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Urbanism for Bees - How can cities save them?

Written By - Kaushiki Tripathy

Illustration by Kaushiki Tripathi

Urbanism for Bees

We constructed the cities for the humans to live in, but are we the only species living on the planet? Why did we not foresee the effect of our living on other species? We didn’t give a thought on where they would go.

Cities are a highly specialised ecosystem to which all living beings adapt. So, if the cities are compared to an ecosystem, why have they often gone overlooked in biodiversity discussions? They are seen as disruptors of the ecosystem rather than being a part of it.

How does it feel?

Before we dive into the facts, figures and what not, here`s some brainstorming for you. Imagine yourself leaving your home at 2 pm on a Sunday afternoon to get Chinese takeout for you and your family. You take your bicycle and start riding towards the takeout 5 lanes away. Just when you are enjoying the weather and appreciating what a beautiful day it is, you hear someone call your name. You look back and see no one. With that repeated voice, joins in 1000 other voices that are saying different things “ride faster your family is hungry”, “hey! buy a pizza instead” “this takeout looks nice”—ALL AT ONCE. You couldn’t stop it, you become confused, annoyed, scared, and rest is subjective. The oblivion makes you dizzy, and you lose your track. You don’t recognize this new place, maybe a forest? Or a graveyard? Doesn’t matter, you must live here, forever.

So what absurd daydreaming you just went through is very relatable for small, little bees. Except that they often die. Their brain cells “talk” to them in order to identify which flower conducts nectar, locations etc. When this “talk” turns into “chattering” of numerous voices, they miss out on relevant information and tend to get lost from their colony and queen bee, as per neuroscientist at the University of Dundee in Scotland, Christopher Connolly. The entire phenomenon causes mysterious disappearance of entire colonies of honeybees. One by one, bees get forever lost. And every lost bee is one more that fails to bring food home to its colony, is also known as “colony collapse disorder”.

How did it start?

Indian bees have been experiencing the colony collapse disorder since the welcome of industrialisation in the 19th Century. Despite the precise reasons being still unknown, the probable causes determined till date include the use of pesticides, several diseases, air and noise pollution and of course, climate change. Changes in our land use, including insensitive urban development, and intensive farming, have caused significant losses and fragmentation of pollinator-friendly habitats. Since the Second World War, we’ve lost 97% of our wildflower meadows, leaving our bees with little natural habitat. It’s now more essential than ever that new urban development avoids damage to important habitats, like the remaining wildflower meadows. What's more it must also incorporate 'green infrastructure' that can significantly benefit bees and other wildlife.

Employment through beekeeping

At macro level, Beekeeping has been an excellent source of employment for the rural unemployed. Currently, around 2,50,000 farmers in India are employed through bee-keeping. This provides an opportunity for the landless farmers. There is no risk of the farmlands being wasted, as apiaries are kept on the boundaries and not cultivable land. Bee-keeping tends to increase the crop yield by cross-pollination, and it can increase yields in some crops by up to 200%.

About sixteen lakh people are directly or indirectly engaged in the bee-keeping and allied activities. Major honey producing states in the country include Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, UP, Bihar and West Bengal. However, quality honey reportedly comes mainly from the states of Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh.

How can we help?

Every small action can make a difference. Even the flowers on the windowsill and hanging baskets on lamp posts could prove to be the savior of bees, they are better off in cities than the rural areas where the use of insecticides and pesticides is a killing spree for them. Bees love cities, so let’s love them back and make the cities habitable for them.

The reality is that most urban gardens have almost no native species which is the major reason why most of the insect species including honey bees are disappearing. Planting of native species essential to the survival of bees should be a priority. At least providing refuge areas in the cities could help save them. Much more can be done to make the cities beneficial to the bees by ensuring that there is ample bare loose soil for ground nesters and banning pesticides that are harmful to the insects. Urban native plant remnants should be protected. Like in this case for example, The Delhi Ridge, which has been facing excruciating abuse since decades is the Delhi’s oldest natural heritage, about 2 billion years old. The Delhi Ridge is known as “green lung” of the city. Over the years, the ridge has been facing several encroachments, quarrying and deforestation for illegal construction. Extensive mining of the quartzite rocks resulted in early damage. Even though government declared The Ridge a Protected forest in 1927, their agencies continue to construct roads and dump truckloads of debris.


"If everyone in a city of a million people planted even one pollinator-friendly plant, there would be a million more foraging opportunities for bees."

- Pollinator Partnership’s Wojcik

Now, we can’t go door to door asking people to plant some native flowers that will help save the bees. And for this reason, it needs to happen on an urban level. We need to adopt Urban Pollinator Protection Strategies to include more pollinator habitats on public lands and share lists of recommended plantings for home gardens and linking up green spaces so that the pollinators can easily travel between them.

More research on urban biodiversity needs to happen so that we can figure out how the different forms of land use the bees are foraging on and what needs to be planted. For example, are they foraging on the trees or flying out to the vacant plots to forage from the weed? Creating Pollinator Corridors—continuous stretch of bee-friendly flora—would encourage bees to also to commute out of the cities towards the countryside.

“Urbanism For All” objectively means that urbanism is for all, even for a bee.


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