Could urban beekeeping be the answer to our global bee crisis? Sarah Freeman heads to the Polish capital of Warsaw to find out what all the buzz is about
Albert Einstein once prophetically remarked: ‘If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live.’ The world’s most important, yet most threatened pollinator, isn’t faring well in the wake of climate change, an excessive use of pesticides, cell towers and loss of habitat across our planet.
The alarming statistics speak for themselves. Between 2016 and 2017, 33 per cent of American bee colonies were lost in the United States (part of a decade-long die off), whilst nearly one in ten wild bee species face extinction in Europe according to a IUCN (The International Union for Conservation of Nature) report. In reality, the world’s dying bee population isn’t just ‘nature’s problem’ – it’s everyone’s.
Did you know that approximately one third of everything you put in your mouth has been pollinated by a bee? From apples to blueberries, almonds to avocados. Bees are responsible for the production over 100 crops.
However, the implications of vanishing bees are not just related to food; they are also economic in scope. In America, these super-pollinators are worth 14.6 billion dollars in crop production, and yet the agricultural industry is more foe than friend. Wild bee habitat shrinks every year with monoculture farms, whilst neonicotinoids (the world’s most widely used insecticides) are turning former pristine havens for bees into killing fields. In a cruel twist of fate, neonicotinoids (which are now known to attack the insects’ nervous systems) were introduced in the early 90s to replace chemicals known to harm bees. The insecticide has made our stripy, flying insect friends more susceptible to the deadly varroa mite – an invasive pest and bees’ number one killer, which has decimated populations worldwide.
But hopefully the tide is turning against the multibillion-dollar international chemical industry, with companies like Australian grocery giant Woolworths recently pulling bee-harming pesticides from its shelves.
With an estimated 500 hives, Poland’s capital Warsaw is fast becoming Eastern Europe’s foremost urban beekeeping mecca, aided by a change to the city’s beekeeping laws four years ago. Warsaw’s Arkadia shopping centre, Królikarnia Park, Regent Hotel and iconic Palace of Culture and Science all have an unusual common interest; bees.
Contrary to what you may think, Warsaw’s lush lime trees are healthier than their hinterland counterparts. In fact, urban bees typically have a higher survival rate than their country cousins, owing to the lack of pesticides and elevated temperatures in urban areas. This extends the flowering season, making it easier for bees to survive Poland’s bitterly cold winter months. And when it comes to taste, city bees are the true connoisseurs. The sheer biodiversity in a compact urban centre versus the countryside supports a broader range of nectar sources.
Dariusz Suchenek, chef and apiary keeper at the Regent Warsaw (Poland’s first hotel to install apiaries) agrees: ‘In cities, bees use the abundant park vegetation. With so many green areas in Warsaw there is no risk of food shortage.’ Some 350,000 bees call the upscale downtown hotel rooftop home, which affords views over the magnificent Łazienki Park where the bees forage. The 192kg of Łazienki Gold Honey harvested monthly from the hotel’s seven hives (consumed 100 per cent in-house) is a mainstay on the breakfast buffet. Ethically minded Dariusz tells me: ‘Our goal is more than just honey production. We never fully extract the honey from the beehive in order to leave fully nutritional food to the bees.’
Another lofty city residence where bees are literally taking flight is the vast Palace of Culture and Science (Poland’s tallest building). Tourists flock to the 44-floor, 1950s Stalinist behemoth for its panoramic city views, blissfully unaware of its sweet spot – the seventh floor, where four hives reside, undisturbed by visitors. The sole caretaker of the apiaries’ 160,000 inhabitants is Wiktor Jędrzejewski, creator of the non-governmental initiative Miejskie Pszczoły, and unofficial goodwill ambassador for the city’s bees.
Consultant-turned-rural-amateur-beekeeper, Kamil Baj, is also putting Warsaw on Europe’s urban beekeeping map. The innovative beekeeper’s “postcode honey” sourced from city neighbourhoods like Praha and Mokotów is proving a big hit with local residents, who are benefitting from the hyper-locally-produced honey’s immunity-boosting qualities. One of his company Pszczelarium’s most ambitious projects to date has been installing hives on the 27th floor of Warsaw’s Central CPI Tower, making it one of the highest apiaries in the world.
The Fab Four
Here are four urban beekeeping hotspots where bees are thriving:
With its distinct microclimate, generous tree canopy coverage and unique blend of native and exotic flora, the UK capital is a sanctuary for bees. In the past five years London’s hives have doubled, and there are estimated to be some 1,400 beekeepers and about 4,000 colonies spread across its iconic rooftops, terraces and suburban gardens. Landmarks like Greenwich Royal Park, The Old Bailey and University of London boast their own apiaries.
Teeming with white clover and linden trees, the windy city is a surprising hot bed of beekeepers. Chicago’s vacant lots, parkways, apartment rooftops community and wealth of public parks are a great resource for bees, which have also taken up residence at Chicago’s City Hall. O’Hare International, meanwhile, hosts 75 hives, making it one of the largest airport apiaries in the world.
The birthplace of urban beekeeping is the City of Lights, which was home to some 2,000 hives in the 19th century. The historic Luxembourg Gardens alone produce more than half a ton of honey per harvest. As well as private residences, you can find hives on the gilded dome of the Palais Garnier and the Musée d’Orsay, which yield Paris’ signature red fruit, lychee, citrus, and menthol honey.
Japan remains one of the top pesticide users on the planet, making the case for urban beekeeping even stronger. For a city that imports around 80% of its food, Tokyo may seem like the last place beekeeping would take off, but the Ginza Honey Bee Project is changing that. The rooftops of central Ginza district’s multistory buildings are being repurposed into bee farms containing some 150,000 bees that forage on the flora of nearby Imperial Palace, Hibiya Park and Hamarikyu Gardens.
It’s hard to imagine a future without the world’s most industrious pollinators. We’d still have coffee without bees, but it would become rare and very expensive. Even basic clothing would soar in price, since cotton plantations would cease to exist. In Southwest China they are responding to the sharp decline in bees by pollinating by hand, which involves painting pollen onto the blossom of apple and pear orchards – a painstaking and unsustainable process. Our future food security is at risk, but the benefit of bees goes beyond our stomachs. The great conservationist John Muir once said: “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” Lets hope our densely populated cities can bee part of the solution to this global problem, which in the end affects us all.