Bee bricks: constructive contribution or greenwash?

Bee bricks built into a wall.
Bee bricks built into a wall. Photo credit: Marie Shallcross, Flickr

In January, it was announced with great fanfare that following earlier approval by Green-led Brighton & Hove City Council (BHCC), it is now compulsory for new buildings in the city over five metres tall to integrate ‘bee bricks’ into their construction.

These bee bricks are the same size and shape as ordinary bricks, with holes of varying diameter drilled into one side to mimic cavities used for nesting by many solitary bees.  As such, the new law was trumpeted as a “big victory” for bee conservation by the Conservative councillor who first suggested it.

But will these bricks really be significant in helping bee populations? Without wishing to be a buzzkill, I’d like to call for some perspective on this.

Bees in danger

A growing body of research over recent decades indicates a precipitous collapse in global insect populations.  Pollinators are a particularly worrying part of this trend given that over 75 per cent of human food crops and 90 per cent of wild flowering plants rely on animal pollination, mostly by insects.

Currently, Britain has over 250 species of bee, around 90 per cent of which are solitary (the remainder consisting of mostly eusocial bumblebees and the honeybee).  Nearly half of Britain’s bees are designated as nationally or globally threatened, with an estimated 19 species having gone nationally extinct within the last 200 years.

Of the numerous threats they face, leading factors include habitat destruction and the use of chemical pesticides, both associated with post-war agricultural intensification.  Since the 1930s, for example, the UK has lost 97 per cent of its wildflower meadows.  Over 40 per cent of lowland heathland was lost between the 1950s and 1990s (the vague word ‘lost’ mostly meaning ‘ploughed up’).  Woodland cover is approximately 13 per cent, compared to a European average close to 40 per cent. 

A garden with space for wildlife.
A garden with space for wildlife. Photo credit: Ross McNally.

Given that most bees only forage up to very limited distances from their nests, and that species differ in foraging preferences for different flowers, such habitat destruction has severe impacts. 

These impacts are compounded by wild pollinators having to compete over increasingly scarce resources with growing concentrations of managed honeybee hives.  By all means keep bees if you enjoy homegrown honey, but don’t use this to claim environmentalist credentials, as some beekeepers do.  Beekeeping generally could make the situation worse, not better.   

Urban areas, meanwhile, comprise less than seven per cent of UK land, with potentially less than three per cent actually built on.

A wider problem

In this context, it is difficult to see the inclusion of bee bricks in new buildings as much more than a drop in the ocean.  Certainly, for some species in some locations, nest site availability is a limiting factor on population sizes, but even then, putting bee bricks in a few buildings is a miniscule intervention.  The scheme may be well-intentioned and innocuous enough, but is tinkering at the edges of a far wider problem. 

Consider the downland estate bordering the city owned by BHCC, most of which lies within the South Downs National Park; over 90 per cent of this is farmland.  If the council is interested in conserving bees – or any wildlife for that matter – this seems a more urgent focus for change.

BHCC has made some substantive progress recently in ending its use of chemical pesticides.  Even this victory is small given ongoing agricultural and domestic uses of pesticides, but combined with similar decisions by some other councils, it is a meaningful step to ameliorate a serious threat to insects.  Last summer this decision, augmented by COVID-induced shortages of council maintenance staff, resulted in a proliferation of plant life within the city, although this did not meet with undiluted approval.

Engage with the bigger picture

Bee bricks are all well and good.  Modern construction does tend to mean (for good reasons) that buildings lack the incidental holes and cavities that they once offered for nesting birds and insects, so putting some back won’t go amiss.  Perhaps they will help to increase public awareness of solitary bees, as people might pay more attention to what’s going on in a designated bee brick than they would to any old hole in the wall.  But let’s not kid ourselves: I would argue that it’s basically an empty gesture, and shouldn’t distract us from pursuing real progress.

We should support the Pesticide Action Network campaigns for more local authorities to abandon pesticides, and put pressure on supermarkets to stop selling them and cut them from their supply chains.

Above all, we should support BHCC’s current initiative in developing a plan to direct the future management of its downland estate.  Local people should engage with this process to make the reasonable demand that henceforth, public land in a national park actually lets in wildlife and the public.

Only in this wider context of ecological restoration and reduced pesticide use can bee bricks have much value. 

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