Urban beehives and inner-city "green" spaces are nothing new. But a report released last week by ecologists from around the world suggests that rather than doing right by those agriculture-saving bees and butterflies, urban conservation programmes actually place more value in their social conscience. And it's coming at the expense of our ecosystems.
However, the report, which was published in Conservation Biology journal, does highlight the huge potential that city spaces have for promoting biodiversity and crop pollination if the right plants and flowers are used.
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The study argues that while "advances in pollinator conservation in rural landscapes are proliferating across governance scales," but urban spaces must not be overlooked.
MUNCHIES reached out to Dr. Mick Hanley, ecologist at Plymouth University and one of the study's co-authors, to find out more about why making our cities more bee-friendly is crucial for crop production.
MUNCHIES: Hi Mick, what's the focus of your work? Dr. Mick Hanley: A lot of the work that I've been doing recently is looking at ways that we can better synergise the need to produce food with maintaining the pollinator communities that will also help us keep producing food.
As most people know, there's a decline in pollinators [like bees and butterflies] of all sorts over the last 70 years or more. We've gone from a position which Darwin talks about—spotting bumblebees and butterflies which now we consider to be quite rare floating around his back garden—to the point we're at now with a depauperate pollinator community.
It's pretty evident that one of the main causes of this has been habitat loss, which is mostly (and I don't want to sound like I'm farmer-bashing) due to farming. We've gone from the nice, flowery meadows that farmers used to have before World War II to high-intensity, silage production where you just produce grass, grass, grass with no flowery plants in the meadows. Hedgerows are being rubbed out to make fields bigger for arable crops. We've lost a lot of habitat that was forage for pollinators as well as providing nest sites and breeding sites.
If you start to lose pollinators, there's the inherent biodiversity loss but also the fact they provide a very key service to us in terms of pollinating food plants.
Where do urban spaces come in? The obvious thing has always been to focus on the countryside because that's where everybody, including ecologists, have always thought the biodiversity is. What we've done recently is work out that actually there's an awful lot going on in towns and cities. In many cases, you only need to walk around people's gardens and you see that there are more different species of flowering plants and trees, and more potential for nest sites for bumblebees than you could find in an equivalent area in the countryside.
Now we've started to realise that maybe there's stuff in towns and cities that we need to look at in its own right in terms of conservation.
So, could I just plant any old thing to encourage bees? One of the things I worked on a few years ago was looking at which particular types of garden plants bumblebees in towns and cities prefer to feed on.
We need to go beyond the sticky plaster of "We need to feel better so we're putting a bit of grass in that corner to make up for the fact that we just built a Tesco here."
The answer is a little bit complex because you get certain general pollinators that by their very nature will feed on anything but the species that are declining generally across Britain and Europe are declining specifically because they have very close associations with plants that they co-evolved with.
For example, the garden bumblebee, which isn't rare but is probably the least common of the common species and in decline, is a long-tongued bee. The long-tongued species are absolutely dependent on flowers with long corollas [trumpet-shaped flowers] in order to feed. They can't feed very well off things like daisies so things like plants like foxgloves are absolutely essential for them. If everybody plants foxgloves, which also look great, you've massively increased the food potential for that species in Britain.
The report says that "urban conservation programs that historically have invested in education and outreach rather than programs designed to achieve high-priority species conservation results." How do you go about changing their focus? We need to go beyond the sticky plaster of "We need to feel better so we're putting a bit of grass in that corner to make up for the fact that we just built a Tesco here." Yes, absolutely we should get Tesco to pay their pound of flesh for trashing somewhere but it's no good just doing it for the sake of doing it.
Biodiversity needs to be incorporated into urban planning in a much more strategic way than has been done so far.
We're appealing to other academics to not ignore urban environments. Let's look at them as part of an integrated conservation framework that includes the urban and the rural. It's a call that we need people with the money—the policymakers, local councils, governments—to start thinking about planning with ecologists to further the development of these pollinator communities.
We need to think outside the box a bit more.
How does the knock-on effect work for rural areas if the pollinators are concentrated in urban space? Firstly, there's been a big move in urban environments for people to have allotments and grow their own food which is probably only going to increase. At the individual and co-operative level, keeping pollinators healthy and active within cities is possibly more important than it's ever been to pollinate food crops.
The question is whether we'll get spillovers from the cities into rural environments to help service crops that need pollinating. Some pollinators will travel five or ten kilometres in order visit plants and then take pollen and nectar back to nests. Obviously, if your farm is 30 or 40 kilometres away from a city, that's not really going to help. But long term, you could use these pollinator communities in cities to repopulate the rural environment. But only if we start to manage the rural environment in a more sympathetic way.
Now we've got satellites whizzing around the planet, we're in a really strong position to map the environment really precisely. If we've got an idea of how far pollinators can spill over from a site, we can strategically say, "OK we need to set up a wildflower meadow here because this pollinator community will spill over and join up with the next one 5 kilometres up the road, and the next one, and the next one."
That's going to take an awful lot of planning and input from the Government because it's a national thing. But it could theoretically be done.
What do you hope people will take from the report? It's getting the people with the power to realise there's an issue that needs to be addressed and we need to incorporate proper ecological planning—not just for the sake of biodiversity, for the sake of the services that ecology gives back to us as a species.
One of the great fears within conservation in Britain as a consequence of Brexit is that we've had European legislation that has increasingly targeted encouraging farmers to farm for conservation. It's not at all clear how, post-Brexit, the British Government will subsidise farming in this country. If we go back to this whole situation of paying farmers to grow certain stuff, they're not going to manage the environment in the most ecologically sympathetic way.
It'll take more research to understand exactly what the problems are and what the solutions could be. But it's that, plus bothering to ask ecologists and experts how we can better integrate ecosystem services and biodiversity into town planning.
Thanks for talking with me, Mick.
Every day this week, MUNCHIES is exploring the future of food on planet Earth, from lab-grown meat and biohacking to GMOs and the precarious state of our oceans. Find out more here.