Many people will be familiar with Gibraltar. Our long standing feud with the Spanish over its sovereignty regularly hits the national press and it has its own TV show ‘Gibraltar –Britain in the Sun’.
The area is a popular tourist destination with its large population of wild monkeys attracting crowds from around Europe. But there is much more to this British territory than its wild apes as I found out in April when I spent a week there searching for wild flowers and their pollinators.
Before I talk about Gibraltar’s flowers and its pollinators I’ll give a brief overview of the area’s history and geography. Gibraltar is a small British territory (6.8km2 in area) on the southern tip of Spain’s Iberian Peninsula, its affectionately referred to as ‘Gib’ by the locals who mostly identify themselves as being British. It was captured by the British in 1704 and has been a British territory since 1713 despite numerous attempts by the Spanish to re-take it. The area is unique in having a diverse mixture of Afro-European fauna and flora found nowhere else in Europe. The ‘Rock’ itself is a large Jurassic Limestone formation rising 426 meters above sea level with steep slopes on the West side of the rock and almost vertical cliffs on the opposite East Side.
The rock and its limestone geology are unique in Spain where the main rock type is sandstone and granite. Gibraltar’s rocks belong to the same Limestone formations found across the narrow sea crossing in North Africa. Around 5 million years ago the Mediterranean basin flooded and the rock was separated from Morocco. At this time many African species of plant and animal became trapped and isolated and have since evolved alongside European species. Many of the rocks African plant species cannot survive in the typical European habitats found on the mainland as they are limestone specialists and cannot cope with the acid conditions on the granite and sandstone areas. The result today is a unique mix of Africa meets Europe with assemblages of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world including several rare and endemic species.
I had visited Gib before but on short trips in the autumn
and found the entire area to be baked tinder dry and aside from the occasional Autumn Colchium and Amaryllis belladonna
there were very few wild plants in flower and even fewer
bees. Gibraltar like much of southern Spain is subject to scorching hot summers
so many plants and animals go dormant or hibernate for much of the dry season
mid-summer to winter. The spring in Gibraltar is quite spectacular though in
contrast. Winter rains and a frequent supply of moist air rising up the rocks
Eastern cliffs brings lots of moisture in spring transforming the arid rock
into a Lush Tropical paradise. The best time to visit to see wild flowers and
their pollinators is late March and April, but there is still plenty to see if
you visit in May.
I decided to visit the second week of April because I wanted to see flowers at their best but I also wanted to coincide my trip with the peak in spring bird migration. Having the narrowest sea crossing in the western Mediterranean the rock is a magnet for many migrating birds, especially birds of prey such as kites, eagles, buzzards and Vultures which rely on thermals to cover great distance. There's something really special about watching 100's of eagle sized raptors soaring just meters over your boat headed for the mainland.
It’s not just birds which migrate here in spring. Many species of Dragonfly, large Solitary bee’s, butterflies and Hoverfly’s also make the 14km journey from North Africa to Europe. One of the best ways to see these migrations is to take a pelagic boat trip out into the straight. Many tired insect travellers will alight on the boats to rest their tired flight muscles. Migrant hawkers, Chasers, and Darter dragonflies are numerous, Vollucela hoverflies are also common and occasionally clouds of Painted lady Butterfly flutter past. I noted many insect bodies floating on the ocean surface during the boat trip. Clearly the sea crossing is treacherous for insects and many don’t complete the journey – Gulls, Cory’s Shearwater and Black Terns eagerly pick their lifeless bodies from the waters surface. Occasionally a large bee will also buzz past. Another reason for taking a boat trip is to see the numerous whales and dolphins which inhabit the straight alongside sea turtles, Sun fish, Basking sharks, Humpback, Minke and Sperm Whales. The Local Striped Dolphin are among the most social and easiest to approach in Europe and come right along the side of the boats. We had the pleasure of a pod of around 15 adults and a calf bow ride our boat for around 40 minutes.
