It’s late in the season, but the Bermondsey Street Bees are still bringing in nectar – thanks to the efforts of local urban gardeners like Ian Mould. Ian is head gardener at Potters Fields by Tower Bridge (ably assisted by Albert, his pug!) and he has planned in lots of sequential planting, prolonging the forage season.
Potters Fields is open 24 hours a day, hosts over 50 major events each year and still manages to dish up the sweet stuff for the Bermondsey Street Bees in late August, when most other nectar sources are tapped out.
Potters Fields may be in Boris Johnson’s City Hall back yard, but I like to think of it as Ian and Albert’s front room!
An awful lot of poppycock has been written about urban bees by people who should know better (or, more reprehensibly, abuse their positions by promoting their own seed mixes, agency photographers or honey sales without disclosing those personal commercial interests).
As an antidote to the twaddling classes, here is the British Beekeepers Association’s sane, simple, one-page commentary on “Bees In The City“.
While countryside bees are jumping gleefully onto the flowering blackberries and clovers, urban bees are about to enjoy the foraging highlight of the year – the Lime-flow. No, before you ask, the Lime trees which produce this bounteous nectar and pollen are not related to the green citrus sort of lime. It is confusing, but the common Lime trees (tilia x europaea) – Linden if you’re American or German, tilleul if you happen to be of the French persuasion – make this a terrific time of year for the bees, as long as the temperature is high enough (above 23C) for the flowers to produce nectar. And that’s the way the next fortnight’s weather is heading….
Lime honey has a pale green tinge to it, is very bright and tastes incredible: for me, Lime is a luscious, long-tasting honey with a twist (somewhere between elderflower, mint and passion-fruit) to balance the intense sweetness. It resists crystallization and is highly prized by beekeepers. Lime has been the foundation of prize-winning honey for the Bermondsey Street Bees: a jar of honey from Shard Hive won “Best Honey From Inside The M25” in the National Honey Show in 2011 and a jar from Abbey Hive won “Best Rooftop Honey” at the 2012 London Honey Show.
So the next couple of weeks will be make or break for this season’s honey crop for the Bermondsey Street Bees. The prospect of surplus honey stores has looked precarious, at best, up to now this year. But with a couple of weeks blessed with a temperature in the high 20s, the nectar-flow from the Lime trees should be impressive – especially since, coming a bit late this year, it has given the bees a chance to get their foraging numbers up to strength to take advantage of this tree-top feast.
The one drawback of Lime trees is the gluey slime which mats the pavements when the nectar-flow nears its end. That is honeydew, exuded by aphids which also revel in the Lime nectar, and is nothing to do with honey (“Blimey – first its Lime trees which don’t grow limes and now its honeydew which isn’t honey, is he having me on ?”).
Next time you feel a sticky sole underfoot as you walk along a humid London pavement, look up and listen. You may well hear the low hum of bees at work on the lime flowers at the dome of the tree. And be sure to inhale, deeply….the Lime top-note of Bermondsey Street Honey will flood your senses !
I had a cup of tea with John Chapplelast weekend. Any yes, some biscuits were involved. Viennese whirls, to be precise.
On his second cup, John offered the simple observation that the high level of honeybee colony losses was largely due to 2 years of horrible weather, which has dramatically reduced the overall health and well-being of colonies, so that opportunistic infections have taken a heavy toll of the debilitated bees. In my view, John is the best bee-mentor in London, so I listened intently….
He likened this elevated mortality in bees to pneumonia (defined as an inflammatory condition of the lung caused by various bacterial, viral and fungal infections) in England the 19th century. Then pneumonia was the major cause of death, with the health of the general population at a lower baseline and the absence of medicines to counter the root causes.
So for those beekeepers who have lost (and continue to lose, by all accounts!) colonies this year, do not despair – your beekeeping basics are sound. Our bees are being brought low by diseases to which they would not normally succumb.
“Keep Calm and Carry On” was the rallying call in another, now distant, crisis. To combat the current manifest of maladies and affliction in our bee-hives, I would propose the antidote which worked for me last weekend, swapping bee-stories with John Chapple: “Break Out the Tea and Biscuits – and Talk Bees !”
