Do bee bricks work in the fight to save the bees?

BY Joseph Phelan

22nd Feb 2023 Environment

Do bee bricks work in the fight to save the bees?

Bee bricks are the new solution for dwindling pollinators being touted by Brighton and Hove. But do bee bricks work? Bee conservation experts weigh in

In recent decades the UK’s bee population has been under significant strain. Pollinators—including bees—have been in a state of decline since the 1970s, with some species suffering more than others.

Honeybee hives in England, for example, are believed to have declined by close to 50 per cent between 1985 and 2005.

According to a 2019 study carried out by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), one-third of British wild bees and hoverflies are currently seeing their numbers dip year-by-year.

What’s more, Friends of the Earth has reported that the UK has “already lost around 13 [bee] species,” with a further 35 deemed to be “at risk.” Bees, to put it simply, are struggling.

Various threats, from climate change to habitat loss, modern agricultural practices to urban expansion, are playing a role in the bee’s downfall, and solutions are desperately needed.

Introducing bee bricks in Brighton and Hove

Bee using bee brickBrighton and Hove are legislating for the use of bee bricks in new buildings

Since the beginning of 2022, all new buildings in Brighton and Hove higher than five metres (16 feet) have been compelled to incorporate both bird boxes that allow swifts to nest, and “bee bricks”, designed to support the survival of solitary bees.

These hollow bricks have the same dimensions as a standard house brick, meaning they can slot seamlessly into a property’s structure, and have been created specifically to give bees a safe inner-city home.

Brighton is known to be a city with a strong green agenda—the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas has been the MP for Brighton Pavilion since 2010—and bee bricks are the latest in a long line of progressive and innovative initiatives that position the environment at the heart of the city’s ambitious future plans.

But are the bricks making an impact? And, if so, is it time for them to be rolled out across the country?

"By redesigning a brick to make it a habitat for wildlife we can start to see provision for wildlife in all construction"

Faye Clifton is the director and head of growth at Green&Blue, a Cornwall-based company that makes bee bricks and a host of other products designed to help Britain’s wildlife to flourish in both urban and rural environments.

“As a company of designers and innovators, our starting point is to understand the problem and then work to solve that problem with design,” Clifton tells Reader’s Digest.

“Solitary bees, like many of our wildlife species, are losing habitat. When we thought about how we could create nesting space on a large scale, we realised that if we could work with construction materials, this could give us the impact we wanted to see.

"By redesigning a brick to make it a habitat for wildlife we can start to see provision for wildlife in all construction. We are creating nooks and crannies for wildlife in spaces where otherwise there would be nothing. That is a valuable contribution to bee populations, both in rural and urban areas.”

Drawbacks of using bee bricks

However, while the concept is undoubtedly laudable, it has limitations, as Simon Potts, professor of biodiversity and ecosystem services at Reading University, explains.

“I first heard about the idea of using bee bricks in mainstream housing developments in 2017," he says. "One of these bricks had found its way onto the desk of the Secretary of State for Environment, and as a recognised global expert in pollinator conservation, I was asked to make an appraisal of its effectiveness.

"Initially I really liked the idea, and the possibility it could be rolled out at scale, however, it had a number of serious flaws.

“Only a tiny proportion (<5%) of the 268 British bee species can nest in these sorts of concrete holes, and these are primarily species which are already very common. So the bricks might potentially contribute to a modest increase in bees that are already widespread, but do nothing for those rare and threatened species which most need help.

“Additionally, scientists and bee conservation experts have shown repeatedly that tubes made of natural materials, such as bamboo or reeds, work best for these trap nesting bees, and that the tubes should be at least 13 to 15 cm long so that the bees can build multiple cells with eggs in them. Bee bricks have holes that are far too short.

"Bee bricks will not help reverse the decline of British pollinators"

“Finally, anyone who's ever looked after a bee hotel knows that after a few years the colony of bees becomes infested with a number of pests and pathogens. The same happens with bee bricks.

"After a couple of years of potentially being occupied they will become burdened with so many pests and diseases that the population of bees will crash. With bee hotels this can be remedied by replacing the wooden or cardboard tubes with new ones, but this is not possible with bee bricks which are fixed.

“I think the commitment [of Brighton & Hove Council] to help bees is great. However, it's a shame that the choice of action wasn't based on well-established and good quality science. Bee bricks will not help reverse the decline of British pollinators.”

And Potts is far from the only expert who has reservations. Dave Goulson, professor of biology at the University of Sussex who specialises in bee ecology, is yet to be won over by bee bricks.

“I first heard about them a few years ago when the inventors kindly sent me a free one to test,” Goulson says.

“I thought it was an interesting idea, but it has not proven to be very popular with my bees. I had no residents for two years, then got a small number, back to none last year. They don’t work as well as some other bee hotel designs, perhaps because the holes are a bit too shallow.”

Genuine solution or potential distraction?

Flowers grow by wall with a bee brickBee bricks should complement other conservation drives, like planting bee-friendly flowers

Bee brick opinion is certainly divided. While the innovation undoubtedly has its supporters—Brighton and Hove Council being the most vocal—there are also those who are concerned that the bricks could act as an unwanted hindrance in terms of introducing various other policies that could have the potential to be more impactful.

