Bee keeping is one of the fastest growing hobbies in Britain, with around 80,000 hives registered. They’re not all in quaint little country gardens either, far from it in fact, but many urban bee keepers are finding space for their hives on roof tops, down side alleys and in miniscule city gardens.
We spoke to urban bee keeping expert and guardian columnist, Alison Benjamin about how the ins and outs of owning your own hive, and discover what city honey really tastes like…
Can you really keep bees in the middle of a city?
Yes. Urban Bees has put hives on St Paul’s Cathedral, the Lloyds Building and in the Museum of London. We also have a teaching apiary at the Camley Street Nature Park in King’s Cross. We have our own hives in a very small garden in Battersea.
You want to put the hive entrance facing the wall so the bees are forced to come out and over the wall. We have attached trellis to the wall and covered it in wisteria and other climbers so the bees are forced to fly up 8ft above people’s heads. They fly off to the parks, railway sidings and tree-lined streets to get the nectar they need to turn into honey and the pollen to feed their babies.
They don’t hang around our small garden because there are not enough flowers for them so we can quite easily sit eating lunch outside and won’t be disturbed. We have neighbours on one side who think it is educational for their children and enjoy the honey we give them, and they rarely get our bees in their garden. Unlike wasps, bees do not eat our food so they will not buzz around and sting you if you are eating outside, unless you’ve got a jar of honey open!
People are increasingly keeping bees on roof tops. As long as there are flowers within a three mile radius and their entrance is sheltered from the wind they should be fine. The hive may need to be weighted down to stop if blowing away in high winds.
What got you interested in bee keeping?
We took up beekeeping about five years ago. We’d read even then that bees were having a hard time and were incredibly important for the environment, pollinating two thirds of everything we eat and the nuts and berries that animals further down the food chain need for food. I had a small garden in West London at the time that I had let run pretty wild with forget-me-nots and blue bells and a beehive seemed the perfect addition to this piece of countryside I had created in this very urban environment.
For my birthday, Brian booked us onto a one day beekeeping course, bought me a book, and I was hooked. I love it because it reconnects you with nature. City life can cut you off from the seasons. Urban beekeeping is also a way of greening cities and improving health by eating locally-produced honey.
You will inevitably get stung. Not when you are sitting in your garden, but when you open up the hive for the weekly inspection during the summer, or to harvest the honey. I have only been stung a handful of times because I am careful to ensure my bee suit is zipped up, the legs are tucked into wellington boots (being stung on your ankle is painful) and the sleeves are tucked into marigolds.
Many people think they are allergic to bee stings because they get a severe localised swelling which is very red and itchy for a couple of days. That is actually a normal reaction. Brian, who has been stung scores of times because he isn’t careful and doesn’t always wear gloves, has built up an immunity and hardly registers a sting. In contrast, I have developed an intolerance to bee stings and get a mild anaphylactic shock, which is a rash over my body, for which I have to take Piriton tables. I consequently don’t do much of the practical beekeeping but am going to attend an anaphylactic clinic where they administer very low dosages of bee venom until hopefully your body can deal with it.
Yes we harvest honey from our bees, the average amount per hive is about 40lbs. This year we had a bumper crop because the weather was so good in June. People say urban honey has a rich, poly floral taste compared to country honey which often tastes of one crop, such as oil seed rape or borage which are both rather bland tasting. This is because acres of farmland in the countryside will be planted with one crop, while in cities there are hundreds of different flowers for the bees to visit.
The taste, colour and consistency varies throughout the summer depending which flowers are in bloom. Our May honey tends to light in colour and taste (if it were a wine it would be a pinot grigio) whereas June this year was a deep amber and a much richer taste with a hint of toffee (that could be from sweet chestnut trees). July honey tends to come from nectar from lime trees which line many urban streets. It is very sweet and light in colour. By harvesting a batch of honey at the end of each summer month you can taste the differences. People swear that eating our local honey has reduced their hay fever, although it is not scientifically proven.
Any tips or resources for someone who wants to have their own hive?
Go on a beekeeping course, either run by a beekeepers’ association or experienced beekeepers. Many run taster courses in the winter and more practical courses in the spring. They are getting very over subscribed www.bee-craft.com/beginners-beekeeping-courses or www.urbanbees.co.uk
-Read about the subject. There are lots of beginners’ books out there:
Keeping Bees and Making Honey (David & Charles) by ourselves
Bees at the Bottom of the Garden, Alan Campion
Ted Hooper’s Guide to Bees and Honey.
-Join an association because the books are not fully up-to-date with latest methods for controlling disease and the varroa mite. The British Beekeepers’ Association has a list of all the beekeepers’ associations www.britishbee.org.uk
-Try and find an experienced beekeeper in your area to be your mentor or even buddy up with other novices so you could share the costs and responsibilities and learn together www.urbanbees.co.uk/map
-Beekeeping takes about an hour a week in the summer to inspect the hive, a bit more when harvesting the honey. You don’t open the hive in the winter.
-There are no by-laws to prevent you keeping bees. You don’t need to inform you neighbours, but you may want to let your immediate neighbours know and offer them some honey at the end of the summer.
Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum are founders of www.urbanbees.co.uk and co-authors of Keeping Bees and Making Honey, and A World without Bees. Their latest book on urban beekeeping is available in our online shop.
photo credit: CarbonNYC
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