London's beekeepers

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  • ‘Every year at the National Honey Show people come from all over the world to exhibit, but a London honey often comes out as winner,’ says John Chapple, chairman of The London Beekeepers Association. ‘This is because it has a multifloral flavour not dominated by one species of flower or plant. In the city, bees have access to a vast number of flowers. People think London is all concrete but look at an aerial view image of the city and you’ll see it’s extraordinarily green.’

    Chapple maintains about 40 hives in royal parks (Regent’s, Hyde and St James’s), Lambeth Palace, Acton, Park Royal, Ealing and Northolt.The exact locations tend to be confidential, though beekeepers are open about it among themselves. ‘The biggest problem is vandals,’ he says. ‘Children, or rather youths, take great delight in pushing hives over. But fear is also an issue. If people can see a hive, they worry that people will be stung.’

    He and his wife have been all over the world visiting other beekeepers. ‘We’ve been to India, South America; it’s Lithuania this year. The hobby of beekeeping is a wonderful ice-breaker and we find that even if we don’t speak the same language as beekeepers in other countries, we can still communicate. After all, what other animal or plant can you keep in two square feet and produce a crop from?’

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    The uncapped cells have larvae in them

    A hive can be a small, glass-walled case that does not demand much space, and can even be kept indoors, as anyone who has visited the Hive Honey Shop on Northcote Road, Battersea, and seen its ‘Wall of Bees’ will testify. Owner James Harnill explains that the bees have free 24-hour access to the lush gardens and roof terraces of Nappy Valley, as well as nearby Wandsworth and Clapham Commons, thanks to tubing that leads out of the building.

    ‘They’re not trapped, they are very content and quiet,’ he says. ‘The bees are spoilt for choice around here: lime trees, sweet chestnut, horse chestnut, sycamore, plus the variety of flowers. They tend to work on whatever they can get the most nectar from in one particular area at a time.’

    Harnill, who has been beekeeping since he was a boy, maintains around 150 hives in London and south-west England. Practical constraints mean he tends to position them within 100 miles of the store. ‘City honeys can be a tremendous surprise, and will be slightly different depending on whether the hive is, say, at Wimbledon or Wandsworth. The problem with country honeys is that the vast majority are almost entirely from oil seed rape – bees look for areas with flowers in abundance, and rape is produced in abundance. The bees make a literal beeline to it, so it’s a blessing and a curse. A lot of rape honey has the texture of cement – I avoid it like the plague.’

    The other advantage of London honeys, according to John Chapple, is that city flowers tend not to be sprayed with vast quantities of chemicals. ‘London beekeepers are always looking for sites to keep bees,’ he says. ‘If anyone has a nice big garden, they should contact us [www.lbka.org.uk] .’

    It’s not just with a view to acquiring a few free jars of honey, either. ‘There are no honeybees left naturally in the wild any more,’ John explains. ‘The native bee was wiped out just before World War I thanks to Isle of Wight disease, and the ones we have now are imported from all over Europe. If people want flowers and fruit and vegetables, which need to be pollinated, there is a growing need to help beekeepers keep bees alive.’

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