Close-up of bees on a honeycomb.
Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

The Spanish city has pioneered bee-friendly policies amid a decline in the global bee population.

2015 was a particularly dry year in Spain. Fruit fell from the trees; flowers wilted away; lakes dried up. As it became harder to survive in the drought-stricken countryside, swarms of bees buzzed into the cities for safety.

In Valencia, a city of 790,000 on Spain’s east coast, bee colonies up to 10,000 strong emerged in abandoned cars, streetlights, graveyards, and parks. The bees set themselves up in the arches of old buildings and around ornamental fountains—anywhere with a ready access to water, and away from chemicals sprayed by the citrus industry.

Their frenzied arrival was a direct result of the great bee die-off across Europe and the Americas, threatening one-third of all food consumed by humans. Spanish bees have been just as susceptible as their counterparts in other countries to the vicious Varroa mite, the predatory Asian wasp, and increasingly erratic global temperatures. But it’s the agricultural sector’s former use of neonicotinoid pesticides—which the EU banned earlier this year—that the country’s beekeepers identify as the biggest culprit. Queen bees infected by the nicotine-derived chemicals become sluggish and struggle to make new colonies.

Bee professionals have watched honey production in the country collapse by an estimated 50 percent this year, partly due, they say, to labeling standards that permit the sale of cheap competitor “Spanish” brands with minimal percentages of Spanish honey.

Honeys produced in Valencia. (El Observatorio Municipal del Árbol de Valencia)

Amid all of this, cities—freer from predators and pesticides, and rich in water, trees, and flowers—became something of a safe haven for bees. But in Valencia, the situation quickly turned unsustainable.

By mid-summer in 2015, Valencia’s firefighters were grappling with their 400th beehive in one year. This forced the city council, particularly its Tree Observatory—tasked with defending natural life in the city—to consider if there was anything more strategic the city could be doing.

“We found that the city was welcoming a multitude of bees, so we partnered with the firefighters to collect hives and distribute them to a new municipal colony,” explained Santiago Uribarrena, the Observatory’s boss. “There are now 20 colonies across Valencia: on the terrace of the Observatory; in the grounds of the Museum of Natural Sciences; and on another council site.”

The partnership strategically places scented “colony boxes” around the city, enticing bees to make their hives there rather than in more public spaces. It then periodically collect the bees and distributes them between the local agricultural sector and the larger, municipal colony, which is now home to over 800,000 bees. “What we always say is that there are more bees than [human] residents in Valencia,” Uribarrena said.

A beekeeper with two “colony boxes.” (El Observatorio Municipal del Árbol de Valencia)

This re-collection network was a step toward a council-level urban beekeeping plan, drafted in January 2018 and a first for Spain, which has left it up to local governments to challenge a default ban on beekeeping in or close to built-up areas. The draft plan has led to the creation of a popular school-visit program, introducing young people to bees, honey, and beekeeping suits. It’s been the catalyst for professional bee conferences and street-level bee fiestas, offering residents honey-tasting sessions as they learn about the insect’s fundamental importance to human life.

Valencia has also set up an expert-advisor team of academics, farmers’ union representatives, and veterinarians to provide support on technical questions. Enric Simó, a bee vet in the advisory team, described the group as a contagious and motivational “human colony” of ideas.

The council even backed a beekeeping allotment on a reclaimed patch of land in the city’s flourishing Cabanyal district. Diego Bour Toledo, a soft-spoken beekeeper from Paris, proposed the initiative “to show that there’s no danger, and that the idea is ready to work.” His neighborhood bees generated 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of high-quality milflores honey in the center of Valencia this year, twice the rate that his bees produced in the mountains.

The draft plan’s final aim is to pass legislation that will permit residents to keep up to three colonies for personal consumption, providing that projects are backed by both local resident associations in affected areas and overseen by qualified professionals. Uribarrena is confident such changes are possible within the next two years—and there is no other option, he claims, since bees are in the city “whether there is or isn’t an urban beekeeping project.” With 80 percent of Europeans predicted to live in cities by 2050, he also stressed the importance of urban areas being thought of as natural spaces capable of biodiversity: “that much like they have birds, cities have bees.”

A bee fiesta in Valencia in 2017. (El Observatorio Municipal del Árbol de Valencia)

But looming municipal elections raise questions about whether the receptive city government will remain in power, and if Valencia will continue to embolden other bee-curious Spanish cities. Valencia’s pivotal role in dragging the country towards international standards could be at risk: New York and Paris have 800 colonies each; Vienna has a whopping 4,000. Toledo said Spain is about 10 years behind, caused by both a lack of understanding about beekeeping and a relatively limited interest in organic products.

However, Toledo is optimistic that programs will continue, adding that Spanish cities have the enviable opportunity to develop beekeeping projects free from mistakes made elsewhere. His only concern is that if residents are not empowered to make their own honey, the process will be commercialized and turned into a luxury tourist experience. “That’s not what we want to happen. We’re after self-consumption, and a fair price for both the producer and the consumer,” he said. “Every single neighborhood could have its own honey.”

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