Buzz stops: bus shelter roofs turned into gardens for bees and butterflies

Bee bus stops first appeared in the Dutch city of Utrecht. Now the UK is planning for more than 1,000 and there is growing interest across Europe and in Canada and Australia

Butterflies and bees are getting their own transport network as “bee bus stops” start to pop up around UK cities and across Europe. Humble bus shelter roofs are being turned into riots of colour, with the number of miniature gardens – full of pollinator-friendly flora such as wild strawberries, poppies and pansies – set to increase by 50% in the UK by the end of this year.

Leicester is leading the charge with 30 bee bus stops installed since 2021. Derby has 18, and there are others in Southhampton, Newcastle, Sunderland, Derby, Oxford, Cardiff and Glasgow. Brighton council installed one last year after a petition was signed by almost 50,000 people.

LivingRoof Cardiff
A living roof in Cardiff. Photograph: Clear Channel

“We want to do it in as many cities in the UK as possible,” said Louise Stubbings, creative director at Clear Channel UK, which manages 30,000 commercial shelters on behalf of councils. The average bus shelter has a shelf life of at least 20 years. Ones with living roofs have to be specially designed because the soil is so heavy, especially when it is full of water, and Clear Channel is installing them only where shelters need replacing.

“We don’t want to rip perfectly good shelters out of the ground to put a new one in. You have to be really considered and mindful with planning these things and making sure the good they’re providing really is good,” said Stubbings. The company declined to say how much bee bus stops cost compared with normal shelters.

Clear Channel aims to create at least 1,000 bee bus stops in the UK, hopefully more. They are already established in the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden, and the company is building them in France and Belgium later this year, with inquiries coming from as far afield as Canada and Australia.

“We want to roll this out to as many countries as possible. We see this as a long-term, scalable addition to our bus shelters. We’d like to do them everywhere, the positive effects are incredible,” said Stubbings.

Clear Channel is working with the Wildlife Trusts to maximise the benefit to wildlife. Native flowers such as kidney vetch, thyme, selfheal and wild marjoram have been chosen to attract a range of pollinators including common carder bees, buff-tailed bumblebees, peacock butterflies, small tortoiseshell butterflies and chequered hoverflies. As well as the wildlife benefits, the roofs also absorb rainwater, and make a small contribution to offsetting the urban heat island effect.

Sunderland bus shelter with a living roof
A bee-friendly bus shelter in Sunderland. Photograph: Clear Channel

The gardens have not yet reached maximum growth and visibility, but in a normal non-drought year, they require little maintenance beyond a twice-yearly weed and trim.

Jo Smith, CEO for Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, who has been working with Derby city, said it was a way to make nature more visible. “Bus stops are a great way of being very present in the city. Everyone sees them, even if they’re not taking the bus, but walking or driving past. It’s a visible representation of the small changes we want communities, individuals and organisations to take in order to create more space for nature,” she said.

Installing a living roof in Leicester.
Planting at one of 30 bee bus stops in Leicester. Photograph: Clear Channel

The national picture for nature is bleak, with 97% 0f England’s wildflower meadows lost since the second world war. Earlier this year a study that looked at splats on car registration plates found the number of flying insects in Britain had collapsed by nearly 60% since 2004, results that are consistent with declines recorded elsewhere.

Smith said although bus stops are small, they could be the inspiration for something much bigger. “Adding them all up [in Derby] it would be a small field. But it is much more important than a small field, because it’s right in the city centre where you haven’t got much green space … We’ve had lots of people asking us if they could do it on top of their garage, or on bus stops in other cities.”

A bus stop with a living roof in the city of Utrecht, the Netherlands
The city of Utrecht in the Netherlands has more than 300 green roofs on bus stops. Photograph: Courtesy of City of Utrecht

Dutch cities have managed to stabilise urban bee populations in recent years, a study found last year, following decades of declines, and bee hotels and bee stops were among their solutions. Utrecht, which was Europe’s first city to get bee bus stops, now has more than 300. It has created a “no roofs unused” policy, in which every roof will now be greened with plants and mosses or have solar panels.

A team from the UK went out to Utrecht five or six years ago. “It’s so beautifully simple, but it takes a lot of time and effort and planning to get it right,” said Stubbings, who believes that as more are seen, councils – which are increasingly looking for ways to get flower-rich grassland back into cities to combat declines – will be more enthusiastic about taking them up.

For Cllr Adam Clarke, deputy city mayor of Leicester, the project is also encouraging greener ways to travel. “As well as promoting biodiversity and being populated by bees, they will help us get the bus shelters populated with more bus users too.”

Bee bus stops: top travellers to look out for

Common carder bee
Buff-tailed bumblebee
Early bumblebee
Red-tailed bumblebee
Hairy-footed flower bee

Meadow brown
Common blue
Small tortoiseshell

Marmalade hoverfly
Common dronefly
White-footed hoverfly
Chequered hoverfly
The footballer hoverfly

Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on Twitter for all the latest news and features


Phoebe Weston

The GuardianTramp

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