Do bees have a right to the city?

by Rebecca Ellis

This is the written version of a talk I delivered at Minding Animals 4 in Mexico City on January 23, 2018.

Bees are experiencing declining populations and/or declining health across North America and many parts of the world to an extent that the UN Food and Agriculture Organization has identified this as a major threat to global food security (FAO 2016). The reasons for this decline are complex and include increased pesticide use by farmers, loss of habitat and food sources, and ecological changes associated with climate change (Goulson et al 2015; Woodcock et al 2017). One of the responses to the decline of bees has been a growing interest in urban beekeeping and urban pollinator gardening (Peters 2012; Lorenz and Stark 2015).  Some entomologists have turned their attention to researching the presence, and in many cases, flourishing of both honey and wild urban bees (Franke 2009).  At the same time, there is resistance to urban practices that are bee friendly, partly based on contested ideas about who and what belongs in cities.

In this paper I will argue that bees and other non-human residents  of cities have a right to the city because they are urban inhabitants who exercise agency and autonomy, and participate in urban commoning. Cities, in particular, offer spaces in which to create multispecies commons  where  wild and managed bees – and by extension other non-human animals- flourish alongside people.

Part One: Right the City Movements

right to the city montreal
c/o Right to the City Montreal

The right to the city concept was originally developed by Henri Lefebvre, a French Marxist philosopher and sociologist. Right to city movements encompass urban social struggles that are focused on collectively and democratically controlling what happens in one’s neighbourhood. An essential aspect of right to the city movements is the right of residents to make and remake the city (Harvey 2008). As Harvey argues “the right to the city is not a mere access to what already exists, but a right to change it after our heart’s desire” (Harvey 2003, p 939). Essential questions asked by people engaged in these struggles are: to whom does the city belong? and who belongs in the city? (Staeheli and Mitchell 2008). Right to the city struggles are often struggles to have one’s claim as belonging to a space acknowledged and legitimized.

Many ‘right to the city’ struggles are focused on urban green spaces that are often part of people’s everyday lives.  In their examination of struggles around community gardens in New York City, many of which were established through acts of guerilla gardening, Staeheli and Mitchell (2008) argue that “the gardens were spaces that residents of marginalized and abandoned areas had actively made…the gardens may have been owned by the city in a narrow sense, but they had been made by the residents themselves” (p. 104). Creating community gardens on neglected or vacant lots involves “taking public property and making it public space” (Staeheli and Mitchell 2008, p 107).

NYC com gard
c/o NYC Foodscapes

Do non-human animals have a right to the city?

Non-human animals live in and co-create these spaces, sharing them with humans, but the question of whether they belong to these spaces is contested. For example the work done on the marginalization of pigeons by Escobar (2013) and Jerolmack (2008) offers insight into the ways in which some people have positioned animal residents as not belonging to spaces in which they have inhabited – even co-created – for decades. The desire to remove some animals from cities partly exhibits a deep-set anxiety about disorder and a need for a “sanitized, safe city” (Jerolmack 2008). This anxiety also affects the ways in which some groups of people are treated in cities, which they have resisted in the form of ‘right to the city’ struggles.

pigeon protest
Pigeon protest in Venice, Italy. These are the vendors who sell pigeon food. c/o NBC News

There are few places where humans and non-human natures come into such complex relationship – and sometimes conflict – with one another than in cities. Although cities are sometimes depicted as being ‘unnatural’, they in fact represent the transformation of nature by capitalist accumulation (Braun 2005).  Braun (2005) reminds us that “the production of urban nature is uneven, deeply political, and highly contested” (p 642).  In an attempt make visible the roles of non-human animals in making and unmaking cities, Henry Buller demands that, “we must now redefine ‘city’, redefine ‘wild’ or accept such animals as citizens” (Buller 2014, p 311). Instead of focusing on the rights of citizens which can reify the troubling and exclusionary legal conceptions of citizenship, Iveson (2012) argues for the ‘urban politics of the inhabitant” (p. 947), a concept has the potential to enroll non-human natures in struggles to “confront unjust cities” (Iveson 2012 p. 947).

