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When colony collapse disorder began wreaking havoc on bee populations around the world, there was at least one silver lining: It turned out that people cared about bees. A lot.

From more selective weeding to campaigning for a ban on neonicotinoid pesticides, concerned citizens stepped up in defense of their pollinator friends. (Not a bad idea, given what a grocery store without bees looks like!)

Many people also took up beekeeping as a more direct response to the crisis, with hives appearing in backyards, school gardens and even on corporate campuses. Britain's Co-operative Group, which runs one of the nation's largest chains of supermarkets and banks, even started a campaign to promote and educate urban beekeepers.

The trend toward urban beekeeping, however, was not welcomed by all. The London Beekeepers Association spoke out dismissively against "bee bling," suggesting that concerned individuals and corporations alike would be better off planting wildflowers, promoting conservation and reducing pesticide use — rather than rushing headlong into beekeeping. (To be fair, the Co-operative Group included a heavy push for planting more forage as part of their efforts.)

Now the BBC reports that these concerns are being echoed by leading bee researchers Professor Francis Ratnieks and Dr. Karin Alton from the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects at the University of Sussex: 

"If there are too many colonies in an area, then the food supply will be insufficient. This will mean that colonies do not thrive, and may also affect other species that also visit flowers," explained Prof. Ratnieks.
"A high density of colonies kept by novice beekeepers may also provide conditions under which the harmful contagious honeybee disease American foulbrood can spread. This disease is rare in Britain, but epidemics can break out ... When a hive is infected with AFB, it must be burned."
As a failed beekeeper myself, I would certainly caution bee enthusiasts about taking up the hobby without learning all they can first. But I am not sure this has to be an either/or situation.

As the Co-operative Group's efforts have shown, a push for urban bees can also provide a catalyst for more forage and conservation too, not to mention creating a more vocal lobby for community-wide efforts. It may make sense, however, to first focus on increasing habitat before we focus on increasing the population. From green roofs through solar farms/bee sanctuaries to city parks going pesticide-free, there are plenty of opportunities to create bee habitats in unusual places. If we maximize that potential first, we can maximize the number of beekeepers too.

Ratnieks' and Alton's warnings about urban beekeeping can be read in full in The Biologist, the magazine of the Society of Biology.

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