City bees

Bees are now being kept in the most unlikely of places, including the roofs of busy city centre shopping complexes.   I recently visited the bees high over Exeter’s Princesshay shopping centre.  Here is the article I wrote about these city bees for the Marshwood Vale Magazine.  I also wrote another article on the same topic but with a different slant, for Occam’s Typewriter.

Princesshay bees 1

It’s been a tough time lately for the bees in this country. Last summer’s poor weather followed by a long winter and a late spring meant that winter losses of honeybees were higher than normal. The South West was particularly badly affected with up to half of the region’s honeybees failing to make it through the winter. Whether there are fewer bumblebees and solitary bees is unclear, but the plight of the bees should concern us all because of the important role these insects play in pollinating our fruits, vegetables and flowers. The government has finally woken up to the importance of bees and the difficulties they are facing and recently announced a national pollinator strategy. The problems facing bees have been widely publicised in the media. In response, some people have planted bee-friendly flowers, others have taken the plunge and become beekeepers themselves. In recent years, the number of beekeepers has doubled.

Some of the new bee colonies have been in the most unlikely places including the roofs of city centre shops. Beehives can now be found on city centre roofs in Burton on Trent, Canterbury, Glasgow and in several places in London including the Tate Gallery, Nomura Bank, the Stock Exchange and most notably Fortnum and Mason. The latest recruit to this new tribe of city beekeepers is the Princesshay Shopping Centre in Exeter and on a warm sunny day in early July, I went to meet Devon’s first city bees and their keepers.

Andrew Littlejohns
Andrew Littlejohns

Andrew Littlejohns is Operations Manager of the Princesshay Shopping Centre and he told me how the bees had arrived in Exeter. About two years ago he had watched a TV programme on the decline of the bee population and decided to try to do something to help. His vision was to create a bee friendly garden on the roof of Princesshay and to populate it with bees. Not being a beekeeper himself, he contacted Exeter Beekeepers for advice and then put together a business plan. This was supported by Land Securities, the owner of Princesshay, who stumped up £20,000 for Andrew’s scheme.

Once he had the finance, Andrew moved ahead with the first phase of his plan which was to create a rooftop garden with bee-friendly plants. So, during 2012, Mitie Landscaping constructed a set of raised beds fed by an irrigation system on the Princesshay roof. Plants were carefully chosen to create a succession of flowers for bee forage. The roof garden was allowed to mature over the 2012/13 winter in preparation for the arrival of the first bees this spring.

Roof Garden
The Princesshay roof garden

Andrew took me up to the roof in the service lift through parts of Princesshay most shoppers don’t normally see. We stepped out of the lift to find ourselves in the newly constructed beekeeper’s room complete with posters about beekeeping and a full set of beekeeping apparatus and clothing. I also met Jason Wallis from WeeTree Nurseries in Somerset who is the Princesshay beekeeper. Jason visits once a week to check the bees and to train volunteers. On the day I visited he was accompanied by his young son Saxon and two Princesshay volunteers, Lee and Mark.

Once we were all “suited up” we went on to the roof to see the garden and meet the bees. The raised beds are full of flowers but the garden still feels a little bleak, surrounded as it is by air conditioning vents and the other paraphernalia found on shopping centre roofs. I am sure the bees will forage from the flowers on the roof but once the colonies are fully established they will need to fly further afield for adequate pollen and nectar. Despite the bleakness, the bee area is a sun trap, protected from the wind, with the building probably providing extra warmth in winter.

Hive at Princesshay

At present there are three hives and the bees were very active on this warm day. I looked in to the hives and watched Jason and his helpers identify, mark and clip the queen in one hive. Jason fed another hive and told me that his aim is to get three strong colonies established this year with two more hives to be added next year. When the colonies can spare honey and beeswax, this will be sold through the Chandos Deli located in the shops below. So, with the input from the staff of the shopping centre this is turning into a cottage industry in the heart of the city.

Exeter beekeeper
Mark Lyne-Ley, one of the Princesshay beekeepers

It was a very interesting visit but I was left with a lingering unease about the project. Is the city really the place to keep bees with its pollution and apparent lack of forage? Is this some kind of indulgence, the “save the planet” hobby as beekeeping has been dubbed by some?

My unease may well be misplaced. I have been told that the forage available for bees in towns is now more varied than in the countryside because of the creeping monoculture of modern farming. There may be pollution from cars in a city but there may also be fewer problems with pesticides. Bees have always taken up residence where they can, often in roof spaces or holes in walls. Anyway, the local bee Inspector recently visited the Princesshay bees and gave them his seal of approval.

We shall have to wait and see how well the Princesshay experiment works but there are very encouraging signs coming from the bees above Fortnum and Mason on London’s busy Piccadilly. Here the bees are prospering; they love the forage in the parks close by and honey and honeycomb are in such demand that they are being sold by auction. Let’s hope that Exeter’s city bees also prosper helping to rebuild the South West’s bee population.

The photos were taken by Hazel Strange

5 thoughts on “City bees”

  1. I think it’s great that a roof garden has been created, a fantastic use of otherwise wasted space, There can be some issues with keeping bees on rooftops – they can use up a lot of energy flying back home if the roof is above two storeys high. Out of respect for neighbours it’s important to prevent swarms and inspect each week too, but it sounds like this will be done in this case.

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  2. Thanks for your comment, Emily. I was going to include something about the height of the buildings but then I became confused about this; some people say that bees can be kept higher than two stories, some, like yourself say that two stories is the limit. I really don’t understand this because if bees fly up to 3 miles for forage then the height of a building is a very small part of the total journey, unless it is difficult for a bee to fly upwards. What do you think?

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  3. I had no idea there were bees on top of the Princesshay Shopping Centre in Exeter, and, together with the history of how they got there – just amazing! Hats off to Andrew Littlejohns and Land Securities. More people should know about city bees – I will reblog. Thanks for writing City Bees. Goaty 🙂

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