“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.

 
 
 
 

On Walter Benjamin, and the “Arcades Project”

Passage Verdue, Paris. Image: LPLT/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1940 a small group of refugees were turned away at the French-Spanish border. Having fled the Nazi invasion of France, they hoped to find safety in Spain. One of their number, a German-Jewish philosopher and writer, intended to have travelled onwards to America, where he would certainly be safe. So distraught was he by the refusal he met at the border that he took his own life.

The writer in question was Walter Benjamin, the prominent critical theorist who has contributed so much to our understanding of urban society, and he died with a manuscript close at hand. When asked previously if the briefcase of notes was really necessary to a man fleeing for his life he had replied, “I cannot risk losing it. It must be saved. It is more important than I am.”

The work that Benjamin died protecting was the Arcades Project. It was to be his magnus opus, intended by the author to illuminate the contradictions of modern city life. But it was never finished.

To Benjamin, the subject of the work, the arcades of Paris, were relics of a past social order, where consumerism ruled. The arcades were a precursor to the modern mall, lined with all sorts of shops, cafes and other establishments where visitors could buy into the good life. The area between these two lines of businesses was covered with glass and metal roofs, much like a conservatory: it gave visitors the high street feel in an intimate, sheltered and well-lit setting. You can still find examples of such places in modern London in the Burlington and Piccadilly arcades, both off Piccadilly.

Such arcades proved hugely popular, spreading across Europe’s capitals as the 19th century progressed. By Benjamin’s time, though, his type of shopping area was losing custom to the fancy department stores, and in Paris many of them had been obliterated in Haussmann’s city reforms of the 1850s and ‘60s. Whereas Parisians could once visit 300 arcades, now only 30 remain.

Through his research Benjamin started to see the arcades as representative of a pivotal moment in social history: the point when society became focused on consumption over production. Buying the latest fad product was just an opium, he thought, dulling senses to the true nature of the world. By bringing light to this, he hoped to wake people up from the consumerism of the 19th Century and bring forth some kind of socialist utopia.


He also warned that this shiny veneer of progress was hiding the true state of things. Instead, he revered crusty old cities like contemporary Marseilles and Moscow, where social life was more honest. In this way, Benjamin contributed to the intellectual movement focused on stripping away the excess of revivalism, standing alongside architects such as Le Corbusier. 

Through his newspaper essays throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Benjamin also became one of the first thinkers to focus on urban isolation. His suggestion that we can be most alone when among such a dense mass of other people is something many in modern cities would sympathise with. His work wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as he saw cities as our salvation, too: laboratories from where society’s problems can be worked out.

It was 2000 before an English translation of the unfinished the Arcades Project was published, but by then the work had already had a significant impact. Just as he stood on the shoulders of giants such as Baudelaire and the Surrealists, modern thinkers have drawn on his work. Benjamin's concerns about common architectural forms can be seen to inspire modern architects such as Laurie Hawkinson, Steven Holl, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

The city of Paris itself was as much a part of the Arcade Project’s inspiration for Benjamin as was his intellectual predecessors. In his letters he repeats that it felt “more like home” than Berlin, and his days were spent marvelling at how the old and the modern exist together on the Parisian streets.

How groundbreaking the Arcades Project really was is hard to say. The fact it wasn’t finished certainly scuppered Benjamin’s plans to wake society up from its consumerist slumber, but that doesn’t make the work inconsequential. His fairytale of steel and glass is as much about the relationship between its author and Paris as it is a theoretical work. By putting the city as the main subject in human’s social history he laid the groundwork for future generations of thinkers.

Benjamin was lost to the tragic tide of the 20th century history, and his death marked the end of the project which could have changed the way we think of the urban landscape. Even if you shy away from the grandiose or don’t buy into his promises of socialist utopia, reading the work can still offer some eclectic factoids about 19th century France. At any rate, it must be acknowledged that the man gave his life to the betterment of society and the cities in which we live.