TEXT Jennifer Gaschler
FU Berlin is always buzzing with activity, especially as a part of the European university alliance Una Europa, where it seeks to cultivate its image as a lively, forward-thinking institution. Across its campus the university has set up bee colonies, wildflower patches, and habitats for other wild animals in the city. This is all part of the university's effort to address the question: How can universities contribute toward promoting urban biodiversity?
Una Europa is an alliance of eleven leading research universities in Europe. The alliance has published a sustainability strategy based on four main areas of action: Governance, Teaching & Community Engagement, Operations, and Healthy & Resilient Communities. “With regard to the latter, we are concentrating on recognizing the ecological qualities of our campus and promoting its biological diversity,“ says Marie-Julie Jacquemot from FU Berlin's Center for International Cooperation.
Anyone who visits FU Berlin nowadays will immediately notice the plethora of wildflowers growing on the campus lawns - a stark contrast to the tidy English-garden look that was maintained up until 2019. The university is now home to a host of grassy areas where mowing is prohibited - approximately ten whole hectares where biodiversity is allowed to thrive. The trend started with an employee putting up a simple “Please do not mow the grass“ sign in front of the university's Institute for Biology. Four years later, the “Blühender Campus“ (“Campus in Bloom“) initiative has become very well-known and attracted a team of around forty volunteers, who help cultivate green spaces on campus, plant regional wildflowers, install nesting aids for wild birds, and promote dialogue on urban diversity through various public events. Sophie Lokatis received the Stiftung Naturschutz 2023 Berlin Nature Protection Prize this year for her work on getting the project started. “In order to preserve nature and maintain biodiversity, we need to effect broad social changes. Universities have a special responsibility to emphasize the interconnections between climate change, the biodiversity crisis, and social injustice,“ says Lokatis, who has a doctorate in ecology. Rebecca Rongstock, who now coordinates the “Blühender Campus“ project, is using the initiative as a case study for her doctoral degree in plant ecology. She wants to make the topic an even stronger component of research and teaching.
The “Blühender Campus“ project is a living lab that could have important outcomes for both science and nature, says Katrin Schweigel from Freie Universität's Unit for Sustainability and Energy Management. In reference to Freie Universität's Climate Emergency Declaration in 2019, she says, “Our goal in declaring a climate emergency was to develop innovative solutions. This is why we support activities that promote biodiversity and are working together with our international partners in Una Europa to make universities even more sustainable.“ According to Sophie Lokatis, in order to become truly “nature positive,“ we have to take into account other indirect influences on biodiversity and try to minimize their impact, similar to CO₂ emissions and climate change.
At Freie Universität Berlin the extreme importance of biodiversity as a topic of academic research can be seen in our friend, the honey bee. For decades now, bees have been an object of study and interest for numerous projects at the university. In fact, Freie Universität even has its own master beekeeper, Stefanie Ludewig. As she puts it, “Bees are our most important symbiotic partners. We rely on them to produce the majority of our food.“ Ludewig works at the Institute of Veterinary Biochemistry where she is responsible for forty bee colonies. Some may wonder why a university might employ a professional beekeeper, but Ludewig does not find it unusual, “We have dramatically altered bees' natural habitats. It now falls to us to understand bees as best we can so that we can ultimately protect them.“ She is working together with a group of researchers at Freie Universität, studying the Varroa destructor, a parasitic mite that is considered to be one of the main factors contributing to bee deaths worldwide. Ludewig's beekeeping courses are attended by veterinary medicine students as well as interested members of the public. She also acts as a consultant for researchers at the university.
One such researcher is Tim Landgraf, a computer science professor at Freie Universität. Together with his team, they are working on “Hiveopolis,“ an interdisciplinary research project that hopes to use technological innovations to ensure that beehives can adapt to present-day and future challenges. Freie Universität Berlin is one of seven partners from across Europe involved in the project, which is focusing on creating the beehives of the future. One feature of these futuristic beehives will be a robotic bee developed by Landgraf in Freie Universität Berlin's BioRobotics Lab. This bee imitates the complex waggle dance carried out by actual bees with the aim of leading them to targeted sources of food. “Thanks to artificial intelligence, we have also been able to decode waggle dances so precisely that we can understand which food source the bee is referring to.“ This allows researchers to ascertain if the bee is advertising a field that has been treated with pesticides. If so, acoustic signals can be used to disrupt the dance, meaning that the message is not passed along, preventing the other bees from seeking out the “contaminated“ food source. These signals come from vibrating plates built into the combs of the smart beehives. Other research groups in the Hiveopolis project are working on subprojects such as keeping the temperature in beehives constant in order to protect colonies against climate change or developing technology that monitors how many eggs a queen bee lays. The overarching aim of the project is to create a “bio-hybrid system;“ a symbiosis between technology and nature that guarantees the survival of honeybees in the long term.
Zoologist Karl von Frisch was the first to translate the meaning of the waggle dance. He theorized that the bees' movements expressed an angle that is determined by the distance and direction of a food source from the hive and the sun's position. Sixty years later, Randolf Menzel, a neurobiology professor at Freie Universität Berlin, proved von Frisch's theory to be correct thanks to the use of radar technology. Menzel's current work focuses on the negative influence of pesticides on bee brains: “Our studies show that when bees absorb neonicotinoids, it significantly decreases their neuronal performance. Above all, this reduces their ability to discover new feeding grounds and communicate them to other bees through their dance.“ However, when it comes to the process of approving insecticides, Menzel claims that policy-makers are only taking bee mortality rates into consideration, not the substances' potential for reducing cognitive performance. For this reason, he is carrying out behavioral observations and microscopic analyses on bees at Freie Universität's Institute of Biology. “Unfortunately, legislation does not yet require farmers to publicly report when, where, and how they chemically treat their fields,“ says Landgraf. “This is information that will be of key importance for beekeeping in the future.“
The Una Europa Lecture at this year's Berlin Science Week will also address the topic of urban biodiversity and current developments in bee research.
The author is a freelance journalist on behalf of the FU Berlin.
"In order to preserve nature and maintain biodiversity, we need to effect broad social changes. Universities have a special responsibility to emphasize the interconnections between climate change, the biodiversity crisis, and social injustice."
Sophie Lokatis has a doctorate in ecology and is a research associate at the FU Berlin. She works at the Institute of Biology.
"Unfortunately, legislation does not yet require farmers to publicly report when, where, and how they chemically treat their fields. This is information that will be of key importance for beekeeping in the future."
Randolf Menzel is Professor of Neurobiology, FU Berlin, Institute of Biology.
1. NOV 16:00 - 18:00, DE
Una Europa Lecture: Living Lab. Bienen, Biodiversität und urbane Nachhaltigkeit
Freie Universität Berlin
Oertzenweg 19b, 14163 Berlin - Düppel,
1. NOV 14:30 - 18:30, EN
Planetary Health: What can we learn from the multispecies City?
Embassy of Brazil, Berlin University Allianc
Embassy of Brazil in Berlin,
4. NOV 18:15-19:30, EN
RETHINKING Urban Agriculture
7. NOV 13:0014:30, EN
ZooMap: Mapping the Role of Culture in Zoonosis
Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development,
Mongolian University of Life Sciences, and
Palawan State University