Big City Buzz

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Bees are finding refuge in concrete jungles around the world… what about Hong Kong?


The next time you happen to be strolling across the Convention Avenue pedestrian walkway – the one that carves a circle in the air through what’s been a decade-long construction site snarling up the approach to the Wanchani Convention and Exhibition Centre – spare a thought for the bees.

There on the right, as you descend onto the main drag heading toward the LegCo complex, you might look out onto a massive tunnel-boring machine for the Wanchai Bypass project and see dozens of men milling around the Nissan huts in the dust stirred up by heavy duty machines and trucks. Look a little closer and you’ll spot the unmistakable activity of a bustling colony of wild honey bees: hundreds of small, dark ovoids making a bee-line approach from every angle back to the hive after an outing to forage for nectar and pollen.

That is, unless a government hit squad or private contractor has been called in to exterminate the hive first.

“This is, unfortunately, a very common and normal practice in Hong Kong to deal with beehives found in unsuitable places,” says Johnson Group CEO William Hung (pictured below right). The Hong Kong-based pest-control company receives a “large number of beehive removal cases from clients per month asking for a complete removal of the hive using toxic pesticides.”

“The bee plays a very vital role in our ecosystem,” says Hung, who has started a Save Local Bees program.

“Instead of killing all the bees with pesticide, we will call our beekeeper partner to assess and collect the hive and bees living inside. The beekeeper will then bring the rescued bees back to their farm and provide them with a better and safer living place.”

Such enlightened thinking is rare. Government websites contain almost no information about bees. When they do get a mention they tend to be conflated with their much more aggressive cousins – the wasps and hornets. The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, for example, warns ramblers to avoid touching the combs of “bees/wasps/hornets.”

In fact, as this author can painfully attest, there are several species of wasps and hornets in Hong Kong that will launch unprovoked attacks on passing walkers – even when on a well-trodden path. To touch the comb of a wild bee, however, would require some effort as they are typically hidden away inside tree cavities or similarly secure places. Security matters more for bees: Unlike wasps, whose combs contain only their eggs and growing grubs, bees’ stash their waxen versions with precious honey. 

The response to wild bees in Hong Kong highlights both the degree of ignorance about the risk these animals pose, but also about their role in maintaining the natural ecosystem.

There can be few people by now who haven’t heard about the threats facing the world’s honey bee population. Colony collapse disorder; the Varroa destructor mite; pesticides; over-exploitation for commercial use; habitat destruction and the spread of monocultural farming practices: They all add up to a deadly cocktail for the honey bee.

So what’s this got to do with Hong Kong – one of the world’s most densely populated cities? True, there has been something of a blossoming of urban farming, including the use of rooftops and indoor hydroponics. And true, Hong Kong has some robust local apiaries that contribute to China’s status as the world’s biggest exporter of honey – leading a top-10 list that shipped more than US$1.3 billion of the sweet stuff in 2016, according to Statista.com. (Po Sang Yuen Bee Farm, Bee's Nest HK, ForME HONEY and Wah Sang Yuen are four of the biggest and best-known local producers.)

Still, local farms produce less than 2 percent of the vegetables we consume, according to government data – meaning that the fate of the bees isn’t tied to food security in Hong Kong’s case.

So why the buzz about big city bees?

For one, bees are what’s known as a keystone species – ones that play a crucial role in a given environment. Forget for a moment everything you’ve read about how important they are for pollinating human crops. About 240,000 of the world’s flowering plants rely on animal pollinators. Think of all the plants, seeds, nuts and fruits that are eaten by all the other creatures we share the planet with.

It is increasingly clear that honey bees are our canaries in the coal mine of overall pollinator populations: multiple studies have shown that where managed colonies of commercial honey bees are suffering, so too are wild stocks of bees, moths, butterflies, wasps and flies that provide pollination services for plants. Healthy and diverse stocks of pollinators increase the overall biodiversity of a habitat. And resilience is the key to the long-term survival of any ecosystem… and of the human race.

It is also becoming clear that some urban landscapes are becoming places of refuge for these insects. One study in Stockholm found that bees had lower winter die-offs and were less prone to infection. LVMH Group’s Guerlain subsidiary – which has used the honey bee as its symbol since 1853 – has installed beehives at its Paris offices and sponsored a four-year study comparing urban and rural bee populations. The group also maintains a population of disease- and parasite-free honey bees on a remote island off the coast of Normandy.

As more farmland is turned over to single crops, pollinators are faced with a short-term explosion of foraging opportunities followed by a “green dessert.” Just like us, bees rely on a balanced and varied diet – extracting micronutrients from a range of different flowers. One Anglo-Dutch study found a 70 percent plunge in key wildflowers in those countries since the 1980s. Bees also need habitat that offers secure nesting sites, freshwater and relative freedom from disturbance.

Though at first blush counterintuitive, cities offer those benefits for pollinators: lower and less intensive use of pesticides than they find in farmland; gardens and parks that can be oases of plant diversity; and potential nesting sites aplenty – should residents, governments and companies be tolerant and enlightened.

Hong Kong has enormous potential, with about 1,500 public parks and gardens, including 25 major parks managed by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department. In 2016, the department said it planted almost two million trees, shrubs and annuals over more than 1,250 hectares and that it has been increasing planting of native species.

Such government facilities help create pockets of habitat that are suitable for bees. But there is no specific mention of bees or policy aimed at tolerating and fostering bee populations. And there is no coordinating policy aimed at leverage privately managed land though, for example, pollinator-specific targets in the green building standards.

“While there is, at present, no specific pollinator policy set out by the department, we fully understand that honey bees are highly beneficial insects in the ecosystems and many plant species rely on them for pollination,” said an LCSD spokesperson. “Removal of a bee nest would be arranged only if we could not evade the harm and threats posed by them to the park users.”

Given the widespread misunderstanding about the insects, the Food and Environmental Hygiene department’s website offers an ominous sign: “Members of the public may contact FEHD 24-hour Hotline ... if wasps/wild bees disinfestation services is required.”