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Brighton becomes the UK’s first bee-friendly city
The city of Brighton on England’s South Coast has mandated that any new building over five meters high must install features known as solitary-bee bricks. The idea is to make it easier for bees to nest in the city and, more broadly, to promote biodiversity in urban environments.
Solitary-bees may produce no honey - but they are excellent pollinators. They are also noteworthy because they nest either in the ground; in tunnels bored into dead wood by beetles or worms; and/or in small cavities inside people’s homes.
There are about 250 species of solitary-bees in the United Kingdom, some of whom have started - in the face of threats such as global warming and intensive agriculture - to seek refuge in urban environs.
Indeed, according to Lars Chittka, Professor of Sensory and Behavioral Ecology at London’s Queen Mary University, “Bees might well thrive in urban spaces if only because the environment there is sometimes less toxic than in rural zones overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of pesticides used in intensive agriculture”.
Chittka approves of this initiative, especially "in a very orderly and clean urban environment where bees have fewer opportunities to nest”. Having said that and “even through the idea of providing them with nesting spaces in each new building is a good one”, he also points out that that risks remain unknown.
Indeed, because of the project’s novelty, it will be difficult ascertaining how effective the bricks are at promoting biodiversity within an urban setting – explaining why a number of specialists have been waiting on early outcomes before weighing in on the topic. Some wonder whether other insects like mites might also start nesting in the brick cavities, increasing the chance that these spaces become breeding grounds for disease. Chittka has acknowledged the need to monitor :
“The risk that a lot of nesting bees get trapped by spiders – not to mention the point made by other scientists that if these nests are used year after year and if parasitic diseases do break out, they could be transmitted from one generation to the next. In theory, this is a valid concern, although it is also true that when wild bees decide to nest in an existing hole, they tend to wait until they have assessed a site’s suitability. Normally there is a self-regulation process where bees avoid sites for several years until they become habitable again."
Chittka notes, for instance, the possibility that winter frost could eliminate certain diseases and/or the fact that in some instances, bees may be obliged to clean up some of the infestations they find.
Humans and bees living together in urban environments
A University of Nottingham Professor of Ecology, Sophie Evison, worries that diseases are likely to fester in brick cavities. She also wonders how large the holes should be designed to be – her concern being that their size may not be adapted to the particular solitary-bee species laying its eggs in material of this kind. Having said that, Evison also views the initiative as a good way of raising city dwellers’ awareness of wild bees:
"Even if the setup is not ideal for attracting large bee populations, the advantage is that people will become more aware of the need to create urban nesting sites for useful insects. Even households without a garden can put nests in their walls – something I think few will have considered until now”.
Lars Chittka agrees and imagines that the initiative could also serve certain educational purposes. "Few of us have any real connection to nature today, with insects usually being seen as either disgusting or dangerous…These bricks, on the other hand, are in places where people can observe bees, whose behavior can be fascinating. If information boards are put up across town explaining the bricks’ value and the kinds of species they will help people to discover, this could become a truly valuable information campaign".
Despite the current difficulty of determining the precise impact that the initiative will ultimately have on biodiversity within cities, Chittka advocates that the experiment be given three or four years to run before any conclusions are drawn. "I'm not going to discourage Brighton's planners from moving ahead with their project but think it would be a good idea to monitor what the real benefits and risks are before copying the initiative in other cities."