Today is World Bee Day - a UN designated day to raise awareness of the importance of pollinators, the threats they face and their contribution to sustainable development. In this piece, Fraser Aitchison, Senior Architect at JTP and a licensed beekeeper, discusses why it is vital to ensure the protection of bees and their habitats.
Bees are pollinators – animals or insects which move pollen around to fertilise plants. This helps plants to grow, reproduce and create food that other species depends on – it is fundamental for the survival of our ecosystems. Bees are some of the best pollinators, accounting for around 80% of wildflower pollination in Europe. Without bees, many plants varieties would become extinct, meaning that other species that rely on these plants as a source of food, including humans, would also struggle to survive.
Bees have an unparalleled impact on our natural environment and are a great indicator of the current state of our ecosystem. Over the last 25 years, we have seen an estimated 53% decline in the number of managed honeybee colonies in the UK, along with an estimated 52% decline in the number of wild bumblebees and solitary bees. Bee colonies around the world have been collapsing at an unprecedented rate, and if we are slow to act, scientists warn that the loss could create problems in years to come, including the ability to grow food crops.
One of the key issues causing bee populations to decline is loss of habitat. Since 1930, the UK has lost 97% of flower rich meadows. Bees rely on these networks of connected habitats that allow them to travel around and collect pollen. With the loss of connected habitats, remaining wildlife sites are becoming isolated, unable to thrive and grow. Another issue is the lack in variety of plant species. With the industrialisation of farming, vast areas of monocultured land means that there are gaps in the seasonal year where no pollination occurs. Bees rely on pollen for food throughout the year, so when gaps occur this is extremely detrimental to bees.
So, what can we do to help resolve these issues? Architects and designers, often take a human focused approach when it comes to placemaking. But what if we made it the norm to create places where bees and humans co-exist?
In his 2010 review ‘Making Space for Nature’, Professor Sir John Lawton identified a need for more, bigger, better, and joined-up wildlife sites that function as a network and allow wildlife to move between them more easily. At JTP, our mission is to take a ‘landscape led’ approach to all projects – following Lawton’s idea to create a ‘mosaic of habitats’ – helping to protect, enhance and restore habitations that respond to the context of the wider ecological network. Having worked with The Wildlife Trusts for many years, we incorporate their vision of ‘Nature Recovery Networks’ into our projects, helping reconnect habitats and provide them with space to move and flourish.
JTP's Master Brewer project
A recent example where we have embedded these principles is the recently approved Hillingdon Gardens, located on the Master Brewer site adjacent to Hillingdon Underground Station. In the local vicinity, there are a number of Wildlife Trust Nature Reserves which are situated along two principal corridors that broadly follow the River Pinn to the west, and Yeading Brook to the east. The site offered the opportunity to act as a bridge between these green corridors, creating new connections and establishing a wider network for both people and nature.
Working with landscape architects Bradley Murphy Design, and the London Wildlife Trust, we created a series of ‘habitat typologies’ that helped establish new connections across the site, creating areas where nature can flourish. These included habitats within the landscape, public realm, amenity spaces, as part of the streetscape, on the roofscape and integrated within the sustainable drainage systems (SuDs) strategy.
Image credit Bradley Murphy Design
As part of the planting strategy, we proposed a more natural approach, with a variety of wild and native plant and tree species. This imitates the natural conditions seen in the wild and ensures there is year-round pollination occurring. Overall, we were able to achieve a biodiversity net-gain of 26% and an urban greening factor of 0.4, making Hillingdon Gardens a good example of how nature can co-exist and flourish in a high-density residential neighbourhood.
Biodiversity loss, along with the climate crisis, is arguably the greatest threat to life. Bees are not just pollinators; they offer us the chance as urban dwellers to discover and engage with the natural world. If we are to save our planet, we all have the responsibility to act and protect bees. From an individual point of view, there are several things you can do to help safeguard bees and their habitats. These include:
- Lobbying your local government to adopt policies that protect and enhance the remaining wild spaces where you live.
- Considering how you can integrate biodiversity into your profession.
- Planting a diverse set of native plants, which flower at different times of the year. Friends of the Earth offer a Bee Saver starter kit when you donate £5 or more. The kit includes information on how to spot and identify bees, wildflower seeds and gardening guides to help establish your own wildlife habitat.
- Avoiding the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides for treating your garden and green spaces. Instead, use organic products and natural solutions such compost to aid soil health and add beneficial insects that keep pests away.
- Using a standalone bee brick in your garden or wild patch for solitary bees, which don't live in hives or produce honey. They are important to the planet as their pollination helps to create a huge amount of the food we eat.
- Supporting local beekeepers and organisations.
- Raising awareness around you by sharing information within your communities and networks – the decline of bees affects us all!
Follow the conversations on social media using the hashtags #WorldBeeDay #Savethebees.