Show me the honey: Why Auckland Council is making our biggest city bee-friendly
OPINION: There is a strong case for Auckland, and indeed all cities, to become more friendly for bees and pollinators, with clear environmental, economic and social benefits for urban dwellers.
By designing city spaces for the safety and resilience of bees, we begin a domino effect of positive ecosystem reactions. By transforming spaces to be organic and attuned to biology to support bees, we begin to support a number of lesser-known ecosystem services that quietly make our lives better everyday.
The incorporation of highly visible bee-friendliness could also be a distinct tourist attraction for us, working to support our brand as a supreme honey producer. We can be inspired by New York's High Line, which is an incredible tourist attraction that functions as the ultimate pollinator pathway. The 2.3km aerial greenway that was once a railroad now injects a vivid lushness into the concrete jungle. Inventive pollinator habitat and food source installations like this can delight and captivate, and more greenery can also aid in improving city-dwellers mental wellbeing and productivity.
Investing money into making Auckland more bee-friendly ultimately produces well-being, environmental and economic returns for Auckland City. In putting in the effort to ensure that the bees are well fed, our urban spaces become more attractive for people to live in. The supporting visual artefacts can begin to shape the character of our city and show the values of our people.
One project aiming to provide a powerful demonstration of this approach is For the Love of Bees, a social sculpture designed by the artist Sarah Smuts-Kennedy to be co-created with the community. The project provides learning adventures in the middle of the largest business district in our country, allowing citizens to learn as quickly as possible what they can do together to improve the situation for bees and address the gaps in our knowledge that lead to unsafe bee practices.
Its core infrastructure is funded by city centre business ratepayers through Auckland Council. The project has also been able to create lots of creative funding strategies by partnering with businesses and a local Rotary group.
Once a participant has first imagined Auckland as the safest city in the world for bees, they may attend a few of the many workshops on offer to acquire the knowledge, tactile experience and inspiration necessary to help make the vision a reality. Simply taking a moment to imagine is a crucial first step in building the belief that positive change is actually possible.
Some have already started to develop their very own project within the wider City Bee Collaboration. Others have become inspired to grow their own food for the first time after discovering the "magic of nature", employing techniques that not only look after bees but the rest of the ecosystem.
The project aptly demonstrates the social benefits that can be gained through turning a city bee-friendly, in a people-powered approach that ensures sustainable change. Very quickly, communities have come together to transform their local commons, showing that people clearly feel energised by being able to contribute to something meaningful that facilitates a reconnection with nature and each other.
Sarah's earlier artwork The Park (2014-2015) inspired Andrea Reid to create Pollinator Paths, which has now been written into the Unitary Plan. Highwic has recently committed to becoming an organic park. Schools and other communities all over Auckland are gearing up to become part of the city's transformation.
Each personal accomplishment builds on the shoulders of others and together, an organic movement begins to gain momentum, which in turn demonstrates our capacity to make positive change from the bottom up.
For the Love of Bees is designed to be an enabling structure that could be replicated in any city. It uses a few key pieces of infrastructure, including visible hives in two major public parks that facilitate a free bee school each month, an inner city biological gardening teaching hub, a series of inner city biking bee adventures for more hands on experience, and an incoming demonstration market garden that will show the potential of bee-friendly growing to feed a substantial number of people. All this supports social learning as an avenue to social change.
In this way, we are able to learn our way to a sustainable society or "learn our way out", as environmentalist Lester Milbrath puts it. And people are clearly hungry for solutions. A recent wave of bee deaths in South Auckland amassed a massive online response from people wanting to know how to help.
So having bees in the heart of the business district could give us the chance to really come to terms with what is required to help this insect, and avoid the mistakes and missed opportunities that come from something being out of sight, out of mind.
In our rural spaces, the value of bees is well understood. Honeybees provide around 5 billion dollars worth of pollination services to our economy every year. Many of New Zealand's major exports – including meat, dairy, fruit and vegetables – depend on these free pollination services to some extent, meaning bees are providing job security to vast numbers of people working directly and indirectly in both the agriculture and horticulture sectors.
Our honey industry is booming. Hive numbers in New Zealand jumped from 260,000 to over 800,000 over the past five years, and we need a huge number of flowers to accompany that jump. A single colony needs about 140 million safe flowers to be able to make the standard 35kg of honey it is capable of producing each season.
When we start to factor in wax production, and the honey needed by a colony to feed and reproduce as well as to keep itself warm, the number of safe flowers required each year to support a single colony reaches close to a billion. This is serious when you consider how few flowers are about at certain times of the year. For the flowers that are there, the question remains of whether they are safe or whether they have been compromised by toxic chemicals.
At a simple level, a close proximity to bees and their habitat implores us to understand them a bit better. Improved understanding then leads to enlightened behaviour in our own back gardens and supermarket trolleys. By establishing empathy for these creatures, we become more likely to support truly sustainable growing practises that not only support bees but ensure the prosperity of the human race. This empathy and appreciation can be better sustained by having daily encounters in the spaces where we live, work and play.
- NZ Gardener