Ella Rose Schnapp with honey from her own beehives (Photo: Supplied)

Bee positive: How Auckland is doing its bit for the world’s pollinators

From a school for budding beekeepers to a street-side garden growing produce for locals, Auckland’s abuzz with projects making the city safer for pollinators.

Auckland’s a hive of activity aimed at helping our pollinators and it’s all a part of For the Love of Bees. A living social sculpture, it invites everyone and anyone to help make Auckland the world’s safest city for bees and, by extension, all life.

The piece stemmed from artist Sarah Smuts-Kennedy’s bee-focused work The Park. In 2016, Smuts-Kennedy was commissioned by the Auckland Design Office to create another work that would engage city-dwellers.

“All I could do was nurture others and nature; the structure of the project is all about collaboration,” she says. 

Geographer and environmental advocate Ella Rose Shnapp was one of the project’s first facilitators, coming on board after Smuts-Kennedy called her up and asked if she wanted to collaborate almost two years ago.

An amateur beekeeper herself, one of Shnapp’s roles is teaching for The Natural Bee Keeping School. More of a relaxed weekend workshop than a school, it gives those interested or invested in beekeeping tips on maintaining healthy hives. 

Sarah Smuts-Kennedy of For the Love of Bees at OMG Organic Market Garden (Photo: Alice Neville)

On the first Sunday of every month in Victoria Park, Shnapp and fellow facilitator Walter Dendl spend an hour discussing the tasks beekeepers should carry out in the following weeks.  

“Beekeeping is a very seasonal sort of job. At different times of the year there are different things that you need to do, whether it’s treating for pests, harvesting, wintering down, [or] making sure that they have enough food for the spring build-up,” Schnapp says.

If the weather allows it, the group then moves across the park to the three hives planted there as a part of the project’s Bees in Parks initiative. There, Dendl and Shnapp direct an hour of practical work, showcasing and taking care of the hives.

The classes are open to anyone, regardless of beekeeping experience. Dendl says they’re attended by a range of people, from local beekeepers wanting support to those just keen to learn a bit more about them.

Kids, in particular, take a keen interest. Children as young as five will hold the bee frames themselves, and Shnapp says they’re often the ones to have brought their parents along. “Their eyes just light up like they’re looking at this magic, it’s really special.”

Their fascination speaks to her belief that bees are one of the few insects that people connect with on an emotional level. She reckons it’s partly because bees give us honey, a sweet and medicinal treat, and partly because they can live in hives that we can interact with and understand. 

“The other thing is that they live in a colony, so kind of like a little society, and I’ve learnt so much from beekeeping about how we can work in a society together. When it’s cold, they’ll pass food down in a line from one bee to the other until it gets to the middle and everyone’s fed, and they’ll take turns being on the outside,” she says. 

Social lessons aside, bees are also a way to judge how the Earth is doing, Dendl says. “If the bees are healthy, we know the environment around them is healthy too.

Photo: Getty

So, how are the honeybees? The answer’s bittersweet. 

In terms of population, things are good. In June last year, the number of registered hives reached 881,185 – an 11% increase from 2017. More people are getting into beekeeping, and the biggest sectors of growth were in the hobby (one to 50 hives) and semi-commercial areas. 

But their quality of life is in question. “The rate at which they’re dying, the colony loss rates, are going right up, and the lifespans of bees are going right down,” Shnapp says.  

Colony collapse describes the sudden loss of bees, and it can be caused by anything from disease to queen bee failure and starvation. The loss rate for winter last year was 10.2%, and though statistically indistinguishable from 2017, it’s higher than in prior years, suggesting a positive trend

And that’s just the honeybees. As reported by Nikki MacDonald on Stuff, native bees face their own plight, partly because of environmental competition with honeybees.

Basically, though things could be worse, bees could use a hand to get by. Asked about how people can help, Shnapp says the answer’s easy: by growing organic, pollinator-friendly flowers in your garden.

“A lot of people who want to save the bees think that you need to become a beekeeper. You very much don’t. You can be a ‘beekeeper’ by growing flowers in your own garden and that’ll bring the bees to you.”

Levi Brinsdon-Hall at OMG (Photo: Alice Neville)

And they’re just the starting point: Seeing things from a bee’s eye point of view gives people a lens through which to talk about other environmental issues.

“Bees are just a metaphor for ecosystem health. They’re an invitation to invite people into a conversation around helping ecosystems and food,” says Levi Brinsdon-Hall, another of the project’s collaborators.

Brinsdon-Hall’s the head gardener for another of the artwork’s initiatives, the Organic Market Garden (OMG): a community garden that’s transformed a 600 square metre space on Symonds Street from a desolate lot into a lush veggie patch.

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The garden will be where some collaborators bite into a new project – a mentoring programme to help guide those with urban farms on regenerative practices. The mentor coming on board is Daniel Schuurman, director of Biologix, an educational service for sustainability, with the support of Kai Auckland’s co-founder Jason Dodunski.

Schuurman notes that there’s been a generational shift in farming practices. When he grew up, the status quo was farming with pesticides and weed killers, which are now understood to be detrimental to soil health.

He says that though they’ve spent the better half of a century killing soil, they’re now equipped with the knowledge and understanding to undo the damage. And it’s key in rebalancing the planet.

Overall, the goal for the mentorship is to help farmers “better understand their effects on the growing systems in terms of the nutrient density and the health of the soil”. It’ll start with a select group of people who already have urban farming practices, but he hopes the knowledge will be spread on to the hundreds of other urban gardens in Auckland.

It’ll feed into an upcoming project called the Urban Farmers’ Alliance, the first participants of which are OMG, Wellington’s Kai Cycle, and Cultivate Christchurch.


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