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.