And today I heard a whisper that John has been invited to make a comeback to the London Beekeepers’ Association, headlining a couple of courses this summer, to add some much-needed expertise and experience to the line-up. JC’s second coming to the LBKA would certainly be an occasion to relish – definitely time to “Break Out the Tea and Biscuits – and Talk Bees !”
I hope that you enjoyed my spoof “flier” for a new restaurant opening in Bermondsey Street. We are fortunate to be well provided with great restaurants here (have you tried the fabulous Restaurant Story yet?)… but as a beekeeper, I am concerned about what can be done to ensure that there is sufficient food out there for London’s local bees to eat. Hence this focus on “Forage“.
The scale of the potential problem in London can be illustrated by this chilling statistic from the government’s BeeBase. Around my London apiary, Bermondsey Street Bees, there are 581 registered Apiaries within a 10-kilometre radius (although bees are widely held to fly a maximum of 5 kilometres for forage). In the lush Suffolk countryside, the apiary at School House Bees has just 29 registered Apiaries within a 10-kilometre radius. The density of registered apiaries in grey old London is 20 times greater than in rural Suffolk ! And if you assume (a) some 20% of apiaries are unregistered (b) there is an average of 4 beehives per apiary, then the Bermondsey Street Bees could be sharing their lunch with bees from as many as 2,750 competing bee-hives !
Since 2010, when the tide of beekeeping popularity was rising fast, enlightened beekeepers in London, such as former London Beekeepers Association Chairman, John Chapple, have warned of the danger of lack of sufficient forage for London’s bees. My strategy has been to approach the authorities responsible for urban plantings – mostly Borough Councils – and to work with key officers in those organisations to intervene directly and permanently on the provision of forage for pollinators.
Since July 2011, I have been advising Southwark Council on the promotion of sustainable forage and best-practice rooftop beekeeping. I am currently working with Southwark’s Environmental Officers towards the specification of a minimum 50% Pollinator-Friendly Planting in all of Southwark Council’s plant procurement protocols: “what’s one more Council quota between friends?” Even simple, cost-saving recommendations, such as setting longer summer grass-mowing schedules for the huge existing acreage of Southwark’s parks and verges (even lengthening cutting schedules by a single week provides vastly more full-flower daisy, dandelion and clover forage for bees) have proved to be a great leap forward in bee-friendly municipal thinking. Not rocket science!
While some see the current fad for sprinkling London with expensively-packaged, designer, “meadow” seeds by commercially-interested parties as toe-curling tokenism, it can only be a positive that the publicity machines of London Beekeeping Associations have finally trundled into action to raise the forage issue in the general consciousness. The “London wildflower-meadow” idyll which they are selling certainly makes a pretty picture – see the front page of the June BBKA newsletter – and so features, with only the merest hint of irony, as the background to my spoof “flier”.
“Slick Willie” Sutton said that he robbed banks “because that’s where the money is“. Similarly, my forage-focussed energies are spent working with my local Council, since its direct influence on the outcome of long-term provision of forage for bees is far greater, for example, than any London Beekeeping Association. For that reason, in late 2011 I applied to Southwark Council for a “Cleaner, Greener, Safer” grant for Pollinator-Friendly Planting in a local park. A sizeable grant was awarded, which resulted, in October 2012, in the setting-out of new beds and the planting by local volunteers of 11 each of 32 bee-friendly varieties from the Royal Horticultural Society’s List in St. Mary Magdalen Churchyard, SE1 3UW.
The good news is that the first splashes of colour on the planting beds began to appear earlier this month……and the flowering of that patch of bee-forage is what I wanted to celebrate in my new restaurant “flier”……all we need now is a little sunshine and the Bermondsey Street Bees will need no further invitation to the grand opening of “Forage”!
This is a “top bar” hive in which the bees build their own brood and honey comb hanging down from the bars. In London’s dense, urban environment, Bermondsey Street Beesrequire a little more “management” to ensure their good health, my neighbours’ peace of mind and a decent honey crop in September!
And if you’re wondering why the hive suddenly looks a lot emptier halfway through the video…. welcome to another characteristic of natural beekeeping – and arch-enemy of urban beekeepers – the Swarm, recently departed, with the old Queen taking with her half of the work-force.