Alight here for urban pollinator conservation [WFJ #25]
The story behind Frome railway station's bee-friendly makeover
The significant surge in urban bee populations over the last decade or so emerged, for the most part, from people’s urgency to conserve biodiversity. Ironically though, they might be undermining it.
Urban bees – rural bees’ cooler, crep-wearing cousins – have better survival rates (note cities’ absence of agrochemicals, and their warmer, sheltered winters), than their rural equivalents. They even, apparently, produce 57% more honey.
But in urban environments, there is simply not enough nectar and pollen to support bee populations as they are, let alone on the upward curve. In cities like London, you have a high density of hives, but a much lower concentration of pollinating plants. One recently published study found that the numbers of beehives in 14 of Switzerland's city environments have reached an ‘unsustainable’ level. Beekeeper licences do exist, which would provide a good method of keeping numbers in check. But only in theory – in London, it's estimated three quarters of beekeepers operate without a licence.
There is, then, a balance to be struck. Which some organisations and initiatives are well aware of. One of those is the Bee Friendly Trust, a charity providing more forage for pollinators around the UK, and the focus for Claire Jefferies’ latest in her WFJ series on bees and honey in Frome.
Incidentally, this brings Claire’s WFJ series to a close. She’s taken us through issues of pesticides and habitat loss; how bees play a crucial role in maintaining ecosystem balance; explored two sides of honey production; and celebrated what Frome is already doing to help bees flourish.
Now, we finish where Claire’s interest in bee conservation started – with the BFT.
‘Alight here for urban pollinator conservation’, by Claire Jefferies
The Bee Friendly Trust began quite accidentally in 2015, when London beekeepers Qais Zakaria and Luke Dixon guerrilla-planted at Qais’ local train station in Putney.
“Qais and I were concerned about the diminishing forage for bees in the city,” says Luke. “While there are wonderful parks and gardens, bees are arboreal creatures, flying from tree to tree – the concrete jungle is not conducive to that way of life. We saw that the railway lines of the city offered a closely interwoven network of corridors for bees, and other creatures, to navigate the human world.
“We continued our modest project by installing more planters when requested at neighbouring stations. With support from Transport for London and Network Rail, we slowly extended our operations around the country. Some stations had room for just a single planter, others gave us the scope to create entire community gardens."
In the summers that followed, Luke swapped his role as a London theatre director for beekeeping, establishing apiaries and managing beehives across London. They were placed on the roofs of pubs, universities, shops and even at Kensington Palace. He went on to become beekeeper-in residence at London’s Natural History Museum, but now focuses his beekeeping activities solely with the Bee Friendly Trust.
The charity uses England’s entire network of railway stations in which to plant bee-friendly banks and borders, install planters and bug hotels for solitary bees, and create community gardens. As funding permits, it is keen to expand into Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The trust started by focusing on honeybees, but now it works to support pollinators in general. "BFT’s work is vital not just in the creation of forage rich gardens and corridors”, says Luke, “but in educating the general populace on the nature and importance of pollination.” To this end, the BFT also commissions pollinator-related artwork to decorate train stations and outdoor spaces.
The team has expanded to 16 people, made up of freelance gardeners, beekeepers, and planter and bug hotel builders. In March this year, I joined them as a bee gardener and my first assignment was just down the road at Frome railway station.
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Frome station gets a double-dose of bee-friendly treatment
Before we get to my first BFT experience, Frome received its first dose of bee-friendly treatment late in 2019, when two large planters were installed at each end of the station’s working platform. They were paid for by Great Western Railway and The Heart of Wessex Community Rail Partnership,1 and were filled with lavender, thyme, rosemary, salvia and daffodils. A wildlife mural was also commissioned and painted on the walls of the station’s waiting room.
Soon after the mural was finished, the station closed due to COVID and few people saw either the planters or mural for some time. But now, with the station open again, visitors can enjoy the planters on a sunny day, or the while-u-wait spot-the-wildlife mural when sheltering from the rain.
Fast-forward to March this year and my first BFT job saw me be part of a small team of staff and local volunteers from Frome Station Friends. There, our group built and installed two more large planters, this time to go on the station’s disused platform.
Involving Frome community in bee-friendly transformations
The local volunteers involved in Frome station’s planter installations are an important part of the trust’s aims and objectives. Emma Pritchard lives in Frome and works as administrator and gardener for the BFT: “Aside from raising awareness of the difficulties of habitat loss and climate change faced by pollinators, our work is about local community engagement. We are not just helicoptering in and then leaving – we want the community to take part in the installations, have ownership of them, and maintain everything going forward.”2
Emma adds: “The trust is also looking for people to support the gardening and installation work we do around the country, as well as creative talent for our art installations, including sculptures, plus individuals to build bird boxes and bug hotels.”3
Not just a bee-friendly station, how about Frome as a Bee-Friendly Town?
With its many green projects on the go, Frome seems like an ideal candidate to apply for the accolade of Bee Friendly Town, a scheme started last year by the BFT. The first annual awards were announced on World Bee Day in May this year and went to the likes of Kenilworth, Leek, and Wimborne. Criteria includes creating both a bee-friendly school and pub, and setting up a seed exchange. Frome is now on the lookout for a coordinator to oversee an application in 2023.4
The trajectory of the BFT’s work over just seven years shows both the wide range of possibilities for supporting pollinators in an urban environment, and the impact some imaginative wildlife campaigning can have. Don’t wait until you are next taking a train – Frome station’s full Bee-Friendly Treatment is worth a visit in itself.
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Further reading / viewing:
https://beefriendlytrust.org/ (for tips on creating a bee-friendly spaces and upcoming BFT events)
https://www.instagram.com/beefriendlytrust/ (for more BFT national projects and commissioned artwork)
The Bee Friendly Trust receives funding from the likes of Network Rail, Great Western Railway and The Heart of Wessex Partnership, as well as through grant applications, and donations from local organisations, groups and individuals.
If you are interested in having input into general improvements at Frome station or helping to maintain hanging baskets and planters, contact Steve Tanner, coordinator of Friends of Frome Station.
If you are an artist or interested in doing some practical work to support pollinators, contact Emma Pritchard for more information.