Bee diaries: a personal journey

If you’re reading this post, thank you for visiting The Bee Diaries! The project is drawing to a close and what a journey it has been.

A few short months ago, a pitiful solitary bee spluttered across my kitchen floor. The plight of this little bee and her arduous 3-day recovery became the basis of inspiration for my final major project. At the time however, I knew very little about pollinators with the exception of widely acknowledged truths like ‘bees are important’, ‘bees are in trouble’ as well as bees are interesting. Countless books, scientific journals, 6 interviews and a few tanks of petrol later – I began my attempts to combine these defining characteristics in a short radio documentary advocating the plight of the bee.

Documentaries can be powerful tool for social change. Subject matter sprawls every continent, social class, gender and species. Blackfish is the ultimate example of how documentary form can be used to bring animal related issues to the public domain to huge positive effect.

Nonetheless, there’s a bit of a stigma associated with animal advocacy orientated programmes. Whatever plight or cruelty they document, it can be tricky to garner a mass audience. So, what about natural history programmes? The BBC’s Natural History unit has been setting a global standard since Attenborough’s earliest days. Their latest series, The Hunt, is tribute to this. In this series, the BBC tells natural history using a thrilling and captivating narrative that demands the attention of any channel flicker. Then, with a loyal following inevitably gained, the final installation turns viewers’ attention to the desperate need to protect these animals. I imagine this final programme will have left a lasting impression on many viewers – it certainly worked for me! This technique that employs captivating science to engage people with conservation is what I sought to achieve in the Bee Diaries.

The Hunt is, of course, a million miles ahead of my little project, it’s the golden standard and dream production for someone like me after all. But plight of all species whose natural lives are being infringed upon by man is so widely acknowledged now, that natural history programmes inevitably seek to engage the public with conservation efforts.

The Bee Diaries has also been a unique opportunity that reaffirmed my unwavering dedication to advocating conservation through scientific documentary form. Of course, I knew this before, but now I’ve taken the first tentative steps into the world of nature documentaries and I can’t wait to see what lies ahead.

The Honeybee: poster child for all Bee-Kind?

One of the notable issues that arose early on in production of the Bee Diaries is a common misconception associated with dwindling bee numbers. Everyone seems to be under the assumption that it is the honeybee that’s in trouble.

Perhaps this is because we understand the honeybee. It produces something sticky we like to eat – lives in a wooden hive and is tended to by a man wearing white overalls. The honeybee is no wild animal. It is domesticated – introduced, farmed and managed by man.

But it is not the honeybee that is in trouble. Their numbers are, in fact, growing in urban areas due to a steady incline in urban beekeepers and a year-round plethora of nectar rich plants served up in carefully tended back gardens.

If you’ve been following the Bee Diaries blog, you’ll know from this infographic that there is only one type of honeybee in the UK whilst there are 24 species of bumblebee and 250 species of solitary bees. Solitary bees and bumblebees are more effective pollinators than their domesticated counterpart yet their numbers are in dyer need of recuperation.

Surprisingly, conservationists and beekeepers are using the popular and well loved honeybee in a bid to tackle the issue. As well as being used for honey production and urban pollination, the honeybee is now being used as a means to draw attention to his wild relatives. Due to the ease of which honeybee hives can be introduced into urban areas, some beekeepers and pollinator advocates believe that they provide a medium through which population-dense societies can reconnect with the importance of all pollinators.

This became apparent through production of the Bee Diaries – exemplified by the work of Bee Bristol and urban beekeepers. Bee Bristol has introduced hives as a means of engaging the public with their conservation work that addresses the lack of forage in urban areas. Organisations like London’s Urban & Community Beekeeping provide a living, buzzing motif encouraging citizens to get involved with planting nectar rich plants and building solitary bee hotels… All in a bid to encourage the rekindling of solitary and bumblebee populations. The honeybee has, essentially, become the poster child for all bee kind.

But I just can’t help but wonder if this could be a dangerous path to travel. Could the popularity of the honeybee help save the lesser-known species? Or will their fame and usefulness eventually cast a shadow over bumblebees and solitary bees?

Whilst the beekeepers I interviewed seemed to believe the former, speaking with leading bee-researcher Dave Goulson I’m left thinking that we should be focusing on educating the public about all bee species – all pollinators – and consequently, the environment in general – on a level that supersedes honey and hives. As Dave candidly put it:

“We should look after all species whether they benefit us or do absolutely nothing for us at all.”

The Bee Diaries final documentary will combine interviews with honey-bee-keepers and bumble/solitary bee conservationists in a bid to raise awareness of the lesser known species whilst retaining a small, comforting fragment of familiarity through snippets of the relatable honeybee.

