seeley located wild honey bee colonies in hollow trees in a nearby forest he found the average height was 9.7 metres (in a range of between 5.3 and 17.3 metres). That’s about three storeys high.

This shows that honey bees do not mind being quite high up, at least when nesting in a forest. We don’t actually know why honey bees in the wild prefer not to nest at ground level. It may provide protection against predators such as bears. Urban hives at ground level are unlikely to be predated, other than by humans, of course.


Altitude attitudes

In the UK, hives on iconic buildings such as St Paul’s Cathedral in London, can be very high up, 52 metres in that case. This is higher than bee colonies live in trees. Is this good for the bees? As far as the risks to a successful colony go, James Fischer, a New York rooftop beekeeper, told us that hives above 10 storeys are “speculative ventures”; those above 15 stories are on “life support”.

Research has yet to establish if height itself is an issue for honey bee colonies. Honey bees routinely forage several kilometres from their hive. To a bee, flying level or flying vertically should make little difference as air resistance, not gravity, is the main challenge. Flying vertically to a hive at 50 metres would be negligible extra distance.

More obvious is the fact that apiary sites should not be too exposed. Beekeepers know that good locations should be sheltered from the wind and this may be harder to achieve on roofs. Tall buildings often cause the wind to form unusual draughts and eddies.

Sweet reward

What is the real motivation for keeping rooftop hives? With trendy London honey retailing at up to four times the price of a similar Leicestershire honey, financial reward is one incentive. A somewhat different motivation is the desire of businesses and government bodies to showcase environmental credentials, by helping to save the “endangered” honey bee.

Image: National Bee Unit, Author provided.

However, this may not actually be helpful, particularly when it adds more hives into an area where there are already many, as seems to be the case in London. More hives increase the risk of spreading bee diseases and annoying neighbours. Overstocking can also increase competition for nectar and pollen which is not good for honey bees or beekeepers, or other pollinator species. Many towns, and especially central London, probably already have as many hives as the available flowers can support. Most people will have no clue that each new hive will consume the floral resources produced by the equivalent of eight hectares of lavender.

Keeping bees can be a fascinating hobby. And with the surge of interest in urban farming, sustainability, food security, and the environment – as well as intense media focus on bees – it is not surprising that beekeeping is becoming increasingly popular. People who take up beekeeping or staff who join corporate beekeeping projects often report genuine benefits such as more contact time with nature.

But beekeeping isn’t easy. For a novice, the reality can easily be dead colonies and no honey, rather than the hoped for abundant harvest. Once people start to question the motivation for installing yet another rooftop hive, they may find that more benefit could be gained, for bees, humans and other flower visiting insects, by growing flowers that provide nectar and pollen for all pollinators.

Karin Alton is a research fellow in, and Francis L. W. Ratnieks professor of, apiculture at the University of Sussex.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

The Thessaloniki dig problem: How can Greece build anything when it’s swarming with archaeologists?

Archaeological finds on display in an Athens metro station. Image: Gary Hartley.

It’s fair to say that the ancient isn’t much of a novelty in Greece. Almost every building site quickly becomes an archaeological site – it’s hard to spin a tight 360 in Athens without a reminder of ancient civilisation, even where the city is at its ugliest.

The country’s modern cities, recent interlopers above the topsoil, serve as fascinating grounds for debates that are not just about protecting the ancient, but what exactly to do with it once it’s been protected.

The matter-of-fact presentation that comes with the many, many discoveries illustrates the point. Athens often opts to display things more or less where they were found, making metro stations a network of museums that would probably take pride of place in most other capitals. If you’re into the casual presentation of the evocative, it doesn’t get much better than the toy dog on wheels in Acropolis station.

That’s not even close to the extent of what’s available to cast an eye over as you go about your day. There are ruins just inside the city centre’s flagship Zara store, visible through the glass floor and fringed by clothes racks; Roman baths next to a park cafe; an ancient road and cemetery in an under-used square near Omonia, the city’s down-at-heel centre point.

Ruins in Zara. Image: Gary Hartley.

