Beekeepers add buzz to Japan urban jungle

Tokyo's Ginza district is usually abuzz with shoppers and office workers, but high above its skyscrapers nature-lovers have created a home for real busy bees -- the ones that make honey.

It's part of a project to bring a slice of natural life back to the centre of the world's largest urban sprawl, a cityscape home to more than 30 million people that stretches far beyond the horizon.

Tokyo's Ginza district is usually abuzz with shoppers and office workers, but high above its skyscrapers an army of urban farmers are stacking up beehives dripping with golden honey.
Tokyo's Ginza district is usually abuzz with shoppers and office workers, but high above its skyscrapers an army of urban farmers are stacking up beehives dripping with golden honey.

Eleven storeys above the heart of the Tokyo concrete jungle -- with its beehive office partitions and swarms of suit-clad worker-bees -- enthusiasts have stacked up beehives dripping with golden honey.

"Let's enjoy the harvest, but be careful you don't have an accident," urban beekeeper-in-chief Kazuo Takayasu tells his fellow volunteers from behind the protective fine-mesh net covering his face.

Clad in white body suits, the crew gets to work, squeezing out the glistening syrup using a simple centrifugal machine they crank by hand as a cloud of bees breaks free from the honeycombs.

"Don't be scared. They don't sting unless you harm them," says Satoshi Nagai, 49, who has taken a break from his desk at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities. "Try the honey. The scent has a touch of citrus."

The honey is largely organic, he said, because pesticide use has been banned in Tokyo city parks and gardens including the Imperial Palace, about 1.5 kilometres (one mile) away, where the bees collect much of their nectar.

"Through beekeeping, you get to learn how harmful pesticides are for insects," he said. "It makes you think about your hobby of playing golf on courses which cannot be maintained without pesticides."

The beekeepers may be an odd sight in the Japanese capital, but they are not the only urban farmers -- on a rooftop just blocks away, barefoot farmers were recently wading through almost knee-high mud to plant a wet rice field.

On top of the building of the Hakutsuru Sake Brewing Co., its employees and their spouses and children were screaming with excitement as they stomped barefoot, the mud squelching between their toes.

"Good job, good job! Well done!" said Asami Oda, 56, the vice president of Hakutsuru's Tokyo office, who takes care of the rice paddies every day.

"We harvest 60 kilograms (130 pounds) of rice every year, from which we make 80 litres of sake. Of course it's organic. I like having a pesticides-free harvest, which is also good for the honey bees," he said.

Projects such as these have gained attention here this year as Japan readies to host a 193-nation international conference on biodiversity, which aims to find ways to stem the world's massive species loss.

The 10th meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity will be held in the central city of Nagoya in October to discuss a pressing environmental issue that has received less attention in recent years than climate change.

Animal and plant species are disappearing around the world at the fastest rate known in geological history, and most of these extinctions are tied to human activity, says the United Nations Environment Programme.

Species under threat include 21 percent of all known mammals, 30 percent of known amphibians and 12 percent of known birds, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The Earth is now losing a species about once every 20 minutes, estimates the non-profit group Conservation International.

Scientists warn that wildlife habitat destruction is destroying ecosystems that give humans 'environmental services' such as clean water and air and are vital for climate control and food production.

Honeybees are a case in point in Japan.

The price of honeybees has doubled in recent years after imports were banned to prevent the spread of parasites, and as local populations declined in a phenomenon that beekeepers have blamed on pesticide use.

Because of the shortage of bees that help pollination, farmers have reported that fruits don't grow well enough to satisfy urban consumers.

"We've received a number of complaints from beekeepers that pesticides kill honeybees," said Kazuo Kimura of the Japan Beekeepers Association.

Japanese scientists taking part in the biodiversity meeting have discussed ways to convince Japan's highly urbanised public how important biodiversity is.

"Urban beekeeping and rice growing are good examples of how human beings can reshape their relationship with nature," said Kazuhiko Takeuchi, director of the Institute for Sustainability and Peace at the UN University in Tokyo.

"Above all, it's effective in changing people's mindsets."

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