To bee or not to bee: pollinators in cities

In the last 20 years, bees and other insects have become more popularly accepted in cities. With a growing awareness of the global socioecological crisis has also come a recognition of pollinator’s essential ecosystem services, i.e., their tasks for the balance of ecosystems and our food production. If plants were not pollinated – by bees, butterflies, beetles… but also by birds, bats and other small mammals- agricultural economies, our food supply, and surrounding landscapes would collapse. Within the European Union, for example, more then three quarters of what is grown depends on pollinators. However, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse are one of the most serious global risks caused by human activity. Which means that we are simultaneously damaging the ecological systems and those – the natural pollinators – whose job is to preserve them. Indeed, one in three bee, butterfly and hoverfly species are disappearing by the effects of intensive agriculture and the increasing use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, pollution and climate change. 

Different levels of action are possible in front of the dangerous decline of pollinators. Right now, for example, a legislation proposal is on the table in the EU with stricter rules and binding targets for member states to reduce the use of chemical pesticides by 50 percent by 2030. Locally, municipalities can use their own land to preserve and recreate conditions for healthy ecosystems and maintain biological diversity. For example, by opting out of chemical pesticides in their territories (like Montreal, the first Canadian municipality to ban glyphosate in 2021, among others), by supporting urban organic farming, and by planning for green infrastructures, such as converted grassy areas (including roadsides) into chemical-free managed meadows and flowering land. Local governments can also steer the collaboration with schools, businesses, community associations, citizens, and other actors for a territorial joint work to benefit pollinators. In this sense, the Swedish nature preservation NGO Naturskyddsföreningen has published its third annual report on Sweden’s ‘bee-friendliest’ municipalities.  Out of more than 200 participants, Sollentuna – a 76000 resident town in Stockholm county – was, again, declared winner. A larger perspective seems to orient the municipality’s work in this area: “A landscape that favors pollinators (…) is functional for many other groups of organisms. (…) It gives high quality in nature experiences for our residents. (It is a) Strong connection to ecosystem services.” Also under the idea that cities can become champions for pollinators, Bee City Canada, a program of the charity Pollinator Partnership Canada, fosters a network of municipal and First Nations expertise in pollinator conservation.

But, attention with ‘over-beeing’! Long acclaimed, initiatives aimed at installing beehives in cities as well as in the countryside, are now controversial. While urban hives or insect hotels have public awareness impacts and are easy to set up, their excessive installation may cause domestic bees to compete with wild pollinators. So, rather than focusing on a single species, it is necessary to understand all the pollinators and offer them favorable habitats. And that’s the hard work, because it entails big transformations in our ways of life, like in our production methods – see agroecology-, or in the use of our land – see for example, leaving, despite the strong real-state pressure, ‘wild’ urban areas in free evolution instead of as spaces ‘awaiting urbanization’.