One of the first stops on my trip and a great place to see pollinators is the Alameda Botanic Gardens. Here you can get up close to many of the rocks rare and threatened plants which are being cultivated to conserve the species and to repopulate the upper rock reserve. The gardens also boast impressive assemblages of North African and Mediterranean plants which in April are almost all in flower at once and attract masses of buzzing insects. The Mediterranean is a hotspot for global bee diversity both in terms of population size and numbers of species found in the region, Spain alone has over 1000 species of bee and identifying them all is not an easy task. At best in the field you can only expect to get to Genus level with most of them as many are hard to identify to species level unless you can capture them for close up examination with a hand lens or microscope. At the Alameda Gardens I saw lots of Flower bees Anthophora sp . Some were a local sub-species of our Hairy Footed Flower bee A.plumipes , they were identical in every way except much brighter in colour almost ginger. Other species of Flower bee I could not identify as they were too fast and wouldn’t stay still long enough to get a good look at them. I also saw lots of Andrena Mining bees similar to our tawny mining bee and a great number of Osmia and Lasioglossum bees. Bumble bees were quite scarce though Bombus vestalis, hortorum and terrestris can be seen. Although most of the common UK bumble bees can be found in Spain along with many other bumble bees not found in the UK they are scarce in the Iberian Peninsula – the climate is probably too hot for their large hairy bodies to keep cool.Leaving the Botanic Gardens you can either take a short but quite a steep and physically draining walk up the winding roads of the Western face of the rock or you can take the cable car or a taxi ride to the upper rock reserve. This is the really wild part of Gibraltar, protected as a nature reserve and home to the Barbary Macaque apes.
Most of the wild bees inhabiting these areas are arboreal and are difficult to see spending much of their time up in the canopy where they feed on arboreal flowers and burrow into decaying branches to make their nests. One of them is the impressive Violet Carpenter bee – an absolutely enormous solitary bee that makes its nests inside the hollow stems of dead tree branches and tall Umbellifer flowers among the Macchia. You usually hear them well before you see them, they make a very loud humming noise. They are pretty spectacular bees having glossy black bodies with iridescent purple wings the colour of Cadbury’s dairy milk chocolate foil wrappings.
Throughout the macchia there are numerous glades and clearings where you will find Silver knapweed, Centaurea sonchifolia, Cut-leaved Valerian, Centranthus calcitrapae, Thapsia villosa a large yellow cow parsley like flower – often covered in bees and lots of introduced Acanthus Mollis which is becoming a well established pest on much of the reserve. Bees and large pollinating chaffer type beetles were on virtually every flower.
Along the path ways Blue Pimpernel Anagallis arvensis, Rambling fumitory, Fumaria capreolata, Bladder vetch, Anthyllis tetraphylla , wild Fennel, Greater soft storksbill, Erodium chium and the subspecies subcordata of the Sticky Restharrow Ononis viscosa grow in profusion. These were visited by the local honey bees. There is a small charity in Gibraltar which tend the only managed hives in the town. Contrary to claims on their website they do not keep the Scutella Central African race of Honey bee but the local Spanish Race Apis melifera iberiensis. Here is a picture of some of them foraging on Southern Birds Foot Trefoil. Being surrounded on 3 sides by the sea and being less than 7km2 in area it must be a challenging place to keep bees not least to get new queens mated.
One morning whilst visiting the Bird Observatory on the Upper rock reserve I joined the bird ringers to go check their mist nets they use to catch birds as part of their migration studies. In the thick and impenetrable scrub was the remains of a very old vehicle, probably abandoned since the Second World War from the look of it. Inside was a wild honey bee nest with comb hanging from the metal roof.
The bird observatory has one of the very few ponds found in Gibraltar. Limestone is porous so there are very few natural places where water can collect to form pools. The man made pond at the Observatory is visited by many birds but it is also visited by many insects as they need to drink too. It is the only place where I saw frogs – the rest of the upper rock is too dry for them to survive.
One of Gibraltars more elusive inhabitants is the Barbary Partridge. This game bird is very similar to the Red Legged Partridge found throughout most of Western Europe. It is widespread across northern Africa and the Canary Islands but is restricted to Gibraltar in Spain. The remaining population is now very small and they are very shy and not easy to see. The video below is one I pilled from YouTube and is not my own footage - sadly I didnt get to see this bird.
