London’s reputation for hustle and bustle and a non-stop lifestyle is pretty well known. The Capital has been at the forefront of new trends in the arts, music and food, and driving innovation in science and technology for centuries. In this fast-paced environment, Londoners from around the world gather to apply new solutions and modern science to traditional systems – and paradoxically the world of ‘slow food’ is no exception.
Honey is nature’s original slow food: honeybees take all year to produce it through hundreds of thousands of trips to harvest nectar. A single bee will produce just 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in her entire lifetime. But pressures on bee populations worldwide, particularly in urban environments like London, demand solutions based on scientific knowledge and innovation. While beekeeping itself is an ancient craft, responsible beekeepers now need their combine their art with contemporary scientific understanding to keep populations healthy. In fact some, like Bermondsey Street Bees, are pointedly not just about gathering high quality honey, but advocate the need to become educators as well, showing how we can meet the challenges bee populations face head on in a sustainable and transparent way.
For a start, there are a lot of myths that need to be busted around bees and beekeeping in general. Once we start to get our head around the multi-layered pressures that they face, we can start to appreciate the provenance of their honey that much better.
‘Not all bees are honeybees. Honeybees make up just seven species from around 25,000, and are uniquely defined as those that store their honey in their hive to see them through winter or tough times. Other species create new colonies each year’
‘BEE TO JAR’ SUSTAINABLE BEEKEEPING
“Bean-to-bar” chocolate has grown as a both concept and trade model in recent years. It means that there is an important emphasis on quality, sustainability, and transparency at every stage of production. In other words, provenance really matters to bean-to-bar chocolatiers. Bermondsey Street Bees, and many other small batch, artisanal producers from across the UK and Europe, follow very similar principles when it comes to gathering honey – so called “bee-to-jar.”
However, there are many different approaches to beekeeping. For some, it is just about creating a commodity – honey. Or about getting paid for intensive pollination services. On the opposite side of the spectrum, some beekeepers leave the bees more or less entirely to their own devices. But for bee-to-jar beekeepers, neither end of this spectrum offers the best chance to guard honeybee populations in the modern world.
So what about the misconceptions that need to be challenged? For a start, not all bees are honeybees. Honeybees make up just 7 of the 25,000 bee species identified globally, and are uniquely defined as those that store honey in quantity in their hive or nest to see them through winter or tough times. Other species create new colonies each year. The most successful species of these amazingly adaptable insects is the European (or Western) Honeybee, and is the one predominantly kept to produce honey for human consumption. Another myth is that overall numbers of honeybees are in decline. Whilst it is true that there are few of these essential pollinators left in the wild in developed countries, there continues to be significant global growth in the number of managed hives.
‘A gradual reduction of natural, rural habitats resulting from monoculture farming is one of many pressures on bees’ immune systems, which in turn has a negative effect on their resistance to other environmental pressures.’
URBAN BEEKEEPING & HABITAT MANAGEMENT
Why is it important to challenge these misconceptions? The reality of the challenges facing bee populations is multi-layered, and education is crucial among consumers and organisations alike. Sustainable beekeeping demands a nuanced approach combining modern scientific understandings of honeybees with ancient methods honed over generations.
Over the last century, the demands of commercial food production in the developed world have had a huge impact on honeybee lifecycles. The catastrophic loss of natural, rural habitats and forage sources resulting from monoculture farming is one of many pressures on bees’ immune systems. This, in turn, has a negative effect on their resistance to other environmental pressures. Urban beekeeping has been very successful to combat this, since there are very varied green spaces in cities, a generally warmer climate leading to longer flowering seasons and far less agrochemical use.
However, this has led to a situation where London now has the highest population of managed hives in Europe, despite still losing green space due to development. Similar patterns are seen in other cities worldwide. This means that bees in urban spaces are now facing complex negative outcomes from sheer overcrowding. Simply adding more hives to the environment – on rooftops or parkland – is no longer the right thing to do. Specifically, it creates biodiversity loss when the forage sources on which the wild and solitary bee species depend are used up by these new honey-producing visitors.
Sustainable urban beekeeping then means being thoughtful and knowledgeable about where to set up apiaries. For example, new hives should never be placed in areas where there is an existing overpopulation or shortage of plants to forage. But there is even more to it than that. Bermondsey Street Bees operate a pioneering ‘Green Offset’ policy, creating their own community gardens and encouraging organisations and individuals to plant the flowering trees, bushes and herbaceous perennials which form the fundamental components of honeybees’ diet. This in turn reduces competition with, and impact on, vulnerable wild pollinators.
‘honey is a nutritious, whole slow food, and should be respected as such. It is a luxury, small batch product with an unpredictable and personal harvest, just like a fine wine or olive oil. Natural, raw honeys vary wildly in flavour, colour and texture, depending on the nectar of the flowers they were made from’