In the last week of November, with the bees all safely tucked up for winter, I had two speaking engagements. One was in rural Suffolk and the other in gritty Hackney. Each addressed a very different topic. The first was to an audience of fellow beekeepers, the second to a bevy of young food and drink entrepreneurs. The theme of the initial talk was a genteel one: “Preparing Honey For Show”, while the next was the fire-branding: “Bees Can’t Eat Kind Words”.
On Saturday afternoon at the United Reform Church Hall in Saxmundham, I had been given a task by Penny Robertson, the Secretary of the Leiston and District Beekeepers’ Association. I was the only member of that august body ever to have entered my bees’ honey in a Honey Show. (Indeed, it has become a bit of a habit). My instructions were to rouse the Honey-Showing mojo of these Association members to a fever-pitch ahead of their inaugural Honey Show in a fortnight’s time. Penny celebrating first place in the Heaviest Potato category of Saxmundham Horticultural Society Show that day was a powerful inspiration.
My Honey presentation was based on the simple premise that, after the 12 months of hard labour performed by both beekeeper and bees to produce a Honey harvest, the business of entering a Honey Show is simple. Just fill a jar and an entry form. Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Well, I’m glad to report that, one hour and a damburst of trade secrets later, I think that I had won them over. At least if the show of hands by those determined to enter their Honey in the show was any indication. The comments to the Chairman after the meeting were reported back to me: “very inspiring“, “confidence building“, “made me think I can do it“. Job done!
Fast forward to Monday evening, when Uber driver Ibrahim and his Prius deposited me at the rain-gleamed pavement outside Apiary Studios in Hackney to address Sustain/London Food Link’s foodie gathering. My mission in this cradle of London coolness was to speed-sell my campaign to raise awareness of the precarious forage position of London’s honeybees in five minutes flat. My “Bees Can’t Eat Kind Words” runway for the prototype Apis Forage Index was going to be tested alongside the rising stars of London’s sustainable food scene. This Bermondseyshire geezer was raring to go.
Stand-up patter is an East End speciality, from the music hall to the market stall. This called for a bit of both. After a quick reference to the aptness of a beekeeper giving a talk at Apiary Studios, I conjured up the litany of woes which beset honeybees: the Asian Hornet, the small hive beetle and Colony Collapse Disorder. The reality is, of course, that London’s bees are beset by none of these problems. For now, these are confined to foreign shores. The real danger to London’s bees is, bizarrely, the proliferation of our own bees.
The good news is that London is blessed with a bulging bee population. The capital benefits from a temperature which averages 2-3C higher in the metropolis than in the surrounding countryside, meaning longer flowering times and higher yields of nectar and pollen. What is more, a healthy diversity of forage is to hand, supplied by our many parks, trees, private gardens, railway lines, green roofs, pocket parks etc. What is more, that wide variety of flora delivers a persistent forage offering for most months of the year. So London’s forage provision can be taken for granted, right?
Not really. Here are some cold, hard facts: in a 10km radius around my Bermondsey Street apiary there are 3,225 hives, using the information from National Bee Unit’s Beebase register. The same source reports that the number of hives in the capital more than doubled between 2008 and 2012 (from 1,617 to 3,337) and the number of registered London beekeepers has risen almost threefold, to 2,147 by 2014. It is generally assumed that 25% of beekeepers do not register, so this number of local hives is likely to be closer to 3,000. Meanwhile, the numbers of commercial and hobby beekeepers continue to grow – outstripping the provision of new forage.
So the bad news is that London’s forage is under severe pressure, exacerbated by the capital’s increasing hive density. The tell-tale signs of stress are accumulating: low honey yields and a high incidence of disease (the South East region has seen the highest incidence of beekeepers experiencing European Foul brood in 4 of the last 6 years). London’s forage position has already become precarious, as increasing populations of honeybees require feeding from a finite resource. It’s simple beeconomics.
Role-playing a London forage crisis, one outcome could be a “survival of the fittest” cull, where, say, 25% of the capital’s colonies either starve from lack of forage or have their stores “robbed out” by neighbouring hives (strong hives are merciless thieves from weaker colonies). In that scenario, honey yields would be even lower, certainly, and infectious diseases would be increased dramatically by interloping bees – and a balance would be restored by attrition, as bee numbers reduced to sustainable levels. But there’s a more sinister variation: let us suppose that the stress on bee colonies from dwindling forage is silent and invisible to begin with. Stealthily, honey yields would fall and disease increase. Then all it might take would be a long, wet Spring to trigger a tipping-point in London’s delicate equilibrium. With starvation, disease, varroa mite, nosema fungus and general debility stressing the bees, a mysterious domino effect of failing bee colonies could suddenly arise in London, similar to the way that Colony Collapse Disorder overtook America’s bees 10 years ago. And the problem hasn’t gone away: in May 2015, the US Department of Agriculture reported nationwide annual losses of 42.1% of American hives. That level of bee mortality in London would be nothing short of a catastrophe.
Let’s take a step back from this grim eventuality. What can responsible, sustainable beekeepers do to prevent a disaster? The solution lies in planting new forage, improving existing forage availability and raising awareness of the very real requirement that if our bees are to thrive, they need to consume adequate nectar (carbohydrate), and pollen (protein). Using community volunteers, we have added pollinator forage to St. Mary Magdalen churchyard and edible plantings to Leathermarket Gardens in recent years. And we publish London planting guides on our website. The reality, though, is that adding forage in London is an uphill battle – the rising tide of asphalt and concrete is hard to counterbalance.
Recognising this, we have developed, the Apis Forage Index (AFI), a genuine breakthrough in responsible beekeeping. For the first time, non-beekeepers can assess the forage potential of a proposed new apiary site. The AFI is designed to defuse this ticking forage time-bomb by raising awareness of the 10 key variables which determine whether a hive can be expected to survive on the nutrition available locally. Sure, the answers to some of the 10 questions may be difficult for civilians, unrehearsed in bee biology, local flora and bee density. But that is precisely the point. These questions need consideration – and they require affirmative answers before a beehive can be responsibly installed in a new location. And since there are only 3 possible answers to each question (Unfavourable / Neutral /Favourable), it’s not that hard. Art gallery owners, firms of solicitors, have-a-go beekeepers – take note: this is not a drill – this is for real: it is the first step to responsible, sustainable beekeeping.
Our Apis Forage Index is a free-to-air ready reckoner. It gives potential beekeepers a common language to describe the forage potential of an apiary and sets out the building-blocks of a forage environment for honeybees. Why’s that important? Because Bees Can’t Eat Kind Words.
There. Timed it: 5 minutes.