One of the best parts of the rock to see wild flowers and pollinators is the Mediterranean steps, a 1.4km hike starting at 140 meters above sea level and climbing to the summit of the rock on its eastern side along very tough terrain involving a steep climb up the Eastern Cliffs. The route starts off on an easy gradient but then climbs very steeply up the vertical face of the Eastern side of the Rock. This part of the climb is not for the faint hearted as there are few safety ropes or rails and a sheer drop should you fall from the stone carved foot path.
On the scree slopes along the steps cornfield annuals which are native to the locality grow in abundance alongside Bristly bugloss, Echium creticum of which Gibraltar has its own sub species coincyanum. These plants grow at home in the UK and are often cited as being native but they were actually introduced to the UK by man as weed seeds in the earliest domestic grains brought from the Mediterranean . In the Uk these plants rely on sympathetic agricultural practices to provide the disturbed soil they need to grow. Here in their natural habitat the crumbling limestone cliffs provide the disturbed soil habitats they require to flourish.
Other plants growing out of the thin soils here included Cut leaved and Red valerian, Cut leaved lavender and wild Calendula. This area was covered in Butterflies including the Spanish Festoon Zerynthia rumina, Cleopatra butterfly and large numbers of migrating Painted Ladies - many of which will refuel at Gibraltar before continuing to migrate into North West Europe reaching the British Isles and as far north as Greenland.
are numerous caves throughout the rock where rain water run off has dissolved
weaker parts of the limestone. Many solitary bees excavate their nests in the
soft crumbling rock around the cave
entrances. Nearby Mallow leaved
bindweed, Convulvulus althaeoides
rambled through the wild olives etching a living out of the vertical rock face
and attracted lots honey bees. To get a close look at any of these bees you
really need to come equipped with a long handled net to catch them (I didn’t!
and my short handled net was not much use). The steep cliffs, narrow footpath
and dense vegetation make it hard to get up close to the wild bees. The heat and
humidity also means they are ‘super charged’ and the Anthophora bees in
particular are very flighty. It may be easier to get close to bees earlier in
the morning when the air is still cool from the mists coming off the sea as the
bees won’t be as alert and fast moving.
As I climbed higher up the steeper parts of the rock different plant communities are found. Mediterranean Squirting Cucumber Ecballium elaterium , Doronicum, and Aromatic Inula, Dittrichia viscosa Grow. On more exposed cliffs several rare plants grow in abundance. They include the Gibraltar Candytuft Iberis gibraltarica and the Gibraltar Saxifrage Saxifraga globulifera a species endemic to Gibraltar. An even rarer plant unique to Gibraltar is the Gibraltar Campion Silene tomentosa . This plant was though extinct until a few years ago when a rock climber accidentally discovered a small group of them growing on a very high outcrop. There are only a handful of wild specimens left and their exact location a guarded secret. I unfortunately did not get to see this plant.
One of the most spectacular plants I saw on the sleep cliffs of the steps were Giant Squill Scilla peruviana . The iridescent purple flowers attracted lots of insects including lots of small metallic solitary bees – probably lasioglossum species.
parts of the rock good for botanising and looking for pollinators is Europa
Point on the southern tip of the peninsula. Here the Botanical society of
Gibraltar and the Gibraltar Nature conservancy have done allot of work to
restore the native maritime coastal habitats. Here vast swathes of Purple vipers bugloss, Echium plantagineum
Wild Calendula, Southern Birds Foot Trefoil lotus creticus
Mediterranean Catchfly Silene colorata
Sainfoin Hedysarum coronarium
and native Chrysanthemums. Gibraltar Sea Lavender Limonium emarginatum
also grows here – another Endemic species. Europa point is where allot of the
migrating birds and insects first make landfall and many Entomologists and
ornithologists gather at the observatory there to look out for and record
Surprisingly one of the interesting parts of the Gibraltar to look for plants is the old town centre. The narrow streets and steep stairwells are often home to little botanical gems. Many of these are not native but have escaped over the years and makes for an eclectic mix of plants such as Wild Snap Dragon Antirrhinum majus and schiizostylis which grow out of the old lime stone walls. Cape Sorrell Oxalis pes-caprae is common along old walls and is host for the parasitic plant Branched broomrape, Orobanche ramose.
