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Discover Exeter's Shopping Centre Rooftop Bee Garden

The Buzzing Princesshay Rooftop Bee Garden


Bee hives on a rooftop garden amongst industrial air conditioning units
The four thriving hives at the Princesshay Bee garden
Rooftop garden with raised beds and spring flowers
Raised beds with bee friendly planting

Discover Exeter's Princesshay Shopping Centre Rooftop Bee garden with me...

High above the busy shoppers at the Princesshay shopping centre in Exeter, nestled between shop roofs and air conditioning units, is a tranquil oasis of calm. Built in 2012 the Princesshay rooftop bee garden was originally the brainchild of Andrew Littlejohns who was Operations Manager at the time. After watching a programme on the decline of honeybees, he realised  there was an opportunity to use the dead space above the shopping centre. The bee garden is funded by The Crown Estate and Nuveen Real Estate who are the landlords of the shopping centre and who had the foresight and imagination to see the bee garden as part of an environmental initiative that forms part of the company’s wider biodiversity strategy. The garden is managed by Jason Willis, a beekeeper, and five volunteers who help look after the bees and the garden. The bees are inspected once a week for health and to extract any honey. The honey is then sold in the Chandos Deli underneath the garden in the shopping centre and the profit made from sales goes towards Princesshay’s Charity of the Year.

Espaliered apple trees against industrial units on a rooftop garden
Nestled amongst air-conditioning units and rooftops is the Princesshay Bee Garden


Bee hive with espaliered apple tree and spring blossom behind
Each hive has it's own 'en-suite' espaliered apple tree, which is full of blossom in spring

Visitors are welcomed to the garden through bee tours and there are group visits by schools and scout groups. Other interested groups are also actively encouraged. The garden receives around 600 visitors a year, all of whom are extremely positive about the initiative. The garden currently has four hives, with approximately 240,000 bees. In the summer months an observation hive is set up with glass panels for visitors to watch the activity within the hive. The hives are situated at the base of an industrial wall with an ‘en-suite’ espalier of flowering apple tree behind each one, with a bank of air conditioning units between the hives and the rest of the garden. Large wooden planters are filled with carefully selected plants to offer year-round flowers, but particularly from March to September when the bees are most active. The plants grown are all rich in pollen, for protein and nectar, for carbohydrates. Bees can travel up to three or more miles from the hive for

food, but a more normal average would be under a mile. Under the rooftop garden, in the shopping centre, is The Hive, a small room with information boards about the bee garden. Opposite The Hive is a lightbox, a bespoke commissioned piece by local artist Amy Shelton, called The Princesshay Honey Flow. The lightbox showcases the flowers and plants from across Exeter that are considered most important to the Princesshay bees, from the first flowers of spring and then through the seasons. This is a unique way to educate people on local flora, from a bee’s perspective.


shay Shopping Centre in Exeter
The shopping centre has a free information room, open during shopping hours

Bees are vital to our survival because, along with other pollinators like butterflies and moths, they help to pollinate up to 75% of the plants on the planet, including crops. In the UK, our bees are in serious decline; habitat loss, pollution, including pesticides and herbicides and climate change are all contributing to the decline in numbers and yet,

in the UK alone around 70 crops depend on bee pollination. They then support other insects which feed the birds, bats, mammals and so on up the food chain. A huge 97% of our wildflower meadows have been lost since the 1930’s and 90% of traditional apple orchards since the 1950’s, just a couple of examples of the levels of loss of our natural habitats in the last century.


What can you do to help pollinators? Firstly, ditch the chemicals; pesticides are indiscriminate, they’ll kill everything, not just the pests you’re aiming for, but any other little critters and minibeasts around, including bees. This can upset the balance of your local ecosystem too. If you kill the aphids, how are the ladybird or hoverfly larvae going to eat? Routine use of pesticides also negatively impacts wildlife further up the food chain. Chemicals leach into the soil and end up washed into our rivers and seas affecting and killing aquatic life, and these chemicals enter the food chain; birds eat worms and insects, and the pesticides move up the food chain. Herbicides can kill plants regarded as weeds, removing vital sources of food and shelter for wild species. Studies have shown that at every level in the UK, our natural environment is negatively impacted by chemicals and our biodiversity has declined by nearly 50% since the 1970s. More than one in seven of our native species face extinction and more than 40% are in decline. We are one of the most nature depleted countries in the world.

