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There's a buzz in their air in London as urban beekeeping really takes off

by David Hewitt 14 Apr 2011
There's a buzz in their air in London as urban beekeeping really takes off

From New York to Paris and all points in between, city-dwellers are embracing the simple pleasures of beekeeping in their thousands. In fact, even the White House now has its own hives, enabling the First family to reconnect with nature and enjoy cheap and healthy honey. And the British capital is no exception, with local organisations having seen a surge in public interest in the hobby.

The Earth Times caught up with Alison Benjamin, the co-founder of the London-based Urban Bees project and the co-author of 'A World Without Bees' and 'Keeping Bees and Making Honey', to talk about biodiversity, keeping the neighours happy and why the modern-day beekeeper is a long way from the age-old stereotype of a lonesome old gentleman with a bushy beard.

What is your main aim with the Urban Bees project? Is it education, conservation or a mixture?

Urban Bees is a social enterprise that encourages responsible urban beekeeping through education and training. We work with individuals, schools, communities and companies to teach practical skills, improve wellbeing by reconnecting people with nature and increase their knowledge of the environment. We also realise that we can't promote urban beekeeping without also promoting the use of urban green spaces to provide diverse, year-round forage for all bees and maximise biodiversity in our cities.

To what extent have you seen an upturn in interest among members of the public over recent months/years? And why do you find people come to you wanting to keep bees? It can't just be in order to make their own honey…

No, most people want to keep bees to help save bees - they have read that they do better in cities than in the countryside - to increase pollination on their allotments or to increase biodiversity in our cities. We began running Urban Bees training course in early 2009 because we were aware there was a lot of interest and beekeeping associations were unable to meet the demand. Membership of London Beekeepers Association has grown three-fold to 180 members in the last few years. Similarly North London Beekeepers reports almost doubling from 100 to 170 members in the same period. Since 2009, we have trained more than 200 people on our one day taster days. Of those only about 20 per cent at most have gone on to keep bees.

Many of our trainees defy the stereotype of the retired, grey-bearded beekeeper. They are younger, more women and working. Our youngest trainees are in their late 20s. I would say the profile of our 'average' trainee is a working man or woman in their late 30s to mid 40s doing it for ecological/environmental reasons. A fifth probably have their own allotment.

Is it really feasible to have beehives in urban gardens? Should I be worried if my next-door neighbour sets up a hive?

A hive only takes up a small area but to successfully manage the colony you need to have room to work. Bees are gentle creatures that leave us alone as they get on with their daily lives but a beekeeper will at times upset the colony in the course of managing the hives.At these times the bees may be agitated and defend themselves so it's best that a hive is at least 15 metres away from public areas and on the occasion when the beekeeper is managing the hive the beekeeper can be sure the area is free from unsuspecting public/neighbours.

We advise that beekeepers do not do their weekly inspection of the hive when neighbourhoods are using their garden but to arrange a mutually convenient time once a week. It is best to inspect the hive during the day when many of the bees will be out.Bees only eat nectar and pollen from plants so unlike wasps they aren't interested in your BBQ, though if you have a water feature in your garden your neighbours bees may come there to drink.

Your neighbours' bees could swarm into a tree in your garden in May/June. Don't worry, swarms aren't harmful if you leave them alone. Tell your neighbour and they will arrange to collect it. You may also want your children to learn about bees if your neighbour has a colony and is willing to show them the workings of a hive. It is a great way to introduce children to nature.In return for your cooperation I am sure your neighbour would be happy to give you a jar of honey from their hives each summer!

Aside from the ecological benefits of urban bees, what can people get out of keeping them?

The honey, of course! It tastes delicious and is different at different times throughout the summer depending on which flowers the bees have been feeding on. In London, honey tends to come from the nectar of lime trees in June and July, and chestnut trees a bit earlier. It is lovely to give friends and family gifts of jars of honey from your hive.

My favourite aspect of beekeeping is just watching my bees coming back to the hive with pollen on their back legs after I have had a hard day in the office. It is very calming and reconnects you with nature. You become more in tune with the seasons and which flowers are in bloom.

Why do bees tend to do so well in what would appear to be a hostile, unfavourable environment for them?

The rich diversity of flowers, trees and plants in gardens, parks, railways sidings and in the streets and bits of derelict land, means they have enough to eat most of the year round. Cities also trap heat so bees can forage earlier in the spring and later in the autumn. I believe our cities have the potential to be havens for wildlife as monoculture takes over the countryside. Cities could be much more bee-friendly with the right land management by councils and other landlords. So for me keeping bees in London now is part of greening the city and rethinking the way we live in cites.

Keeping bees has become increasingly-popular over recent months - so, I've read about hives on the roofs of Paris and even in grounds of the White House. Why do you think this is the case, and do you think it is more than just a 'fad'?

People have read that bees are under threat and how important they are for our food and for the environment and they think here is something positive I can actually do to help the planet, especially city dwellers as bees seem to be doing better in cities than in the countryside. So they go on a course and get some bees or get other people to maintain a hive for them. People living in cities also have a deep need to reconnect with nature in some way and beekeeping satisfies that. But beekeeping is more of a commitment and responsibility than most people realise. In effect you are looking after livestock that are prone to disease and are likely to swarm. It does not feel very natural to keep bees in a box.

There is not much to do from October to Febrary when it's too cold to open the hive, but April, May and June can be very busy with spring cleaning and swarm management. Best not go on holiday then unless you have a bee-sitter!

I don't think urban beekeeping is a fad, but I do think that people will slowly become aware that honeybees aren't the only way, or necessarily the best way to reconnect with nature in a city garden or on a roof terrace. I think many will decide to help all bees - not just honeybees - and this can be done easily and cheaply, for example by planting bee-friendly flowers and trees, lobbying a local council to do the same, leaving sections of garden untidy or even by creating a 'bee hotel' by drilling holes in a south-facing wall.

For more details on the Urban Bees Project visit their website.

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