The day was dawning brightly over Heathrow. With my bee-goggles on, I was contemplating the planes at Terminal Hive – sorry, Terminal Five – taking off and landing and contrasting their hulking ploddishness with the grace and elegance of bees performing the same activities.
Sarah and I were on our way to Berlin for a long weekend. Better yet, I had been invited to attend a “Bee-Berlin” Conference at the Abgeordnetenhaus (Berlin State Parliament) on the Friday afternoon. The best of both worlds.
The Conference was organised by the Green Party’s Environmental representative, Dr Turgut Altug, and over 100 people attended this 4-hour meeting in the old Prussian State Parliament. All major parties were represented (even the Pirate Party, which in 2011 won 15 of the 141 total seats in the State Parliament with 8.9% of the vote. Berlin is the only German State Parliament with elected representatives from this rather alternative party). That’s Berlin for you!
It is generally agreed that bees need staircases like woodpeckers need weasels. But the stairway in the Parliament provided an impressive ascent for beekeepers to the Conference venue. The room was packed, bright and comfortable and all the seats had been filled by the 2pm start. A diverse group of beekeepers: from the natural variety (Heinz Risse, keeper of hives on the roof of the Berlin State Parliament) to the more conventional (Dr Marc-Wilhelm Kohfink, beekeeper at the Botanical Gardens).
Reassuringly, the Berlin Conference embraced many topics which were echoed by London beekeepers’ preoccupations. Education was top of the agenda: on-going education for beekeepers and education for the public about bees and beekeeping. There was also talk of targeted financial support for urban pollinators, a familiar theme. Of course, Berlin shares with most cities a virtual absence of the pesticides and herbicides which are imposed on their country cousins. However, we heard some alarming reports of overwintering losses in the city over 40% in 2015, against the historic average around 15%. I suspect that this year’s slow start to Spring will see a similar increase in UK overwintering losses.
Dr Turgut Altug expanded eloquently on his vision for “urban gardening”, “allotments” and an “edible city” in Berlin. And, in recognition of the importance of trees for Berlin’s forage (“Unter den Linden” translates as “under the lime-trees”) he championed the proposal for 10,000 new trees to be planted, partly in areas of the city lacking green spaces currently and partly replacing old, decrepit trees, which quickly become very high-maintenance and expensive to preserve (yes, London’s plane trees, I’m looking at you!).
Yet there were some striking differences in the challenges facing Berlin beekeepers, from my perspective as a born and bred Londoner. In particular, I found it startling that around 2,500 bee colonies are brought into Berlin each year by beekeepers from outside the city to take advantage of the nectar flow from the Lime trees. Given my focus on improving the forage situation for London’s high concentration of beehives, I would have expected more opposition to this incursion on Berlin’s native forage. After all, the itinerant beekeepers are taking a lot out of Berlin, without putting anything into Berlin. The reality, however, was that “das Wandern” as it is called, was not generally perceived as a threat to forage by Berlin’s >1,000 resident beekeepers, since they have plenty of forage to go around. Ominously, Berlin’s registered beekeepers have doubled over the last three years, so this relaxed perception of forage may yet be tested if numbers continue to rise. Obviously, though, this phenomenon brings sudden competition and an unquantifiable disease risk to Berlin’s indigenous bee population. But let’s face it, British beekeepers see nothing wrong with “taking the bees to the heather” to work the nectar flow from the rural heaths in late Summer. If the forage is there and incoming beekeepers are responsible with their bees, why not ?
Another key difference (admittedly there could be a sampling bias in a Conference co-ordinated by the Green Party) was that Berlin beekeepers’ biggest concern was environmental pollution. That contrasts with London beekeepers, who see hive densities as their most pressing concern, with environmental pollution at the mid-point of the list. Awareness of the existence of 560 German species of bee (there are 298 bees species recorded in Berlin alone, more than the UK’s estimated 230+ total bee species count) was a feature of the conference. And remember, as I always say, only one of these species is the honeybee. One further small difference in Berlin is that there is an ecological edict against spreading salt in icy conditions – only sand is permitted. Finally, England’s National Pollinator strategy, due to be implemented by 2018, was admired as a constructive national policy to improve the welfare of England’s pollinators, including bees. Berlin’s beekeepers would like to see something like it in Germany.
Which brings me back to where we started: contemplations on an airport. Not Heathrow this time. Tempelhof. First, a bit of back-story: The London Borough of Barnet has twinning arrangements with nine foreign districts and cities, more than any other London borough. My father, the first Mayor of Barnet, energetically promoted student exchanges and was largely responsible for Barnet’s proliferation of international alliances. He also saw it as a great way to globe-trot in style in the 1960s and 70s, when UK citizens were limited to a strict £50 foreign currency allowance when travelling abroad. In particular, the twinning with Tempelhof was of great importance to his libertarian instincts, since Tempelhof airport had been the proud hub of the Berlin Airlift (colourfully called the “Berliner Luftbrücke”, the “Air-Bridge” by the local population) and provided the life-blood of West Berlin when the Soviets halted all land-traffic in 1948. Tempelhof was decommissioned as an airport in 2008 and has been a public park since 2010, covering nearly three times the area of Hyde Park. Half the Conference attendees wanted to take a spade to it and tame it into an organized bee-forage zone, while the other half wanted to leave it to its own devices and celebrate its wilderness. As always with beekeepers, opinion was divided.
Certainly, travel broadens the mind. But it can widen the waistband, too. Here is an irresistible item which I saw in Lidl. It is called a “Bee-Sting Pastry” (“Bienenstich Plunder”, to give it its full, glorious title), sweetened with honey, filled with vanilla custard and topped with almonds.
The story goes that the baker who invented the confection was stung by a bee which had been attracted by the honey. So it’s not just the 100+ beekeepers at the Conference who care about Bees in Berlin -there’s always small queue of Berliners foraging by the Lidl bakery shelves demonstrating their enthusiasm for Bienenstich Plunder!
“Vielen Dank”, Berlin, for a convivial and educational afternoon. I really enjoyed meeting fellow beekeepers and making new friends. More about that in another blog post. Special thanks to Erika Mayr, author of “Stadtbienen”, whose invitation brought me to the Conference, as well as Dr. Turgut Altug, who organized the forum. Also thanks to Olaf Schwerdtfeger, Deputy Chair of the Berlin Beekeepers’ Association, for his cheery enthusiam. All three were valuable and informative speakers on the Beekeeping panel.
I hope that I will be able to repay your hospitality at my Bermondsey Street rooftop before too long !