Magnolia

 

Magnolia
The Magnolia In St. James’s Churchyard, Piccadilly.

Magnolia gets a bad press: its off-white hue is the flying duck of decorative paint finishes. Available over the counter at all good hardware stores as BS 08B15, its 5-litre cans are beloved of property developers and interior designers (the bland leading the blonde). As inoffensive as a limp handshake, yet equally infuriating, magnolia’s wishy-washy, wall-to-wall pallor occupies a realm beyond cliché.

Well, I’m here to intervene and restore some balance. So, first, I’m going to ask you to wash away the emulsion of negativity under a waterfall of relaxing music. So here is JJ Cale’s slow-hand serenade to his own Magnolia. Let the music play, cascading into your mind. Allow it to pool there – and then seep down through your body.

Now, with your roots refreshed, let us visualise the magnolia as an agent of transformation. You are standing under the magnolia tree, perfectly balanced, its petals standing as upright as a choir. You grow, sap rising through your toes, infinitesimally, irresistibly, as you stretch upwards, kith and kin with the dappled boughs of the tree.

And now contemplate more closely: This magnolia. It stands in St James’s Churchyard, just off Piccadilly (“down the ‘Dilly” to the initiated) and is one of my favourites. Sheltered from high winds by an unlikely alliance of Wren’s Church, its Rectory and BAFTA, its scooped goblets are brimful of early pollen for bees. And its poise is serene, resplendent and luxurious.

You are here – growing in the middle of this magnificent springtime sight.

Take a deep breath. Deeper yet, and hold for a heartbeat. Now breathe out the word “Magnolia“. Exhale slowly, and hold onto the “-aaaaaaa” all the way, voiding to the very pit of your stomach. And relax…

Great! Well done, everyone….nice session. Next week we will be meditating on why people who wear trainers always take the lift to go from the ground floor to the first, rather than employ their athletic footwear to walk up a single floor. Bring your yoga mats.

Hip, Hip Hiver !

Hiver Beer
Hip-Hip-Hooray For Hannah Rhodes And Hiver Beer

Bermondsey Street Honey is proud to be a start-up supplier to Hiver Beer and we’re delighted that our award-winning honey has made a small contribution to Hiver Beer taking top spot in Britain’s Next Top Supplier. Hannah Rhodes, Bermondsey-based Queen of Honey Beers, we salute you!

On launch day (5th September 2013), @BermondseyBees tweeted “Couldn’t resist popping into the Hide tonight. Tasting notes: Top drop. This is beer 1st and honey 2nd!”. You heard it here first !

(ps. Can we have that last honey bucket back now, your Royal Hannahness ?)

Bee-Friendly Planting : 21st March 2014

21st March Tree-Fruit Bush Planting

 

Bermondsey Street Bees has initiated a planting of bee-friendly fruit bushes and trees supplied by BOST (Bankside Open Spaces Trust) in Leathermarket Gardens SE1 (opposite Bermondsey Village Hall, against the brick walls of the Guinness Trust Buildings) from 10.00am to 12 noon on Friday 21st March 2014. This will provide serious long-term forage for bees – with resilient, hardy, fruiting perennials. Come and join us !

Short notice, I know, but you are cordially invited  to pop along and lend a little local support for this project. Just bring yourself – all equipment will be supplied!

Next to opening a supermarket, being invited to plant a tree is clear-cut proof that you have arrived on the celebrity circuit. Pictures of all participants will appear on the Bermondsey Street Bees, thus ensuring that you will become an instant tree-planting celebrity.

Can you dig it ? I knew that you could !

Hedge-Hopping

Bee On Blue Crocus
Hedge-Hopping

The bee which you see, flitting for forage on a row of orange-throated crocuses, is not there by accident. She has been sent.

Or rather, steered. In the deep dark of the beehive, the “waggle-dance” is not recreational, nor even remotely procreational. It is informational: a sat-nav download by a successful returning forager transmitting the co-ordinates of its food source to its followers. As the bee rehearses its tight figure-of-eight rushes, intercoded with a blurring belly-dance anchored to the comb, she is narrow-casting data to a mob of antennaed apprentices, turning them into winged barcodes. Never doubt that the bee which you see is on a mission.

