Are There Too Many Bees In London? – The Best Interest Of the Bees

There is little question that everyone in this debate sincerely wishes the best for London’s bees.  Here is Angela Woods’ response to the most recent comments on this important issue:

The diversity of opinion is most welcome. One of the problems is that the data is incomplete. The National Bee Unit has data but it does not diseminate or analyse it in a way that gives a clear idea of what might be going on in London. This is why the LBKA, uniquely placed with its 300 members, has agreed to hook up with respected research fellows in this field to survey our members annually so that we can get a clearer picture and help advise on how the welfare of all pollinating insects can be best preserved.

Angela Woods

Are There Too Many Bees In London? – A Call For An Independent Study

More input, this time from my blogging friend and fellow beekeeper, Emily Heath:

Jude has some good points… however looking out of my back window at my neighbours’ gardens I can see a lot of paving, sheds and pebbles. Walking around my local area plenty of my neighbours have turned their front gardens into car parks – are these spaces included in the 22% of land occupied by private gardens figure?! Some private gardens may be full of bee friendly forage, but not all of them. It’s also true that we have a lot of street trees, but many of these are plane trees – no good for bees – which were chosen because they cope well with pollution.

Agree with Jude that we do need more reliable facts, research by an independent body would be good. Without a comprehensive study having been done of the forage available it’s hard to say for sure whether it’s suitable for the amount of bees here.

Feedback From Steve Benbow On My Post…

A lovely man…

Hi Deborah

That’s very funny – did I really use that phrase?! I’m sorry that’s very rude!

Thank you for the book plug and your honey was brill…


Tea With Fortnum’s Beemaster Steve Benbow

Over the past few days I’ve had the opportunity to chat with some of the best beekeepers in the UK about their craft.  Now I face the daunting task of writing about them.

Last Friday after my tour of Fortnum’s hives I was thrilled to be taken to tea by Steve Benbow, urban beekeeper, successful entrepreneur, and Fortnum’s Beemaster, to discuss urban beekeeping.

Steve has a long history of urban beekeeping. Fifteen years ago he decided he wanted to keep bees in Central London. There was only one problem: he lived on the sixth story of an ex-council block near Tower Bridge with no garden. The only outside space was the building’s flat roof, accessible via a fire escape. Having located his first hive behind the lift shaft, the bees prospered and produced award-winning honey.

Inspired by other urban beekeepers in Paris, Tokyo, Rio and New York, Steve founded the London Honey Company, a business that has grown rapidly and now produces honey for Harrods, Harvey Nichols and The Savoy, as well as several small delicatessens across London. He also services hives for the National Portrait Gallery, Tate Modern and Tate Britain, as well as a variety of commercial clients, many of whom sell their honey within their stores.

Hives At The Tate Modern

Steve was very forthcoming about his experiences with Fortnum’s bees.  He keeps two varieties, Carniolan bees, which are a little more feisty, and Welsh Black bees, which are quite gentle.  He  likes to keep two different varieties which he believes complement each other.

Fortnum’s was the first London commercial establishment to consider keeping bees in the City.  Steve was contacted by Jonathan Miller, Fortnum’s visionary new products buyer, back in 2004 about the project.

Mr. Miller himself designed the ornate WBC hives.  Installed in 2008, the final design is very much in keeping with the spirit of the facade of the store, with a different theme for each hive, – Roman, Mughal, Chinese and Gothic.

Each six-foot structure has  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.

The unique hives were hand crafted by Welsh carpenter, Kim Farley-Harper, who will be happy to make a bespoke hive for customers.  The only drawback may be the price.  It is reported that Fortnum’s hives cost 1500 £ a piece.

The biggest difficulty Steve first encountered was the public perception that the bees might be a public hazard.  That is no longer the case, and Fortnum’s considers its rooftop beehives to be a success. It is considering keeping other hives elsewhere.

Other challenges Steve has faced have been swarm control and Varroa mites.  Steve treats his hives for Varroa with Oxalic acid, and uses splits to control swarms.  He happily reports that Fortnum’s bees have never swarmed.

Benbow uses a Queen excluder and mouse guards in the winter. He feeds his bees sugar syrup in periods of dearth. He uses some insulation in his hives, but reports that the heat of Fortnum’s buildings prevents the hives from getting too cold in winter.

I asked Steve to comment upon the June 15 London Evening Standard article in which Angela Woods, secretary of the London Bee Keepers Association, was quoted as saying London’s bees are under threat of starvation and disease because of a boom in the number of urban beekeepers.  She stated that there isn’t enough forage in central London, and that bees shouldn’t be kept above two stories high.

Steve’s reaction to the article was a pithy “Bollocks!”

