OXYGEN FILES: Bees help pollinate around one in three food plants world-wide, but in recent months Australian colonies have copped a beating with drought, fire, flood and smoke. This poses a real risk to our food security, but also raises an interesting possibility that our urban habitat can potentially be a vital refuge for key species including our buzzy buddies.

Urban beekeeping is a major trend around Australia, with cooperatives, associations, social enterprises and start-ups multiplying in the space. In Melbourne, City Rooftop Honey has grown to a total of 25 hives in the CBD and 120 around the Melbourne fringe and suburbs.

Landmark buildings including Emporium Melbourne, Sebel Flinders Lane, Pullman Albert park and Sea Life Aquarium are among those hosting hives. In total, there are now more than 400 business and individuals wanting to adopt or sponsor a hive.

In Sydney, The Urban Beehive works with businesses, community gardens and individuals to install hives around the city. It also sells honey collected from the hives, runs beekeeping courses and has a shopfront in Matraville that retails beekeeping supplies.

There’s a Sydney Bee Club too, which is also associated with the growing NSW Amateur Beekeepers Association.

Some local councils are also promoting beekeeping as part of a broader sustainability agenda.

A beekeeping enterprise based in Brisbane, Bee One Third, is finding there are many businesses looking to bees as a practical sustainability measure. Founder and apiarist Jack Stone says hotels, precincts, banks and investment firms in particular are keen to add some hives to their property.

“Bees can have a tangible outcome in the building [for people],” he says.

The enterprise supplies four hives on a purpose-built platform, and regular maintenance. The building does not need to have a roof garden, as bee will travel up to five kilometres to forage.

Stone says the roofs of many Brisbane buildings are not engineered to support the weight of a garden – but sometimes, once the bees are in place building owners do start to think about how they can turn grey space to green space and gain added value and also thermal benefits from roof gardens.

“Bees are a vector to encourage a conversation,” he says. They are also a means for his company to have a broader conversation around sustainability, biodiversity, local food production and broader food security.

It’s an education – it’s also a supply chain link

In the commercial world, bees are starting to be taken seriously.

Ikea in Australia is part of a global move by the company to rollout beehives across all its stores. Tempe in Sydney and Canberra in the ACT are the first locally, with stores elsewhere in Sydney and in other states due to follow the example once the initial hives have shown themselves a success.

David Hawthorne, Ikea

Sales manager at IKEA Tempe, David Hawthorne, built the two “bee hotels” located in the 1000 square metre carpark. The bees, obtained from Ku-Ring-Gai Council, are Tetragonula carbonaria, commonly known as the Sugarbag bee and are native to Sydney.

He says not only are bees important in terms of global food supplies and crop pollination, they also play a role in pollinating plants that are part of the company’s supply chain including wood, cotton, linen and bamboo.

On-site they are also key to the store’s work in educating the general public, including visiting school groups, about sustainability. Students are told about the plight of bees globally, and the stingless bees are ideal, as they can be safely touched.

It is a way for the local community to see the message in action, he says.

“We’re excited to be able to play a role in helping build the local population of native bees, as well as helping pollinate local flora in the Sydney area, especially at a time when the impact of climate change on our country’s wildlife has been devastating.”

The carpark is extensively greened and includes wildflowers he expects will proliferate with the help of the bees to pollinate them. A bee expert undertaking a PhD at Sydney University is also involved with the hives as part of their research.

There’s no real commercial angle to the initiative, Hawthorne says. But from the company’s perspective, if it can have an influence “in a good way” by having the bees and promoting the sustainability agenda, it will make a big difference globally.

AMP Capital is another company that’s been tending bees at its Macquarie Park property at 3 Thomas Holt Drive.

IKEA Canberra also has two hives of European honeybees, one of which is a sentinel hive managed by environmental scientist Cormac Farrell, who is also head beekeeper for Parliament House in Canberra.

Sentinel hives are part of the nation’s biosecurity system and are installed close to major points of entry including international airports and seaports. The idea is that any pest species such as Asian honeybees or bee pathogens such as the Varroa mite will show up in the hives so a rapid response to contain the threat can be mounted, Farrell explains.

The regular hive will produce honey used for tastings in-store and be used for educational talks.

Surviving the apocalypse

Farrell says the bushfire smoke that enveloped Canberra and surrounds this summer was hard on the region’s hives. Bees sacrifice themselves to clean smoke out of the honeycomb, he says, and then leave the hive and die. Some bees who encounter smoke when out foraging can be killed outright by smoke or become confused and fail to find their way back home.

“It does wear the hive down,” he says.

Everywhere you go, you see little dishes of water people have been leaving out,” Farrell says. “It’s quite lovely.”

More broadly, the ACT Government has been encouraging Canberrans to be bee-friendly by “putting away the bottle” of herbicide and pesticide, leaving dandelions to grow and leaving small dishes of water out for bees and other fauna.

“Everywhere you go, you see little dishes of water people have been leaving out,” Farrell says. “It’s quite lovely.”

Measures that are good for bees are also good for other pollinators including bats and birds and is one of the reasons Farrell calls bees a “keystone species” in biodiversity terms.

“It is a species that links a whole bunch of species together…and looking after it leads to a better environment.”

Initiatives such as pollinator gardens in schools create “a really good bit of nature in a small bit of space.”

“You can have a little ecosystem.”

Bees including native bees are recognised by the ACT Government as a species that is beneficial for the city’s Urban Forest Strategy, as they pollinate the plants. Gardeners have a growing appreciation too for open-pollinated plant varieties including perennial flowers and self-seeding annuals.

Gardens get lovelier once the bees start to visit.

Farrell says that flowers also respond to pollination by blooming more brightly to attract more bees, so gardens get lovelier once the bees start to visit.

The bee-friendly reduced pesticide trend is kicking in with retailers. Farrell has been working with Bunnings, for example, who have stopped selling some of the pesticides most frequently associated with harmful effects on bees.

“People just stopped buying them,” he says.

Blurring the urban/nature divide

The rise in appreciation of urban nature and animal species including bees is a way of “getting nature back” in the cities.

Cities are not usually associated with nature. But with the impacts of climate heating “cities can be a nature refuge.”

This summer saw many creatures move into Canberra to escape fires, smoke, drought and heat.

Wildlife corridors in the ACT are also part of “restoring the city”, adding food, forage and increased tree canopy to offset the urban heat island effect.

Small pieces in a big picture

Farrell says there is a “hard road ahead” for beekeepers and their hives following the mass losses of both hives and forage areas because of drought and fire.

One impact will be on exports, as Australian apiarists regularly supply hives for export to places like the US for supplemental pollination of key crops including almonds and citrus. It’s a one-way trip for the bees, as our biosecurity rules ban the import of bees or bee products.

Supplementary pollination services for Australia’s major fruit, nut and vegetable crops may also be affected, as new colonies can generally only be created in spring, when there is abundant forage and hives can be “split”, Farrell explains.

“Support for our honeybee populations is critical.”

He says this summer has been a kind of apocalypse, and there will be knock-on effects. More concerningly, he warns this is “just a taste of the bad stuff” that is to come if we do not reduce emissions.

“We are more reliant on small parts of the environment we sometimes ignore than we realised.”

The good news is, there is a lot people can do in their own backyards, and this does “move the middle”.

“You can grow flowers and put out bowls [of water]. It will have a small [but significant] knock-on effect.”

Farrell says companies can also be doing more to reduce emissions and to support biodiversity.

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