If you’ve come to read about bees, then you’re welcome to skip to the last 2 paragraphs. But if you don’t mind taking the scenic route, with a detour through the urban landscape of the London pigeon, please read on.
In my childhood, a half-term treat would be a family excursion to the West End of London. We’d start with a visit to the Pathé fim/cartoon cinema in Victoria followed by lunch at a Wimpy bar and then on to Trafalgar Square, at the heart of London, for the highlight of the day: feeding the pigeons. Quick beaks mobbed the birdseed sprinked all the way up the outstretched sleeve of my grey plastic mac, as if the rationing of the 1940s and 1950s were still embedded in their feathery psyches.
But how times have changed: the pigeons have been all but evicted from Trafalgar Square, Wimpy bars are rarer than red telephone boxes and YouTube has atomised the cartoon cinema concept.
For now, let’s focus on the pigeons (wild rock doves or winged rats: take your pick) which were routine walk-on extras in each reel of eastmancolor London. They say that Trafalgar Square is now host to just a couple of hundred feral pigeons, down from the 40,000 post-war peak. Nowadays, spikey anti-roosting strips prevent them perching on ledges and railway arches are festooned with netting to prevent them nesting. Ken Livingstone even deployed a pair of Harris hawks in Trafalgar Square, which were designed to deter the pigeons, but several hundred ended up “deterred to death” by the raptors. Not since the RAF saw off the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain have the skies over London seen such a dramatic change.
It is astonishing, isn’t it, how perceptions can change, too: from top biblical billing as Noah’s olive-branch bearer, revered namesake of St.Columba in the cradle of British Christianity and, in my youth, those spangly pigeons with their jaunty strut were cherished as the archetype of London’s “feathered friends”. Now they are considered to be vermin. (Foxes, cunning beasts, have managed to conjure up precisely the opposite outcome!) Marvel too, at the topsy-turviness of London’s political leadership on winged wildlife: the current Tory mayor has put in place several sustainable bee-friendly, grass-roots campaigns, while the previous Socialist incumbent visited medieval bloodsports on the pigeon populace of Trafalgar Square!
And speaking of medieval: in the Middle Ages, the peasantry had good reason to resent the dovecotes of their overlords. Jealously enclosed behind high walls, these pigeon-hives contained the flocks which not only pillaged their precious seed-corn and crops, but also provisioned their seigneurs’ table with plump paloma breasts and fresh eggs – a glaring iniquity. And yes, my bees harvest nectar, pollen and propolis from the flora provided by my urban neighbours and then deliver it to my rooftop – but in keeping with tradition, this beekeeper ensures that each of his neighbours is “dotted” with a jar of honey in a effort to redistribute the booty.
So we have finally reached our destination on this avian excursion: it is the news that a UCL scientist has developed a downloadable Pigeon Sim which permits you to take to the skies above London, as if you were a pigeon.
Or – why not – a bee ? You see, I love to watch forager bees shooting out of the hive on that determined diagonal, disappearing into the middle distance of the London skyline, zeroing in on a rich nectar source. Yet as the excitement of that blast-off from the beehive fades, it’s replaced by twinge of regret when each bee-dot merges into the horizon – a small pang of abandonment. But, with a little flight of fancy, the Pigeon Sim summons up the spirit of my plastic-macced, fledgling boyhood and sends it soaring skywards.
As Dorothy Parker is reputed to have said (the origin of words, like bees on the wing, is impossible to attribute with absolute certainty): “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity“. Bees re-awaken in me a child-like sense of wonder, criss-crossed with curiosity.
And for that I thank them, from the bottom of my name-tagged, woolly socks.