In this way, right to the city struggles can be conceptualized as struggles that include non-human animals for three important reasons:

  1. They are inhabitants of cities
  2. They practice agency and strive for autonomy
  3. They participate in co-creation of urban spaces

In the rest of the paper,  I will illustrate this by using the example of both wild and honey urban bees.

Bee.JPG - black
A native bee in a squash plant in London, ON

Part Two: The right of bees to the city

Bees as urban inhabitants

Bees, both honey and wild, live in cities throughout the world. Beekeeping has been a practice within cities for thousands of years, with archaeological evidence of beekeeping in some of the earliest cities in the Middle East (Crane 1999). Wild bees can be considered ‘boundary crossers’ – animals that do not stay within the boundaries that humans assign to them – and tend to live wherever they can find adequate habitat and forage (Rutherford 132).

Honey bee hives in Luxembourg Park, Paris, France

While initial urbanization of forested and farm areas may cause disruptions for wild bees, there have been a number of recent entomological studies indicating that for some wild bee species, cities offer more favourable conditions than farmland. There has also been a steep increase in interest in urban beekeeping, with some cities such as London, England and New York City experiencing so much interest that there has been a risk of over-saturation of honeybees.

Although there is a popular notion that the non-human animals and plants that live in cities are refugees from the countryside (driven to cities due to urbanization or the effects of capitalist-industrial agriculture), Thomson (2007) points out in his research on fruit bats in Melbourne, that many non-human beings flourish in cities and, in fact, choose to live there. Cities are shared spaces “replete with animate, sentient beings” (Wolch, as quoted in Braun 2005, p 646). Honey and wild bees should be thought of as urban inhabitants of cities who share outdoor urban spaces with humans.

Bee agency and autonomy

Bees are complex organisms who have symbiotic relationships with one another, plants, non-human animals, and humans. Through the exercising of their agency and desire for autonomy, bees engage in co-creation of urban spaces.

A gorgeous Carpenter Bee in Capri, Italy

Bees exercise agency in a variety of ways. Social bees have incredibly complex social organization within their colonies. Thomas Seeley (2011), an eminent entomologist, has explored how honeybees engage in democratic decision-making, particularly when they swarm and have to decide where to make their new home. Briefly, after a bee colony swarms, individual scout bees are sent out to find potential sites for a new home. They return to the swarm and relay information about the best site they found through a dance that conveys key characteristics of that site. Worker bees mimic the dance of the scout whose site they support, engaging in an embodied debate. If no scout has strong support, the scouts venture out to find additional sites. A colony makes a decision when the majority of the worker bees mimic the dance of a particular scout. The queen is not the leader of the colony, as humans have imagined, but is taken care of by her daughters as she brings new generations into being. The colony, as a whole, makes decisions about where foragers should gather pollen and nectar, when to swarm, where to make a new home, and, when to replace the queen.

bee swarm
A honey bee swarm c/o Rachel Mackelprang

Connected to ideas about the agency of non-human animals, are ideas about the autonomy of non-human animals. If we accept that non-human natures have agency then it follows that they should be able to practice this agency with little interference. As Cronon argued, honouring the wild means, “learning to remember and acknowledge the autonomy of the other” (1995). Expanding on the concept of the autonomy of non-human nature, Collard et al (2015) call for animals to be recognized as “beings with their own familial, social, and ecological networks, their own lookouts, agendas, and needs”. They further declare that “abundant futures is one in which other than humans have wild lives and live as ‘uncolonized’ others” (2015: p 328). Although they recognize that autonomous animals will still live deeply entangled lives with humans, they argue that animals should ideally be allowed as much spatial, energetic, subjective, and social autonomy as possible (2015: 328).

Bees strive to live autonomously alongside humans. Wild bees often reject the homes that well-meaning ‘pollinator people’ make for them, preferring to find their own spaces. Bees forage wherever nectar rich flowers exist and especially seem to enjoy the abundance of vacant weedy lots and diverse community gardens (Franke 2009). Recognizing the autonomy of bees means seeing them as co-creators of lively urban space, allowing them to make their homes and forage where they choose.