Aside from wonderful wild flowers and lots of bees and butterflies Gibraltar is also a pretty good place to see reptiles. There are many species of lizard, snakes and Gecko found on the Rock, many are easy to see early in the morning as they bask in the sun to warm their bodies. Some are restricted to Gibraltar in Europe being descendants of African species stranded millions of years ago when the Straight flooded.
I would highly recommend a visit to Gibraltar
in April but be warned, there are very few modern and respectable hotels in the
town, most of the accommodation options are basic, out dated and costly.
Another word of caution is regarding the Apes. You cannot walk around the Upper rock reserve with food or shiny objects on display – you will be robbed! My travel companion I went on this 5 day trip with was literally ‘mugged’ by a gang of Apes after they spotted the shiny foil wrappings of his sandwich pocking out of his trouser pocket. They also stole his Wallet and souvenir bag – do not under estimate them. I actually saw a troop of monkeys ransack a parked car after the occupants left their windows down. The apes climbed in one side grabbed what they could carry and left out the opposite window. The female passenger didn’t get her handbag back as it disappeared along with the ape over the cliff edge.
When climbing the rock and looking for wildlife its best to start early in the morning on the western side. The mornings often produce moisture carrying breezes which collide with the base of the rocks Eastern side and are pushed up the cliffs providing water for plants. This side also receives more shade in the morning so the Climb is easier as it’s not too hot yet. Many of the plants secrete nectar early in the morning before it gets too hot, by early afternoon it can become very dry, the moisture laden fogbank around the base of the rock dissipates and it becomes too hot for many plants to secrete nectar and most pollinators are less active. When you come to climb the Eastern side of the rock which is very steep and physically strenuous the sun will have moved westwards and the rock provides welcome shade from the heat. Temperatures were in the high 20’s Celsius the entire week we were there and on several days reached 30 Celcius.
Aside from wildlife watching there is allot to do in Gibraltar, the whole town is steeped in history, there are caves to explore, underground museums, an 8th century Moorish castle, Military museum, and Ocean village marina where you’ll find Casinos, shops and restaurants.
There are also lots of antique and old book shops in the town centre.
Almost Everyone in Gib speaks English as a first language, they use the British Pound as currency and you’ll find familiar shops such as M&S, Morrisons, Body Shop, next, Tesco and the Post Office.
It really is Britain in the Sun!
Following a very mild
March the forage this season appears to be well advanced of recent springs,
even in comparison to last year’s very mild winter and warm start to the year.
2017 has started cold and chilly but in late March this has warmed up considerably.
So much so that I experienced my first attempt at a swarm during the last week
of March and already the new queens have emerged and unbelievably appear to
have been mated and are laying in the first week of April!!!
During the first week of April many of our true heralds of spring had already begun to flower across the city. Cherry Laurel Prunus laurocerasus an evergreen shrub who’s flowers are a useful source of spring forage have been out in bloom since mid-March 2-3 weeks earlier than last year. Whilst manning the LBKA stall at Ascot race course on the 2nd April I saw many Andrena Mining bees, Honey bees, Bumble bees, Hoverflies, Queen wasps and Queen Hornet nectaring on the blooms of these tall shrubs growing around the car park.
Damson, Plum, Gage, and other stone fruits have largely flowered and gone over already as have crocus, daffodils and snow drops. My flowering currant normally just blooming now is almost over already meanwhile Blue Bells are coming into flower.
Blue bells may be visited by Honey bees and can produce a honey crop but they are also popular with some of the longer tongued solitary bees and Garden Bumble Bee Bombus hortorum . Most of the Blue Bells found growing in our gardens and sadly in many of our wilder places are the larger invasive Spanish Blue Bell Hycinthoides hispanica and not the native English Blue Bell Hycinthoides non-scripta . You can tell the two species apart by the way that the individual bells hang on the flower stalk. In English Blue bell the bells all hang on the same side but in the Spanish Blue Bell they hang at different angles all around the stalk. They also have green to blue pollen whilst English Blue Bells have a creamy coloured Pollen. Blue Bells frequently hybridise and these offspring can be difficult to differentiate.
