Saving the Bees: Alison Benjamin

Alison Benjamin's remarkable journey from journalism to bee advocacy reflects a profound shift towards hands-on conservation. The pandemic prompted her to leave a successful 20-year journalism career at The Guardian, seeking a more direct approach to creating change in our environment.

Her focus shifted to creating rooftop gardens for wild bees and educating people about the importance of wild solitary bees and bumblebees. In this interview, Alison shares her story and insights into how Urban Bees contributes to pollinator awareness in urban settings.

BZZWAX: What motivated you to shift your career focus from journalism to advocating for bees and pollinator awareness?

Alison: Over the last decade my passion has shifted from writing about important issues through my journalism and books to actually trying to change things in a more practical way and getting my hands dirty.

When the pandemic struck, I realised I needed to be out in nature more and I decided to leave The Guardian after 20 years to focus instead on creating bee-friendly rooftop gardens and to educate people about the joys of wild bees.

Lots of people think they best way to help bees is to have a hive of honeybees, but that is not the case and in some cases can be detrimental to other bee species. So I joined Urban Bees full-time to develop the wild bees side of the business.

How does Urban Bees contribute to raising awareness about the important of bees in urban environments?

When I co-founded Urban Bees with my husband, Brian McCallum, more than 10 years ago, it was to promote responsible urban beekeeping, help bees in urban environments by providing more habitat and also to raise awareness about bees’ importance. We have been doing this in many ways:

  1. By working with companies and engaging their staff in ‘meet the bees’ sessions, bee safaris, giving talks about the 270 bee species in the UK, how to help bees at home
    and DIY bee hotel workshops.
  2. The Buzz monthly newsletter provides tips for identifying and helping bees
  3. We collaborated with amazing insect photographer, Penny Metal, to produce an annual bee calendar
  4. I have given a Tedx talk on how creating bee-friendly cities helps us to.
  5. I also give talks to architects to try to influence better designed buildings for bees.

One of my main messages is ‘Keeping honeybees isn’t the way to save bees’.

"Over the last decade my passion has shifted from writing about important issues through my journalism and books to actually trying to change things in a more practical way"

What was the purpose and impact of the King’s Cross Bee Trail App?

It was designed to introduce people to the area, bees living in the vicinity, the plants they feed on, where they nest and how to help them.

We incentivised users to count bees in return for money-off vouchers to local cafes and retailers. It was created by The Honey Club - a collaboration between Urban Bees, youth charity, Global Generation – who got the cafes and retailers on board - and brand agency Wolff Olins who designed the App pro bono.

It ran for a few years but proved difficult to get visibility, so not as many people as we would have liked got to use it so it’s difficult to assess its impact. But it was a great project to have worked on back in 2016.

Can you tell us more about the significance of creating a solitary bee garden?

No one was really talking about solitary bees when we created a garden for them in the educational zone of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 2017. So I think it really helped to put them on the map.

It was a collaboration with charity, River of Flowers and two fantastic young garden designers, Gabrielle Shay and Kerrie Mckinnon at Studio Supernatural.

We produced free postcards featuring 4 of the UK's most common solitary bees: The Hairy-footed flower bee, Red mason bee, Tawny mining bee, and Patchwork leafcutter bee.

I still give away those postcards at talks I give now.

"Most people think that all bees sting, so they don’t want to encourage them to forage or nest in urban areas near to people."

What are some common challenges faced by urban areas in providing suitable forage and habitat for bees and pollinators?

Lack of space: fragmentation of habitat is a major problem. Even if you can make a small patch of land good for bees and pollinators, it needs to join with other patches of land to create bee corridors through town and cities

People: councils and landlords often want areas to look neat and tidy and be low maintenance. That can often mean evergreen shrubs and grasses are planted that don’t provide enough forage for bees and other pollinators e.g. Privet hedges, which could provide excellent late summer forage are almost always trimmed so that they never flower. Similarly, I’ve seen lime trees that are deliberately pruned and shaped so as never to produce the fragrant white flowers that would be smothered in bees.

Most people think that all bees sting, so they don’t want to encourage them to forage or nest in urban areas near to people.

Development:Small pockets of empty land in towns and cities are usually earmarked for new flat or offices, so any community garden created here for bees will only be temporary.

BREEAM:The criteria for judging if a building is helping the environment is flawled. Currently office buildings with just a sedum mat on the roof is awarded a good BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Methodology) rating.

But a sedum mat does little to improve biodiversity because there is little plant diversity, the substrate is too shallow for plants with deeper roots, they dry out in droughts as there is usually no irrigation. And there are no places for bees to nest.

How did you start you newsletter focused on bees and wild pollinators. What are the challenges and joys you encountered along the way?

I started the Buzz newsletter in April 2021 just after I’d left The Guardian. I wanted to build on people’s interest in nature during the Covid pandemic by helping them – and me - to be able to identify the bees visiting our park or garden that month and tips for how best to help them at different times of year.

