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A bee garden on the roof – bee conservation in urban nature?

A bee garden on the roof – bee conservation in urban nature?

It’s three years now that I live in this apartment. Since I moved in, I’m working on a bee garden on my roof terrace. It’s of course a long term project, especially because my imagination suggests a potted version of this:

bee garden, non-managed bees

The bee garden at the University of Bielefeld during my master thesis (1997). Oh my, 20 years ago…

And of course, I want a nice sitting area, some sight protection towards my curious neighbours, room for yoga and meditation… As you can see, lot’s of aims. Ah, did I mention that I want my own veggies, too? Obviously, I have to adapt my imagination to the reality of 30 m², which is a lot, but not enough for my ambitious plans.

Bee garden in pots – some struggles

The most important topic to think about is what plants will do well in pots and are attractive for bees. I know that last month I addressed pollination in general, but I’m focussing on bees here. Though, in the past years, I also observed quite a variety of hoverflies. It’s the mixture, I think. I’m rethinking my planting scheme: first I chose plants that can deal with drought. I travel a lot and though a friend comes to water the plants when I’m not here, I don’t want that he has to come daily. Maintaining the good will by not asking too much… However, the last summer was quite rainy and many of my plants drowned. So I may reconsider the soil quality and how to ensure drainage in rainy periods.

The weather conditions in general are a struggle: my roof bee garden is quite wind exposed, directed to the South and, therefore, very hot and sunny. Thus, plants that like shadowy and protected areas aren’t right for these conditions. Unless, I figure out how to create some protection. The other issue was the past winter. It was quite mild at the beginning, though very rainy. My first check of who survived and who didn’t made me feel quite optimistic. But then the two cold spells in March arrived… and many of the already germinating plants died. The sad reality on my terrace at the moment looks like this:

bee garden, bee flowers

Not as advanced as I would like it to be… and the humidity and cold didn’t improve the state of the pots, too.

Coming back to the drainage situation, this may illustrate the need to find solutions very well:

Mushrooms unfortunately aren’t attractive for bees. Another struggle is that I recognize plants only in flower and lost the label of these two.

Fortunately, this weekend apparently will be sunny. So I will be changing all that soil in the different pots, trying to improve the conditions for the ruderal plants I chose for the terrace.

Urban habitat

My planning made me think about the habitat I’m creating. I live in an industrial city, though my area is quite green. However, most of the gardens around me aren’t really wildlife friendly, though my neighbours do quite well. My “bee garden” is meant to be a kind of oasis in a green desert of lawn and conifers. However, I’m selecting what kind of wildlife I want. I’m focusing on non-managed bees, one neighbour is a beekeeper and the other doesn’t care at all. On the other hand, I always hear people saying, that they enjoy their gardens as a piece of “nature”. I’m wondering, how much gardens can really fulfill this. They’re always managed. And though I know that conservation is often managing as well (flower rich meadows are an excellent example!), bee gardens are managed differently.

I know that there are plenty of publications out there dealing with urban habitat and the value of it. However, is urban habitat really a substitute to what is getting lost? Last year, the German Ministry for Environment published the Red List for habitats in Germany. And just meadows and open grassland happen to be particularly at risk. Habitat for bees and many other insects. There is also a Red List of Habitat types for Europe, if you want to see the bigger picture. I will study it in more detail, for sure.

Putting gardens and conservation into context

So can gardens make up the loss of all this natural habitat? I don’t think so. Not all species like to live where humans are too abundant, only a part of the species will live in gardens. In German there is the nice word “Kulturfolger” (“culture followers”), indicating species that can easily adapt to the conditions in human settlements. But these are only a small part of the biodiversity we’re putting at risk by our behaviour.

I don’t want to discourage you, I still think that wildlife friendly gardens are great. But, I also think that things have to be in context, it’s my eternal mission against simplifying too much. Bee gardens like mine aren’t a substitute for natural habitat. They’re great for creating awareness, for educating. If you once have seen a Red Mason Bee fitting her wings into a nest hole to provide her offspring with pollen, you will have a different mindset of somebody who never did. For me, my bee terrace is a playground, a place to clear up my head. I was very happy last year to count four different bee species at my trap nests and about seven more (not completely sure…) on the flowers. But, that’s 11 of the more than 540 German species. I’m not “saving the bees”, but I’m showing this little spot to everybody coming to my home. I’m creating awareness and having fun.

That’s already quite a bit for 30 m².

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