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By Julia Knights on

Enhancing our biodiversity: bees and trees

Deputy Director of the Science Museum Dr Julia Knights explores how we're enhancing our biodiversity, a key part of our building back sustainably mantra at the Science Museum Group.

In the week when China was due to host the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 15) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (now postponed to May 21 due to COVID-19) – and at which a final decision on the post-2020 global biodiversity framework was expected – it feels poignant to reflect on the Science Museum Group’s own efforts on biodiversity.

The 2019 State of Nature report found that 41% of UK species have declined since 1970 and one in 10 is threatened with extinction. Butterfly and moths have been especially hard hit with numbers having declined by 17% and 25% respectively.

According to the report, changes to our agriculture is the main contributing factor, with climate change identified as having the second biggest impact on wildlife.

Increased urban areas, pollution and invasive species were also found to have contributed significantly to species decline.

As a group of five world-leading science museums and the National Collections Centre, the Science Museum Group has a responsibility to do our bit to enhance biodiversity across our five museums and collection site.

Habitat creation to support small mammals, birds and insects is a key part of our work to date.

In addition to the 43,000 native trees already planted at our National Collections Centre (NCC) in Wiltshire, we also set a clear target to plant a thousand trees each year for the next decade. We aim to plant this year’s trees before Christmas with our partners the Woodland Trust.

We have also planted wildflowers at Locomotion in County Durham, adding new planting at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester and installing over a hundred bird and bat boxes together with log piles and hibernacula for reptiles and insects at the NCC.

Bringing bees to the Science Museum Group’s sites has also been our long-held ambition.

Last month we finally welcomed honey bees to the Science Museum roof, with thanks to our Director of Masterplan and Estate, Karen Livingstone, and our beekeeper Paul Youthed from The London Beekeeper. These bees will be looked after organically, with the bees keeping all their honey.

It took longer than planned to bring the bees to the museum due to the COVID-19 lockdown, but last month, the bees were transported in two hives by Paul and his colleague Nico through the museum’s Exploring Space gallery and up onto our roof.

To support foraging for these bees, we are soon to create two new areas of planting: one on the roof and another behind the museum alongside trees planted by local schoolchildren and Sir David Attenborough this February to mark our decade of climate action.

Beekeepers Paul and Nico move two hives and bees through the Exploring Space gallery in the Science Museum

Four beehives were also installed at the National Collections Centre, by a local beekeeper in a woodland glade near the solar farm hosted at the site.

The hives have been left empty deliberately by Matt Moore, a bee keeper himself and Head of the National Collections Centre, who wants to provide local bees the opportunity to naturally colonise the hives.

Around four acres of wildflower meadows will be planted in the next few years to support these bees, part of a raft of environmental enhancements we are making to the site.

Beehives at the National Collections Centre

To celebrate the arrival of the bees, I spoke to Paul Youthed about bees, beekeeping and what we can all do to help bees thrive in the UK.

How many bees live in a hive?
The size of the bee colony changes throughout the year, expanding and contracting with the seasons.

In summer, the population expands so as many worker bees as possible go out and gather pollen and nectar for the long hard winter ahead.

A healthy queen can lay around 2000 eggs a day in summer, which is needed as worker bees only survive for around 3 weeks at this time.

An unhealthy or slow laying queen will be replaced quickly, for the sake of the colony, by an ever-watchful council of her daughters. It’s all very Shakespearian!

By Midsummers Day at the end of June, a strong colony could have anywhere from 50,000 to 80,000 bees – quite a sight if you are brave enough to peer inside!

In winter everything slows down. Food outside is scarce, and the colony size reduces to increase the chance of making it to the spring.

Life expectancy for the remaining bees increases as there are less trips outside the safety of the colony. Bees can live for several months at this time if the temperature of the colony remains at around 34 degrees.

Between Christmas and the start of spring is when the colony is at its smallest and most vulnerable.

The colony drops to around or even below 10,000 workers. In the wild, colonies have a 50% chance of making it through winter, but with the help of a beekeeper the odds of survival increase.

How do bees adjust to being in a new home?
Bees have an amazing sense of direction and a built in GPS that allows them to find their way home. This can make the job of a beekeeper a little tricky.

If you move a hive during the day when half the bees are out collecting nectar, you will have accidentally taken away their home and left them without shelter or a laying queen on their return. Not good.

The trick is to seal the bees in the hive at night while they are all resting and then move the hive to its new location the next day.

Once the hive is opened in its new location, the bees will come out and explore slowly. They will go on orientation flights to familiarise themselves with the new location and scouts will start looking for new sources of nectar and pollen.

Scout bees travel up to 5km in any direction to find food and will relay this vital information back to forage bees who will go and collect the food.

A beehive is moved into position on the roof of the Science Museum.

What makes the spot on the Science Museum’s roof good for the bees?
In cities there are a huge array of flowering plants and trees that provide nectar and pollen for bees in exchange for the pollination services they provide.

Lime trees in London are a huge source of nectar. They give most London honey its distinctive minty flavour.

The lack of large-scale pesticide use in cities also means the bees are at an advantage compared to their country cousins. Parks, community and roof gardens, and other areas of planting all provide much needed food for the bees.

We need more and more green spaces to help out. The Mayor of London aims to increase the area of London covered by green spaces to 50% by 2050. It’s 47% now, and every green space helps bees.

How will you look after the bees here at the museum?
The bees on the roof will keep all their honey for themselves.

We won’t be taking honey for human consumption which should mean the bees stay strong and healthy, reducing the need for us to intervene with feeding substitutes.

Not many beekeepers let their bees keep all their honey, so these bees at the Science Museum are very lucky!

How did you get into bee keeping?
I started volunteering at my local community garden doing gardening and one day had a go helping with the bees. I loved it, got the bug and haven’t looked back since.

I started working for other professional beekeepers, got a ton of experience and after a few years started doing it by myself.

I now have colonies all over London on famous rooftops and devote my time to looking after my bees and working with clients like the Science Museum to get London greener!

For those of us with (or indeed without) gardens, how can we be more bee friendly?
Get planting! Whatever you can and wherever you can.

Flowers, plants, trees and shrubs – they are all good and help the environment in their own way. Do some research and make sure you’re not picking plants that are invasive.

Try to find stuff that suits your location and soil types. Don’t be afraid to experiment and remember not everything will work.

But in the end, most plants are going to be good for the environment and definitely better than a concrete driveway.

Honeybees love flowers with flat heads and there are lots of websites to help you pick ones you and the bees like.

But remember our gardens need to be a home for lots of wildlife like birds, moths, butterflies and even wasps, so always get a mix of plants if you can.

Plants soak up carbon dioxide, reduce the heat island effect in our cities and can reduce rain run off too.

And if you don’t have a garden, join your local community garden or local greening project and get stuck in. You won’t regret it.

If I wanted to know more about bees where should I to start?
There are lots of beekeepers who run one day courses which are normally great fun.

You could also look for a local community garden that have bees or find a local beekeeping association and ask them if you can come along and give it a try.

That’s probably the best way to try out spending time with bees before spending loads of money on a hobby you might be allergic to!

If you would like more insights into Paul’s beekeeping in London, follow him on Instagram.