“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.

 
 
 
 

Where actually is South London?

TFW Stephen Bush tells you that Chelsea is a South London team. Image: Getty.

To the casual observer, this may not seem like a particularly contentious question: isn’t it just everything ‘under’ the Thames when you look at the map? But despite this, some people will insist that places like Fulham, clearly north of the river, are in South London. Why?

Here are nine ways of defining South London.

The Thames

Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

It’s a curvy river, the Thames. Hampton Court Palace, which is on the north bank of the river, is miles south of the London Eye, on the south bank. If the river forms a hard border between North and South Londons, then logically sometimes North London is going to be south of South London, which is, to be fair, confusing. But how else could we do it?

Latitude

You could just draw a horizontal line across a central point (say, Charing Cross, where the road distances are measured from). While this solves the London Eye/Hampton Court problem, this puts Thamesmead in North London, and Shepherd’s Bush in South London, which doesn’t seem right either.

Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

And if you tried to use longitude to define West and East London on top of this, nothing would ever make sense ever again.

The Post Office

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Some people give the Post Office the deciding vote, arguing that North and South London are defined by their postcodes. This does have some advantages, such as removing many contentious areas from the debate because they’re either in the West, East or Central postcode divisions, or ignoring Croydon.

But six of the SW postcodes are north of the river Thames, so we’re back to saying places like Fulham and Chelsea are in south London. Which is apparently fine with some people, but are we also going to concede that Big Ben and Buckingham Palace are South London landmarks?

Taken to the extreme this argument denies that South London exists at all. The South postcode region was abolished in 1868, to be merged into the SE and SW regions. The S postcode area is now Sheffield. So is Sheffield in South London, postcode truthers? Is that what you want?

Transport for London

Image: TfL.

At first glance TfL might not appear to have anything to add to the debate. The transport zones are about distance from the centre rather than compass point. And the Northern Line runs all the way through both North and South London, so maybe they’re just confused about the entire concept of directions.

 

Image: TfL.

But their website does provide bus maps that divide the city into 5 regions: North East, South East, South West, North West and the Centre. Although this unusual approach is roughly speaking achieved by drawing lines across and down the middle, then a box around the central London, there are some inconsistencies. Parts of Fulham are called for the South West region, yet the whole of the Isle of Dogs is now in North East London? Sick. It’s sick.

The Boundary Commission

One group of people who ought to know a thing or two about boundaries is the Boundary Commission for England. When coming up with proposals for reforming parliamentary constituencies in 2011, it first had to define ‘sub-regions’ for London.

Initially it suggested three – South, North East, and a combined North, West and Central region, which included Richmond (controversial!) – before merging the latter two into ‘North’ and shifting Richmond back to the South.

In the most recent proposal the regions have reverted to North Thames and South Thames (splitting Richmond), landing us right back where we started. Thanks a bunch, boundary commission.

The London Plan

Image: Greater London Authority.

What does the Mayor of London have to say? His office issues a London Plan, which divides London into five parts. Currently ‘South’ includes only Bromley, Croydon, Kingston upon Thames, Merton, Sutton, and Wandsworth, while the ‘North’ consists of just Barnet, Enfield, and Haringey. Everywhere else is divvied into East, South or Central.

While this minimalist approach does have the appeal of satisfying no-one, given the scheme has been completely revised twice since 2004 it does carry the risk of seismic upheaval. What if Sadiq gets drunk on power and declares that Islington is in East London? What then?

Wikipedia

 

Image: Wikimedia Commons/CityMetric.

The coordinates listed on the South London article lead to Brockwell Park near Herne Hill, while the coordinates on the North London article lead to a garden centre near Redbridge. I don’t know what this means, so I tried to ring the garden centre to see if they had any advice on the matter. It was closed.

Pevsner Guides

Image: Wikimedia Commons/CityMetric.

Art historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner might seem an unlikely source of help at this juncture, but we’ve tried everything else. And the series of architectural guides that he edited, The Buildings of England, originally included 2 volumes for London: “The Cities of London and Westminster”, and “everything else”. Which is useless.

But as his successors have revised his work, London has expanded to fill 6 volumes: North, North West, East, The City, Westminster, and South. South, quite sensibly, includes every borough south of the Thames, and any borough that is partly south of the Thames (i.e. Richmond). And as a bonus: West London no longer exists.

McDonald’s

I rang a McDonald’s in Fulham and asked if they were in South London. They said no.

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