March is officially the first month of spring for us in the UK, though in London it has felt spring like for several weeks now.
Already the first of the spring flowers are putting on a colourful show of yellows, purples and shades of white. Snow drops are starting to go past their best having flowered in numbers since Late January. The early flowering species crocuses are currently looking at their best across most of London and the later flowering large flowered Crocus varieties are just starting to join the display too.
These and other spring bulbous plants including Winter Aconite, Anenemone blanda, Squill and Muscari are valuable early sources of pollen for bees.
2017 has started off quite differently from last year’s exceptionally warm January. Last year in the first week of January I participated in the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland’s annual New Year’s plant hunt and found 76 species of plant in bloom during an 8 mile walk around East London. In contrast on the 3rd of January this year I found just 9!
January 2017 has seen a return of the more usual cold winter temperatures and from what I can tell so far the return towards more normal timings of the seasons and emergence of spring plants and animals. The recent cold weather has meant that late season flowering plants have ceased blooming before Christmas and not persisted through winter as they did last year meanwhile spring flowers have remained doorman and not yet begun to emerge.
Despite the weather being generally cold with some particularly harsh ground frosts there have been occasional mild days when the bees will fly to cleanse their bowels and look for food. Despite the cold there are a select few flowers in bloom which they can take advantage of.
Few native plants are yet in bloom but several exotics flourish in late winter through to early spring providing a bounty of forage for the few insects brave enough to venture out and take advantage of them.
Mahonia or Oregon Grape grows in our towns and cities in abundance and flowers throughout the winter providing nectar and pollen for bees. In southern towns and cities Buff Tailed Bumble Bees Bombus terrestris are increasingly continue to be active throughout the winter surviving largely on this plant. Around 75% of winter flower visitations by bees are to Mahonia. The variety ‘winters sun’ is particularly attractive. Bees taking advantage of Mahonia blooms in winter have few other insects to compete with and can fair better than some colonies active in summer. On the 12th December I discovered an active Buff Tailed nest in west London beneath a Pyracantha hedge. I’ve been monitoring it all winter and whenever there is a warm day the workers can be seen busily coming and going from a large stand of Mahonia shrubs across the street from the nest. The blooms will only last a few more weeks so hopefully an equally good source of forage will come into bloom nearby to ensure the colony has sufficient forage coming in to enable it to produce new queens and drones by spring when the nest dies off.
Viburnum shrubs include a number of deciduous and evergreen species which flower during the winter months. They are relatives of our native Guelder Rose Viburnum opolus . Some of the most popular Viburnums with our bees include the evergreen Viburnum tinus who’s sweetly scented cream blooms flower from November through to March and Viburnum bodnaatense whos pink flowers bloom from around Christmas to March.
Winter Heliotrope Petasites fragrans is a relative of our native Butterbur but flowers much earlier. Its not a UK native and can be quite invasive when established in the wild but is a great garden plant for bees in late winter. The flowers are shaped like a toilet brush and pink in colour.
Clematis . Several Clematis species are useful forage sources to bees in winter. Clematis amandii and Clematis cirhossa both have creamy white flowers and bloom in winter. Honey and winter active bumble bees will visit them for pollen.
Hellebores include the familiar ‘winter rose’ with its large white blooms ‘ orientalis ’ and its many cultivated hybrids and the native Stinking Hellebore helleborus foetidus .
Winter Flowering Cherry Prunus subhirtella flower from late November to February producing pale pink flowers. I’ve very rarely seen any bees on the blooms but have often seen flies on them. In the absence of better forage like Mahonia bees will visit the flowers.
Sweet Box Sarcococca confusa is a short growing evergreen shrub which produces extremely fragrant blooms (reminiscent of hyacinths) from late winter into early spring. It’s one of those plants that you almost always smell long before you see it.
Winter Heather/Heaths Erica species produce tubular blooms in shades of white to pink throughout the winter. They are coming to the end of their flowering period now but still providing forage for bees brave enough to venture out.