Just standing and looking at the hypnotic, baton-swinging intensity of a bee working a parade of blue crocus, I had a flashback, like stumbling down a rabbit-hole of recollection.

And there I was, bare-kneed, pushing at a garden gate and stepping past the soldierly rows of crocuses, marching, uninvited to a stranger’s front door. A penknife-sharp retrieval, a slice of memory, back to a time when, as the eldest child of political activists, I was conscripted into the ritual of “hedge-hopping” .

The term “hedge-hopping” describes a leaflet-drop to all the letterboxes along one side of a street. But to my boy-brain, we were the shock troops of the garden path, parachuted with pin-point accuracy deep into the enemy territory of a marginal Council ward. And we were programmed to perform a single goal : Distribution was our thing.

And as my left hand held open the flap, my right hand would thrust the two-tone glossy through the letter-box. This routine was repeated hundreds of times and might seen mundane, almost boring, to the uninitiated. Not so.

There was a delicious scintilla of surprise each and every time my hand pulled back through the letter-box: it extracted a puff, a snuff-pinch, a whiff of the living smell which inhabited that house.

Each house had its own astonishing respiration: spicy, sweet, smoky, sometimes seductive, some downright disreputable. But each breathed an authentic aroma, unquestionably unique. And when all the pamphlets were gone, we left, joyously empty-handed. And we returned home. Back to our own scent.

And here was my revelation: a shared experience with the bees. Honeybees hedge-hop, too, as post-code-purposefully as I did. Man and insect, dutifully skirmishing, lucky-dipping at each map reference, tasting the difference of their brief hosts.

But for the bees, delivery is not their intention. Their goal is to extract a pot-pourri of early pollen – and when brimful, to haul the harvest hivewards. Accumulation is their thing.

Homecoming bees fly straight, intent on the landing-board. Like an elongated letter-box, the hive entrance exhales the home-aroma, the honeyed hum of warm wax, and in they go, fully laden, scampering, breathless, their mission accomplished!

Sunshine

Sunshine
Sunshine : Hours Per Year : Europe v. U.S.A

It’s tempting, isn’t it, as a keeper of bees, to take a brief look at this comparison between hours of sunshine per year in the UK and California. Executive summary: there are more than twice as many sunlit hours every year on Ventura Highway than on Bermondsey Street. Hard not to star humming: “I wish they all could be California girls”. Imagine – beekeeping in Ray-Bans on roller-skates amongst the almond groves. Stylish!

And why not ? My Bermondsey Street Bees always seen happiest with a dose of SE1 sunshine on their hard-body backs. We could just scarper to Santa Monica, switch the sun on when we got up in the morning and switch it off again every evening. Perhaps it was my recent Bermondsey Bee On The Beach snapshot which set the beach-volley-ball rolling….

Hang on, though. Born, bred and beekeepered in London, my bees and I share a common heritage. We Londoners can take any amount of scudding grey cloud, umbrella-eviscerating wind and, of course, the old slang-rhyming “Duke of Spain”. Add in the distinct variations in the seasons of our urban estuary – bleak winters, grudging-green springs, mercurial summers and untrustworthy autumns – and we have a pretty challenging beekeeping environment all year round.

Second thoughts, I’ll take a rain-check on those turn-left-on-the-airplane tickets to LAX. Let’s keep it edgy on our windy London rooftop. It’ll take more than wringing wet skies and the odd clap of thunder to shift the Bermondey Street Bees off their manor, sunshine!

Thanksgiving

Potters Fields 2013-08-21
Decisions, Decisions: What I Really Need For Christmas Is A Particle Swarm Optimisation Algorithm

Today is Thanksgiving. So let’s embrace our transatlantic cousins with a stars-and-stripes theme. After all, “The Mayflower” carrying the Pilgrim Fathers set sail in 1620 from Rotherhithe, just down-river from my Bermondsey Street apiary. And theirs was the first Thanksgiving Feast, in 1621. Honeybees arrived in New England just a year later – quite possibly from Bermondsey – and european bees soon became a tell-tale sign for native Americans of creeping colonial encroachment. And let’s not forget John Harvard, who voyaged from his native Southwark to Massachusetts in 1637, cannily ensuring with his death-bed bequest “that the Colledge agreed upon formerly to bee built at Cambridg shalbee called Harvard Colledge.” For me, that just about sets a solid foundation for a special relationship between old Bermondsey and the New World.

