Page last updated at 13:43 GMT, Wednesday, 5 August 2009 14:43 UK

Is urban beekeeping the new buzz?

By Peter Jackson
BBC News

A modern beehive
Honeybee populations are down 30%, says the BBKA

Honeybee numbers are falling at near catastrophic levels - 30% at the last count - but interest in their plight has never been greater.

Now the maker of a new breed of "urban" beehive hopes to cash in, while doing its bit for the cause. Not everyone is convinced.

With UK beekeeping courses regularly oversubscribed and the British Beekeepers' Association (BBKA) reporting a 25% jump in membership to 15,000 already this year, interest in bees is buzzing.

High-profile campaigns and celebrity enthusiasts - like Scarlett Johansson - have helped plant a once marginal issue firmly into the national consciousness.

One recent introductory course in London for aspiring apiarists reportedly received almost 1,000 applications for just 60 places.


Johannes Paul explains how to keep bees in urban areas

'Wasted resource'

Disease, mites and fungal infections may be destroying our native colonies, but a plot has been hatched to restock their numbers on Britain's urban rooftops and gardens.

Omlet, the firm which fuelled interest in urban chicken-rearing with its modern plastic Eglu coop, has launched the beehaus - a plastic hive aimed at urban dwellers.

Robin Dartington
Mr Dartington has developed his own "Long Deep Hive" design

The product has been backed by the government's conservation charity, Natural England.

Its chief scientist Tom Tew told the BBC he was not endorsing any one product but would support any attempt to look after wildlife.

He said: "We want urban people to engage with wildlife and get joy and pleasure from it... the more hives you have the more resilient the whole population is to the outbreak of disease.

"It's great on an individual level but also on the whole species."

Mr Tew said people did not need big gardens because the insects can search for food over a three-mile radius - flying around five metres (16ft) above the ground.

He also encouraged people to support wild bee species by planting insect-friendly plants, and to contact their local beekeeping groups.

Robin Dartington, 71, from Hitchin, Hertfordshire, has been keeping bees for 46 years and is an active campaigner for the welfare of insects.

Scarlett Johansson - The actress developed an interest after Samuel L Jackson gave her a hive full of bees as a wedding present
Bill Turnbull - the BBC newsreader has four hives and is patron of the Bees for Development Trust
Vince Cable - the Lib Dem Treasury spokesman is a beekeeping enthusiast who has led campaigns for more research
Ronnie Corbett - the comedian has kept bees since the late 1970s, and has hives at his second home in East Lothian
Nicholas Lyndhurst - the Only Fools and Horses actor keeps bees at his home in West Sussex

The long-standing BBKA member, who was consulted on the beehaus design, told the BBC: "We need more beekeepers. In nature, honey bee colonies are spread out every half a kilometre or so.

"We want the distribution of hives throughout the country... towns are a wasted resource at the moment."

He said the design of the new hive made it more accessible for people because it was double the normal length and therefore only had to go to half height, which made it easy to use at waist level.

The former arts project consultant, who keeps 20 hives - eight as part of a community project, was keen to spell out the importance of the insects.

"Honey bees are the predominant pollinator for fruit trees and wild flowers. If you lose honey bees you're in danger of losing home-grown food of types that form three fifths of what we eat," he said.

'low maintenance'

Former BBKA president Dr Ivor Davis said the concept of the beehaus was good but added he also had some reservations.

He said it was marketed towards new beekeepers, but people should learn how to keep bees first before forking out the cash.

He told the BBC: "We run a beginners course, then people should try with a group rather than just start... they don't even know they will enjoy it.

A colony of honeybees
Some beekeepers use polystyrene hives to insulate against the cold

"A beehive is not just for Christmas, people should be very careful and learn a bit about beekeeping."

He also said if a colony had to be destroyed because of disease, hives must be sterilised inside before they can be used again.

On a wooden hive a blow-torch is used, he explained, but that would not work on a plastic hive and he was "unconvinced" disinfectant was effective.

Johannes Paul, of Omlet, said keeping bees in urban areas was a low maintenance, fascinating and rewarding hobby.

He said the beehaus came with a guide, but also recommended that people went on a beekeeping course and joined the local branch of the BBKA.

He added that the moulded, plastic hive did not have all the nooks and crannies of a wooden type and insisted a strong disinfectant was effective at treating against disease.

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