Why urban beekeeping isn't as good for bees as you think

In London, there are actually too many bees.
Written by Tyler Falk, Contributor

In London, rooftop beehives have become popular symbols for businesses expressing their commitment to sustainability. From 2008-13 the number of beekeepers in greater London tripled from 464 to 1,237 and the number of hives doubled from 1,677 to more than 3,500. Compared to the rest of England, hive density is quite high in London with 10 hives per square kilometer versus one per square kilometer in the rest of the country. Good news for an insect that does so much for our agriculture but has been the subject of the terrifying colony collapse disorder, right? Maybe not as good as you think it is.

A new article in The Biologist by professors at The University of Sussex says that the beekeeping boom in London is actually doing more harm than good to bees. The problem? Too many bees in a small area and not enough bee food.

As Professor Francis Ratnieks, a co-author of the article, simply puts it: “If a game park was short of food for elephants, you wouldn’t introduce more elephants, so why should we take this approach with bees?”

The researchers calculate that to sufficiently meet the needs of every new hive, about one hectare (or about 2.5 acres) of borage, a flower that mostly attracts honeybees, would have to be planted.

Combine the high-density of bees with the fact that many of the new urban beekeepers are inexperienced and, the researchers say, you have heightened risk for bacterial infections and other diseases in the bees that could require burning entire hives.

Of course, not every area has the beehive density of London. But if your city is also experiencing a beehive boom, you might be better off planting more flowers if you want to help the bees.

Read more: University of Sussex

Photo: Flickr/nicolas.boullosa

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