Bringing bees back to Ljubljana

Last December, ingredients such as fresh whole milk, eggs, sugar, butter and other edible oils saw price increases ranging from 30% to 57% on average in different EU countries (figures from Eurostat). Combined with energy bills that have risen by 1.5 times, it’s no surprise that people are worried about where to put their money.

Recent crises are forcing difficult choices and have exposed, among other things, the need for better policies to provide everyone with sustainable, healthy food. Cities have been improving their food systems for years and have developed actions ranging from reducing food waste to developing local farm-to-fork circuits, from establishing public food procurement criteria to organising food aid and security solutions.

Can we do it locally?

Faced with even more challenges, some local governments are taking the next steps towards better food systems. For example, Ljubljana is looking at reaching 50% food self-sufficiency in the next seven years.

“The first step is inventorying the production potential we have,” explains Maruška Markovčič, Senior Advisor for the Department of Environmental Protection and Rural Development at the City of Ljubljana, “both in terms of land availability and skilled people to work the land.” As 40% of Ljubljana is covered by forest, the city has the potential to develop rural spaces in the urban area.

Farmers have to do their part too
— Maruška Markovčič

The second step is ensuring producers and consumers are on the same page regarding locally produced food. So, the city will work on organising activities for them to exchange and build trust. “This means educating consumers,” says Markovčič. “But farmers have to do their part too, for example, by reducing or eliminating pesticides and being transparent about how they produce their food.”

Cities, however, can only do so much. That’s why Markovčič would like to see more ambitious actions at the European level. “The Ukraine crisis and Covid-19 have held up a mirror to us,” she notes. “I would like the European Union to discuss, for example, the introduction of percentages of food production areas. What regulations would the EU need to implement for such an idea?”

The Ukraine crisis and Covid-19 have held up a mirror to us
— Maruška Markovčič

No food without pollinators

However, that’s the goal for the future. As for now, Ljubljana has focused, primarily through the BeePath project, on educational and awareness-raising actions explaining the need to protect pollinators and create healthy environments for them.

The Greek Biologist Fani Hatjina best illustrated the link between food production and pollinators with the juxtaposition below.

Wild pollinators provide a vital ecosystem service, including bumblebees, wild bees, hoverflies, and beetles. Yet, they are endangered because of changes in the environment, pesticides, illnesses, and climate change effects like changes in the blooming cycle.

In short, “bees are an excuse to talk about something else,” as Giacomo Soave, a student and beekeeper at the Municipality of Cesena, put it during a project study visit. By presenting the story of pollinators to locals, Ljubljana also tells the story of biodiversity, food systems, and, more specifically, food self-sufficiency.

Bees are an excuse to talk about something else
— Giacomo Soave

“In our work, for example, with children, we present all facts connected to pollinators,” explains Markovčič. “So the children learn where the food comes from and the role of different wild pollinators for them to eat, let’s say, a tomato or a strawberry.”

Taking the side of the bees

The downturn in biodiversity is an effect both of climate change and of the patterns of human behaviour and development that bring climate change about. At the same time, interventions that encourage creatures like bees can help cities to mitigate climate change by strengthening local food networks. Hence, biodiversity and food will key topics addressed at the Eurocities Environment Forum 2023, ‘Powering our Cities,’ to be held in Ghent from 26-28 April.

Teaching the youngest in society about biodiversity and food systems is fundamental because they’ll protect the environment when they grow up, but raising awareness among adults is also necessary. Awarded the Most Bee-Friendly Municipality in 2017 and 2019 by Slovenia’s Beekeepers Association, Ljubljana developed a path through the city to learn about green spaces and pollinators. The city also created an application that tells the city centre’s history and the story of pollinators and the environment.

“People have grown to consider insects as nuisances and developed ways to keep them away,” says Lajos Kovács, head of the Green Committee in Hegyvidék Budapest district. In some cases, we even fear them; that’s why Ljubljana has also created a phone line to manage swarms.

“But biodiversity can’t exist without them,” adds Kovács. “We want locals to understand insects’ importance and invite them to create spaces that become excellent homes for them.” One way to take care of pollinators is to preserve flowering meadows.

Locals were furious
— Maruška Markovčič

“When we started mowing public green areas only after pollinators ate so that they could thrive, locals were furious because it gave the city a look of neglect,” recounts Markovčič. However, the sort of orderly, clean-cut green grass they wanted is a green desert for pollinators. “We started this action explaining the reason behind it, and now, people are calling to ask, ‘why did you mow the grass yesterday? There were so many different insects. It was alive, and now it’s barren,’” continues Markovčič.

Residents can also learn directly from beekeepers. They can visit the apiaries in the city centre or rent one to get directly involved. “By learning how to take care of pollinators, they will increase their chances to have locally produced food,” says Markovčič.

Getting people on board

Ljubljana’s actions involve different actors, from locals to beekeepers, from food producers and farmers. “We have worked with local farmers encouraging them to use less, and ultimately no synthetic preparations, which will preserve the soil and improve water quality and food production,” says Markovčič. “As part of this work, we have specifically connected fruit producers with beekeepers to discuss when to treat their plants best so as not to poison the bees.”

If the environment is healthy for the bees, it is for us too
— Fani Hatjina

A stimulating environment for pollinators means better crops, and their well-being is also a good indicator of a healthy environment for everyone. “If the environment is healthy for the bees, it is for us too,” explains Hatjina. That’s why Ljubljana is doing its best to “enrich the urban jungle with bees,” says Crnek Dejan, Deputy Mayor of the City of Ljubljana.

Although pollinators are considered marginal, the team in Ljubljana has worked hard to prove their relevance and inspire others. For example, Budapest worked with locals to tell the story of a green city through the bees. “We managed to create a movement in all cities where we presented the project,” says Markovčič proudly. “Even though the project ended, people are still engaging with the topic and working for the well-being of pollinators.”

Food doesn’t grow in a vacuum

Markovčič insists on the value of exchanging experiences and good practices and discussing solutions with other cities, but she also points out some challenges. “People in the municipality working on food issues often deal with other topics, so we need more resources,” she says.

We need more resources
— Maruška Markovčič

At the same time, understanding the connection between urban food systems and other work areas is essential to know that it isn’t a secondary issue but rather an overarching one. One of the biggest challenges is precisely to reveal these connections so that “in the future, we can focus on providing quality food for all,” says Markovčič.

This article is part of the #EUFoodCities campaign. In a time where political ambitions for a common food policy in the EU are shaking, cities want to be loud and reiterate their critical role in food systems transformation advocating for ambitious EU legislation under the Farm to Fork Strategy.

This campaign is paired with a high-level political event ‘Bringing urban food policies to the table’ taking place in Brussels on 9 March. More information here.

#MUFPP #Food2030EU

Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer