London is buzzing with secret apiaries – perched high upon rooftops or nestled in parks. Thanks to the city’s fine buffet of foraging plants, honeybees are thriving in a somewhat unlikely urban environment.
“No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man,” Einstein is alleged to have prophesied. However, the pictures not entirely foreboding. The continued documentation of the plight of honeybees has led to upsurge in people taking up beekeeping, not least so in metropolises around the world.
A bond as old as time
The bond between humans and bees is as old as time. Mesolithic rock paintings dating from approximately 6000 BC depict our ancestors clambering up trees to get their hands on the honey of wild bees. In Greek mythology bees were believed to be a sacred insect that bridged the natural world and the underworld and the Egyptians kept honey in temples as a sweet, golden offering to the gods.
Civilisation has moved on and yet we find our infatuation with bees has endured the test of time. Even in sprawling modern cities, apiaries dot the urban landscape with an estimated 3,500 hives in London alone. This makes the capital’s beehive density 10 times higher than the UK average.
Luke Dixon is a professional beekeeper and manages hives all around London – from roof gardens to community parks and buildings as diverse as Kensington Palace, the Natural History Museum and London School of Economics.
He explains the appeal of city life for bees: “London is a very good place to keep bees. There’s lots of trees, lots of gardens, lots of parks, so there’s plenty for them to eat. They get a wide variety to forage on as well, much wider than they would in the countryside where they would often be limited to one crop to feed on.”
Evidence would also suggest city bees tend to survive the winter better compared to their country cousins. Luke suggests this is due to a combination of reasons: “Partly because it’s always a little bit warmer in the middle of the city and also because there’s always something in flower, even in the middle of winter.”
Some of the hives Luke manages are at London College of Fashion, who first introduced hives at their John Princes Street campus in 2010 when Gavin Jenkins pitched the idea of introducing cared for green spaces across all college sites. “I’ve always been interested in gardening and as a member of London Wildlife trust, I’ve always really liked they way they create little oasis’s in the city,” Gavin told us.
Since then hives have been established at three of LCF’s six sites and the honeybees have settled nicely into campus life. One hive has even enduring a house move– a stressful situation for anyone, not least the removal man who had no idea he was relocating a whole hive 4 miles across central London.
“Well that was funny,” laughs Gavin, “I just phoned a regular courier company, we boxed the hive up and when the guy turned up he was looking at it he said ‘what’s that?’. The only way he would take it was if I got in his van. By the time we arrived in Shepherds Bush he was converted – we’d were been chatting about the bees and he got really enthused, he was like ‘I might have a beehive…’, he had an allotment and he’d thought about it before, but once I told him that it was fairly straightforward, that was it.”
And it is a lot more straightforward than you may think; Luke outlines some of the commitments, “from spring until summer you need to visit the hive once a week and you need to spend maybe an hour a week at the hive and then during the winter you just need to feed them once a month.”
At one with nature
Gavin, who had no prior experience of beekeeping, confirms the simplicity of the practice. “When you start to work around them you realise how uninterested with you they are. You need some good hygiene practices, you check for mites but you just let them get on with it really.
“It’s quite life affirming. It’s a very natural process. It’s nice to, in a very small way, contribute to a healthy environment. And you get great honey.” Fascinatingly, the LCF honey, by the way, has a distinct taste of lime, apparently caused by the bees foraging in near by Regent’s Park.
Luke would also recommend the hobby. “I love the connection with nature in the middle of the city, the sense of the seasons changing, it’s quite a meditative job, quite a slow job and there’s something endlessly fascinating just watching bees coming in and out of the hive.
“It’s a wonderful hobby, and even if you don’t want to keep bees yourself I think it’s very important to plant bee friendly plants in your garden so you can do your bit for the bee population”.
The importance of bees
The fact of the matter is the importance of honeybees cannot be overstated. They play a humongous part in both our ecological and economic structures and without them life as we know it would cease to exist. They pollinate around 1/3 of everything we eat, contributing massively to our economies for free. In 2007 the National Audit Office collated research, which showed that bees contributed around £200m to the UK economy, with a retail value closer to £1bn.
But, rather scarily, bee numbers are plummeting. Recent data shows that more honeybees are dying in the UK than in Mediterranean countries with nearly a third of all UK hives dying out in 2012 alone.
There are a number of contributing factors to the death of bees. Firstly, major changes in our farming practice have seen 97% of Britain’s flower-rich grasslands destroyed to make way for vast one-crop fields. The widespread introduction of pesticides either kills bees off or intoxicates them so they struggle to find their way back to their colonies.
On top of this the bee population have to contend with diseases and parasites, namely the varroa destructor – a deadly blood-sucking parasite that compromises the bee’s immune system and circulates viruses. So what to do about this predicament?
As the esteemed bees researcher Maria Spivak said in her Ted talk last year, “It’s hopeful. It’s hopeful. Every one of you out there can help bees in two very direct and easy ways. Plant bee-friendly flowers, and don’t contaminate these flowers”. And, if you can, Keep Bees & Carry On.
If you’re thinking about taking up beekeeping we recommend:
– Taking a look at Luke’s book: Keeping Bees in Towns and Cities
– Contacting your local beekeepers association
– Checking out all the different types of hive to find one that suits you
– Following another beekeeper over a season so you’ll be ready to have your own hive when the next season begins
– For everything you need to get started you’re looking at around £400 + £250 for a swarm or free if you get a swarm
To see more of Max Holford’s work check out his website.