Even honey bees, who are highly managed by humans, exercise their autonomy. This happens most dramatically in their swarming behavior. Beekeepers try to stop swarming behaviour but bee colonies continuously frustrate these attempts. If a swarm is not caught by a beekeeper, honey bees will make their home in any space they deem appropriate including their natural habitat – hollow trees – and human structures such as the walls of sheds and homes or compost bins. Even though they are managed by people, honeybees come and go as they please and sometimes ‘go feral’. Some beekeepers attempt to respect the autonomy of bee colonies by allowing them to swarm, letting the colony decide when to replace their queen, and allowing queens to mate naturally.

Participation in Urban commoning

Extending ‘right to the city’ struggles to non-human nature disrupts ideas about democracy. If right to the city movements are focused on the exercising of participatory democracy over the spaces in which people live, can this be extended to non-human nature? One of the ways in which this can be done is by  focusing on the ways in which animals participate in making and unmaking the city, an essential feature of ‘right to the city’ struggles. While bees may not be able to participate in processes of radical democracy, they actively engage in co-creation of urban spaces. This is especially clear in struggles over the urban commons.

The enclosure of the commons that begin centuries ago in England, is an ongoing project of forced separation of people and non-human nature (Federici 2004). Peter Linebaugh (2014), a historian of the commons, argues that the term commoning is more useful than commons to describe the ongoing relationships and processes involved in creating and maintaining commons. Commoning, he argues, requires active participation (2014, p. 15). If we accept that bees and other non-human animals have agency, strive to maintain autonomy, and co-create urban spaces, than it is clear that they can be participants in the commoning of cities.

A children’s garden in London, ON

This commoning most often occurs in the realm of the everyday. In private yards, community gardens, parks, vacant lots, and ‘wild’ areas people encounter non-human nature in ways that allow for the development of  ‘entangled lives’. It is also in the space of the everyday in which people become engaged in struggles to both change their lives and create a better world (Loftus 2012). These entangled, everyday spaces can become places in which humans clash with non-human natures – think of the homeowner who destroys a carpenter bees’ attempts to nest in their shed –  but they can also be spaces in which people form mutually beneficial relationships with non-human natures, acknowledging their right to belong and to participate in co-creation.

In particular, collective garden projects on public or reclaimed land can be seen, in some ways, as processes of multispecies urban commoning. Collective garden projects bring people into intimate relationship with non-human nature and one another, in Eizenburg’s words, affording and actualizing “ a lived experience of space” (p 773). It is in these gardens that people often encounter, and form mutually beneficial relationships with, urban bees. In a shared vegetable garden, for example, the presence and diversity of bees determines which flowers go to fruit, producing both food and seeds for humans. The presence of polycultures of plants, an essential feature of most community gardens, provides forage and habitat for bees.

garden 5
A polyculture of plants in a community garden in London, ON

Forming mutually beneficial relationships with bees, both as beekeepers and gardeners, can allow people to “develop relations of interspecies intimacy [and] levels of attachment that transform human life” (Moore and Kosut 2013, p. 102-103). Co-creating spaces with bees is a sensual experience, involving both pleasure and, at times, pain.  As Moore and Kosut argue “being with the bees involves smelling, hearing, tasting, and feeling them through your own body” (Moore and Kosut 2013, p. 92). Bees not only transform spaces but transform people’s behaviours, attitudes, and even bodies.


Part Three:  Multispecies Urban Commons

Allowing bees and other non-human animals a role as participants in struggles over the right to the city can be a contested and difficult process. Some people do not wish to live in relationship with nonhuman animals and may have intense feelings of discomfort, disgust, or fear. Jason Moore (2015) reminds us that boundaries of society and ‘nature’ are messy, porous, and include uneven relationships. But, as Haraway advises, we should “stay with the trouble” instead of looking for easy answers or evading messiness and contradictions.

As urban inhabitants who exercise agency and autonomy and participate in urban commoning, I believe bees, and other non-human animals, have a right to the city. As David Harvey (2003) argues, “If our urban world has been imagined and made then it can be reimagined and remade” (p 941).  Multispecies urban commons represent collective and participatory ways of re-imagining and re-making cities, potentially allowing for multispecies abundance and flourishing . As both humans and non-human animals face a future of uncertainty, the importance of creating multispecies abundance in cities is crucial now, perhaps, more than ever.

Summer Sanctuary
A sanctuary for me and the bees (and many other non-human animals)



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