Keeping honeybees in dense urban areas may first appear as just another eccentric gimmick of the local food hipster movement, but it has, in reality, been an integral part of world’s major cities for years. When taken as a whole (not only urban areas), however, the number of bee colonies has plummeted significantly in recent decades. Pavel Filo, the programme director of the only undergraduate degree in beekeeping in Slovakia, where a part of the story was researched and photographed, reveals that while there were more than 450,000 bee colonies in Slovakia in 1990s, the number today is less than 200,000. England’s numbers follow a very similar pattern, and according to University of Reading’s research, the rate at which wild bees are disappearing in England is twice as fast compared to the rest of Europe. Because bees are a critical part of every healthy ecosystem, this phenomenon became a serious topic of scientific inquiry. It turns out that human agricultural activity has had a devastating effect on bees. Intensive farming, introduction of chemistry, such as pesticides or herbicides, and especially expanding of monoculture land (a land where the same crop is placed year after year) has forced bees out of their natural habitat. And it forced them into cities.
While an urban landscape poses a whole set of other challenges, the fact remains that there is no intensive agriculture, very low pesticide/herbicide levels and no monoculture farming. Carbon emissions undoubtedly impact bees living in cities, but the danger is nowhere near compared to the chemical cocktail described above. Cities, therefore, have, somewhat paradoxically, become oases containing relatively clean food for the bees. Their diet consists primarily of nectar, pollen and water – all found in abundance in city green belts, parks, and green rooftops. Despite the bees’ vital role in pollination of city flora, keeping them was for long forbidden. New York City, for example, only lifted a beekeeping ban in 2010. Until that time, keeping bees was illegal in the same way as was keeping for example exotic venomous animals. Following a staggering rise in popularity of hobbyist beekeeping, many cities changed the laws from banning to regulating, which allows the authorities to produce fairly accurate statistics. According to the CBC, the number of registered beekeepers in London increased by 200% just between 2010 and 2013. And this massive increase in the total number of bees living within a relatively small area is starting to take its toll, as the city’s parks are struggling to feed the ever-growing bee population. Beekeepers, however, maintain that the many advantages that come with placing bees into the urban landscape are still outweighing the challenge with bee-overpopulation, which is, for now, only a problem in London.