A honeybee on a honeycomb.

There is just one species of honeybee in the UK, but more than 250 other species of wild bee © Shaiith/ Shutterstock.com

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Beekeeping in cities is harming other wildlife, study finds

Enthusiasm for beekeeping in the UK's major cities is threatening other local wildlife, according to a new report.

Evidence is revealing that there is insufficient nectar and pollen to support current beehive numbers in UK cities, particularly London.

It means the popular hobby could be actively harming biodiversity, especially wild bees, rather than saving it.

Beekeepers usually keep one species of domesticated honeybee. In contrast, there are more than 250 species of wild bee living in the UK, including bumblebees, mining bees and mason bees.

Now, bees managed by keepers have become so numerous that they could be outcompeting their wild relatives for food. They can also transmit diseases, so beekeeping to save pollinators could actually be having the opposite effect.

The State of the World's Plants and Fungi report from the Royal Botanic Gardens (RBG) at Kew states, 'Campaigns encouraging people to save bees have resulted in an unsustainable proliferation in urban beekeeping. This approach only saves one species of bee, the honeybee, with no regard for how honeybees interact with other, native species.

'In some places, such as London, so many people have established urban hives that the honeybee populations are threatening other bee species.'

The need for bees

It is important to protect the UK's bee species because they do a very important job: pollinating our flowers and crops. They underpin healthy ecosystems, helping all of nature to thrive.

Likewise, nature provides bees with food. Trees and herbaceous plants create a bee's staple diet: pollen and nectar.

Some bee species rely on just a few plants for food, so it's vital that we think about those plants when we're building on land in towns and cities. Removing certain trees can have far-reaching consequences for the animals that rely on them. Wild bees especially are facing an uncertain future.

Climate change, fragmentation of habitat, parasites, urbanisation and agricultural intensification have all combined to make life hard for bees all over the world. Europe is one of the most studied regions when it comes to bee populations, yet there is still much we don't know about how to safeguard bees and prevent declines, or even which species need our help the most.

Protecting wild bees

Researchers in North America have also raised concerns about a heavy conservation focus on honeybees. In 2018, scientists pointed out that policies are often in place to protect domestic honeybees, but other bees are not given the same protection. Land is often given over to keeping honeybees, without checking what impact that might have on other pollinators.

What's more, honeybees often have direct negative consequences for wildlife around them. Hives can overwhelm an area, pushing other bees away from food sources. They can also help non-native plants outcompete native plants, as well as damaging flowers and taking nectar from a plant without pollinating it.

Saving wild bees is a complex business. In America, calls have been made to for policymakers and conservation groups to direct attention away from honeybees and towards a balanced route forward that protects all pollinators.

Experts at RBG Kew recommend that city dwellers do their bit to protect wildlife by appreciating and protecting the nature that's already around them.

Prof Phil Stevenson, Senior Research Leader at RBG Kew, led the study and is quoted in the report. He says, 'In many city parks you'll see signs telling you about the birds, bats, fungi, trees, grasses and wildflowers that live there. This is fantastic, as positive interactions with nature in cities are known to improve well-being and inspire changes in lifestyles that promote conservation of biodiversity.

'However, what they don't say is how all these organisms interact. We need much more information on the interactions and interdependence of organisms, and we mustn't be afraid to give people more complex information.'

You can help

If you'd like to give wild bees a helping hand, there are ways you can do your bit.

Gardens are crucial for nature - they cover more space than all UK National Nature Reserves put together.

If you're lucky enough to have a garden or outside space, consider letting parts of your lawn grow wild, or plant a wildlife-friendly lawn.

Avoid buying products containing pesticides or insecticides. Neonicotinoid pesticides, for example, harm wild bees.

If you don't have a green space, look into how you could nurture a park or community space near you.