Community BEES

Alex and Marika of the University society Community BEES tell us how a Student Experience Grant helped them bring new life to local land at Portobello Beach.

Image features four students sitting on Portobello beach smiling by the fire
(L-R) Gemma, Olivia, Alex and Max enjoy a campfire on the beach

What began your interest in ecology and nature restoration?

Alex: I’m afraid I don’t really have an interesting origin story! I wasn’t originally going to study this at university and I was never especially outdoorsy. But I took an environmental science course in my last year of high school, which is where it started for me.

Marika: I traveled a lot before knowing what I wanted to study, so I think it was New Zealand for me. You can drive for hours on end into a national park and see all kinds of animals and trees. Perhaps the views would change if I went back with the knowledge I have now, but at that point it all seemed so green and beautiful. I wanted to learn how to make something like that through restoration and conservation work; that’s why I’m here.

Can you tell us a little about the project at Portobello beach?

Marika: So I live in Portobello and I walked past the land all the time. It was kind of an unused wasteland owned by a number of car dealerships, with trash everywhere. I thought it was a bit of a waste of space! So I reached out to some of the owners, who were really supportive of the restoration idea and gave permission.

I started by myself, just a little bit at a time, but it’s a very big piece of land for one person to manage. After Community BEES got involved, we had an event at the start of every month or two months, because there was so much work to do until summer. There’d be seven or so of us there every time, unless the weather was really bad, then met every couple of weeks the entire second semester.

It was really hard manual work, up until we finally got to spread the seeds!


Alex: What we mostly did was remove everything from the land. The place was covered with native plants like nettles and firewood, so we had to remove all the roots. It was really hard manual work, up until we finally got to spread the seeds! Now we’ve been able to cut back to once a year, so we can see what happens and what’s growing next.

What was your vision?

Marika: At first it was just trying to make the land better for pollinators. We’d just had a class about how pollinators are decreasing in number and biodiversity was decreasing. So we thought, “let’s plant lots of flowers and try to make things a little bit better.” Then things shifted from there to increasing plant biodiversity, because the insects will come with that.

Alex: There was also a lot of garbage at the site. It’s right next to the ocean, so you don’t want that stuff blowing straight into the sea. Clearing portions of it from the land would take forever, since there were piles of plastic bags, wrappers and other trash that had just blown through over time. That was definitely a bigger part of the project than I anticipated!

What made you apply for a Student Experience Grant? Did it help realise your vision?

Marika: We were quite desperate for tools at the start; I bought a few, but it was really getting out of budget because I’m just a student! Beth, our former President, thought we should apply to get as many tools, seeds and plants as we could to do the work.

Alex: The £1000 budget meant we could buy basically anything we needed for the scale of the project. The really nice thing is the society will have the tools for as long as they last, which hopefully will be a while because we could afford decent ones!

Also, membership to the society has been completely free since COVID. We’re not made of cash, but we want to keep things free and accessible for anyone to participate. So without this grant, we definitely wouldn’t have had the money to spend on this. 

What was the project’s impact?

Alex: Aside from improving the land and biodiversity, it was just a great way to meet other people on our degree, especially after COVID when venues for interaction obviously dropped way off. I found it so valuable to discuss what courses people were taking, dissertation advice, or who was a good lecturer and who wasn’t!

There were people from outside Environmental Sciences too - a medical student joined us for an event, we even had a committee member this year who was a history student. It was such a good opportunity to have all these people together in one place.

Marika: I think the community impact and support is really important too. I contacted the Community Council and my neighbours at the beginning, who were really pleased with what we were doing. Then plenty of supportive people stopped by while we were working. I think Arnold Clark and others at the dealership have been affected really positively by it as well.

It wasn’t just the students who were benefiting, but the surrounding community got something good out of it too.


Alex: Yeah, the project’s impact wasn’t just in our society to a select few students. It’s publicly visible land, right on the ocean, so people walk by it all the time. Which meant it wasn’t just the students who were benefiting, but the surrounding community got something good out of it too.

Two pictures of flowers side by side
Life on Portobello beach after the project

What about the impact for you both personally?

Marika: For me, it’s been massive. The organisation involved, finding out who owned the land, trying to convince volunteers to come along - although Alex did most of the work there! Then deciding where to start, how to manage the land and change direction when things don’t work.

It’s been important for developing knowledge university maybe doesn’t give you, because you have to experience it. We initially thought things would grow if we just dumped some seeds on this gravelly land, but of course we had to put soil on top! So it was a really steep learning curve, but it’s been great for me.

Alex: I totally agree. As President of the society, it was a steep learning curve for project management, communication, managing a team and advertising it to people.

Personally, I’d also never been super into gardening for someone studying ecology. My prior experience had been helping my Mom pull out weeds and thinking, “this sucks. It’s boring!”

So this experience of something home grown, for yourself, was really good. I definitely learned more about gardening and permaculture. And coming from outside the city, this sense of ownership for a place in a completely new part of the world was really special. 

Did the experience affect your plans for the future?

Marika: Honestly, I learnt I’m terrible at managing people, that’s definitely something I don’t want to do! But it also reinforced how much I love physical work. So it does helps you to understand what you do and don’t like, which is really important in a degree like ours.

Alex: I guess I’d never really thought about gardening or horticulture as a potential career path. Not saying I’m going to be a gardener or anything, but just I realised I do actually enjoy it. Also, it was fun to do! Besides all the benefits, learning and development, it was just fun.

Is there anything you’d like to say to our donors who support these funds?

Alex: It sounds cliché to say, but we really could not have done this project to the extent we did without the funding. The benefits don’t stop at the end of the fund either, because Community BEES will have those tools for the future. And lastly, the impact of the project goes well beyond our society and the students involved. We ran the project but the land doesn’t belong to us, it’s there for everyone to see!

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Community BEES