Field guides are a great resource, but for me, I needed to narrow down the 270 bees to the most common bumblebees and solitary bees you’re most likely to see in any given month. So for example, if you see a black fluffy bee flying in March chances are it’s a female Hairy-footed flower bee because that’s when they are foraging and nest hunting.

The challenge is trying to get The Buzz read by more people who I’m sure would find it helpful but don’t know it’s out there.

The joy for me is learning new things each month about different bees and how to help them and to be able to share what I’ve learned with my readers, such as a new tree i’ve discovered that’s good for feeding bees in the autumn. And I love to get feedback from readers saying how much they enjoy the newsletter and how useful they find it.

You can sign up for free here

Any Examples of successful partnerships you’ve developed to enhance forage and habitat for bees and pollinators in urban settings?

We have teamed up with garden contractors whose corporate clients want to improve the planting for bees and biodiversity on their London rooftops or terraces.

Once the planting’s improved, we have successfully installed bee hotels, bee observation boxes and other nesting structures for solitary bees. And then we take staff on ‘bee safaris’ to introduce them to the wild bees foraging and nesting there, and we run lunch n learn workshops on the importance of bees, how to help wild bees at home and how to build a bee hotel.

Other partnerships include creating rooftop garden for wild bees from scratch which we’ve done for lush and other companies, with facilities managers of large office blocks, to transform the roof into a bee haven with native and non-native flora. I specialise in container gardening, working with nature to feed bees year-round.

When I left the Guardian, I studied professional horticulture at Capel Manor and am now a qualified gardener.

I specialise in container gardening on London offices, working with nature to feed bees year-round.

Often we work with facilities managers of large office blocks, transforming the roof into a bee haven.

"Make sure you have something in flower every month to feed bees – from spring bulbs and blossoming fruit trees to native summer perennials."

How do you approach “bee makeovers”?

I assess what’s already available for bees to eat, which bees are already foraging and nesting on site (if any), and the site’s suitability to provide improved bee habitat.

Location:Is it’s a shady, sunny, exposed, or sheltered area, Which directions does it face?.

Depth of soil: If I’m asked to improve a sedum roof, the soil is too shallow for many plants to grow, or bees to nest in, so the depth would need to be increased from 100/150mm ideally to 300mm in some areas and different substrate added for diversity.

Irrigation system: Most drought-tolerant plants struggle to survive without rain for six weeks on a rooftop, as happened last summer when we lost many tough plants
like Rosemary and Salvias. So now we insist on an outdoor tap to attach a timed drip feed watering system.

If the site is or isn’t going to be accessed by staff: This will impact on the aesthetic of the bee garden.

How the site fits into the wider environment: Can it complement what is already on offer, or make up for what is lacking for bees?

I will then come up with a plan comprising:

  • Improved bee-friendly planting that will thrive in the conditions, to feed different species of bees at different times of the year

  • A variety of bee nesting structures for cavity-nesting and ground-nesting bees, including bird boxes which can be occupied by Tree bumblebees after the bird’s chicks have fledged.

  • Educational/engagement opportunities for staff to learn about bees and other pollinators and how they can help too.

What are practical steps individuals and communities can take to create bee-friendly planters and gardens in urban areas?

Make sure you have something in flower every month to feed bees – from spring bulbs and blossoming fruit trees to native summer perennials, exotic autumn flowers such as Salvias, Fuschia and Cosmos to extend the season until the first frosts, and winter-flowering shrubs like Mahonia and Winter Honeysuckle for Buff-tailed bumblebees. More information here

Leave areas of the garden undisturbed where ground-nesting bees may like to nest under old piles of leaves, or cavity-nesters in hollow stems, or dead wood.

Throw away the bug sprays and weed killers. Let weeds like dandelions and alkanet flourish in spring when they provide much-needed nectar and pollen.

Install manmade bee hotels in a warm, sheltered location at least 1m off the ground for cavity-nesting solitary bees. And leave some bare earth for Red Mason bees to collect to plug their nest entrance.

Even if you only have a window box or pots you can grow flowers that bloom sequentially.

Grow a clump of Stachys byzantine (Lamb’s ear). Wool carder bees collect the fibres from the velvety leaves to line their nests. They are fascincating to watch as they ‘carder’ the fibres and roll them into a ball to fly home with.

As an educator, how do you raise awareness about bees and pollinators among the public, and how do you measure the effectiveness of your efforts?

I write a monthly newsletter, books - a paperback edition of The Good Bee is out next year – articles and I post on social media.

I also give talks to gardeners clubs and community groups. I get really positive feedback from readers of the newsletter and social media, but I would love to get the message across to many more people.

One of the reasons for working with companies is to be able to engage their staff and clients.

Alison Benjamin at TED

Alison Benjamin's dedication to advocating for wild bees is inspiring. Her work with Urban Bees and educational initiatives has transformed urban rooftops into thriving habitats for these essential creatures.

Through her guidance, individuals and communities can take practical steps to create bee-friendly spaces, contributing to a sustainable future for our planet and its invaluable pollinators.

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