“If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would only have four years left to live.”

Maurice Maeterlinck, The Life of the Bee

It is estimated that around a third of the food we eat relies on bee pollination. Critical to the agricultural industry, bees help to pollinate crops that feed 90% of the world’s population. So it’s not surprising that a sharp decline in bee populations around the world has sparked global concern.

With environmentalists researching ways to help resolve the world’s bee problem, one of the answers may be found through considered urban planning. From parks and median strips filled with bee friendly flowers to an abundance of rooftop gardens, there is a possibility of creating sustainable, eco-friendly cities that not only make urban living more enjoyable, but help to support the natural ecosystem.

Declining bee populations

It was around ten years ago when beekeepers in the United States first discovered the sudden disappearance of honey bees. Nests were found with only queen bees and their young inside – the worker bees nowhere to be found. A startling phenomenon which is known as Colony Collapse Disorder.

Not limited to the United States, Colony Collapse Disorder has had devastating effects on bee populations across Europe, the UK and New Zealand. Habitat loss, climate change and pesticide use have attributed to the sharp decline in honey bees, in addition to bacterial diseases and parasites such as Varroa mites, which can wipe out entire colonies.

Australian bees

To date, Australia hasn’t yet been affected by Colony Collapse Disorder and is currently one of the only places in the world not to have been infected with Varroa mites. However, experts believe it’s only a matter of time before Australia’s honey bee and native bee populations will be exposed. The consequences of which would be devastating.

If Varroa mites infested Australia’s honey bee population, not only would this have a severe environmental impact, the horticulture industry would face estimated losses of $50 million a year.

Hayley Edwards, Urban Designer and Biophilia Enthusiast at Hames Sharley says, “This isn’t an issue that should be ignored. Just because Australia hasn’t yet been hit it doesn’t mean that we won’t be. Urban planning needs to consider all environmental aspects and creating places where bees and other pollinators can thrive is crucial.”

Bee friendly urban spaces

Nature is already a key component in urban design. From parklands to nature strips and botanic gardens, the most vibrant cities around the world feature beautiful green spaces interspersing the concrete jungle. But as we become more environmentally conscious, green spaces need to evolve from simply being aesthetically pleasing to serving the important purpose of supporting the ecosystem.

Hayley says that, “Simply planting nectar and pollen-rich flower patches throughout the city can go a long way to creating a nourishing environment for pollinators. However, it’s important to also consider our native bees in addition to the European honey bees. Native bees play an extremely important role in our ecosystem, and therefore native flora should also be planted amongst urban flower patches.”

Studies have shown that exotic flowers – albeit pollen-rich - aren’t as attractive to native bees. In Australia, plants preferred by native bees include native peas and daisies, eucalyptus, banksia, and some introduced garden plants such as lavender.

Green roofs

Rooftops make up around 10-20% of urban space, and yet they largely go unused. As the trend toward biophilic design and urban greening grows in popularity, we’re seeing the introduction of more green roofs – essentially gardens on inner-city rooftops – which have the benefit of growing produce, increasing biodiversity and even helping to control building temperature. It’s a new wave of sustainable architecture we expect to increase significantly in the coming years.

In Germany around 15% of its rooftops are gardens, and Toronto has over 600,000 square metres of green roofs. Also gaining popularity in Australia, Melbourne has an estimated 50 green roofs and there are around 80,000sqm of green roofs and walls in Sydney.

Green roofs can also play a part in bee-friendly urban design. Roofs that incorporate pollen-rich flower patches provide bees and other pollinators more opportunities to access food. However, roof height is crucial when considering bees - the higher the roof, the fewer bees are able to access it. Bee friendly gardens should therefore be a priority on roofs on the eighth floor or lower.

Of course with the additional number of bees attracted to a city’s green roofs, it would make sense to include the addition of inner-city hives. In Manhattan, on the seventh-floor rooftop of One Byrant Park, a hive has been created which houses 100,000 honeybees who forage on local rooftops and provide honey for the workers below. In Sydney, there are numerous urban hives across hotels like QT Sydney, the Shangri-La and Swissotel, producing gallons of honey for hotel patrons. However, it’s important to note that DIY bee keeping, if done in ignorance and not maintained correctly, can increase the number of pest and diseases and ultimately have a negative impact on bee populations. So for anyone considering urban bee keeping, it’s imperative to seek professional guidance.

Bee hotels

Beyond simply planting flowers, the bee’s habitat also needs to be considered in urban environments. For instance, ground burrowing bees (which is how a high percentage of the native bee population in Australia choose to live) cannot burrow into mulch or other common verge, garden bed and reserve ground coverings. In addition to planting bee friendly flora, there also needs to be a strong emphasis on bee habitat to help maintain the native bee population. One example of this can be seen in Adelaide, where a number of organisations and councils have joined forces to launch The Native Bee BnB Project; a number of ‘bee hotels’ designed specifically for native bees.

A bee-friendly future

The world’s rapidly declining bee population has sparked global concern. A modern-day ‘canary in the mine’, the plight of the bees is a frightening example of the negative consequences urban development can have on the earth’s fragile ecosystem. But there’s no reason we can’t try to turn it around. With more research and awareness around the harmful effects of pesticides – as well as Government policy changes into pesticide use – combined with a stronger focus on biophilic design and urban greening, we can build cities which are not only bee friendly, but that are more human friendly too.

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