A few years ago, it was feared that bees were about to become extinct – but now they are buzzing back, and even, like humans, migrating to cities across Asia. By Jeremy Torr
SINGAPORE, 3 September 2017. Back in the late 1990s, fruit growers in North America were worried. Their fruit trees were healthy, and the blossoms fine in spring, signalling a good crop. But the numbers of insects – particularly bees - that would help pollinate them and help produce healthy quantities of fruit was dropping fast.
By the early 2000s, fruit farmers worldwide were paying massive amounts for trucks to gather up hundred of hives, drive them across the country, and then setting millions of bees free in orchards to pollinate their valuable trees.
In some places in the US, bee farmers were getting paid more for their massive high-output bee farms (for use in trucked pollinating) than they were from honey.
And in China, vast armies of low paid workers would swarm out into orchards every morning with bags of pollen and a pouch full of cotton buds to pollinate the fruit tree flowers by hand.
This mystifying crash in bee numbers – estimated to be around 50 per cent in some places – was named Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and led to serious analysis of insecticide usage across the northern hemisphere. It also boosted the general public’s awareness of the importance of bees – and an unusual spin off.
As well as pesticide use, viral infections and mite infestation, one of the reasons put forward for the CCD plague was lack of genetic diversity. That is, bees were getting just a bit too incestuous because they all lived in massive hive-farms in the same place and came from the same queen stock.
Around the same time, hipsters were moving into older quarters of major cities across the world, growing beards and riding fixies, and looking for a more natural pastime than playing Nintendo.
It was a serendipitous time.
Bee hives began to crop up on city garden rooftops across Singapore, Bangkok, Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur, as much for permaculture passion as for honey. But whatever the reasons, bees took to city life very rapidly.
“Bees do very well in the urban environment because it's a microclimate," urban beekeeper Doug Purdie of Sydney-based Urban Beehive told ABC in an interview. Up on urban rooftops, the distances to fly and find flowers to gather pollen are shorter, and the likelihood of traditional honey predators like bears, possums and honey-badgers dropping by are way less 20 storeys up.
As a result, on rooftops around the world, keen city beekeepers are setting up hives to take advantage of the abundant local flora in parks, along highways and in rooftop gardens. The other bonus that city living brings to bees – in addition to maintaining separate hives away from the mass farms that might spread whatever it is that causes CCD – is that the city climate is often very hospitable.
It is usually a bit warmer than the surrounding countryside, and apart from the managed areas of lawn, flower beds and so on there are always plenty of flowering weeds too – something that is rapidly dying out in more intensively farmed areas. Purdie currently looks after around 100 beehives in the Sydney metro area, and can harvest up to 100kg of honey each year from his busy pets.
Even home appliance maker Philips has joined in with a futuristic city hive design specially crafted for use in high rise apartment windows, both as a honey producing device and a trendy showcase talking point.
The renewed interest in bees as a diversified small scale food producer has also seen interest spike in Asian countries that have traditionally harvested honey in rural areas, but in an unsustainable way. In many forested areas, local honey hunters would destroy the hive and kill the bees first, then harvest the honey. Now, apiarists (beekeepers) from the region are helping to give local people a more sustainable way to capitalise on the bees’ bounty.
“The unsustainable harvesting of honey from wild bees has become a major problem, causing the extinction of some native bee colonies,” said Associate Professor Daniel Tan from the University of Sydney (UoS), who is working with a local team on beekeeping techniques suitable for Asian ecosystems.
Tan and researchers from the UoS Faculty of Agriculture and Environment together with Prof Pham Hong Thai of Hanoi University are promoting the basics of beekeeping at three Cambodian universities, one Laotian university and one Vietnamese university.
As a result, hundreds of new hives and several beekeeping courses have already sprung up across Cambodia. Additionally, the extra hives help pollinate a variety of local crops, including sunflower, longan, lychee, cashew and mango, said Tan.
“Learning to manage honey bees not only helps provide an income through honey production and improved … quantity of agricultural produce,” said project worker Sam Malfroy, “it also helps protect the amazing diversity of bees from wild harvesting.”