Watch: Urban awareness with Bee Bristol

Efforts to raise the profile of dwindling bee numbers are not only prevalent in the likely countryside where, during the summer, we expect to hear and see humble bumble, solitary and honeybees.

Awareness is growing in cities where organisations like Bee Bristol are working to raise the profile of pollinators and educate younger generations on the importance of providing habitat for vulnerable wildlife in densely populated areas.

In the video below you can meet the inspirational Tim Barsby who proves that we can all be a part of bee conservation.

Listen: Professor Dave Goulson on Bee Talk

As facts about the weird and wonderful ways of the bee unveil themselves throughout the process of producing this project, I find myself ever more intrigued with the incredible ways in which bees go about their business.

From colony structure to flower preference, the three main types of bee (bumblebee, solitary bee and honey bee) vary hugely. But the discovery that most intrigued me was the revelation that these types of bee use completely different means of communication.

Whilst I had heard – as you might – of the famous ‘waggle dance’ that honeybees use to tell other members of a colony where find valuable food sources, I wanted to hear about it first hand from one of the world’s leading bee researchers and primary contributor to The Bee Diaries, Dave Goulson. Upon posing the question of bee communication – Dave’s response left me marvelling at these incredible little creatures.

Beehive at city university

An Unlikely Home for Bees

Atop City University’s ‘Innovation Centre’ now lives the university’s first beehive. On a grey and blustery afternoon, it seems an unfriendly location for honeybees. They survive, nonetheless, with the helping hand of beekeeper and thespian, Dr Luke Dixon. Luke runs Urban and Community Beekeeping, an organisation that cares for over 60 hives across London rooftops.

Luke is part of a movement bringing bees to busy Londoners in a bid to help replenish honeybee numbers in urban areas. Despite the seemingly never ending expanse of grey, honeybees are now thriving in cities with thanks to gardens bursting with a variety of flowers. Colonies in hives installed on top of law firms, hotels and universities like this one have more than enough sources of nectar to sustain them. To find out how they navigate this concrete jungle, stay tuned for the final documentary. 

The bees are benefiting from a symbiotic relationship that Luke believes provides opportunity for students and businessmen alike to ‘reconnect with nature’.

The benefits of project like this are subtle, but noticeable if you look in the right places. Luke was involved with the placement of beehives around Hyde Park and had the pleasure of watching the surrounding forage enjoy a new lease of life with the introduction of a solid bee population. For the first time in years, the chestnut trees began to sprout conkers. A similar situation presented itself when beehives were placed in the garden of London’s Natural History Museum. “When we put the bees there, suddenly the holly started to produce holly berries which hadn’t been seen for years!”


Listen: The Short-haired Bumblebee Project

In my search for the most passionate and dedicated bee conservationists, I came across the Short-haired bumblebee reintroduction project. The project manager, Nikki Gammans, was willing to get involved in The Bee Diaries – and proved to be an invaluable contributor. Nikki was able to provide me with a clear comprehension of a number of things including different bee species, the origin of the bee, the plight of the bee and what individuals can do to help. 

But more than anything, she talked passionately about the Short-haired Bumblebee Project. With time constraints acting against me for the radio documentary, here you can listen to Dr Nikki Gammans and Professor Dave Goulson discussing the Short Haired Bumblebee Project as a flagship for conservation. 

Making bee science more than a drone

At page one of The Bee Diaries, of two things I was sure;

1. Bees are fascinating.

2. Bees are important.

A few weeks down the line and these statements are being reaffirmed and contested at every corner. I’m now realising, despite my views – the former statement is subjective. Not everyone is interested in bees. Anyone can stand at the top of a building screaming bee praise, but few passers-by will stop and listen. With more pressing issues gracing headlines on a daily basis, it’s easy to see why the public is running out of brain space amidst all the war and politics. So how does one go about making a documentary they might give the time of day? Particularly when the topic seems so irrelevant in the grand scheme of global affairs.

If I’m going to find the answer anywhere – it has to be in the BBC Trust’s guidelines. Radio4 is renowned for its ability to make any topic intriguing and enlightening.

The first hurdle is that of the subject matter. In light of this, I’m prioritising sourcing contributors who will help bring the story to life. This has proven even more necessary as without a visual stimulant, the story telling voice needs to be prevalent throughout the documentary, not just on the part of the presenter. This is how I came to find The Bee Diaries’ primary interviewee, Professor Dave Goulson.

As a professor of biology, writer and wildlife fanatic – reading Dave’s bestselling book A Sting in the Tale revealed him to be just the character I was looking for. An author who writes with spirit and wit and leading researcher in entomology and bee behaviour, Dave ticks every box. At the interview, his enthusiasm and passion for the subject is prevalent in the warm, endearing tone of his voice.

