Potters Fields 2013-08-21
Decisions, Decisions: What I Really Need For Christmas Is A Particle Swarm Optimisation Algorithm

Today is Thanksgiving. So let’s embrace our transatlantic cousins with a stars-and-stripes theme. After all, “The Mayflower” carrying the Pilgrim Fathers set sail in 1620 from Rotherhithe, just down-river from my Bermondsey Street apiary. And theirs was the first Thanksgiving Feast, in 1621. Honeybees arrived in New England just a year later – quite possibly from Bermondsey – and european bees soon became a tell-tale sign for native Americans of creeping colonial encroachment. And let’s not forget John Harvard, who voyaged from his native Southwark to Massachusetts in 1637, cannily ensuring with his death-bed bequest “that the Colledge agreed upon formerly to bee built at Cambridg shalbee called Harvard Colledge.” For me, that just about sets a solid foundation for a special relationship between old Bermondsey and the New World.

But let’s fast-forward a few centuries to a grittier vision of the American Dream, glimpsed through Arthur Miller’s 1949 play “Death of A Salesman”. Willy Loman is the disillusioned Salesman – and his wife, Linda, makes a forlorn plea for individual human dignity in a post-WWII, baby-booming US of A: “So attention must be paid”, she quietly insists. Quite. So when a guy called Marcus from New York City, snazzily attired in a pork-pie hat, jeans and T-shirt, rocks up at your market stall, buys your honey and starts to enthusiastically articulate the relationship between honeybees and the “Travelling Salesman Problem” , you pay attention. I know I did.

Let’s get straight into geek mode and acronym “Travelling Salesman Problem” down to “TSP” (OK, hands up who spotted the even geekier switcheroo of a noun into a verb in that last phrase? You’re really going to enjoy the rest of this exposition!). I have to admit that when Marcus from NYC first brought up the idea that honeybees had solved the “TSP”, I was delighted. Imagine, the little beauties would dive-bomb the outstretched finger of the pesky “TS” as he reached to ring your door-bell, thus preventing the “TS” from becoming a “P”, just as you stepped into your shower. “No, that’s not it.” said Marcus from NYC.

Do you mean they’ve finally solved the problem of whether “TSP” means Tablespoonful or Teaspoonful in cook-books?” I marvelled, “Awesome that’s always been a killer for me. Aren’t bees wonderful ?” A glint appeared in Marcus from NYC’s gaze which stopped me in my tracks. He soon put me right….

As it turned out, “TSP” is the ne plus ultra of mathematical tough nuts and it poses the following question: “Given a list of cities and the distances between each pair of cities, what would be the shortest possible route for the travelling salesman to visit each city exactly once and return to the origin city?”. While this may sound a bit humdrum, imagine the permutation of routes which a honeybee could possibly choose between hundreds of flowers to be visited on a foraging flight (also recall “The Amazing Bee Brain” post on this blog). Then again, imagine how important TSP is at the cutting edge of our modern world, in such mission-critical functions as town-planning, logistics, the manufacture of microchips and even in DNA sequencing.

Back in 2010, it was reported that the tiny honeybee brain could outgun NASA-strength hardware in perfecting the “TSP” calculation. Well, sort of. There is no doubt that honeybees possess a sensational ability to organise their activities efficiently. Nor is there any gainsaying that honeybees demonstrate a fuel-sparing flight-path in foraging. But that observation doesn’t constitute the eureka moment for our human TSP solution. It simply means that the bees, possibly a few percentage points off algorithmic perfection, have solved the problem perfectly adequately for the own purposes. The Guardian loftily celebrated the David v. Goliath cheerleading for the brainy bees, while (a sort of gazetteer for diehards of TV’s “Big Bang Theory”) refuted the claims as “pop-science” in a slightly teen-hormone-imbalanced way. Take a look and make up your own mind.

So thank you, Marcus from NYC, for bringing “TSP” to my attention. Allow me to add a friendly observation from a grateful beekeeper, though. After buying two jars of Southwark Honey from my stall (you’d probably call it a “booth“) last Saturday, you said your fond farewells and joined the queue (sorry : “line”), for the Grimsby fishmonger. Leaving your bright pink honey-bag behind on my stall, however, means that you would have “flunked” (Gee whiz! I’m loving these “Death of A Salesman”-era Americanisms) a “TSP”-test.

As I said to Marcus from NYC after his enthralling exposition: “You learn something every day”. Which makes us all better human beings – and, some of us, quite possibly, better beekeepers. Happy Thanksgiving, Marcus from NYC !

