I have always dreamt of keeping bees. On my good life wish list, it has ranked somewhere alongside tending an orchard, building a treehouse and creating a wildflower meadow for many years.
Lately, I have been reading bedtime stories to my children from a book called Tales from the End Cottage, which has rekindled that dream. This charming collection follows the idyllic life of Mrs Apple and her animals in the country as they forage for mushrooms, make jam, bake bread and… keep bees.
But new research has got me rethinking my beekeeping plans.
The State of the World’s Plants and Fungi report from The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew has revealed that urban beekeeping may do more harm than good to the environment. Beehives have sprung up throughout UK cities including London over the past decade but the report warns that there are not enough local food sources to sustain both honeybee and wild bee populations in built-up areas. And honey bees, being better at collecting nectar and pollen, outcompete their wild cousins, leading to a drop in biodiversity.
This is not just bad news for wild bees but for wildflowers too. There are 270 species of wild bee in the UK and many of them have evolved alongside certain species of plant so that they are uniquely adapted to pollinate them. For example, bees with extra long tongues are particularly skilled at pollinating plants with long flowers. Honeybees, however, like to keep hold of the pollen they collect to make honey, so are not very efficient pollinators.
Even in rural areas where flowers may be more abundant, there is still a risk of competition between honeybees and wild bees. Especially as Britain has lost 98 per cent of its wildflower meadows to intensive agriculture.
Beekeeping could also damage the environment if honeybees, which are intensively bred and traded internationally, spread diseases amongst wild bee populations. The Vegan Society has highlighted beekeeping practices that it believes to be unethical, such as post-harvest hive culling, queen bee wing clipping and fobbing off bees with nutritionally poorer sugar syrup in place of their honey.
All these things considered, I think I’m going to stick with organic UK honey that is produced in rural areas, or else choose an alternative such as maple syrup to sweeten my porridge.
And when it comes to beekeeping, I think there are plenty of easier, better ways of helping out the bees, including:
- Building a bee hotel out of old bamboo canes or scrap wood with drilled holes
- Increasing the amount and variety of flowering plants in the garden
- Going easy on the weeds and forgetting to mow the lawn
- Asking the local council to plant more flowers on public green space
- Doing a spot of guerilla gardening, if appropriate. (A neighbour of mine planted hollyhocks in all the unloved front gardens on our street.)
Ah well, and I was rather looking forward to dressing up like this: