Britain seeks backyard beekeepers

The British government conservation agency wants to combat the declining bee population.

bees 88 248 (photo credit: )
bees 88 248
(photo credit: )
What's the well-dressed urbanite wearing this summer? Baggy white coveralls and a beekeeping helmet. That, at least, is the hope of a British government conservation agency, which is urging city-dwellers to become backyard beekeepers to combat the declining bee population. Natural England on Wednesday gave its backing to a "new, contemporary beehive for the urban beekeeper" known as the Beehaus, which it hopes will help convince urbanites that honeybees are hot. "[The Beehaus is] a great example of how easy it is for anyone to bring the natural world closer to their doorstep," Natural England chief scientist Tom Tew said. "There's no reason why our towns and cities should exist as wildlife deserts." Britain has 250 species of bees, but - as in other countries - most are in decline. Scientists say pesticides, disappearing habitat, wet weather and a parasite called the varroa mite are among the culprits. The makers of the Beehaus - a brightly colored plastic box, roughly the size of a backyard barbecue - say it has twice the room of a traditional hive, is designed to reduce swarming and can yield up to 20 kilograms of honey in a year. It sells for £495 pounds - bees not included. The company behind the Beehaus is Omlet, whose previous inventions include Eglu, an urban chicken coop that has brought poultry-keeping to backyards across Britain. Co-founder Johannes Paul said the Beehaus was designed to show that beekeeping is a "low-maintenance hobby." "Keeping a hive doesn't take much space, so you can even keep them on balconies, rooftops and obviously gardens," he said. Long-standing beekeepers welcome the new recruits, but worry some may not realize what they're getting into. "Like puppies, bees are not just for Christmas," said Tim Lovett of the British Beekeepers' Association. "There is a certain commitment to this." The reasons for the decline in bee numbers are still not fully understood. The Beekeepers' Association says almost a third of the country's honey-bee colonies were lost in 2007-2008, due in part to an exceptionally wet summer. This year's decline is expected to be less severe, thanks largely to better weather. Farmers have warned that the disappearance of bees could devastate food crops and the environment because about three-quarters of flowering plants rely on birds, bees and other pollinators to help them reproduce. Beekeeping's geeky image may be changing as the eco-conscious and affluent take up the cause. The British Beekeepers' Association says its membership has grown by 20 percent in the last 18 months, to almost 20,000. In the United States, a hive was installed earlier this year on the south lawn of the White House. Upmarket London department store Fortnum & Mason sells honey produced by bees in its rooftop hives. It claims the wide variety of plants in the store's affluent urban environs - from backyard flowers to chestnut and lime trees - makes for a more complex flavor. The British government has set up a National Bee Unit and increased research funding to try to stop the insects from disappearing - though beekeepers say more must be done, and faster. "There's no need for panic," said Lovett. "But I think there is need for a little urgency."