Winter flowering Honeysuckle . Several Honeysuckles flower during winter. Some are climbers other are shrub forming. One of the best is Lonicera fragrantissimima .
As we progress beyond February into March the usual array of spring blooms will begin to appear. Their arrival is not far off, already a few brave Daffodils, Snow Drops and Winter Aconite have made an appearance. They will be joined by Crocus, Muscari, Sweet Violets, White Deadnettle and Pulmonaria.
Firstly lets start with wasps Beekeepers in America like those the world over have a hateful relationship with wasps. Here in the UK we have about half a dozen species of wasp which can pose problems for our bee colonies. These are mostly social wasps which build paper nests but there is also one solitary wasp – the Bee Wolf Philanthus – which hunts almost exclusively on honey bee workers which it buries underground and lays its eggs on after paralysing the bee. Most of these wasps are little more than a nuisance, few can actually cause any real damage, and when they do it is usually already weak colonies which are effected. Reducing hive entrances to make the colony easier for the guard bees to defend is usually all the intervention needed. In the US they have a whole different range of native wasps which predate bees as well as common Wasp, German Wasp, Tree Wasp and European Hornets which have been accidentally introduced from Europe. In total they have around 20 species of social wasps which all, to some degree prey, on honey bee colonies.
Honey Bees are not native to North America so have few defences against the native wasps which must have delighted at their arrival in the 1600s. Among the most common social wasps which can cause problems for US beekeepers are the Yellow Jackets. These are very similar to European common wasps which are the scourge of picnic tables in late summer and sometimes rob our honey bees. Yellow Jackets almost always nest underground among thick undergrowth. In 2013, I was the victim of a vicious Yellow Jacket colony which went on the rampage after an innocent bystander accidentally stepped on their nest during an event in Piedmont Park in Atlanta. 100s of wasps came pouring out of a small hole in the ground – probably an old mouse burrow and flew straight up my shorts stinging my groin. My friends were stung on the face, arms and legs. The stings were extremely painful and burned intensely. They were far more painful than any bee sting and I would not want to experience it again. There are several species of Yellow Jacket which all look very similar. They are the Eastern Yellow Jacket, Western Yellow Jacket, Prairie Yellow Jacket and the Southern Yellow Jacket. All the Yellow Jackets are in the genus Vespa which is the same Genus that our common wasps and European Hornets belong to.
By now the vast majority of the UK’s 277 species of bee are well tucked away for winter. The majority of our bees are solitary and the most of these bees die in late summer leaving behind their offspring entombed deep inside underground burrows or imprisoned inside hollow plant stems or decaying wood. These bees will either overwinter as a pupae, pre-pupae or as a fully mature bee but they will not vacate their birth site until spring.
Bumble bees colonies die out in autumn and only the queens survive winter by hibernating. In autumn the queens feast on pollen and nectar to fatten up for their long sleep.
In the south of
the UK, particularly in towns and cities some of these bumble bees may remain
active all year round. The Buff Tailed Bumble Bee is our most winter hardy bee, they are large and furry, can
regulate their own body temperature and regularly fly on cold days when other
bees are nowhere to be seen. They will even fly in snow.
In southern towns and cities Buff Tailed Bumble Bees are increasingly starting to found new colonies in late autumn rather than going into hibernation. The abundance of exotic winter flowering shrubs in urban areas and lack of competition from other pollinators means these bees can thrive during the winter months. Mahonia is particularly important to winter active bumble bees, 75% of flower visitations by bees in winter are to this plant alone. There are numerous varieties of Mahonia but my favourite is ‘Winter Sun’ which is popular with the bees.