In the BBC Trust’s 2012 science review, Mary Hockaday pointed out the “huge degree of interest” in science stories, and her assertion that coverage should not “just be about science, but the scientists,” was received welcomingly by audiences. In light of this, it seemed apt to allow the interview with Dave to evolve into an exploration of how he came about dedicating his life to entomology (the study of insects). As he modestly put it:

“Since as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in wildlife. I guess I’ve just been lucky enough to make a living out of it.”

The only issue with discussing such topics with a highly educated, ground breaking research scientist is that they tend to use language that wouldn’t be considered accessible by the general public. Despite Radio4’s target audience being defined as “listeners seeking intelligent programmes”, the information shared has to be comprehensible in order to keep it interesting. This is why I sought to interview beekeepers Luke Dixon and Chris Slade.

In theory, the role of these interviewees is to bring an accessible edge to the story. It needed to be someone I could go out with and physically explore the world of bees – allowing colour and appealing soundscapes to be introduced to the otherwise clinical audio. This being necessary to allow the documentary to not only inform and educate, but to of course, entertain. Chris has proven to be just the man. An avid beekeeper with more than 30 years experience in the game, his life in the quaint village of Toller Porcorum revolves around bee business. His blog revealed him to be not just bee-savvy, but bee-centric. At the interview, Chris shared some of his heart-warming poems dedicated to bees and their keepers. The revelation of his unique way of expressing his feelings towards bees is a welcome variation to the tone of the documentary.

Nevertheless, in order to comply with the suggestions put forward in the BBC Trust’s 2012 science review, I have to be aware of the limitations of discussing the vast world of bees with someone who has experience in rearing only one of the thousands of species. For this reason, Chris’s role in the documentary will serve primarily as entertainment.

I think – I hope – that by using carefully selected interviewees and a well crafted narrative, anyone who stumbles across my radio documentary may be compelled to listen through to the end. That’s the goal after all!

Infographic: Bees, simplified

Bees are one of the most studied creatures in the world, yet so little is understood about their ecology and behaviour. On my mission to gain and share a better understanding of bees, one hurdle presented itself early on in the journey. There are literally thousands of types of bee across the globe (20 thousand to be more specific). The species focused on in the documentary have been selectively restricted to the two names we all know and love: The honeybee and the bumblebee. There is brief mention of the solitary bee nonetheless – as they are known to be the most effective pollinators.

The Bee Diaries is proving to be a lesson in taxonomy and I’m gradually finding myself able to distinguish my apis mellifera from my bombus terrestris. From my readings and interviews, here’s what I’ve learnt about the three bee families – presented in the more digestible form of an infographic.

bee species infographic

bee species infographic

Balancing Bees and the BBC

Studying to become a journalist, one of the first concepts we’re introduced to is ‘balance’.

In order to be true to the cause, an audience must be able to gain full apprehension of all aspects of a story without his/her views being tainted by the beliefs of the narrator, ie, the journalist. Now, this topic alone has been endlessly debated and in recent months, the perception that the journalist should remain non-bias and emotionally detached is being contested in preference of ‘real’ reporters expressing very human emotions when reporting sensitive topics. The Bee Diaries does not seem a likely candidate for sensitive editorial issues – but according to the BBC Trust’s 2014 review of accuracy and impartiality in BBC science coverage, “Scientific developments have the capacity to directly affect us all significantly.” So it is, for that reason, that they should be treated with as much delicacy as stories considered more emotionally impactful.

True to my education, I initially set out to explore the world of bees with an impartiality hat placed firmly on my head. But upon learning that the representation of the counter-bee-conservation argument was just so marginal, I began to question how on earth I’d go about presenting an equal balance of viewpoints. My quest became more a question of ‘do I need to present both sides of this story?’ Struggling to find a professional who would contest the assertion that bee numbers are declining and are in need of rebuilding, I turned to the BBC Trust guidelines. In the same review, Professor Jones described the application of Editorial Guidelines on impartiality in relation to science coverage, ‘over-rigid’. He stated that this relentless adherence to editorial guidelines did not take into account the ‘non-contentious’ nature of some stories. He explained that this resulted in giving ‘undue attention to marginal opinion’, citing the existence of man-made climate change as an example.

After some more research, I feel confident in my conclusion that bees are non-contentious subject. One potential contributor contested the idea put forward by conservationists, entomologists and ecologists world-wide – stating that “It’s all a load of media hype, bee numbers are fine.” Despite his authority as an experienced beekeeper, his judgment was based solely on the observation of bees in his immediate local area. For this reason, his assertion will be discarded, as it’s less qualified than that of the research scientists who will feature in the documentary. To include his viewpoint, although it would be true to impartiality, would create false balance that could only confuse a listener.