A bee on white apple blossom
A bee on one of the garden's apple trees

 Currently our rivers in England have only a paltry 14% deemed to be in good health and every single river in England fails to meet chemical standards. Ditching the chemicals can start at home and on the allotment. Secondly, plant pollinator friendly plants and try to ensure a year-round supply. Flowers that are open in the centre and with the colours purple, violet and blue are more likely to attract bees. Early season plants for pollinators include crocus, hyacinth, primrose, hellebore, maples, oaks, dandelion and willows. Late season plants include potentilla, aster, sunflowers, goldenrod and viburnum. Fill your garden with a mixture of native flowers and herbs for our native bees but also non-native flowers which can be irresistible to bees if they produce a lot of nectar. Think along the lines of annuals, perennials, shrubs, trees, vegetables and herbs, then you’ll be attracting a greater diversity of bee species and other pollinators.


There have been numerous studies that show that denser populations of honeybees and hives in urban areas can have a detrimental effect on the wild bee population because the honeybees are in such great concentrations and are super-efficient at collecting the pollen and nectar and so strip the local area, thus out competing native bees. Ensuring sufficient food sources for all bees, honey and wild, is of paramount importance. So, extend your flowerbeds, harass your local council to plant more trees and shrubs or encourage your school or church to make good use of unused ground. The rise of patios, artificial grass and decking can also prevent wild ground nesting bees from finding a home but increasing flower beds can help them, and building or putting up bee hotels for the wild bees that nest in cavities can be a help. One interesting fact; if you mow your lawn less frequently, you can expect to see a rise in bee abundance of up to 30% due to the increase in ‘weeds’ such as dandelion and clover. So, perhaps we all need to be a little less precious about our perfectly manicured lawns and embrace a little more ‘wild’. Your local bee population, and other pollinators, will thank you for it.

VariouA church spire pokes above the rooftop bee garden at the Princesshay Shopping Centre in Exeters trees, shrubs and plants on the rooftop bee garden
Trees, shrubs, perennials, herbs and bulbs are all thriving on this rooftop oasis


The spire of a local church gives a hint to the height of the garden

The plants in the Princesshay Bee Garden include fruit, herbs, shrubs, trees, bulbs and assorted annuals. Specific varieties are; Viburnum juddii, Viburnum tinus, Viburnum carlesii, Lavendula Hidcote, Lavendula Munstead, Hamamelis Arnold Promise, Caenothus thyrsiflorus repens, Ribes King Edward  V11, Deutzia scabre Plena, Deutzia gracilis, Sedum Autumn Joy, Corylus avellana Contorta, Hedera green and variegated, Escallonia Apple Blossom, Ceanothus Puget Blue, Rosemarinus Prostratus, Cornus Sibirica Variegata, Cornus Sibirica, Cornus alba Elegantissima, Symphoricarpos Hancock, Symphoricarpos albus, Clethra alnifolia Hummingbird, Cornus alba Kesselringii, Cornus stolonifera  Flaviramea, Kolkwitzia amabilis Maradco, Hydrangea Pink, Hydrangea Blue, Cistus Lusitanicus Decumbens, Choisya ternata, Cystisus scoparius, Rosa gallica Versicolor, Sedum Autumn Joy, Hydrangea White, Chaenomeles and Cotoneaster dammeri. The herbs included are borage, chives, fennel, parsley, rosemary and thyme and fruit and vegetables include apple, pear, plum, blackberry, blackcurrant, blueberry, gooseberry, raspberry, redcurrant, rhubarb, strawberry and tayberry.

© Vicki Gardner

with thanks to Trevor Gomm, Operations Manager at Princesshay Shopping Centre

Article and images available from GAP Plant and Garden Photo

The Hive information room is open during shopping hours
Information boards explain the garden to shopping centre visitors

A twisted hazel tree grows on the rooftop garden amongst industrial buildings
A twisted hazel grows against a backdrop of city centre buildings

Air conditioning units beside the plants on the rooftop bee garden
Air conditioning units side by side beside the rooftop garden

A twisted hazel grows on the rooftop garden
A twisted hazel grows against an industrial backdrop

Happy, busy bees fly into a hive
Busy Princesshay bees

Blossom on the espaliered apple trees behind the hives
Apple blossom

The four hives and their en-suite espaliered apple trees nestled on the shopping centre rooftop
The hives in their industrial setting


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