Skip to main content

Away from intensive agriculture and sheltered from the effects of climate change, our cities may be the refuges that bees and other pollinating insects need to survive. Barry J Gibb explores.

Flitting from plant to plant, from flower to flower, bees and other insect pollinators play an essential role in crop pollination and the human food supply. But they’re struggling: intensive agriculture and climate change have taken a heavy toll on their populations.

Might our cities be the perfect haven for these pollinators? Amid the brick and concrete, steel and glass, there are parks, gardens and curious bits of greenery – and here you can find honey bees, bumblebees, solitary bees, flies and butterflies.

In this film we meet the scientists from the Insect Pollinators Initiative, an ambitious UK-wide scientific collaboration that’s exploring where and how wild bees and other pollinators are living in cities around the UK. And as we follow renowned guerrilla gardener Richard Reynolds around his home in London’s concrete maze, Elephant and Castle, we discover a curious symbiosis between humans and bees. By investing in the future of bees living successfully in cities, we may also be investing in our own health and happiness.


Jane Memmott: When it’s dark they’re not doing much, they’re effectively asleep. They’ll know it’s daylight presumably because light comes down the end of the nest. They’ll groom themselves, then it depends on what their job is, and you’ll have house bees and you’ll have the foragers, which are a bit like the kind of hunter-gatherers, they go out and they look for flowers.

Richard Reynolds: Okay, have fun, bye.

Woman: Where are you going?

Richard: We’re going to do some wallflower planting on London Road, and then to the lavender field.

Rather like a poor pollinating insect with nothing to pollinate, living in a tower block, no garden of my own to soak up the greenness, I made my own space in these neglected council flower beds.

As you can hear, in the midst of an incredibly urban environment, and it’s thriving. It’s the social benefit, that’s what I didn’t appreciate when I started – doing this in the middle of the night, trying to avoid people, I now do it at a time of the day where it’s quite likely that I might have an impromptu conversation with anyone passing by, whether that’s about the gardening or giving people directions, which is quite necessary around here, everyone gets lost at the Elephant and Castle.

Simon Geoffrey Potts: A city without bees would be an odd place. In the worst-case scenario if all the bees disappeared overnight, then for instance the UK agricultural economy would lose £600 million a year in terms of contribution to food. Now we could compensate for that by importing food from elsewhere, but that’s on the assumption that bees aren’t disappearing in other places in the world, which is quite likely to be happening as well. So there would be deficits in the amount of food we could grow, particularly fruits and vegetables – cucumbers, tomatoes, raspberries, strawberries, all our spices and all our herbs. Things like coffee and cocoa – can you imagine no coffee, no chocolate?

Jane: So one ant, a pollen beetle, and then we’ve got two hoverflies, one wasp, six pollen beetles…

The sound of bees to me is the sound of summer. That lazy kind of buzzing noise of bees on a summer’s day, you know, I get a real thrill out of seeing the first bumblebee of spring, when you see those big queen bees buzzing around, that puts a spring in my step, that’s like seeing a rare bird or a – you know, it’s not quite up there with the lion on the Serengeti, but certainly on my walk to work it makes a really big difference.

The commonest pollinator is not honey bees, but people just don’t realise quite how many bumblebees and solitary bees are out there in particular, so bumblebees, I never remember quite exactly whether it’s 19 or 25 species, but there’s a couple of dozen basically, it depends how you’re counting them. Many of them are really rare, only found on Scottish Hebridean islands or in specialist habitats. Solitary bees, there’s three or four hundred different species; people just have no idea, they don’t even know what a solitary bee is. It’s a very – it’s a quarter-sized honey bee, they get to about the size of honey bees but most of them are fairly small. They’re not social at all, single females and males that come out in the springtime, they mate, the females set up home in a hollow twig or a burrow and you know, they’re really important pollinators, they’re a big part of our bee fauna, but people just don’t realise that there’s like three or four hundred species of those things.

