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An Urban Beekeeping Workshop

April 6, 2019

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Although I have no ambition to become a beekeeper, I was immediately attracted to the Guild of Food Writers’ April workshop: Urban Beekeeping and the Challenges of Raw Honey Production in the Modern World. Everyone has heard about the plight of bees and the threat to our environment due to their dwindling population worldwide. A lot of us are trying to ‘do our bit’ by planting the ‘bee friendly’ flowers we see in garden centres or scattering ‘bee friendly’ flower seeds over a stretch of soil. But is that the right thing to do? What do bees really want? And how can we best protect them?

The workshop would also look at ‘terroir’ – how honey varies according to where the bees collect pollen and nectar; just like a wine, the quality of the honey will vary according to what grows near the bees’ hive and how good the soil is. We’d learn about what makes a ‘good’ honey and how to avoid the bad; and the use of honey in traditional medicine.

Housed in an old sugar warehouse in Bermondsey Street, a road close to London Bridge and overlooking The Shard, you will find some of London’s best honey; in fact, some of the best honey you’ll find anywhere. Bermondsey Street Bees was established in 2007 and since then has won many awards: ‘Best Honey in London’ at the 2011 and 2017 National Honey Shows and they were named ‘Small Artisan Producer of the Year’ at the 2016 Great Taste Awards. Run by Dale Gibson and Sarah Wyndham-Lewis, it turns out that Bermondsey – a once rather rundown and seedy part of London – is a veritable green paradise for bees. Bees like variety. While they forage on one type of species at a time (I learned yesterday), it’s more of a ‘morning of lavender’ followed by an afternoon of ‘hellebores’, rather than only one type of flower ever. A diverse range of available plants and trees to forage on will result in a honey with more depth of flavour. And London is a rich source with its green spaces, parks, rooftop and individual gardens. You can even encourage the bees with good planting in window boxes and other small containers.

This need for diversity partly explains why modern farming methods aren’t good for bees. Imagine the poor bees – who tend to forage within a 2-3 mile radius of their hive – surrounded by acres and acres of rapeseed and all the hedgerows killed off by pesticides or cut down by farmers, so no nice ‘organic’ wildflowers to feed on. We wouldn’t want to live on just one type of food and neither do the bees. Bees also forage all year round. They don’t hibernate but will come out of the hive as long as the temperature is above 10 degrees, thus it’s important for them to have plants to forage on all through the year. This is something we can do in our gardens and Sarah’s book will guide you to the best things to grow:

While London offers a rich diversity of food for bees there’s sadly not enough food for the growing number of hives we have now, due to so many new enthusiastic beekeepers. Sarah and Dale stressed it’s important to think carefully about the responsibility of keeping bees and having good training. There are currently 3,250 hives in London …

Dale and Sarah are conscientious and passionate about sustainability. They want to have zero impact on other producers and so plant for their bees in nearby green spaces. They also manage beehives in a few major sites, like Lambeth Palace and work with various private, public and charitable bodies. They give talks and are involved in education projects. To find out more, visit their website: click here.

I think of bees gathering around some of my plants in the garden in the summer and thus it was interesting to hear that Pooh Bear got it right … he went looking for bees and honey in trees. Honeybees are naturally forest dwelling creatures, ideally foraging at heights of about 5 metres. They collect nectar (carbohydrate) to make honey and pollen (protein) to feed their babies. They need to make 50kg of honey each year for the hive to survive. For this reason it’s important for a responsible beekeeper to make sure the bees have enough honey left for themselves. Some people get over this by feeding them sugar in the winter, but Dale and Sarah strongly disapproved of this.

Bees need to be the hardworking creatures of their reputation (busy bees): they fly around 55,000 miles and visit 4 million flowers to make one jar of honey; during its entire lifetime a single bee will collect enough nectar to make just one twelfth of a teaspoon of honey. They are incredibly efficient and well organised as workers. They never work with an individual mentality but everything they do is about the health and survival of the hive.

The workshop followed the entire process of beekeeping. We began by looking at collected comb and then saw Dale put them into a spinner where the centrifugal force expels the honey from the comb.

 

 

The honey is then released into a container with a fine mesh across the top to collect bits of comb or other unwanted bits, but still allowing the important pollen through. A second filter process is done afterwards through the finer mesh cones you can see in the photo below to the right.

 

Honey is then stored according to its source. Dale and Sarah process honey from a few other beekeepers who they know adhere to their own strict rules of beekeeping.

Then for the really exciting part: meeting the bees. We climbed to the top of the tall building and Dale took us out in a couple of small groups to meet the bees. It was essential we donned proper clothing and we were provided with coats with head masks and gloves. Dale said the chances of being bitten were very slim indeed, but it wasn’t impossible. I have to say I felt slightly nervous (and wasn’t the only one) but it did seem a little wimpish to not take a chance to take a proper look at the hives. And I’m so glad I did.

 

 

 

 

To see the bees and inside the hive was wonderful. Dale talked about how important it is to be slow in movement and he was impressively calm and gentle.

Back downstairs we had a honey tasting. This was fascinating as we tasted honeys from different parts of the UK and even the world.

 

An ‘aroma tasting wheel’ helped us identify the huge variety of smells and tastes as well as Sarah’s expert guidance. We could soon notice clear differences according to where the honey was made and kind of environment and whether the bees had been able to forage on a limited or large variety of plants.

We also learned about how raw honey – honey that hasn’t been processed or heated – is so much richer in good things. Generally darker honeys have more antioxidants and have more health and nutrition benefits. Cheap commercial honeys are barely ‘honey’ for the bees have often been fed sugar and the ‘honey’ has been heated until no goodness remains. Pure, raw honey is much more expensive but I think it’s better to have a little of it than a lot of cheap honey (which is essentially sugar and not good for us).

There was plenty of honey to buy and other honey products. Bermondsey Street Bees don’t sell commercially – i.e. not generally to shops (Selfridges being an exception), but mostly supply top London chefs (like Michel Roux Jr, Jose Pizarro and Tom Aitkens).

We were given a gift of a pot of the honey we’d seen being spun earlier to take home, as well as a little booklet about planting for honeybees.

 

It was a great afternoon and I learned so much about bees and honey. Dale and Sarah were great teachers and so passionate about what they do. I’ve learned a new respect for honeybees and a lot more about how to plant my garden and choose where and what honey I buy.

10 Comments
  1. Thoroughly enjoyed reading your account of the bee-keeping workshop Kay – thanks.

  2. This made me think about my grandparents farm. My dad told me in the 1930’s they let a beekeeper use part of their land for beehives. They immediately noticed their crops were better than other farms in the area. I asked my dad if they knew that was because of the pollination the bees were doing. He said they didn’t know at the time. Probably just thought it was a coincidence.

  3. I once bought some honey ‘made’ at Fortnum and Mason’s ! Very nice it was too. Great article, Kay – am going to post on my facebook page. Thank you!

    • Many thanks, Jo. It was a great day and so interesting. I do often buy local honey but am going to be much more careful about the honey I buy from now on. Cheap supermarket own-label is just sugar really and has none of the wonderful benefits of good raw honey.

  4. Such an interesting post Kay. I sounds like a terrific day and such an adventure being unclose and personal with the bees.

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