I love a bit of honey on my hot, buttered toast or a large golden drizzle on my fruit in the morning. It’s a comfort staple for most people yet the sad fact remains, – there is not enough honey in the world and bee populations are more increasingly in dramatic decline. 2008 saw 1/4 of colonies dying over the winter period in the U.K. and similarly across Europe and the U.S. Contributing factors include bad weather, the Varroa mite, numerous viruses and agricultural chemicals. In the U.K. we consume over 30,000 tonnes of the lovely, golden syrup, yet produce only roughly in the region of 5,000 tonnes. Our supermarket shelves have come to rely on the mass-produced harvests from China, Turkey, Ukraine and Argentina. This honey has been heated and filtered to remove all remnants of wax and pollen, resulting in a clear and well-stored but rather insipid honey. A potential downside to this means that there may be traces of synthetic pesticides and antibiotics within the honey, which can be both harmful to the producer as well as the consumer. In 2002, the Food Standards Agency called the withdrawal of Chinese honey after samples were found to contain the antibiotic chloramphenicol. Since then it has been found that China has been laundering this honey through other countries that don’t even produce honey. The answer to this simply comes down to the importance of supporting locally produced honey. It is not only a matter of limiting your food miles but an essential way of keeping the bee population thriving across the country, which furthermore helps pollinate a wide range of crops and flowering plants. 50% of pollination happens because of bee activity, so without wanting to sound too dramatic, buying local honey will help save your ecosystem. It also acts as a remedy for allergies and hay fever that is specific to your locale, since the pollen has not been filtered out and contains the allergen that will help strengthen your immune system.
But who would think of buying honey made in London? Contrary to what you might already believe, London honey is actually one of the tastiest and cleanest sorts out there: firstly, the pollution in the air does not affect the nectar; secondly, city flowers are not sprayed with pesticides or vast quantities of chemicals like they do in the countryside; and thirdly, London has the most amazing mélange and diversification in plants and flowers. A birds-eye view will reveal just how lush and green London is, so if you compare this in terms of taste to country honey, (which is almost entirely made up from the rapeseed flower, giving a slightly undesirable gritty and peppery texture) it really is the best flavor out there. At the National Honey Show held in London every November people come from all stretches of the world to exhibit their honey, but a London honey most often comes out as victor.
Beekeeping in London has recently seen a most delightful surge where sheltered green areas, city farms and even roofs are being ingeniously adapted in the building of apiaries. Native bees have not been seen in the U.K. since they were wiped out in 1907 due to the Isle of Wight disease, so the regeneration of beekeeping knowledge has been of uppermost importance to the survival of bees in this country. Without the assistance and controlled environment maintained by the adept beekeeper, the hive becomes open to the endless list of hazards that might befall it. There are the many pests and parasites including the endemic Varroa mite that feed off the bodily fluids of adult, pupal and larval bees. If infected during their development stage they will succumb to many deformities. At the end of summer when the hive population reduces in readiness for winter, or because of insufficient foraging, the mite population can take over that of the bees and destroy the hive. They also remain resistant to most treatments. Other abnormal hive conditions include: the Acarine mite (affects the tracheal airways of the honeybee); Nosema (a microsporidian that attacks the intestines which can lead to dysentery and the inability to eliminate waste from inside the hive); small hive beetles (currently a problem in the U.S. where the beetle’s larva is laid in and infests the hive); wax moths (who feed on the wax of the honeycomb); bacterial diseases like European foulbrood (which attacks the mid-gut of bee larva); fungal diseases like chalk brood and stone brood (that will compete with the bee larva for food); viral diseases such as Cripaviridae (abnormal trembling of the wings and body, resulting in flightlessness then death), Dysentery (caused from long periods of inability to make cleansing flights, usually as a result of cold weather which stops wing muscles from functioning, resulting in bees voiding themselves within the hive and eventual death of the colony); chilled brood (death by sudden cold – as bees wing muscles do not function in cold weather the brood must be kept warm at all times, so when observing the frames to inspect the queen, general health of the bees and honey removal, the beekeeper must open the hive at the warmest part of the day and not obstruct the nurse bees from clustering and keeping the brood warm); pesticide losses (many of which are toxic to bees); and finally, Colony Collapse Disorder ( a misunderstood occurrence where the worker bees from a beehive abruptly disappear, usually from stress-related factors). To cut a long story short, the fabric of the beehive is extremely fragile and susceptible. The role of the beekeeper is to try and anticipate swarming (a natural method of bee colony reproduction that needs to be monitored in order to ensure survival, safe apiary expansion and honey production) and support bees to reproduce in a more controlled method. Early summer swarms are chiefly prized over late summer swarms, as they will have a better chance to fully develop, produce honey and survive the winter. Nevertheless, without the beekeeper the hive would surely not survive more than a year. And now, for city dwellers, beekeeping has proved a therapeutic way of getting close to nature within a limited urban environment, provides a ready source for local honey and a way of trying to maintain a balance in green living. I visit 3 London apiaries to uncover the stresses and joys of making London honey.