“While the wide-scale uptake of bee bricks is unlikely to do any harm, it won't really do much to mitigate pollinator declines,” laments Potts. “There's a great assortment of actions that have been proven to help bees and other pollinators and this is where the focus must be.

"For instance, providing flower-rich habitats in urban environments or the wider countryside is critically important. Reducing the amount and the toxicity of pesticides in farming and gardens will also make a big difference.

"Bee bricks rely on bee-friendly planting, so must form part of an overall strategy to support wildlife"

“In my opinion, we would make a much more positive impact on bee conservation by spending the money that's currently being used for bee bricks on the other conservation actions that we know really will work. Bee bricks are a fun idea, but a distraction to the real issues at hand.”

And, while an ardent supporter of bee bricks, Clifton is also keen to point out that, on their own, they can only achieve so much.

“We would never claim that they are the sole solution to declining bee populations,” she says. “However, we strongly believe they have a part to play. Bee bricks rely on bee-friendly planting, so must form part of an overall strategy to support wildlife.”

Biodiversity net gain

Biodiversity net gain (BNG) is, according to Natural England, “an approach to development, land and marine management that leaves biodiversity in a measurably better state than before the development took place.”

If any development is likely to negatively affect biodiversity, as scores of projects are liable to do, the BNG approach can be used as a starting point to help construction companies figure out how to not only protect the surrounding national environment, but potentially enhance it.

The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has spent much of the last year consulting on whether to make BNG a “mandatory element” of England’s planning system.

However, even without official guidance being in place, various developers are already taking steps to implement policies and processes that are pro-sustainability.

Potts is acutely aware of how important it is for all new developments to carefully consider environmental impact during both planning and construction stages.

“Encouraging, or even legislating, for all new developments to provide flower-rich habitats for pollinators would be a truly effective measure,” he says.

“Making it a legal requirement not to use the most toxic insecticides in gardens, amenity areas and road verges would significantly reduce the harm to pollinators, and gardeners could plant more pollinator-friendly flowers.”

Clifton fully agrees and is confident that bee bricks have a role to play in this regard.

“We believe they already have [helped] and will continue to make a difference. Construction has a key role to play in ensuring that wildlife is provisioned for. Each new house or development should look at how we create more biodiversity than we remove. This isn't optional anymore.”

Are bee bricks just another example of greenwashing?

Person holding stack of bee bricksResearchers worry that developers may use bee bricks to greenwash their sustainability efforts

While the majority of developers likely go into construction projects with the very best of intentions, the issue of greenwashing—a term used to describe actions that purport to be environmentally focused, but are actually something of a smokescreen—is a problem that continues to raise its head.

“I really hope that bee bricks and other similar innovations are not being used by developers for greenwashing,” Potts says. “I can see their appeal because they are quick, cheap and easy to install in new builds. However, they just don't work for bee conservation.

"Developers are under increasing pressure to make new builds more environmentally friendly, and with legislation for BNG, they need to seriously invest in protecting and promoting wildlife.

"This should be underpinned by good quality science and best practice, and not a quick off-the-shelf fix to tick a box and try to convince the public they are saving bees.”

Greenwashing is also an issue that Clifton admits is routinely at the front of her mind. “We would like to see more robust measurement of BNG and wildlife habitats added to a building control sign-off process so that they must be installed as agreed.

"This will mean less of an opportunity for wildlife measures to be purely a greenwashing exercise and will instead ensure they are a part of a complete strategy and focus on biodiversity.”

Goulson, however, is somewhat more forthright. “I worry that this rather trivial measure [bee bricks] will be used as greenwash, with developers arguing that it is an environmentally friendly development just because it has a bee brick or two. It is a sop, a distraction from measures that would really make a difference.”

The future of bee conservation

What next for the bee? Is its future bright, or will bee numbers continue to fall? The answer to this question, Potts says, will largely be determined by whether researchers are listened to, and whether the most appropriate actions are taken.

“There are many proven and effective ways to help bees and other pollinators, and if these were put into law, then they would make substantial positive impacts,” Potts says.

He is, however, not overly enthusiastic about the idea of bee bricks becoming a common sight up and down the country. “I really hope they aren’t adopted more widely. As a passionate pollinator conservationist, [I think] the money and the effort could be invested much more effectively elsewhere.”

With regards to the bee brick, what does Clifton believe the future holds? “For us, the key focus is around measuring. We are a company driven by impact. With better data we can create a more compelling argument for usage across all developments, and we can also start to look at export markets.

"Our vision is one of reconnecting people with nature and we are on a mission to make homes havens for wildlife. This gives us a pretty clear remit for doing what we do, and the motivation to keep innovating, and keep protecting.”

Whether bee bricks will ultimately become ubiquitous remains to be seen, but if installed in the right way, and used in conjunction with a host of other bee-centric conversation tactics, they could have a role to play—however small—in the long-term survival of one of nature’s most important creatures. Only time will tell.

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