London honey is the bee‘s knees, and demand is growing. Keeping a hive, whether it‘s in a garden, allotment, or on a roof terrace, not only satisfies the city‘s honey lovers and hayfever sufferers, it helps keep the city in bloom. Jenni Muir catches the buzz.
‘If one lands on your shoe, just kill it,’ says Lindsay Wright as he pulls his socks up over his trousers and carefully tucks in his T-shirt. ‘Bees walk upwards and if they go inside your trouser legs, you’ll get stung.’ We nervously discuss our choice of hosiery before edging backwards up the path.
‘I’ve been doing this for 15 or 16 years and I’ve been stung lots of times,’ Wright continues, pulling on a grey-green hooded jacket with a black veil that appears to be made of screen mesh. He looks like a nature-loving stormtrooper. ‘Got stung on the back of the head once – nasty, nasty, nasty!’ Gesturing with a gauntlet-covered hand, he adds: ‘My eyes came out to here.’
We’re standing in a small verdant clearing by the rail tracks that run from London Bridge to Croydon, but if it wasn’t for the regular clatter of Southern Railway’s finest, we could be anywhere in rural England. The blackberries are in fruit, the elders have shed their blossoms, and the grass is edging skywards. Back near the road, allotment-holders are checking their pristine rows of vegetables, fruit trees and flowers.
This is where Wright keeps two of his ten beehives. A builder by trade, beekeeping is ‘a hobby that got out of hand’. He is the proud superintendent of around half a million bees and sells their produce, plus honeys from all over the world, from his Saturday stall
at Borough Market. Wright’s career as an apiarist began around 15 years ago when he was given a hive as a birthday present. He took a couple of beekeeping courses, was mentored by another apiarist, and steadily built up his number of hives.
A bit of smoke helps the bees relax
‘It’s always surprising,’ he says.
‘No two hives are ever the same. One day you open one and they’re as good as gold, and the next day you open it and they’re nasty as hell. But bees only attack as a defence mechanism, because if they sting you, they will die.’
Today the bees are passive, lulled into contentment by wafts from a handheld smoker that looks like a coffeepot with an accordion attached. Part of the apiarist’s essential armoury, it’s fuelled by torn-up egg cartons. ‘Smoke calms them down,’ Wright explains. ‘In nature, if there is a forest fire, bees will gorge themselves and then leave. The idea here is that we give them a bit of smoke and they go and feed, so they don’t bother us.’
These hives are not the cute little white huts of picture books and chi-chi gardening catalogues: they look like a stack of boxes picked up at the local dump. ‘You can buy one for 50 quid or knock up one for a fiver,’ says Wright, who did the latter. Inside the bees clean cells, incubate, make wax, store nectar and basically live on sticky frames that slot in like hanging files in an office cabinet. Wright carefully checks through each layer of frames, using an orange gadget that has one square flat end for separating the frames, and another hooked end for levering them up and out of the hive. ‘This is not a particularly good year, because of the extreme heat and lack of rain, but in a very good one I’d expect 100lbs of honey from a single hive.’
In rural areas, beekeepers experience a gap in June when there are almost no flowers for the bees to visit. Urban beekeepers don’t have the same problem because the bees can visit highly planted city gardens, parks and allotments, and consequently produce more honey. Still, few London beekeepers harvest enough to sell via shops, and demand is outstripping supply. One factor is that an increasing number of people want to try local honey as a means of relieving hayfever, another is that London honey tastes great.