But let’s fast-forward a few centuries to a grittier vision of the American Dream, glimpsed through Arthur Miller’s 1949 play “Death of A Salesman”. Willy Loman is the disillusioned Salesman – and his wife, Linda, makes a forlorn plea for individual human dignity in a post-WWII, baby-booming US of A: “So attention must be paid”, she quietly insists. Quite. So when a guy called Marcus from New York City, snazzily attired in a pork-pie hat, jeans and T-shirt, rocks up at your market stall, buys your honey and starts to enthusiastically articulate the relationship between honeybees and the “Travelling Salesman Problem” , you pay attention. I know I did.

Let’s get straight into geek mode and acronym “Travelling Salesman Problem” down to “TSP” (OK, hands up who spotted the even geekier switcheroo of a noun into a verb in that last phrase? You’re really going to enjoy the rest of this exposition!). I have to admit that when Marcus from NYC first brought up the idea that honeybees had solved the “TSP”, I was delighted. Imagine, the little beauties would dive-bomb the outstretched finger of the pesky “TS” as he reached to ring your door-bell, thus preventing the “TS” from becoming a “P”, just as you stepped into your shower. “No, that’s not it.” said Marcus from NYC.

Do you mean they’ve finally solved the problem of whether “TSP” means Tablespoonful or Teaspoonful in cook-books?” I marvelled, “Awesome that’s always been a killer for me. Aren’t bees wonderful ?” A glint appeared in Marcus from NYC’s gaze which stopped me in my tracks. He soon put me right….

As it turned out, “TSP” is the ne plus ultra of mathematical tough nuts and it poses the following question: “Given a list of cities and the distances between each pair of cities, what would be the shortest possible route for the travelling salesman to visit each city exactly once and return to the origin city?”. While this may sound a bit humdrum, imagine the permutation of routes which a honeybee could possibly choose between hundreds of flowers to be visited on a foraging flight (also recall “The Amazing Bee Brain” post on this blog). Then again, imagine how important TSP is at the cutting edge of our modern world, in such mission-critical functions as town-planning, logistics, the manufacture of microchips and even in DNA sequencing.

Back in 2010, it was reported that the tiny honeybee brain could outgun NASA-strength hardware in perfecting the “TSP” calculation. Well, sort of. There is no doubt that honeybees possess a sensational ability to organise their activities efficiently. Nor is there any gainsaying that honeybees demonstrate a fuel-sparing flight-path in foraging. But that observation doesn’t constitute the eureka moment for our human TSP solution. It simply means that the bees, possibly a few percentage points off algorithmic perfection, have solved the problem perfectly adequately for the own purposes. The Guardian loftily celebrated the David v. Goliath cheerleading for the brainy bees, while Geekosystem.com (a sort of gazetteer for diehards of TV’s “Big Bang Theory”) refuted the claims as “pop-science” in a slightly teen-hormone-imbalanced way. Take a look and make up your own mind.

So thank you, Marcus from NYC, for bringing “TSP” to my attention. Allow me to add a friendly observation from a grateful beekeeper, though. After buying two jars of Southwark Honey from my stall (you’d probably call it a “booth“) last Saturday, you said your fond farewells and joined the queue (sorry : “line”), for the Grimsby fishmonger. Leaving your bright pink honey-bag behind on my stall, however, means that you would have “flunked” (Gee whiz! I’m loving these “Death of A Salesman”-era Americanisms) a “TSP”-test.

As I said to Marcus from NYC after his enthralling exposition: “You learn something every day”. Which makes us all better human beings – and, some of us, quite possibly, better beekeepers. Happy Thanksgiving, Marcus from NYC !

