May 2020

World Bee Day

Bees being cared for on campus

Facing Challenges

British springtime: the weather is starting to improve, flowers are blossoming, and if you open your window, you might hear the soft buzz of a bee flying by.

A pleasant symbol of approaching summer, we’re all aware of the vital role bees play in the pollination of many flowering plants and crops grown for human consumption – such as coffee, cucumbers and blueberries. Yet bees and other pollinators are under threat – in 2019 the European Parliament reported that 10% of the world’s bee and butterfly populations were endangered, with habitat losses, climate change and pesticide use all contributing to population decline. This presents a troubling situation, not only for the future of food production, but for biodiversity and natural ecosystems around the world.

Raising awareness is key in helping to prevent and reverse the decline of bees and other pollinators. In celebration of World Bee Day 2020, we spoke to Sustainability Research Institute Lecturer and Campus Bee Network Founder Dr Jen Dyer, to learn more about what is being done to help the bees here on the University of Leeds campus.

Unbeelievable network

You may be surprised to hear that the University is home to a thriving network of beehives, clustered into three apiaries (collections of hives) around campus. These hives, and the bees that call them home, are cared for throughout the year by a dedicated group of student and staff volunteers called the Campus Bee Network.

The endeavor began with the Sustainability Action Group, when in 2011, they were looking for a practical way to make a difference. As leader of the group, Jen had been exploring ideas for a new project, and with bee decline making headlines in the news, raised the idea of bringing bees onto campus. The idea took off, and so planning for the University’s first apiary began to take shape.

Since then, the Bee Network has continued to grow. After starting with a few hives behind the school of Earth and Environment in 2012, apiaries now occupy two other sites on campus – one in St George’s Field and the other, believe it or not, on the roof of the Laidlaw Library.

“When the Laidlaw Library was being built, Mike Howroyd from the Sustainability Service approached us with the idea of getting some hives on the roof. So even from the early days of the library’s life, the plan was always to get some bees up there – we just needed to wait for the building to actually be finished first!”

All of the apiaries are cared for by members of the Bee Network – staff and students trained in beekeeping, who share equipment and expertise. The Laidlaw library hives are looked after mainly by library staff who have been keenly involved since its arrival, and in the St George’s Field apiary there is a top bar hive that tests a different kind of bee keeping.

The aims of the Bee Network have never been about harvesting honey or generating profit from the bees. From the beginning, the aim has been to use the hives as a tool to raise awareness among the University community, and to help bee populations to grow.

It has been successful in this aim – several swarms have been born from the University colonies and used to start new hives. Interest in the network and its work with the bees also continues to grow, which has created new, logistical challenges in catering for larger groups of volunteers. Although around 50 people have completed a weekend course in beekeeping since the network began, it takes a good while shadowing an experienced beekeeper before an individual is ready to manage a hive alone. Students and staff naturally have very busy schedules in both their academic and personal lives, so it can often be a challenge to find a time for a trainee to shadow someone with more experience. This challenge is often exacerbated by the unpredictability of the British weather, as the hives cannot be opened whilst it’s raining. Added to this, the academic cycle has been another challenge, as peak bee activity coincides with the exam period and holidays for students. This has often meant that despite a keen interest and the best of intentions, the network can’t provide as many opportunities for students to be involved as they would like.

Due to this, the bee network is now primarily run by volunteer University staff from across the campus. Thankfully, for those restricted by time, becoming a beekeeper isn’t the only way students and staff can help improve the numbers of bees and other pollinators on campus. A new project that Jen has helped to develop as part of the Sustainability Service’s Living Lab will enable people to contribute to these efforts with whatever time they have available.

"When the Laidlaw Library was being built, Mike Howroyd from the Sustainability Service approached us with the idea of getting some hives on the roof. So even from the early days of the library’s life, the plan was always to get some bees up there – we just needed to wait for the building to actually be finished first!”

Dr Jen Dyer
Sustainability Research Institute Lecturer and Campus Bee Network Founder

Planting for Pollinators

The University is one of the largest landowners in Leeds, giving it real potential to have a positive impact on biodiversity in the area. In 2016, the University launched its Biodiversity Standard, which provides an overarching strategy for how University properties are managed, to help achieve the University’s vision of becoming exemplars of urban biodiversity. It is this principal that has guided one of the latest Living Lab projects. Three 1km long transects have been created by Student Pollinator Ambassadors around campus, and people will be encouraged to walk the routes and make note of the wildlife they see there. The data collected will then be used to inform planting choices on campus in an attempt to attract more pollinators, like bees, to the site. Looking to the future, it’s hoped that this project could also be used to help monitor and increase the numbers of birds, moths and even small mammals on campus.

Through this project, even those with limited free time can contribute to making campus a more welcoming environment for bees and other wildlife. The Ambassadors have showcased this project at the Student Sustainability Conference as well as the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges, and have been accepted to run a workshop at the International Sustainable Campus Network conference in Switzerland in 2021.

Beekeeping through the pandemic

Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic and the ongoing UK lockdown, members of the Bee Network are carefully carrying on with the vital work of tending to the University’s bees. With the recent good weather, this is a critical time of year for bee colony growth, making regular checks on the bees’ progress a top priority. Thanks to the dedication of the network’s volunteers, they are continuing to thrive.