The Enthusiast – Tom Moggach
I visit my good friend Tom Moggach at his home in north London. It’s been an extremely good start to spring and the flora is already an impressive display. Principally concerned with living his life as green as possible, I find him knee-deep in his back garden as he tends his patch, much-aided by his two chatty chickens busily foraging around him. For Tom is one who has always believed in trying to live off the land as much as possible, not in so much a vain or self-righteous way but more in earnest as an approach of knowing how his food has come to be on his plate and to taste fruit and vegetables as nature intended. Learning mostly by intuition he enjoys the whole trial and error process and now even offers learning courses to other willing Londoners to take them through the pitfalls of being an urban gardener. He decided to try his hand at beekeeping 2 years ago, as it seemed a natural extension of all his efforts so far. But believing that bees would take to him just like his ‘fruit and veg’ did was his initial error. “The first course proved me it is far more complex than I naively thought.” He nearly gave up but persevered and has not regretted it a single day. He set up his apiary in his local Kentish Town City Farm and since then has been beset with a “squillion” problems, including swarms, mystery lurgies and rampaging sheep. He has now settled his hives in a secluded field far away from the less concerning animals and hidden from possible vandalism. We come on the first genuinely warm day of spring and Tom tentatively opens the hive to make sure they have survived the winter. The bees are still in docile mode but readying themselves for the busy months ahead. Tom’s modest apiary made a good 40 jars last year and expects to make around the same this year. He claims the taste is second to none. Hoping to slowly build up the colonies in the years to come it shows his confidence and knowledge is blooming in parallel. “You’ve got to start with your eyes open and realize they do need proper commitment – you can’t just swan off traveling for a few months in the summer and leave them to their own devices. You can only acquire knowledge about your bees by being still and observing quietly, which in turn makes you learn practically.”
The Professional – Toby Mason
Toby Mason has been resident beekeeper at Regents Park for 6 years now. Having turned his back on a high-stress office job he trained as a chef at Leith’s School of Food and Wine before taking up a beekeeping course with North London Beekeepers. He was instantly enamored with the wondrous, strange and unpredictable nature of the bee ‘superorganism’ and eventually managed to turn his hobby into his livelihood. He talks about his bees like an over-protective mother would and his sense of responsibility is paramount especially when he claims that he loves nothing better than walking around Regents Park and spotting his bees foraging amongst the flowers. I visit him in May, the busiest time for beekeepers. Since honey can be harvested only twice yearly (in June and then September/October, pending weather) Toby is now busy giving weekly checks to his hives, observing its health and whether the hives look likely to swarm. When the honey is ready for extraction the whole set of frames are placed vertically in a steel cylinder, spun and when the honey has been collected at the bottom it is then filtered twice through muslin before being bottled into jars. There is no heat involved like in factories, meaning that Regents Park honey maintains all its wonderful and complex flavors. As we move down the sheltered and shady enclosure, a stones-throw away from The Rose Garden and St. John’s Lodge Garden, Toby comes to one particular hive with excited anticipation. After the routine puff from the smoker and conscientious inspection Toby looks very disappointed indeed. He has made a split which is a forced and artificial way of swarm control, reproducing a hive where you make a new set of frames and introduce it with bees, honey and pollen stores and a laying queen in the hope that it will ‘take-off’ as a thriving colony. Things haven’t quite gone the way Toby would have hoped, -“it’s fascinating to watch because they never do what they’re supposed to do.” Although he’s missed the best time of year to do it, he can continue throughout the year with his embryonic efforts. Calling his work both physical and at times mildly intellectual, he hopes that he will keep bees and be able to bring home fresh honey for his family for the rest of his life. He already cannot keep up with the demands from his 1-year-old son. And certainly now what with teaching beekeeping courses and assisting other businesses in setting up their own apiaries, and aspirations that in the future there will be hives throughout all the Royal Parks, here’s hoping the effects of his work go on for a long time yet.
The Resplendent – Jonathan Miller
“Well it all started as a bit of fun,” admits Jonathan Miller, the sweet grocery buyer for Fortnum and Mason and hive designer, as he proudly presents his four majestic hives on the roof of Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly. “It was more of a challenge to see if we could actually do it.” After noticing a shortage of English honey on display he decided it was time to take the matter into his own hands. Believing that if Fortnum & Mason were to go ahead in their grand scheme, they would have to come up with something pretty exceptional and state-of-the-art. Installed in 2008, the final design is very much in keeping with the spirit of ‘Fortnum & Mason’ (much resonance to the clock and façade of the store), with a different theme for each hive, – Roman, Mughal, Chinese and Gothic. Each six-foot structure has an aura of a primitive utopia, complete with its own triumphal arch entrance, gold finial beehive pinnacle and is dressed in Fortnum’s signature blue-green eau de nil and gold livery. The roofs are pagoda in-style and, when observed as a group, resemble the waves of the ocean. Once inside, even by bee standards, the space is positively luxurious, and having enlisting the help of Steve Benbow (famous for his enterprising hive roof-conversions at the Tate Modern and Tate Britain) and carpenter Kim Farley-Harper, it seems that only the best for Fortnum’s bees will do. In case you can’t quite believe it, you can even follow their daily routines via the two webcams that flank the hives. Taking me to the edge of the roof, Jonathan points out London’s iconic buildings adding that within a 3-mile radius their bees have access to St. James’ Park, Green Park, Buckingham Palace and numerous private gardens. The honey changes according to the plants that grow around the bees, but Jonathan goes on to say that the first crop usually tastes of chestnut and lime blossom. They produce around 700 jars a year, which usually sell out in a matter of weeks once they emerge in early October. Jonathan stresses that all honey selected for Fortnum’s has to “say something rather than nothing” and are sourced all the way from Salisbury Plain to Pitcairn Island. You will even find some of Toby’s Regents Park honey there. I think I’ll join the queue now…
Champagne tours of Fortnum & Mason’s beehives happen throughout the summer.
Fortnum & Mason honey goes on sale early October.
Other useful links:
City Leaf – Skills for urban food growing
Regents Park Honey – Pure Food
Zootrain – Beekeeping courses in Regents Park
The London Honey Company – Steve Benbow
The Jellied Eel – London’s magazine for ethical eating
Following up on my story on the extremely talented and beautifully honest Judith Owen, I am thrilled to announce that ‘Losing It’, her show with Ruby Wax has now moved to the West End. Tickets are now available at The Duchess Theatre from the 31st of August to 1st of October 2011.