A Food Furlong

 

Beekeeper and Barrow-Boy

Here at Bermondsey Street Honey, we scorn food miles. We deal in food furlongs. Last Saturday morning, we pitched the Bermondsey Street Honey barrow on the Bermondsey Square Market for the very first time. That’s just 220 yards, exactly a furlong (for younger readers, that’s one-eighth of a mile) away from the Bermondsey Street Apiary. In that short distance, the honey has undergone a transformation from the honeycomb in my hives. First it’s uncapped and spun out, then cold-filtered (three times), ripened, jarred and labelled and then transported over that single, flat furlong, to the spot where Bermondsey Abbey was founded in 1082. And there it is: a jar of award-winning Bermondsey Street Honey. Slap bang in the middle of the SE1 postcode, urban honey doesn’t get much more local than that !

Set-Up
Look Out, Maltby, Borough and Bermondsey Spa Markets – We Here Come!

Big thanks to Fabienne from Galileo Organic Farm for organizing the stall – and also to all the other traders at Bermondsey Square Market, who welcomed us day-trippers as a part of their tribe. We lashed the stalls together against the Bermondsey Square squalls and finished the set-up with a minute to spare…

Sarah's Salts
Get Your Honey and Herb Salts Here – They’re Luvverly!

The star feature, Bermondsey Street Honey, sold out after an hour. Having won Second prize at this year’s National Honey Show in the “Best Honey Inside The M25” category (a bit of a come-down from 2011’s First prize in the same category, but never mind – you get the message!). A word of advice for those who arrived too late at the stall to buy this consistently award-winning local Honey  – subscribe to this blog and you will receive a preferential offer to place an order for 2014’s honey harvest – the best way to ensure a taste of Bermondsey Street’s most sought-after spoonful!

Bermondsey Street Honey
Bermondsey Street’s Most Sought-After Spoonful

And our “pop-up”, 2013-only “Southwark Honey” was tasted on the stall – and it sold and sold and sold. This exquisite local Honey came from hives backing onto Southwark Park which were left to me 2013 by bee-breeders Craig and Leanne Knox, who have relocated to Belize. I used to buy Queens from Craig for the Bermondsey Street Apiary, so the bees which make Bermondsey Street Honey and “Southwark Honey” are part of our close-knit South London family. Wotcha darlin’, alright !

A Worker Bee, Sarah, And A Forager, Nikki.

As you can see from the snapshots, the sun shone all day – we really should have been selling sun-tan lotion! Old acquaintances, fellow beekeepers, dog-walkers and new friends made it a fantastic day. It was almost too much excitement for Eddie the Pug….

Sleeping Pug
Eddie, Our Top Salespug. In Action !

So there we are. I’m not sure whether to be nostalgic about last Saturday’s extravaganza, or to start making plans for an even bigger and better 2014 Bermondsey Street Honey stall. But there is one last thing left to mention:

Southwark Honey 1
Southwark Honey – 2013’s “Pop Up” Honey

This local, intensely floral honey is the perfect Christmas gift. It is the taste of sunshine. There are still a few jars left at our traditional retail outlet, Cave, at 210 Bermondsey St, London SE1 3TQ. And a few shiny bags of Sarah’s authentic Bermondsey Street Roasted Cumin Salt and Rosemary and Chilli Salt  can still be found on their shelves, too.

But, alas, nothing lasts forever…..

O For The Wings Of A Dove

Dale and Ivor In Trafalgar Square
My Younger Brother And I In Trafalgar Square

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.

LBKA : A Stinging Rebuke

Whistleblower

I’m a beekeeper first and a blogger second. Whistleblowing comes way down my list (somewhere below allotment weeding, but just above buying cat litter and deleting junk e-mails).

Call me old-fashioned, but when I come across wrongdoing in an organisation to which I belong, my hackles rise.  Thus I felt duty-bound to blow the whistle on the demonstrably unpalatable activities of two recently-elected top officials of the London Beekeepers’ Association (LBKA) earlier this year. On 20th March 2013, I wrote an Open Letter of Resignation to the Committee of the LBKA, detailing the improper corporate governance by this small clique of senior officers.

I took my complaints about improper communication by the LBKA Secretary, Angela Woods, to the U.K’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).  My complaints against the LBKA Secretary and, by association, the LBKA Committee, have been fully upheld by ICO  (see page 3). Furthermore, as a result of my complaint, the LBKA has been required by ICO to amend its communication protocols with Members (see page 3) to bring them into Compliance with the Data Protection Act 1998.  The ICO decision also places the LBKA Secretary in breach of the LBKA Constitution, which clearly stated at the time of her improper communication with me that Members’ private: ”information will be stored on paper and computer records for use by LBKA solely for purposes directly relating to its activities”. This is a shameful outcome for the LBKA, one which diminishes its authority and credibility with its own Members, as well as the world outside the LBKA.

