Become a casual beekeeper and you might get stung
We all want to do our bit for the environment, from putting out the recycling to growing our own veg, but what about going one step further? Ok, maybe undertaking The Good Life style self-sufficiency shenanigans is slightly ambitious, but a lot of Londoners have recently turned their attention to beekeeping. There has been a lot of publicity about the detrimental effect the decline of bees in the UK could have on harvests, but the British Beekeeping Association—whose membership ballooned from 11,000 in 2008 to 23,000 in 2013—is now highlighting the downside to the increasing numbers of beekeepers in the capital. We chatted with the BBKA’s Angela Woods about the unique challenges facing prospective London beekeepers and what other things we could be doing to help the buzzy pollinators in the capital.
London is a unique environment in so many respects, and although we have an abundance of green areas, the BBKA say that bees require specific plants to forage, many of which do not necessarily grow in our parks and gardens. As a result, only a limited number of hives can be adequately sustained here, and there have been signs that recent honey crops are poor—an indicator of both bad weather conditions and limited nectar availability.
“Whilst people say 60 percent of London is green space, in central London it’s more like 18 percent. Over the summer, some beekeepers had hives on the roof of a building right by Piccadilly Circus and we were called out three times in ten days to pick up swarms that were literally closing shops and stinging the police,” Angela explains. “If you lose control of your bees it tends to have more of an impact than it would do if you were in the countryside.”
So why has it proved so popular in London compared to other towns and cities in the UK? “I think it’s on the back of people being much more conscious about where their food comes from, people wanting to grow their own, provenance, and farmers’ markets, getting back to a more authentic food experience. And in London, we’ve just got a particularly receptive, nature-starved population who respond to that.”
Be A Pollen Creator
If beekeeping isn’t the ideal solution for local bees, what can concerned Londoners do to help? The BBKA recommend planting above all else. “If you’ve got a back garden, a tiny little scrap of land or even window boxes, you should just do what you can to encourage bees into your garden,” says Angela. “You don’t have to be a beekeeper to enjoy bees—if you plant for them, they will come to you. There’s plenty of information about what pollinator-friendly plants are and it’s just avoiding all the gaudy ones.” The BBKA provide a list of pollen- and nectar-rich plants sorted by season, as does the Royal Horticultural Society’s Perfect for Pollinators list. “Some plants are so inbred they don’t actually produce any pollen or nectar. Do things like not mowing your lawn as often, because you’ll often see clover, buttercups and dandelions that are just about to come into bloom and whoosh, everybody cuts it off. And not using pesticides. There’s a lot of casual use of pesticides without an understanding that they are lethal for bees.”
If you still have the desire and commitment to take up beekeeping, the BBKA are one of the UK’s best resources for supporting new and prospective beekeepers. Doing your research and having patience is the most important consideration here. “Absolute top of the list is to get trained,” Angela advises. “A third of people go into beekeeping without any training whatsoever and then take on a box of a thousand stinging insects in a densely populated area. Training means being mentored for at least a year before you even think about getting bees. In law, they’re classed as livestock—you wouldn’t just go and get a cow without knowing a bit more about it. Joining a beekeeping association is the next consideration, because you’ll need all the support you can get and they’re a really useful hub for advice and support.”
The Hive Interdependence
Fabiola Barahona is a third-generation beekeeper based in Acton who supports this emphasis on knowledge and commitment. She has a PhD in biology and has been keeping bees in London for nine years. Citing research as an important step prior to taking it up, she says, “Their biology is pretty complicated and you need to know it if you want to manage the colony well. Beekeeping is more than a hobby. It is a responsibility. What you do with your colonies affects the rest of the colonies and beekeepers in London.”
When talking about future trends, it becomes apparent that these are both positive and negative. Angela Woods thinks the tide is turning when it comes to understanding the plight of bees in the capital. “The party is over—people are beginning to understand that getting bees isn’t necessarily going to save them. Tigers are endangered but you don’t just go and buy one, you make sure that it can thrive in its habitat.” But one of the BBKA’s biggest concerns now is the huge oversubscription of its introductory courses. There is a fear that people will not want to wait for a place and will go it alone, with the beekeeping associations having to clear up the mess afterwards. Angela stresses the importance of having patience; if you’re keen then you have to accept that the process will take time.
So don’t be under any illusions that beekeeping is an easy pastime. Have a good, hard think about how you want to make a difference and what is best for you and for the bees—either the ones that already depend on our city’s green spaces or those that you may keep in the future. The best way to help London’s bees might be as simple and as lazy as not mowing your lawn.
For more information, visit the British Beekeepers Association