Simon: There’s lots of people saying we’ve got declines in bees and other pollinators and kind of the overall picture is unfortunately a bit of a sad one, so there are definitely severe declines. Now it’s slowed down a little bit, so we’re still losing bees but not at quite the same rate as we were. So that’s maybe a little bit of good news that the rate of loss has slowed down but overall we still have so few bees compared to what we had say at the beginning of the century and you know, around the time of the Second World War. For many, many years, people though honey bees were basically the best pollinators, and they’re pretty good, but there’s a lot of recent evidence come out, particularly work done by Reading University, that’s shown that actually it’s our wild pollinators, they’re the real heroes of the crop pollination world. So honey bees are important but actually if we want to ensure we’ve got good pollination of crops and also wild flowers, then we need to think a lot about our wild bees.

Woman: Yeah, the council planted it for us as part of a project that we’re doing. We’re trying to see what bees there are really in urban areas. We’ve not had as many this year because the summer was so bad last year.

Man: Yeah, but I mean the whole insect population’s been kind of almost destroyed, I guess by farmers spraying crops – insecticide.

Woman: Yeah, it’s not just insecticides, unfortunately, it’s also habitat loss.

Jane: Bees are having a hard time at the moment, there’s all sorts of things that are proving difficult to them. The main one would be land use change and that’s everything from the intensification of agriculture. The way we used to farm 50 years ago, 100 years ago, was very different to the way we farm now. Loss of hedgerows, loss of woodlands on farms, loss of hay meadows – the world is becoming more urban, cities sprawl, the countryside gets changed both in the central urban areas and around the fringes of the habitat. You’ve got pesticides out there, there’s climate change. Climate change means that when the bumblebees and solitary bees come out of hibernation, their flowers might not be flowering because the flowering time has changed because the flowers are responding to different signals from the environment that the bees are responding to when they’re hibernating under a bit of bark or down underground.

Richard: This space is where I began guerrilla gardening. Guerrilla gardening for me is gardening land that’s not yours and simply doing it without asking the landowner first, mainly because it’s a lot simpler that way. For some people because they’re making a strong protest point as well, but that wasn’t the issue here. The protest came later when I had to battle to be able to continue doing this, but that battle has definitely been won, I now have formal agreement to make this a joyful space that’s good for our minds, good I think for the way people behave around here as well. It brings a civilising influence to the landscape, albeit without a sense of manicured conformity. There’s still a wildness and an unexpectedness to this place, but the touch of a human hand is still very evident. Even the most hardened of soul round here can’t help but be moved a little bit when they see the bright colour and the energy of this space in springtime and early summer, when it looks its best. And also the pride of those who live in this block, that is quite grim and brutal to look at.

Jane: I’ve been interested in urban ecology since I was a kid. I grew up in urban habitats, I looked for slow worms under bits of corrugated metal and you know, looked at bats in trees and chased insects all over the place, and what we’re doing is we’re looking at the impact of urban habitats on bees. Now urbanisation on one hand can be really good for bees, there’s lots of flowers in gardens, cities are a bit warmer than the countryside. There’s all sorts of things about them that’s positive, but at the same time it’s a very disturbed, very anthropogenic habitat, a very man-made habitat. And so you start to think well actually we’ve got these good things about cities, they’ve got lots of gardens in them, there’s some evidence that gardens can be very good, but there’s no systematic surveys, no one’s actually done the comparison between urban habitats and nature reserves and farmland, and those three habitats in most of Europe make up most of the British – that’s the UK land area.

So what we’re doing on this project is three things. The first thing we’re asking is where are pollinators in the UK? And this is looking at all pollinators, not just the honey bees and the bumblebees, it’s looking at honey bees, bumblebees, solitary bees, hover flies, beetles, butterflies, anything that visits a flower. And we’re sampling systematically across those three habitats, so we’ve got 12 cities that go from Dundee to Southampton to Cardiff; around each city we’ve got a nature reserve and an area of farmland, and we sample those for a whole summer so we’ve got four teams of fantastic people based out of the four focal cities, which are Bristol, Reading, Leeds and Edinburgh. Each plot is a square kilometre, so we’re not dealing with just a few square metres, we’re dealing with thumping great big plots, and then there’s a fairly highly prescribed way of sampling those plots and everyone has to do it exactly the same way.

Woman: Okay, ready to go. So we’ll go four metres along and we’ll put the next quadrat at 39 metres.

