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Being Human or Bee-ing Human? Bees in London

A buzzing blog focusing on the importance of Bees in London, and what they bring to help humans!

When I was no older than a toddler I ran into my parents' back garden bare-footed and accidentally stepped onto a Bee. It stung me, and it hurt! I have never forgotten that Bee sting and I spent my entire childhood and much of my adult life afraid of anything that might buzz too close to me during the summer. I know that I am not alone in this. I have heard many others share similar stories. Bees can frighten us, but they also provide us with honey and wax, they pollinate plants which means that we have a much greater variety of foods to eat than would otherwise be the case. Without Bees, flowers wouldn’t bother advertising themselves with bright colours to encourage the Bee to land on them and spread their pollen around. Our world would be a very different, miserable place.

Encountering Bees at Being Human

Last week was the first national festival of the arts and humanities, aptly named Being Human. Events were held across the country, including London where I spent a good part of Friday learning more about our relationship with Bees and realising that my fear of them has subsided as I increasingly learn more about these fascinating creatures.

On the roof of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies building, adjacent to Russell Square and overlooked by the impressive art-deco Senate House belonging to the University of London, are three small bee hives. They are a relatively new addition, having only been installed there a year or two ago. As part of the festival we were granted a visit to the hives, given the opportunity to sample different honeys (and a little bit of Mead), attempt to make some candles, and learn more about Bees as part of our cultural heritage.

What do the Humanities tell us about Bees?

Study of the humanities has many important roles to play in our society and it is a sad reflection on politics today, that they are so often undervalued. Each of us will have a story to tell about a Bee sting, or an encounter with them of one kind or another. Sometimes we will learn about the science of Bees, but more often or not our understanding of them comes from interaction.

The humanities help us to locate that interaction into a form that makes sense to us. The Outrider Project is one instance of this. Outrider is an arts project, based in Herefordshire, which is attempting to understand the Bee through art. The project began when a collection of books and photographs were uncovered in the Hereford Public Library providing a variety of perspectives on the humb.

Sally Payen and Jaime Jackson explained that the books showed how multi-faceted human interest in Bees has always been. As one example, Hereford once had its own ‘Bee Van’. Apparently, the Bee van drove around Herefordshire in the 1930s, providing education for beekeepers (who were much more common then) about better ways to look after hives (see here for the blog post).

Bees in London

Camilla Goddard is a beekeeper in London and director of Capital Bees. She therefore tours around the various hives in the capital to offer advice and help. Bees are struggling a bit in the UK at the moment, but it seems that cities such as London are offering a home for them where they seem to not only survive but flourish. Although each individual Bee has to travel over long distances of pure concrete, there are so many parks and green spaces in the capital filled with a variety of trees and flowers, that actually their choice of food is more varied and available during a long seasonal span. Camilla explained that much of the honey from London relied on chestnuts and Lime trees, as well as the flowerbeds in parks, and the brambles along train lines. However, it was Camilla’s enthusiasm for the Bee that was infectious. Bees are beautiful creatures, and working with them, Camilla said, was a calming and meditative experience.

Do Bees have legal protection?

In America Bees are worked on an industrial level and as such there are many more problems with Bees there, than there are in the UK, however we do have our issues. A few years ago we had a harsh winter and around one third of hives were lost. Bees in the UK have yet to adapt to the varroa mite, which was accidently imported from Asia and can easily cause the loss of entire colonies. Then there is the issue of pesticides (especially neonicotinoids) and the loss of diversity in our landscapes which reduce the season length in which the Bees can successfully forage.

Most Beekeeping in the UK is small scale, and often done on an amateur basis. For this reason Bees are hard to quantify in legal terms which makes doing something about these problems all the more difficult. Opi Outhwaite from the University of Greenwich is a Senior Lecturer in Law. At Being Human she outlined the difficulties of categorising Bees in legal terms, demonstrating that Bees have a unique situation in the human world.  They are not pets, as beekeepers cannot domesticate them and certainly can’t control them. They are not, in all cases, entirely wild either. The hives are looked after by humans.

Bees are used to produce honey and wax, but they are not generally commercial concerns. Bees are not livestock either. Legislation over animals and wildlife do not entirely fit the honey Bee well for these reasons. Legislation that deal with commercial concerns are no use as the Bee is not an industry in the UK. The Animal Welfare Act focuses on animals that can be proven to feel pain, something scientifically not confirmed as yet by science. At any rate Bees are not kept in the same way as a dog or hamster. Wildlife legislation is no use either as this focuses on supporting standards, measures and management procedures for wild animals.

Bees are wild, but they are do not always live purely in the wild. There is a Bees Act of 1980, but this focuses on pests and diseases. The closest to adequate legislation is environmental standards. Could these incorporate the Bee as part of the wider eco-system? Perhaps, but even this does not cover everything that the Bee might need.

Some last thoughts

Bees are fascinating creatures and human interaction with them is also fascinating. The Being Human event was well worth attending and has certainly encouraged me to further think about the possibility of becoming an amateur beekeeper in the near future.