On the roof of the East London Mosque, Khalil and Salma Attan look after about 100,000 honeybees as their fellow Muslims worship in the halls below. Positioned at opposite ends of the hives, the married couple work together seamlessly as they inspect each frame, pausing occasionally to hand each other equipment and ask if the other had spotted the queen.
Before setting each frame back in place, Khalil and Salma gingerly brush a few bees out of the way, ensuring the insects don’t get crushed in the process. Shuddering as he recounted the occasional crunch, Khalil says of his gentle approach: “If you’re going to take care of them, you might as well do the best you can.”
From 2008 to 2013, London has seen the number of beekeepers increase by over 300 percent. Beekeeping, once commonly associated with elderly men in big white beards, has now attracted a wide range of hobbyists.
For Salma and Khalil, the journey began more than five years ago. Khalil, who had always been interested in nature, recalled tasting local honey for the first time. He said: “I had quite bad hay fever, and local honey is said to be really good for it. We managed to find some for sale at a local market- up until then, we’d only ever had shop honey. The local honey tasted so good, and since it was quite hard to get ahold of, we thought, ‘Why don’t we try this for ourselves?'”
After enrolling in several courses and gaining the proper training, Khalil and Salma approached the East London Mosque in 2011 with the idea of keeping bees on their rooftop. He said: “This mosque is very forward thinking. They do a lot of things for the community- their doors are usually open to everybody. We didn’t know what they would say, but they were really positive and actually got quite excited about it.”
That excitement still persists three years on. The couple are regularly approached by members of the mosque, who frequently ask: “When are you going to get your honey? Can I have some?”
In fact, when the East London Mosque began constructing the Maryam Centre in 2009 to provide additional prayer space for the congregation, they intentionally designed an integrated outdoor area to house an additional observation hive. Safely located behind glass panels, the bees attract everyone from the maintenance staff to school children.
Salma said: “Sometimes I’ll just be there inspecting the hives, and I’ll look up and there will be about five faces that I didn’t even realise were there. Sometimes it’s quite surprising how many people are there standing and watching!”
Khalil said: “It’s quite fascinating for people. The mosque has quite a few high profile visitors, and everyone goes past that new area.” Salma proudly added: “That’s the showpiece.”
Although the relationship between humans and bees can be traced back to the Stone Ages, urban beekeeping has become increasingly popular in recent years as hives are kept on rooftops, allotments, and terraces.
Coincidentally, Aseem Sheikh and Munir Ravalia, who were trained under the Co-Op’s Plan Bee Campaign, established hives on top of the Kingston Mosque at around the same time. The two beekeeping groups, who did not initially know of each other, soon linked up, sharing equipment and offering each other advice.
While the bees at Kingston Mosque failed to survive after a little more than a year, Sheikh wrote in an email message: “We will aim to pick this up properly in due course when we can spend time on it fittingly.”
Sheikh also explained: “Mosques are often situated within residential areas that have to put up with noise and traffic. I see beekeeping as a mutual language – everyone loves honey – and it is a very recreational activity and can help distill some people’s preconceptions about what occurs inside mosques.
“There is also the ability to give neighbours honey at times such as Eid and arrange school trips to show mosques can host a range of social activities. It was also a good way to interact with many foreign communities within the mosque from African regions that had bee keeping skills from back home.”
Bees, as well as honey, have a special significance in Islam. The Qur’an states: “And the Lord taught the bee to build its cells in hills, on trees and in (men’s) habitations; then to eat all the produce (of the earth), and find with skills the spacious paths of its Lord: there issues from within their bodies a drink of varying colours, wherein is healing for men…”
Khalil said: “It’s a good thing for people to see, that as Muslims, we’re the same as everyone else. We’re not detached from nature, and we have our interests external from what you might read in the papers sometimes.”
Learn how you can help the bees by visiting our special new site at The London Hivewire.