An Asian honey bee (Apis cerana) feeds on a purple cleome (Cleome rutidosperma) flower. Photo credit: Benjamin Ong/UNDP Malaysia

As the world rapidly urbanizes, there is an emerging need to consider the human-nature relationship in towns and cities. Cities are home to novel ecosystems and diverse habitats and ecological communities, many of which are not well understood simply because cities are rapidly evolving, especially in the developing world. Increasingly, cities are also where we will (or won’t) have opportunities to reconnect with nature. As the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) put it:

The wildest and remotest places on Earth, the most imperilled species on Earth will be protected only if urban people care about nature where they live.

 

We need to encounter biodiversity in the places where we live and work, not rely primarily on occasional trips into the wilderness—which COVID-19 has all but put on hold. And yet, this is particularly challenging in a megadiverse country like Malaysia, where biodiversity can be overwhelming to a beginner. With a working knowledge of, say, 10-20 plant species one could reasonably navigate a temperate forest; meanwhile, 40 may barely suffice for a tropical urban neighbourhood. There’s a steep learning curve and it’s not surprising if biodiversity is, therefore, not very popular among the masses.

Two implications arise: first, to bring nature closer to home, we literally need to start closer to home. Second, perhaps we should start with smaller, more common species. In the great scheme of iconic Malaysian wildlife, urban biodiversity is almost negligible. However, the wildlife encountered in domestic, residential spaces may provide a last-mile bridge to help people care about biodiversity as a whole.

In this blog, we explore urban bees as an entry point to biodiversity and its services; we share some early results from UNDP Malaysia’s Urban Biodiversity Challenge (UBC); and we reflect on how citizen science can play a role in building back better for bees—an important pollinator in the world of biodiversity.

Exploring the backyard bee-fore us

Exploring nature under pandemic-induced lockdowns? Can we eat our cake and have it too? That’s exactly what we are trying to do through the Di Sekitar Kita (Malay for ‘around us’) campaign, conceptualized and run by the UNDP Accelerator Lab Malaysia. Kicking off Di Sekitar Kita, over 700 Malaysian citizens and residents participated in the ten-day UBC earlier this month, documenting some 20,000 observations of plants and animals mainly in towns and cities nationwide (full data on iNaturalist).

Of these, there were 100 observations of bees made by 67 observers. Many were observed in residential neighbourhoods, showing that they can survive in residential areas—making use of embankments, fallen logs, trees and roofs as nesting sites and feeding on the abundance of ornamental and wild flowers.

We love their honey; we fear their sting—but there’s so much more to bees. The UN statement for World Bee Day reminds us of the importance of bees and other pollinators in sustaining life on Earth:

Bees are under threat. Present species extinction rates are 100 to 1,000 times higher than normal due to human impacts. Close to 35 percent of invertebrate pollinators, particularly bees and butterflies, and about 17 percent of vertebrate pollinators, such as bats, face extinction globally. If this trend continues, nutritious crops, such as fruits, nuts and many vegetable crops will be substituted increasingly by staple crops like rice, corn and potatoes, eventually resulting in an imbalanced diet.

 

Themed “Bee Engaged – Build Back Better for Bees”, this year’s fourth observance of World Bee Day focuses on how everyone can make a difference to support, restore and enhance the role of pollinators. Closer to home, there are individuals and organizations working to raise awareness and dispel fear of bees. While we certainly do not recommend touching bees or their nests with your bare hands, what we can do is learn more about our buzzing neighbours—read on!

A bee-ginners guide to urban bees

Here we celebrate the diversity of bees in Malaysia’s towns and cities, as observed—and richly illustrated!—by citizen scientists during the UBC.

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Asian honey bees, Apis cerana, nesting between floor boards. This is a hardy species that can nest on tree branches and roofs and thrives in human areas. It pollinates a wide variety of flowers and produces edible honey. Photo credit: iNaturalist user @h_h_choo (all rights reserved; used with permission)
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A single record of a Western honey bee, Apis mellifera, was made in Penang. These bees were introduced for the local beekeeping industry but are susceptible to mites and disease. Photo credit: iNaturalist user @amandazqchin (CC-BY-NC)
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The Dwarf honey bee, Apis florea, is common but sometimes mistaken from the Asian Honey bee. It has a smaller size and a red patch at the base of its abdomen. Photo credit: iNaturalist user @lunarjade (CC-BY-NC)
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A hive of the Giant honey bee, Apis dorsata, are some of the largest honey bees in the world. They are not domesticated; the local delicacy of tualang honey or madu tualang produced by these bees is often harvested from the wild. Photo credit: iNaturalist user @rafeemajid (all rights reserved; used with permission)

Four species of honey bee (genus Apis) were documented in both indoor and outdoor habitats.

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A stingless bee harvesting pollen from a senduduk (Melastoma malabathricum) flower. Photo credit: iNaturalist user @aj_atikah (CC-BY-NC)
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Stingless bees emerging from their entrance of their nest. It is constructed from sticky resins to keep ants out. Photo credit: iNaturalist user @ecomel (CC-BY-NC)

Many stingless bee species have been introduced into cities by the beekeeping trade and some occur wild. Malaysia has a long tradition of melaponiculture (stingless beekeeping) and unlike honey bees, stingless bees are not feared by the general public.

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A tropical carpenter bee, Xylocopa latipes, on a flowering yellow flame tree. A smaller Asian honey bee can be seen flying next to it. Photo credit: iNaturalist user @ecologist31 (CC-BY-NC)
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A tropical carpenter bee entering its nest in a cut log. Photo credit: iNaturalist user @ah_heng (all rights reserved; used with permission)

Carpenter bees are quite conspicuous and were common observations, with at least four species recorded. These large bees pollinate large flowers, as well as many crops such as long beans. They nest in fallen logs and dead trees. While they aggressively fly towards people to scare them away, they very rarely sting.

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A sweat bee harvesting the salt from human sweat. This group of bees are named after this behaviour. Photo credit: iNaturalist user @p_loji (CC-BY-NC)
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A group of Tripartite sweat bees, Halictus tripatitus, feeding on a senduduk flower. Photo credit: iNaturalist user @aril (all rights reserved; used with permission)

Sweat bees are solitary bees that don’t live in colonies. They are important pollinators and are often endangered due to pesticides or other human activities. They are an important group to consider for conservation.

And finally, not all bees are striped alike!

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The striped nomia, Nomia strigata, has pearlescent stripes that change colour depending on the angle of viewing. Photo credit: iNaturalist user @tomasmaul (CC-BY-NC)
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Banded digger bees, Amegilla sp., have attractive metallic blue stripes and nest in embankments. They are efficient pollinators of many crops such as eggplants and tomatoes. Photo credit: iNaturalist user @andrewmylwaganam (CC-BY-NC)

In the long run, we can only conserve what we know. In the face of immense challenges faced by biodiversity, we need innovative approaches to fill data gaps and complement the core of professional scientific research. One such approach is citizen science—an example of collective intelligence for sustainable development. Over the short sampling period of the UBC, citizen scientists managed to document approximately 23% of the known diversity of bees in urban areas. Prolonged sampling may help us understand urban bee species better, while reducing antagonistic behaviour towards bees and promoting the importance of pollinators to the public. In short, more avenues to explore for citizen science!

Sekitar Kita implemented the Urban Biodiversity Challenge and contributed analysis of preliminary bee data for this post. John Ascher, a leading bee taxonomist, provided considerable help with species identification on iNaturalist. All images from iNaturalist designated CC-BY-NC (at time of publication) are used under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International Public License.

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