Jane: And we spend a whole summer doing that and at the end of that, we had about seven, eight thousand pollinators, they go out to taxonomists for identification and then we actually know which insects are in which habitat. So the first question is where are the pollinators in the UK, second question is asking well if you look at particular cities in detail, where are they? Because we know that gardens are good, we know that urban nature reserves are quite good, but there’s loads of other habitats in cities. So you’ve got road verges, you’ve got allotments, you’ve got shopping malls, you’ve got supermarket car parks, you’ve got industrial estates, and what we did was not make the decision that some of those just are boring and not worth looking at, we looked at every single habitat. And at the end of that we’ll know where pollinators are in the city, what are the hot spots in the cities.

The final question is well can we make cities and urban habitats better for pollinators? Is there something we can do that makes them more attractive to pollinators? And the experiment we’re doing is adding more food, and what we’re doing is putting in huge flowery meadows into these four cities, so each city gets 15 flowery meadows, each meadow is 300 square metres, so these are big patches of ground, and together we can start to ask, well, does that make a difference to pollinators? And although it’s kind of – you might think it’s obvious – well actually we give them more food it has to be good. They may not be food-limited in cities, there may be loads of food already but instead they could be limited on nesting sites, so there aren’t enough places for them to nest, so we can start to unpick what it is to make cities better places.

Woman: Ah solitary bees are great aren’t they.

Richard: These were just compacted muddy tree pits on a pretty bleak road. I built these raised beds and brought in vast amounts of new soil and created some decent-sized tree pit gardens that are a pollinators’ corridor from that big guerrilla garden to the big one at the end of the road. I’m sure that making an area look more cared for makes people care for it. Even if caring for it is just not littering as much, trampling as much, just those extra few inches shift people’s behavior – and if the wood can do that, I’m sure the plants can too. So as a point of contrast, this was the one we didn’t do any guerrilla gardening around.

Jane: So in each of our cities it’s divided into ten areas and in each of those ten areas we look at each of our habitats, so we’ve got ten allotments and ten cemeteries in each city and we’ve got four cities, so our total sample size is we’ve got 40 sets of allotments across the country to compare to 40 sets of road verges.

Well what we’re finding so far, and this are just the early results, but certainly cities look really rather good. There’s lots of insects that live in cities. What we are finding which is really fun is when we look in detail at the habitats that are in the cities, as expected, gardens are good. We knew that already from previous work, that’s not a surprise, but some of the other habitats really are more of an eye opener. So allotments, which my kind of knee-jerk reaction would be that allotments would be okay but allotments are looking like they’re really, really good and I think what the insects like is they like the fact that there’s a little corner with some thistles in it, they like the fact that the onions and the carrots bolt occasionally. Allotment gardens are often very wildlife-friendly, we’ll put in a few flowers for the bees, for the pollinators. So and to me it’s really fun because allotments aren’t just – it’s not just – they are good for pollinators but they’re also good for people, people like gardening, it’s good for the soul to be outside digging your vegetables.

Woman 1: It has looked really, really nice and it’s encouraged the bees as well so they come in my garden and pollinate my runner beans.

Woman 2: Yes, well that’s the hope.

Jane: Churchyards and cemeteries are also looking really fairly good, which probably isn’t a huge surprise, but it’s just nice to be able to confirm those and actually put proper statistical values on it and say look, you know, on average these habitats are really good or they’re not very good, so by just being very careful about how we actually go out and test things, you know, it doesn’t necessarily take any longer than previous studies, but it means we can actually draw more general results about cities in the UK – or generally across Europe, because British cities aren’t that different to most European cities.

Simon: So given that our agricultural areas are definitely intensifying in the way we use the land, city and urban areas can actually probably be quite a important refuge, because if many of the resources and nesting places that they would find out in the countryside are missing, then in some cases they’re definitely available in urban areas. The kind of question is – and we don’t know the answer to this properly – is can these urban areas then act as a source to help repopulate those agricultural areas where we want to get the bees back into them? The answer is probably yes but we haven’t got the evidence just yet to say that for sure.