There is undoubtedly something special about stumbling upon the beauty of the Ancients more or less where it’s always been, rather than over-curated and corralled into purpose-built spaces, beside postcards for sale. Not that there isn’t plenty of that approach too – but Greece offers such sheer abundance that you’ll always get at least part of the history of the people, offered up for the people, with no charge attached.

While the archaic and the modern can sit side by side with grace and charm, economic pressures are raising an altogether more gritty side to the balancing act. The hard press of international lenders for the commercialisation and privatisation of Greek assets is perhaps the combustible issue of the moment – but archaeology is proving something of a brake on the speed of the great sell-off.

The latest case in point is the development of Elliniko – a site where the city’s decrepit former airport and a good portion of the 2004 Olympic Games complex sits, along the coastal stretch dubbed the Athens Riviera. With support from China and Abu Dhabi, luxury hotels and apartments, malls and a wholesale re-landscaping of several square kilometres of coastline are planned.

By all accounts the bulldozers are ready to roll, but when a whole city’s hovering above its classical roots, getting an international, multi-faceted construction job off the ground promises to be tricky – even when it’s worth €8bn.


And so it’s proved. After much political push and shove over the last few weeks, 30 hectares of the 620-hectare plot have now been declared of historical interest by the country’s Central Archaeological Council. This probably means the development will continue, but only after considerable delays, and under the watchful eye of archaeologists.

It would be too easy to create a magical-realist fantasy of the Ancient Greeks counterpunching against the attacks of unrestrained capital. The truth is, even infrastructure projects funded with domestic public money run into the scowling spirits of history.

Thessaloniki’s Metro system, due for completion next year, has proved to be a series of profound accidental excavations – or, in the immortal words of the boss of Attiko Metro A.E., the company in charge of the project, “problems of the past”.

The most wonderful such ‘problem’ to be revealed is the Decumanus Maximus, the main avenue of the Byzantine city – complete with only the world’s second example of a square paved with marble. Add to that hundreds of thousands of artefacts, including incredibly well-preserved jewellery, and you’ve a hell of a haul.

Once again, the solution that everyone has finally agreed on is to emulate the Athens approach – making museums of the new metro stations. (Things have moved on from early suggestions that finds should be removed and stored at an ex-army camp miles from where they were unearthed.)

There are other problems. Government departments have laid off many of their experts, and the number of archaeologists employed at sites of interest has been minimised. Non-profit organisations have had their own financial struggles. All of this has aroused international as well as local concern, a case in point being the U.S. government’s renewal of Memorandums of Understanding with the Greek state in recent years over protection of “cultural property”.

But cuts in Greece are hardly a new thing: lack of government funding has become almost accepted across society. And when an obvious target for ire recedes, the public often needs to find a new one.

Roman baths in Athens. Image: Gary Hartley.

Archaeologists are increasingly finding themselves to be that target – and in the midst of high-stakes projects, it’s extremely hard to win an argument. If they rush an excavation to allow the quickest possible completion, they’re seen as reckless. If they need more time, they’re blamed for holding up progress. 

Another widely-told but possibly-apocryphal tale illustrates this current problem. During the construction of the Athens Metro, a construction worker was so frustrated by the perceived dawdling of archaeologists that he bought a cheap imitation amphora in a gift shop, smashed it up and scattered the fragments on site. The worthless pieces were painstakingly removed and analysed.

True or not, does this tale really prove any point about archaeologists? Not really. They’re generally a pragmatic bunch, simply wanting to keep relics intact and not get too embroiled in messy public debates.

It also doesn’t truly reflect mainstream attitudes to cultural capital. By and large, it’s highly valued for its own sake here. And while discoveries and delays may be ripe for satire, having history’s hoard on your doorstep offers inconveniences worth enduring. It’s also recognised that, since tourists are not just here for the blue skies, good food and beaches, it’s an important money-maker.

Nonetheless, glass malls and shiny towers with coastal views rising from public land are good for the purse, too – and the gains are more immediate. As the Greek state continues its relentless quest for inward investment, tensions are all but guaranteed in the coming years. 

This is a country that has seen so many epic battles in its time it has become a thing of cliché and oiled-up Hollywood depiction. But the latest struggle, between rapacious modernity and the buried past, could well be the most telling yet. 

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