The Christmas Wreath
Christmas wreaths predate Christmas and Christianity by several thousand years. Originally ancient Britain’s and other northern Europeans would have made loose hanging wreaths (basically just a bundle of greenery tied at the top and hung from the walls of their home) as a means to warn off winter spirits. It is only later with the rise of the Christian churches that Wreaths adopted a circular shape mirroring the crown of Christ. Our ancestors believed that evergreen plants were magical because unlike other plants they didn’t die back and shed their leaves in winter. Additionally many evergreen plants like Holly produce long lasting berries which were a symbol of life and fertility. Plants like Ivy who’s berries persist long into winter as well as being evergreen climb and entwine representing matrimony and togetherness. Strongly scented sprigs of conifer would have hidden the foul odours of winter (no fridges back then so perishable foods would not last long even when dried and salted and would produce a pungent smell)
Key items used in wreaths include Holly Ilex aquifolium which is pollinated by Honey bees and Andrena mining bees who’s short tongues are well equipped to manipulate the strongly scented but visually insignificant flowers. Ivy flowers are pollinated by a wide variety of insects and are a valued autumn forage source but has its own special pollinator the Ivy Mining Bee Colletes hedera which only collects pollen from Ivy and times its emergence to the opening of the Ivy flowers.
One of the things I have been very interested in during my travels throughout the United States was investigating how different urban areas compare to London in terms of forage availability. To begin my comparison we first need to understand what we have here at home in London.
Here in London we have very high hive densities in some parts of the city. According to 2016 figures from the National bee Unit Greater London has around 5000 hives and around 1400 beekeepers. The exact number is unknown as it is estimated that 25-30% of beekeepers do not register. With this in mind the actual number of managed hives in Greater London could be as high as 6200. NBU data also shows that in some central London areas hive density is as high as 13 hives per square kilometre – greater than many rural areas. Unlike many rural areas which have vast swathes of agricultural crops which provide a limited variety but seasonal super-abundance of nectar, London has less abundance of forage but a greater variety due to the wide range of exotic plants grown in the city’s parks and gardens. What this means for bees and beekeepers in London is that our bees have a much more balanced and varied diet offering them a wider range of nutrition but our honey crops generally fall 30% short of the UK national average. According to the BBKA honey survey results for the past decade London has consistently been the lowest yielding region in the country in terms of average volumes of honey produced. The exception to this trend has been 2015 and 2016 when national averages plummeted due to the cold, wet and windy spring weather but London yields remained the same (due to our microclimate and more stable weather patterns)
London is 61 percent green space by land area. Of this 14% is domestic garden green space, 38.4% is public green space and the remaining is made up of commercial green space, railway sidings, brownfield land and green roofs according to data from Green Space Information for Greater London (GIGL), The General London Assembly (GLA) and the 2012 World Culture report.
London also has an abundance of trees with tree canopy covering 21.87% of the city. In 2003 London had around 7 million trees – almost as many trees as there are people and there are targets to increase this by 5% by 2025. Under the Mayors RE:LEAF initiative 75’000 new trees are planted in the City each year. On the surface London is a pretty green city but when we look more closely at the available data we begin to see that some parts of the city’s green areas are little more than green deserts. According to Kew Gardens around half of London’s half a million street trees are sterile London plane trees, as are many of the trees in central London parks. These sterile hybrids offer no pollen or nectar for pollinators and much of our parks these trees grow in are also largely short cut grass with few flowers for bees. Increasingly urban planners are planting birch and alter trees because they grow rapidly, take up little space and are low maintenance and tolerate the poor, dry urban soils. These trees offer no pollen or nectar for bees.
Generally speaking the green spaces closer to the city centre tend to offer less foraging opportunities than those further out which are often more wild and rugged and contain more wild flowers. Further out we have more large habitats including heaths and commons which are less intensively managed. Also further out into the London suburbs more of our railways are above ground and lined by thickets of Bramble, avenues of trees and more of the road verges include green buffers. There are exceptions, the gardens at Buckingham palace for example are known to have a rich diversity of flowering trees including wilder areas. For some time there has been a growing concern that in some areas of the city we may have reached saturation point where numbers of hives has reached the limits of what local forage can support. It is this concern which is leading many organisations including LBKA to promote the planting of flowers and trees for bees. There are now a number of initiatives such as river of flowers and bee lines project which aim to create landscape scale bee friendly corridors of suitable flower habitat through parts of the city to link up pollinator populations and help provide forage for bees. On the whole though London is a good place for bees, and is by no means a bad habitat for bees but as I discovered on my travels there is much room for improvement and some of the US cities I visited put us to shame when it comes to providing habitats for pollinators.