Sweet success: Urban beekeeping in south and east London

Pic: Alfie Tate

When you think about beekeeping, you may think of a lone hive with bees flying to and fro in a sunny rural idyll. So you may be surprised to learn that south and east London have become beekeeping hotspots.

Over recent years urban beekeeping has become increasingly popular, with apiaries (that’s hives to you and me) popping up on top of buildings around London. And who can resist the thought of your own hive which, with a bit of effort on your part, will reward you with fresh, natural honey?

Interest in keeping bees in an urban environment began to grow from 2006, when reports of a mysterious affliction in the bee population began to circulate. The problem, called ‘colony collapse disorder’, causes worker bees to suddenly disappear.

Mites, a small genetic pool, a virus, pesticides and, most recently, zombiism caused by parasitic fly larvae in the bee’s brain,  have all been put forward as possible causes, but still nobody is sure. However, starting more colonies and supporting existing hives can help and it is this idea that has helped to spur the Mayor of London Capital Bee project.

While honey production is the most obvious benefit of keeping honeybees, it is their role as pollinators that makes them so important. While they go around collecting nectar, the bees also pick up pollen from each flower they land on. The transfer of pollen from one plant to another is vital for all plants to grow and survive. So when you keep bees, you are also helping keep your ecosystem alive and thriving.

Capital Bee, which is part of the larger Capital Growth scheme, has 50 community hives and seven training hives – five of which are in Croydon and Hackney.

Beekeeping in a city environment can be quite different to a rural setting, as Camilla Goddard of Capital Bee in Brockley, one of the seven training site, explains: “Probably the main difference is that there are lots of different flowers and plants for the bees to forage on. The countryside is often very monocultural due to the way that farmers use the fields for agriculture – you will just have one crop over several fields. In the city there are lots of gardens growing lots of different plants, which flower at all different times of the year.”

A bee at Hackney City Farm Pic: Jane McCallion

Ian Bailey, Resident Beekeeper at Hackney City Farm, agrees with Goddard’s analysis: “Farmers who keep bees on their land will have to move the hive from crop to crop as each one flowers, as they are all in bloom for such short periods of time and are the main source of forage for the bees.”

Beekeeping is quite a social activity and Zoë Palmer of the Golden Company in Hackney has capitalised on this. She runs beekeeping courses as a social enterprise for young people from the area. “I got into beekeeping after I went to Albania and saw some community hives there. I knew about the problems facing bees in this country and I thought ‘why not create a gene pool, like they do for other endangered animals like tigers?’”

Since establishing the organisation in 2009, she has trained 40 young people, 20 of whom have gone on to gain ASDAN accreditations in sustainable enterprise. She also says that beehives are a good way of bringing people together: “Where there are hives on top of offices, we often find that people from different departments, who would never have spoken to each other otherwise, get a chance to meet and talk about something they have in common when helping to look after the bees.”

Anyone thinking of keeping bees in their garden or rooftop needs to consider if it is safe to do so, particularly if there are young children and pets living nearby. Check with your local beekeeping trainer to see if where you are living is a suitable area and what kind of bees you should keep.

As Bailey explains: “there is more than one kind of honeybee. If you are living in the countryside, you can afford to have some of the more aggressive varieties, as they are less likely to come into contact with humans. If you are in a city setting, you will need to make sure that you get a more docile variety.”

While beekeeping itself is not very expensive, getting started can be. Goddard recommends making a birthday (it’s a long time until Xmas!!) list to try and take some of the burden off your pocket, “You can put on there the things that you will need like protective clothing and even the bees themselves.”

Additionally, they need to be aware of other bees in the area, “Too many hives in one area can cause competition between the bees, and that is not good,” says Bailey. If you are not sure about beekeeping yourself, you can always plant flowers that bees enjoy, such as heather and crocuses – the greater the variety, the better.

“There are also 250 other species of bee, apart from honey bees, that nobody is looking after,” he adds, “so creating a bee friendly environment could be a better option for some people than starting a colony.”

If all this has left you buzzing with excitement, you can find out more about the Capital Bee project, all the training sites and more by visiting http://www.capitalgrowth.org/bees

Capital Bee: http://www.capitalbee.co.uk/

The Golden Company: http://www.thegoldenco-op.com/

Hackney City Farm: http://hackneycityfarm.co.uk/

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