Tuesday, September 27, 2016
How London's honeybees are coming back
Unconstrained by borders, carried on Channel winds from the northern reaches of France, the arrival of the predatory Asian hornet in Britain - found lurking near a quaint market town in Gloucestershire last week - is bad news for our native honey makers.
With a wingspan stretching more than 7.5cm, and bearing razor sharp pincers, the thumb-sized velvet black vespas are thought to have first arrived in Europe concealed within a Chinese pottery shipment in 2004. Since then, their numbers have ballooned, while populations of Western honeybees - on which they prey almost exclusively - have nosedived.
Bee-killing Asian hornet spotted in Britain for first time
Sadly, here in Britain, this new menace is merely the latest of many threatening to send bees towards extinction. Across rural England, where pesticides and the destruction of habitat are already decimating nesting sites, bee numbers are tumbling into terminal decline. With more than 97 percent of our wild flowering grasslands uprooted since the 1930s, once bountiful Cullem’s and Short-haired bumblebees have already been extirpated from the countryside.
“The biggest pressures facing our bees right now are urbanisation and cultural practices.
”Dr Clint Perry
But there is hope on the horizon. Away from the perils of intensive agriculture and invasive species, our increasingly virescent cityscapes, coupled with hardening metropolitan attitudes towards climate change, could hold the key to their survival.
AT A GLANCE | Asian hornets
Asian hornets, which are originally from the Far East, carry a large amount of potent venom
The Asian hornet, or Vespa velutina, is an invasive species from Asia and was first spotted in Bordeaux, France, in 2005 and is now spreading rapidly
It is a highly effective predator of insects, including honey bees and can cause significant losses to bee colonies
It is active between April and November
Queens can be up to 3cm in length and workers around 2.5cm
Entirely dark brown or black velvety body, bordered with a fine yellow band. It has a black head with orange-yellow face
The Asian hornet is a day-flying species which, unlike the European hornet, ceases activity at dusk
It nests in tall trees in urban and rural areas, and nests can also be found in sheds, garages, under decking or in holes in the wall or ground
In London, of all places, bees are in fact thriving. Following a sustained conservation drive, new government figures have revealed that the capital’s airways are humming with the healthiest population of bees found anywhere in Europe. With more than 2,500 apiaries squeezed into crevices and rooftops across the capital, beekeeping has fast become the preserve of many urban dwellers.
Just a short walk from St James’s Park, where groves of white cherry trees straddle the lake down to Storey’s Gate, a hive of activity is taking place atop of Fortnum & Mason, the luxury department store. World renowned for its home-made produce, Fortnum’s roof terrace is now home to four apiaries, carefully carved from English oak wood, each brimming with some 50,000 honeybees.
Beekeepers tend to the apiaries on top of Fortnum & Mason's, Piccadilly CREDIT: FORTNUM & MASON
“We first had the inspiration from a set of hives housed on top of the Paris Opera house,” Fortnum’s grocery buyer Sam Rosen-Nash tells me. “Fortnum’s make so many of our products in-house, so we thought creating our own honey was the logical way forward.”
To keep up with soaring demand for their Piccadilly Honey, Fortnum’s has now installed apiaries in four other locations, including a new pied-à-terre alongside Hoxton canal. Dotted across the city, their bees now forage through the Royal Parks as far as Buckingham Palace, where they help maintain the pristine rose garden and herbaceous border.
“City honey is really quite special,” Sam says, “because it has such a complex flavour character. In Hoxton, the bees are feeding off the buddleia along the banks of the canal, so you have a completely different flavour dynamic to Piccadilly, where we have hints of elderflower coming through.”
CREDIT: JOE WOODGATE
Innovative new beekeeping techniques are also helping city-dwellers tap into Mother Nature. Following a £13 million crowdfunding campaign, Stuart and Cedar Henderson, a father and son team from Byron Bay, Australia, have recently released a novice-friendly apiary called the Honey Flow Hive. Whereas traditional beekeeping is a complex and stressful procedure, often involving copious palls of smoke, confusion and the occasional bee sting, the Hive is a remarkably simple device. Fashioned from pine wood frames and clear plastic chambers, it funnels honey directly from individual chambers with minimal effort, allowing beekeepers to collect their crop without disturbing the insects.
“Getting nectar,” Cedar says, “has always been a difficult task. I thought it was crazy to have to crack the hive open, pull it apart, stress out all the bees and spend all day just trying to get your honey. Now we’ve built something that allows people to sit back, turn the tap and get honey directly from the hive with no mess. It’s much more friendly for the bees.”
Retailing at £50 online, the Hive is now being hailed as the most significant breakthrough in beekeeping since the creation of the Langstroth model hive in 1852 and its popularity in London is soaring.
Researchers at Queen Mary University London hope that this will help boost wild bee populations, in parallel. “Beekeeping practices are increasing across the city,” says Dr Clint Perry, a leading biologist heading up the London Pollinator Project, a capital -wide scheme encouraging gardeners to ditch shrubs for bee-friendly Saliva and Syringa in order to provide honeybees with more forage.
Inside the University’s laboratories, scientists have also tagged more than 500 bees with electronic transmitters in order to gauge how well their horticultural efforts are faring.
One of QMUL's tagged honeybees feeds from a flower in Hyde Park, London CREDIT: CLINT PERRY
“London is unique,” Perry says, “because there are so many green spaces that can be tapped into to counterbalance the effects of urbanisation and agricultural practices elsewhere. The typical Victorian London home is small, but there are so many patches of green in the back yard or on roof terraces, so it has far more greenery than in other cities of a similar size.”
While the arrival of the Asian Hornet in Britain is a worry, Perry believes London bees have nothing to fear, so long as residents continue to appreciate their importance to the environment. “The biggest pressures facing our bees right now are urbanisation and cultural practices,” he says. “Whether it’s planting flowers or looking after your own bee colony—these are things that can really make a difference.”