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The government conservation agency Natural England has encouraged urban dwellers to consider keeping bees in their gardens, rooftops or even balconies to help protect declining honeybee populations. In 2009, it even backed the launch of an artificial beehive designed for urban beekeeping. (Sang Tan/Associated Press)

City dwellers who try to boost bee populations by keeping their own hives may be doing more harm than good, U.K. researchers warn.

The number of beekeepers in Greater London has tripled since 2008, reported Francis Ratnieks and Karin Alton, biologists at the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects at the University of Sussex, in an article published this month in the Society of Biology magazine The Biologist. The density of bee hives there is now at 10 hives per square kilometer, about 10 times the average in England as a whole.

That means there might not be enough food — in the form of nectar and pollen — in urban areas to feed so many bees, especially since much of the city is concrete and mown grass, the report says.

"There's a lot of enthusiastic people out there who really want to help the bees," Alton told CBC's As It Happens. But, she added, "If you want to help elephants in Africa, you wouldn't just put loads more elephants out there if the habitat wasn't there to feed them."

Populations of honeybees and wild bees have been declining in Europe and North America. The problem has been blamed on a variety of causes, from pesticides to diseases, although Alton and Ratniek say the"most important one" is habitat loss.

Many city residents and businesses have taken up beekeeping in order to help boost bee populations. In fact, they have been encouraged to do so by the government conservation agency Natural England, which in 2009 backed the launch of a new artificial hive aimed at urban beekeepers. 

In some cases, businesses such as restaurants have started beekeeping as a green initiative or team-building exercise for staff, the researchers noted. Alton suggested for that purpose, a fish tank in the office might be a better choice, noting that looking after bees requires "an awful lot" of time, training and commitment. 

In addition to her concerns about bees starving if there isn't enough food for them, Alton worries that if their swarming isn't controlled properly by knowledgeable beekeepers, they can pose a hazard to the public.

She added that bee diseases can be transmitted more quickly in areas with a high density of hives.

Alton suggested that if people want to help the bees, they should think about how to create better environments — with more food sources — for the pollinators.

"British love … their perfect lawns with no dandelions, for instance, and clover," Alton said. "It would be nice to see much more planting of nectar-rich and pollen-rich flowers."