Nature and Biodiversity

How insect hotels and honey highways are helping bee populations in the Netherlands

Bees fly next to a beekeeper

Checking in to a Bee&Bee? Image: REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Natalie Marchant
Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • Pollinators such as bees are vital to many of our food crops – but across the globe they're declining.
  • In the Netherlands, more than half of bee species have come under threat as areas of wildflowers have given way to agricultural land.
  • The country launched a national pollinator strategy to help, with innovative measures including insect hotels, green-roofed bus stops and 'honey highways'.
  • A recent survey suggests the nation's urban bee populations are doing well. 20 May is the United Nations' World Bee Day.

A lot of what we eat depends on pollinators such as bees. Three out of four crops that produce fruits or seeds for human use as food, in fact.

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In the Netherlands, the world’s second-largest agricultural exporter after the US, 75% of food crops and more than 85% of wild plants are reliant on them.

But across the globe they’re declining – and more than half of the Netherlands’ 360 bee species have come under threat as areas of wildflowers have given way to farmland.

So in 2018, the country moved to turn things around with a national pollinator strategy – and a recent survey suggests the move might be paying off.

‘Bed and breakfast’ for bees

The strategy, which was signed by 43 government and non-government partners, was designed to help stabilize or even grow bee populations, as well as increase their distribution around the country. A central concept was providing “bed and breakfast” for wild bees.

It included dozens of initiatives to create nesting sites and boost the food supply. Among these were creating flower-rich habitats for bees and butterflies, planting on roadside verges, and getting cattle farmers to experiment with growing red clover on their fields.

Buzzing bus stops and honey highways

Examples of such bee-friendly habitats in action can be found around the Netherlands.

Amsterdam has invested in initiatives including converting half of all public green spaces to native plants, and encouraging the installation of green roofs on city buildings. Alongside attracting bees, these roofs can also help control the building’s climate and have benefits for residents’ wellbeing.

Southwest of Amsterdam, a five-hectare ‘honey highway’ runs alongside a main road – an example of roadside wildflower planting to provide more food sources for wild bees,

In Utrecht, meanwhile, 316 bus stops have been covered with sedum plants to attract bees, butterflies and other insects. The city has also built a huge bee hotel on a billboard next to a motorway. It has more than 200 nesting sites and is surrounded by a 7,000m2 wildflower meadow.

Bees work hard to support agriculture and biodiversity that are central to sustaining human life.

Marie Quinney, Specialist, Nature Action Agenda, World Economic Forum

Bee-rich environments

Data seems to suggest such initiatives are working. The Netherlands’ National Bee Census 2021 saw 11,143 people count a total 201,821 bees and hoverflies over the weekend of 17-18 April 2021 – indicating that urban bee populations, at least, remained steady.

“In recent years a lot of attention has been paid to bees. Not only have many municipalities improved their mowing policy, many garden owners have also paid more attention to a natural and bee-rich garden,” said Koos Biesmeijer, scientific director at Naturalis, one of the organizations that ran the census.

“More greenery and flowers, fewer tiles and a bee hotel have made many gardens more attractive to bees.”

a diagram showing the ten most spotted bees in the netherlands
A recent survey suggests urban bee populations are doing well. Image: National Bee Census 2021

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Global movement

Dutch efforts to boost bee populations are just some of a range of schemes across the world.

Indeed, the UN has established May 20 as World Bee Day to boost awareness of why it’s vital to protect pollinators.

Among the most innovative is Kenya’s Elephants and Bees Project, which uses beehive fences both to boost bee populations and deter elephants from farms, as the animals are said to be scared of African honeybees.

Meanwhile the World Bee Project uses advanced apiculture techniques and artificial intelligence technology to improve crop production at places as varied as a smart farm in northern India and a major soft fruit company in the UK.

And Belgium-based Pesticade Action Network Europe works with a variety of bodies including environmental groups, public health organizations and farmer associations to reduce the use of hazardous pesticides in agriculture and horticulture.

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