In celebration of World Wildlife Day on Sunday 3rd March, The Conran Shop sits down with The London Honey Co., to discover what is fuelling the buzz behind urban beekeeping and the un-bee-lievable lives of the nation’s favourite insect.
The London Honey Co. has been a pioneer of beekeeping for over 20 years, what has been the biggest change in that time?
When founder Steve Benbow started keeping bees in London in 1999, urban beekeeping was a radical idea which few were aware of. Steve was inspired by beekeepers he had met on a photography assignment to New York. The general level of awareness and concern surrounding honeybees and all types of bees has dramatically changed, what was once seen as a hobby for eccentric old boys at rural beekeeping associations has attracted mass campaigns of national importance and beekeepers these days are more diverse.
What have you learned from keeping bees, can you share some of their secrets?
Honeybees are fascinating. They can learn to navigate an area around their hive of over 3 miles in every direction. They can then precisely report back to their fellow bees the distance and direction of flowers, using dances to communicate which direction other bees should fly in, in reference to the angle from the sun. When looking for a new home they survey prospective cavities by flying across them to gauge the diameter of the cavity and walking the circumference to estimate the volume.
The London Honey Co. keeps hives in some of the UK’s most iconic locations, where is your favourite hive?
The view from the roof of the Tate Modern onto the thatch of the Globe Theatre and the river is pretty spectacular. The V&A is another incredible rooftop and location, the bees get to feast on the trees and flowerbeds of nearby Hyde Park.
In recent years, The London Honey Co. has started to work with producers from Finland and Zambia – how do their beekeeping techniques compare?
Our Zambian honey comes from the miombo forests at the source of the Zambezi. The beekeepers are normal everyday small-scale subsistence farmers in North West Zambia. 25-50% of peoples cash income in the area comes from beekeeping, because the beekeepers use bark beehives which they make themselves it doesn’t cost them anything to get into beekeeping.
In comparison, growing maize costs them money for seed and fertiliser and they might not even get a crop, plus the price of maize is decreasing. Honey is a higher value crop and provides a more reliable income. They tuck the hives high into the tree canopy to protect the bees from honey badgers. Twice a year, a proportion of the honeycombs are harvested and brought out of the forest, as it has been for centuries.
They are much more basic hive designs and we don’t usually keep our hives up trees, however the system works brilliantly and is very sustainable as well as making a massive difference to the beekeepers’ lives. And of course, the honey is delicious! We give 10p from the sale of every jar to Bees for Development because we have seen the incredible impact that helping people to get into sustainable beekeeping can have on communities.
The Finnish beekeepers use much more similar hives and beekeeping techniques to us; however, they also have to protect their hives against bears, which thankfully is not a problem we have in the UK!
From honeycomb to beeswax, the materials bees produce are incredibly versatile – what’s the strangest use you’ve seen?
Our next door neighbour uses beeswax for curing pig trotters, another chef we supply beeswax to uses it to line Madeleine cake tins and we’ve even heard of it being used to bake fish in.
If recent government reports are true, our insect population is in serious danger, what can we all do to help our pollinators?
The research is indeed showing devastating declines in insect numbers, which is far wider than just honeybees. It’s deeply worrying and largely to do with changes to how the landscape is managed. Choosing to support ecological farming such as by buying organic foods helps to ensure there is more food and nesting places in the landscape for pollinators.
However, British honey cannot be organic certified because you can’t control where the bees go and there aren’t large enough single parcels of land under organic certification in the UK. Sow flowering plants for pollinators wherever you can, in a windowsill, a bucket by the door, at your school or across your farm – insect-pollinated trees such as chestnuts are also a great source of food.
What do people find most surprising about the honey you produce?
I think that some people have a fixed idea of what honey tastes like, but then they try our range of honeys and realise how varied honey can be depending on where they are from and which flowers the bees have visited.
What advice would you give to urbanites looking to start a hive?
Come along to one of our Beekeeping for Beginners taster sessions to find out more and check out the courses offered by your local British Beekeepers Association. By becoming a member of a local association, you get a community of support around you and can learn with others as you go and get a second opinion when you’re not sure.