He pointed out that bees have been living in tall trees and other high places for many thousands of years, and that while London could always use more trees and flowers, the primary challenge to urban bees this year has been the inclement weather, not a lack of forage.

It was a fascinating interview, and Mr. Benbow could not have been more cooperative and charming. He even complimented my American-made honey. But I think he was just being nice.  🙂

Steve has a new book out, The Urban Beekeeper, which I’ve read and found delightful.  I urge you all to pick up a copy and find out even more about his busy life and career.

My Visit To Fortnum’s

I think they could spot me a mile away.  For one thing, I was the only person wearing trousers in Fortnum’s trademark color, eau de nil.

Which, for you Yankees out there, is a lovely aquamarine color, literally translated as “water of the Nile.”  (No, not the color of the Nile these days, but back when they found Moses in the bullrushes.)

Eau de Nil

Being from Ohio, I called my aquamarine trousers, “pants”, when a cute little bee landed on them.  Only then was I informed that “pants” means something very different in the UK, and was something one shouldn’t be blabbing about in polite company!

Anyway, in true Midwestern fashion, I arrived unfashionably early (30 minutes!) for my 10:00 am meeting with Jonathan Miller, Fortnum’s sweet grocery buyer, to tour the rooftop bee hives. I was terrified of sleeping through my meeting, especially since my body clock said it was 5 am!!

I had plenty of time to view Fortnum’s Jubilee window decorations, including my favorite one – the honey display.

I also I had time for tea in Fortnum’s charming Fountain Restaurant.  My tea was beautifully served from a silver teapot into a fine china teacup.  I felt very pampered!!

When it was finally time for my meeting, Mr. Miller informed me that he had been summoned to Highgrove (!!), but that Fortnum’s charismatic Bee Master Steve Benbow was being filmed for a television show about London, and that I would be welcome to tag along.

Now tell me, what could be better than that??  (Here’s a hint…Steve Benbow took me for tea afterwards to answer my bee-related questions!!)

More on my tea with Steve later.  For now, here are some pictures!!

Questions For Fortnum’s

Here is my list of questions for Fortnum’s about its beautiful rooftop bee hives.  If you have any additional questions, please let me know!

  1. What made you decide to keep bees on the roof of Fortnum’s?  Was it hard to convince people that it was a good idea?  When did you first start thinking about it? When were they installed? Are you planning on having more? Do you consider the bees a success?
  2. Were these hives started from packages or nucs, or were they established colonies when they were installed?
  3. Does Fortnum’s have other hives?  Where are they kept?
  4. How did you come up with the design of the hives?  Who built them? Do they build hives for other people?  Are they WBC hives?  Are the plans available?
  5. I read that Fortnum’s keeps Carniolan bees.  Is that still true?  How did you pick Carniolan bees?  Are these the original bees?  Where do you get your bees?
  6. I know Steve Benbow is your beekeeper.  How did you select him? How often does he visit the hives?  Do any Fortnum’s employees work with the hives as well?
  7. Do you have problems with pests or bee diseases?  Any evidence of CCD?  Do you treat your bees with chemicals?
  8. Specifically, have you had problems with Varroa Mites?  How have you dealt with them?  Do you treat for them in any way?
  9. Do you use any kind of preventive treatments or techniques?
  10. What has been the most unexpected challenge of keeping these bees?  What is the biggest problem?  Biggest success?
  11. Have you had any swarms?  What did you do?
  12. Is wind a problem for these bees?  What is their primary pollen/nectar source?
  13. How do you prepare your hives for winter?  Do you bring them inside?  Do you wrap them? Do you use insulation?  Do you use a mouse guard?  Do you feed them? How much honey do you leave for them?
  14. Do you feed your bees at any time?  What do you feed them and when?
  15. Did you have a spring harvest this year?  How much honey did you harvest? What is your average harvest?  Do you use a Queen excluder?  Are you expecting an autumn harvest?
  16. Do you use the Fortnum’s honey in the preparation of any other food?
  17. What was the inspiration for your honey bottle?
  18. Do you use the beeswax for any Fortnum’s product? What do you do with it?
  19. How often do you replace your combs? What technique do you use?
  20. Have you split or combined any of the hives?
  21. Can anyone tour Fortnum’s hives?
  22. There was an article in the June 15 London Evening Standard in which Angela Woods, secretary of the London Beekeeping Association, was quoted as saying London’s bees are under threat of starvation and disease because of a boom in the number of urban beekeepers.  She stated that there was not enough forage in London’s parks and gardens to sustain the growing number of hives. She blames “celebrity beekeepers” and corporations for the problem.  What is your response to that article?