“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.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

****

Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

****
Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.