In response to the widespread issue of declining bee populations, the city of Brighton has developed a rather innovative solution. Bee bricks, designed by local company Green&Blue, are now required by law to be used in the construction of any new and upcoming infrastructure. But how precisely do they operate, and does Brighton’s Bee Brick Initiative really deliver the desired results?

What are Solitary Bees?

Conventionally, we have a certain understanding of how bees go about their day-to-day business, such as the construction of nests, the upkeep of hives, the collective rearing of young as a colony, etc. In reality, however, the vast majority of bees in the pollinator world perform their duties independently rather than as members of a colony or hive. We refer to them as solitary bees, and they make up the vast majority of the world’s bee species.

Solitary bees are not the same as bees that have abandoned the hive and are now living independently. Of the 20,000 species of bees in the world, over 90% of them are solitary. Despite their name implying the lack of community, these bees actually do nest in close proximity to one another. Yet, solitary bees do not produce honey, do not have queens, and do not reside in hives as other bees do. 

It is believed that the Megachile Pluto, a sort of solitary leafcutter bee, is the largest bee in the world. But some solitary bees can also be really small, measuring only a few millimetres in length. Generally, the life cycles of solitary bees are short but busy. Males emerge in spring and die relatively quickly after mating with another female. Females also generally survive just for one season and die soon after building a nest and laying eggs. 

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Solitary bees are an essential resource for pollination. Experts have indicated that insect pollinators increase over 50% of wildlife pollination yield. Many of our daily crops, including bell peppers and tomatoes, have to be “buzz-pollinated”, meaning that they require a certain degree of vibration in order to produce pollen. The wing-beat frequency of solitary bees provides a core component of the survival of these crops in the wild, and the micro-hairs on their legs also help pollen disperse. 

Bees and other pollinators are responsible for one-third of the world’s food production, yet one in every ten bee species in Europe is on the verge of extinction. Solitary bees are particularly vulnerable, in part because most conservative efforts focus on honey bees.

Much like most of the bee issues we have been seeing in the media, a major life-threatening problem that solitary bees are facing involves the destruction of their natural habitats. The increased use of chemicals in modern agriculture, burning of wildflower meadows, and noise pollution are major contributors to the dwindling numbers of solitary bees. With increased urbanisation also comes the heat island effect, which studies have shown to raise city temperatures by almost 4C. Such a temperature change has exiled bee species that prefer a lower temperature range, either by killing them or driving them toward the outskirts. 

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Brighton’s Bee Bricks Initiative

For city planners and inhabitants alike, these issues point to the urgency for various ways of enhancing pollinator variety and conserving solitary bee populations. The city of Brighton in the UK has come up with a rather inventive solution.

Brighton’s Bee Bricks initiative aims at protecting the solitary bee population from damaging urban effects. Developed by the local company Green&Blue, these bee bricks are relatively larger bricks that are permeated with numerous porous holes in them, which can provide solitary bees with temporary shelter. They are made of 100% recycled materials and are intended to shield the bees from any harmful contaminants in the busy city. This is believed to help with their dwindling numbers and make pollination in urban areas more sustainable. 

The Brighton city councillor Robert Nemeth first proposed the concept in 2019, and the condition was subsequently linked to all new planning licences issued after April 1, 2020. It is now legally required for these bee bricks to be incorporated into the construction of new infrastructure. 

There have been similar initiatives in the past that aimed at achieving the same goals as the bee bricks in the country. For a while, the UK government greatly advocated for local residents to build “Bee Hotels” in their backyards – bird-house look-alikes made out of twigs and small pieces of wood. Researcher Katherine Baldock and her colleagues also developed an Urban Pollinators Project, which provided great insight as to how we can best enhance urban green spaces for pollinators. The idea behind these initiatives is the same: provide solitary bees and other pollinating species a fighting chance in the urban jungle. The Bee Bricks initiative could be seen merely as an extension of this effort into the more architecturally legitimate realm. 

Will The Bee Bricks Initiative Work?

Opinions are mixed regarding the efficacy of these bee bricks. Some experts suggest that there are certain risks associated with their long-term usage, such as the attraction of mites that could severely damage the structure of the buildings and spread diseases. Others question its overall effectiveness in raising pollinator diversity. According to Dave Goulson – a biology lecturer at the University of Sussex – the circumference of the holes within the bricks is too small and shallow for most species of solitary bees to reside in. 

“Bee bricks seem like a displacement activity to me. We are kidding ourselves if we think having one of these in every house is going to make any real difference for biodiversity. Far more substantial action is needed, and these bricks could easily be used as ‘greenwash’ by developers,” he told The Guardian.

Adam Hart, an entomologist and professor of scientific communication at the University of Gloucestershire, had reservations as well, adding that “well-meaning initiatives sometimes have unintended repercussions.” A Ph.D. student at the University of Louvain in Belgium also stated that the bricks were rather better educational tools for youngsters, but they may have a detrimental influence if they were too large or if they were not cleaned thoroughly enough. He said that planting more flowers would probably be more effective in assisting the livelihoods of solitary bees. 

Despite these concerns, many supporters believe that the benefits of the bricks far outweigh their risks. Francis Gilbert, an ecology professor at the University of Nottingham, stated that mites should not be a concern. “Because there will be helpful microorganisms in the perforations, they should not be cleaned. So bee bricks are unquestionably beneficial”, he rebutted.

Lars Chittka, a Queen Mary University professor of sensory and behavioural ecology, claims that faith should be put back into the bees. She says that they will be able to minimise possible concerns themselves, “which should to some extent counterbalance the hazards that come with such long-term nesting chances.”

“There’s a well-known adage in the beekeeping community that if you ask 100 different beekeepers a question, you’ll receive 101 different responses,” Dave Nemeth, a local beekeeper, said. “It will take some time to determine the degree of efficiency of bee bricks, but it is encouraging to know that research is being conducted. What is certain is that continuing to ignore nature in many new-build properties is a biodiversity disaster of the greatest level.”

Where Should We Stand on Such an Initiative?

As part of the public, we can look at this initiative through different lenses. The effectiveness of these bricks can eventually be boiled down to what extent we are on par with the mission. There are endless questions that can be asked regarding the practical outcomes of the Brighton Bee bricks initiative: Are they suitable for all buildings, or are they contingent on the building materials or size of the buildings? Will noise pollution or light pollution from within the buildings affect the bees? What about the occasional kids who would stick a piece of gum or a cigarette bud inside the bricks? And are there potential ulterior motives?

Much like what professor Goulson said, is this merely Brighton’s campaign to advertise their environmental forwardness, with the intent of deliberately creating a greener image, and trying to pass future environmental policies?

Regardless of the many aspects that can be added to the debate, we as the public should see this as a message that solitary bees and our urban lives are tightly entwined, and they need our help. Whether or not there are bee bricks in our buildings, we should be more mindful of the ways we can aid their survival.

Featured image: Bee Bricks developed by Green&Blue in Brighton. Photo by Dezeen.

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