The LBKA Committee has made a mockery of its own democratic processes by not enacting the motion which I proposed and which was passed unanimously by show of hands at the 2012 LBKA AGM, which required disclosure of LBKA’s Officers’ bee-related commercial activities to the Membership. The inaction of the LBKA Committee in implementing this AGM motion does a disservice to its Membership and brings the LBKA into deeper disrepute.

What is more, the LBKA has also embarked on an ugly and unnecessary spat with its historic clubhouse, the Roots and Shoots charity in Lambeth, with the usual bellicose LBKA Officers leading the charge. I fondly recall my introduction to beekeeping at Roots and Shoots, when the LBKA was a beekeeping club, prioritising the communication of shared beekeeping skills between Members, and not a confrontational, headline-chasing hobby-horse for a small group of senior Officers.

Worse yet, a woefully incorrect article (co-authored by the LBKA’s newly-created Forage Officer) in the June edition of the British Beekeepers Association magazine, (pages 28-30), was effectively an advertorial for the other co-author’s FlowerScapes seed business and the LBKA’s branded wildflower-seed packs. The article concluded that hive density in London was equivalent to that required for the commercial pollination of orchards. The problem was that the data was grossly miscalculated – in favour of the commercial conclusion hoped for by the seed-sellers – by a factor of 30 times. That’s shabby science. A letter correcting the calculation by the Harrow BKA was published in the September BBKA magazine (Letters page) and a weaselly apology by the co-authors was submitted in mitigation of their error. This pseudo-science, pushing their product for profit, does no favours for the cause of bees, pollinator-friendly forage and beekeeping in London.

That flawed article also contained a further example of the LBKA’s Secretary’s habit of promoting her personal business interests under the LBKA banner (which was part of what ICO required the LBKA secretary and others to cease in their communications with LBKA Members). The LBKA Secretary runs a Photographer’s Agent business. In the article, there are 3 photos credited to her professional clients. The LBKA Secretary should be promoting LBKA Members’ interests, not her own. (I am sure that many LBKA Members have passable images of a beehive inspection, or of seed packets which they would be delighted to have representing an article with a strong LBKA association – do you expect that any one of the general LBKA membership was invited to submit photos for this article?)

This is precisely the blurring of personal and LBKA business interests which I found, and continue to find, distasteful and unacceptable, from elected LBKA representatives. I urge LBKA Members to consider how the actions of a small number of senior LBKA officers are consistently bringing the LBKA into disrepute.

Ironically, today was the 495th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his letter of dissent to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, which led to the Reformation.  In my own small way, I sympathise with Martin Luther’s frustration against a corrupt and oppressive 16th-century Church – my own protest is against a tyrannical Beekeeping Association (!) which is demonstrably more interested in selling over-priced seed-packets under false pretences (modern-day indulgences for the guilt-racked burghers of London!) and in self-promotion than in the craft of beekeeping. So I would like to think that, having nailed this missive to the LBKA’s beehive, a reformation will be set in motion.

Heigh-ho! In the meantime, I’m off to weed the allotment !

The Best Honey In London (Almost)

Bermondsey Street Honey
The Best Honey In London (Almost)

The Bermondsey Street Bees have been hitting the high notes again, winning yet another major award.

At the 82nd National Honey Show, held in Weybridge last week, my hardworking rooftop divas landed second prize in the open, blind-tasted Best Honey Within the M25 category.

This is their third award-winning year in a row, following:

2012: Best Rooftop Honey and Best Packaging at the London Honey Show.

2011: Best Honey Within the M25 at the National Honey Show & Best Restaurant Honey at the London Honey Show.

Whisper it quietly: The Bermondsey Street Bees consistently deliver London’s finest honey!

(And speaking of delivering, special thanks to John Chapple and Nikki Vane for transporting our honey to the Show)

Second Best Honey In London 2013
Second Best Honey In London 2013