Jane: For all the common stuff, and it’s the common things that will be the key pollinators generally in our crop production, cities can be really good. Cities are not that different in their area in the UK to nature reserves, so if we make cities really good we could almost, it’s a bit like doubling your area of nature reserves in some ways for some species. What I call weedy wonderlands, you know. I go shopping once a week in Portishead and those little weedy areas in car parks where nobody quite looks, nobody ever kills the weeds in those areas of the car park and that’s like a – it’s like a café for all the bees in Portishead on that main road. They’re not going to the hanging baskets along the high street, what they’re doing is going to these little weedy bits at the back of this car park. So cities can provide a lot of the food that bees need.

Simon: So there’s some really interesting connections between the way we manage our city green spaces and the benefits we get for wildlife and for people. So if we’ve got nice parks with nice flowering areas that could be good for local wildlife, for bees, for birds and other insects as well. Fantastic. But also these green spaces can have a really important role in human society, for instance they can bring a sense of community for people because it’s a place where people meet and there’s some studies showing that social cohesion is much better where people have access to these places. And there’s an amazing study from the States that shows that actually crime can be reduced. If you provide good-quality green spaces in your urban habitat it means that people can be socially happier, there’s less crime and people just interact on a freer basis.

Richard: My motivation was for my own pleasure to start with and for the pleasure of other residents – humans. But it became apparent that what I was naturally enthusiastic about planting, such as this lavender, also happens to be very good for the pollinating insects. And as the issues of the threats to our bee population have become more prominent, so I’ve become more conscious to choose plants that are going to be good to try and solve that problem.

There’s huge amounts that people could do to make cities bee-friendly, starting with their own private space, appreciating that they are not the only users of their garden, that all sorts of fauna is in there too and should be invited in. So planting bee-friendly plants is a start. Shape how developments, how parks are being created, how housing developments are being created, express your view, make sure that whoever is doing the landscaping doesn’t just put down stuff that’s only good for us, by which I mean swathes of lawn and hedging that has no benefits to the pollinating insects.

Man 1: This is my park. I’ve been coming here for 60-odd years. No it’s not yours, it’s not yours, it’s mine. [Laughs]

Man 2: This is your back garden.

Man 1: People are lazy, nobody does anything.

Jane: So if you want to make your garden really good for bees, there’s two or three things you need to think about. Firstly think about the whole season, it’s no good having a garden that’s fantastic for bees in June if there’s nothing to eat in March or September, so think about the whole season. In terms of the plants you plant, choose ones you like because it’s your garden, but go – when you walk around the garden centre, just pick out the ones that the bees are visiting too. Pollinators love thistles, lots of herbs, herbs produce amazing things for pollinators, so your sages when they flower, your mints, those sorts of things will make a difference. And if everyone does that on a street, you know, the pollinators will be a happier lot because of it.

Simon: They key thing is to provide variety of nesting places, that’s the most important thing we can do as gardeners or scientists or people who are just interested in bees.

This is kind of your entry-level accommodation, it’s basic but it absolutely does the job. We can upgrade a little bit more if we want. This is quite nice because these tubes are of different sizes, and different species of bee prefer different sizes of holes. And we can upgrade to some kind of very big luxury five-star hotels for bees as well, which provide a wide range of different substrates.

Richard: I’m not a scientist. My crude measure is simply in numbers. The number of people who linger here while we’re gardening is encouraging and very enjoyable but in sheer size it’s the quantity of the bees that we see here on a sunny day in July, thousands of them all over the lavender lingering in a way that humans are too busy to bother with.

Jane: Could cities save our bees? Well they could certainly be an important part of it, they could save, they could really help the populations of the common species of bee in the UK, definitely.

Simon: I don’t think cities will on their own save our bees but they could be a really important part of the toolkit as it were, so we need to think about bees on the broadest scale, so in our cities, in our nature reserves and in agriculture, and if we get all three of those things right we’ll keep our bees.

Richard: I think the happiest humans live in environments that are very much happy for bees, ones that are full of colour, and fragrance and life, verdant foliage. I’m convinced that we’re happier in those kind of environments, so we should take our clues from what bees like.

Oh, there’s a bee.

[Closing music]

Return back to top of the page