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How bees are keys to better urban environments

Biodiversity By Willow Aliento, Corporate Journalist – 19 December 2022

Aerial view of bees in a honeycomb hive


Willow wearing pink framed glasses and a white patterned shirt with foliage in the background

Willow Aliento

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At COP27 the role of biodiversity in mitigating and adapting to climate change was strongly highlighted as a major opportunity that needs to be an urgent priority. In the urban context, this has generally been considered in terms of urban forest strategies, vertical greening, rooftop vegetation and open space including parks.

But taking the macro lens may not deliver the nuance required to achieve a healthy, regenerative urban habitat. Perhaps instead we could look at biodiversity from the perspective of a keystone species like bees and consider how incorporating bee-friendly design might generate benefits for human communities.

Greening the streets

Bees are like the facilities managers of the natural world. Their role as pollinators, as part of the food chain and as sentinel species for environmental health is unique. At the same time, they are vulnerable to impacts including drought, incursions of pests such as Varroa mite, environmental toxins like pesticides, and an increasing lack of habitat.

Nature strips and other streetscape greening can help provide safe refuge for bees when the broader landscape is under stress. That same greening also then helps mitigate the urban heat island effect, enhances people’s likelihood of using active travel modes such as walking and cycling and adds value to local property.

In some communities, the traditional grass plus trees and shrubs combination for urban streets is being replaced with community vegetable and herb gardens. This has multiple benefits including increasing community cohesion, improving access to fresh food, enhancing urban food system resilience and mitigating household financial stress. Plus, it is attractive!

This form of urban agriculture needs pollinators like bees to thrive, so if we design and manage these areas to reduce threats to bees – for example reducing the use of pesticides on common property - many benefits can be achieved. Reducing pesticide use limits environmental burdens on the hydrological system from pesticides leaching into the stormwater system and lowers the risk of impacts to other urban wildlife including birds, lizards and butterflies.

“Bees are like the facilities managers of the natural world.”

Green corridors for pollinators – and people

The city of Melbourne has been strongly focused on urban forest planning, retaining and enhancing green links and retaining and restoring intra-suburb green belts. Now a new project, the Melbourne Pollinator Corridor (MPC) plan, puts bees and other pollinators at the heart of the city’s urban rewilding.

The project is a collaboration between community groups, scientists and urban landscaping specialists that aims to create an 8km wildlife corridor extending along the Birrarung (Yarra River) from Westgate Park to the Royal Botanic Gardens. The MPC extends through the dense inner suburbs of South Melbourne and Port Melbourne, which will have a direct benefit for the amenity in those communities.

The aim is to work with and engage residents and local community groups at all stages including the planning, establishment and care of the gardens to plant 18,000 indigenous plants in 200 gardens created on unused public land by the end of 2024.

An urban environment is an ecology

So often when people talk about ‘nature’ they are referring to areas outside the city, or purely ornamental parts of the urban realm like riverside parks or landscaped gardens. But nature is everywhere in our cities – the real question is around the degree of health, complexity and functionality of the ecosystem in any given part of the city.

There needs to be a balance between cold, hard urbanism and full urban wilderness – and designing for bees could be the sweet spot.

Some Australian native bees such as the blue banded bee require soil areas to build burrows. The benefit of having soil areas is not only for these ground-dwelling pollinators, however, they also help reduce urban stormwater runoff, allow for the healthy growth of trees for shade, and provide a reservoir of cool to counteract the urban heat island effect.

Sugarbag bees, or stingless native honeybees, benefit from native flowers and having shrubs and trees for nest building. The species they prefer are climate-adapted by virtue of being endemic, and many of these plants have traditional First Nations’ uses including seasonings (think lemon myrtle, native rosemary and mint-bush) and fruits (riberry lilli pilli, muntries, midyim berry or native raspberry, for example).

Flowers are also a known drawcard for tourism and for adding amenity to a street. Canberra, for example, draws thousands of people to the annual Floriade display. On a smaller scale, drawing people to a dining precinct, shopping precinct or cultural precinct can be enhanced through adding some local colour and scent in the form of native flowering plants.

All of this is a kind of synergistic thinking that relates the quality of life within the buildings that define our cities to the quality of the habitat that those buildings exist in. There’s a lesson from bees here in that the quality of what happens inside the hive is very much affected by what happens outside the hive.

“There needs to be a balance between cold, hard urbanism and full urban wilderness – and designing for bees could be the sweet spot.”