The bees are back and checking in
In April, more than 11,000 volunteers across the Netherlands joined in a bee-counting exercise as part of the nation’s fourth bee census. They spent 30 minutes in their gardens recording apian numbers and at the close of the count, more than 200,000 bees and hoverflies had been counted.
The results — for urban bees at least — were steady. Vincent Kalkman, entomologist at Naturalis, one of the organisations behind the census, says, “An average of 18 to 20 bees and hoverflies were recorded in each garden during the count. These numbers have remained steady over the years, indicating there is no strong decline in urban gardens.”
While the Dutch say bee hotels, bee stops and a “honey highway” are all helping keep their urban bee populations steady, the census aims to collect five years’ of data before drawing definitive conclusions on trends. “The bee census is about gathering data but it is also serves to draw people’s attention to the different kinds of bees visiting their gardens,” says Kalkman. “It [the census] is also about education.”
With more than a quarter of the bees recorded in the 2021 census being honey bees — a species propped up by beekeeping — Kalkman is concerned they could be competing with wild bees for food. “The increase in the number of beekeepers in cities could result in increased competition for food between honeybees and wild bees,” he says. “We need to work with beekeepers to increase food sources [flowers] for all bees.”
The native wild bee population in the Netherlands has been in decline since the 1940s, predominantly in rural areas. More than half of the nation’s 360 bee species are endangered. Until 50 years ago, farms had a myriad variety of wildflowers that sustained bee populations. But the pressure on farmers for more output has meant farmlands no longer have space for natural areas. Large swathes of agricultural land are almost devoid of wildflowers, leading to the decline in bee numbers, further compounded by the use of pesticides.
“The economic importance of agricultural areas makes it difficult to change things there,” said Kalkman. The Netherlands is the world’s second largest exporter of agricultural products, after the US. Recognising the crucial role played by wild bees in pollinating food crops, especially fruit and vegetables, the Dutch government announced a national pollinator strategy in 2018 to add more nesting sites for bees and to boost their food supply.
Amsterdam has been putting up bee hotels, a collection of hollow plant stems or thin bamboo that provides cavities for solitary bees to nest. The city has also replaced grass in public spaces with native flowering plants and stopped using chemical weedkillers on public lands. Florinda Nieuwenhuis, an ecologist with the municipality of Amsterdam, reports the number of solitary bee species were up 45% in 2015 compared with a survey in 2000.
The city of Utrecht has been building bee stops — bus shelters with their roofs covered in native plants — that attract bees and absorb dust particles and rainwater. Since 2018, 316 bee stops have been installed.
And biodynamic beekeeper Deborah Post has launched Honey Highway, a collaboration with municipalities to plant wildflowers on the sides of highways, railways, and waterways, thus ensuring food and shelter for bees.
In view of the rapid urbanisation in the Netherlands, Kalkman says, “The Dutch government aims to build hundreds of thousands of new homes in the coming years. So we have to think of ways in which we can preserve nature alongside the increasing number of cities.”
TOP A ‘bee hotel’ in Hennipgaarde in the Netherlands
PHOTO Andre Muller/Alamy
BOTTOM A ‘bee stop’ atop a bus shelter in Utrecht
PHOTO City of Utrecht