A Food Furlong


Beekeeper and Barrow-Boy

Here at Bermondsey Street Honey, we scorn food miles. We deal in food furlongs. Last Saturday morning, we pitched the Bermondsey Street Honey barrow on the Bermondsey Square Market for the very first time. That’s just 220 yards, exactly a furlong (for younger readers, that’s one-eighth of a mile) away from the Bermondsey Street Apiary. In that short distance, the honey has undergone a transformation from the honeycomb in my hives. First it’s uncapped and spun out, then cold-filtered (three times), ripened, jarred and labelled and then transported over that single, flat furlong, to the spot where Bermondsey Abbey was founded in 1082. And there it is: a jar of award-winning Bermondsey Street Honey. Slap bang in the middle of the SE1 postcode, urban honey doesn’t get much more local than that !

Look Out, Maltby, Borough and Bermondsey Spa Markets – We Here Come!

Big thanks to Fabienne from Galileo Organic Farm for organizing the stall – and also to all the other traders at Bermondsey Square Market, who welcomed us day-trippers as a part of their tribe. We lashed the stalls together against the Bermondsey Square squalls and finished the set-up with a minute to spare…

Sarah's Salts
Get Your Honey and Herb Salts Here – They’re Luvverly!

The star feature, Bermondsey Street Honey, sold out after an hour. Having won Second prize at this year’s National Honey Show in the “Best Honey Inside The M25” category (a bit of a come-down from 2011’s First prize in the same category, but never mind – you get the message!). A word of advice for those who arrived too late at the stall to buy this consistently award-winning local Honey  – subscribe to this blog and you will receive a preferential offer to place an order for 2014’s honey harvest – the best way to ensure a taste of Bermondsey Street’s most sought-after spoonful!

Bermondsey Street Honey
Bermondsey Street’s Most Sought-After Spoonful

And our “pop-up”, 2013-only “Southwark Honey” was tasted on the stall – and it sold and sold and sold. This exquisite local Honey came from hives backing onto Southwark Park which were left to me 2013 by bee-breeders Craig and Leanne Knox, who have relocated to Belize. I used to buy Queens from Craig for the Bermondsey Street Apiary, so the bees which make Bermondsey Street Honey and “Southwark Honey” are part of our close-knit South London family. Wotcha darlin’, alright !

A Worker Bee, Sarah, And A Forager, Nikki.

As you can see from the snapshots, the sun shone all day – we really should have been selling sun-tan lotion! Old acquaintances, fellow beekeepers, dog-walkers and new friends made it a fantastic day. It was almost too much excitement for Eddie the Pug….

Sleeping Pug
Eddie, Our Top Salespug. In Action !

So there we are. I’m not sure whether to be nostalgic about last Saturday’s extravaganza, or to start making plans for an even bigger and better 2014 Bermondsey Street Honey stall. But there is one last thing left to mention:

Southwark Honey 1
Southwark Honey – 2013’s “Pop Up” Honey

This local, intensely floral honey is the perfect Christmas gift. It is the taste of sunshine. There are still a few jars left at our traditional retail outlet, Cave, at 210 Bermondsey St, London SE1 3TQ. And a few shiny bags of Sarah’s authentic Bermondsey Street Roasted Cumin Salt and Rosemary and Chilli Salt  can still be found on their shelves, too.

But, alas, nothing lasts forever…..


A Pinch Of Bermondsey Saffron – Or A Wispy “Lip-Weasel”?

Well, the bees have had the pollen and nectar from my crocus sativus. Now it’s my turn!

Here’s a pinch of saffron from the 120 bulbs which I planted in September. Each bulb has produced three vivid, crimson stigmas.

Yes, I know that these resemble the wispiest “lip weasel” for all of Mo-vember (when men grow moustaches in November, to raise money for prostate cancer charities), but the news from the Bermondsey Street Bees’ allotment is that delicate saffron harvest has been picked, dried and is now ready for action.

Jose Pizzaro’s Paella, anyone ?

Bermondsey Street Honey Now Available!

Bermondsey Street Honey
Bermondsey Street Honey

As promised when I started Apis, subscribers to this blog will receive a preferential opportunity to purchase Bermondsey Street Honey. The bad news is that there isn’t much to be had this year, given the poor start to 2013, from which the bees never completely recovered. The good news is that our honey won another gong at this year’s National Honey Show…and that the bees are in great condition as we head into winter!

So if you wish to buy this multiple award-winning Bermondsey Street Honey , it is available in 130 g jars at £7.50 per jar. (Actually, the weights are over 160 g, but that’s a small detail). Please indicate the quantity which you would like to buy to (in the event of oversubscription, orders will be pro-rated at my discretion) before midnight on Friday 22nd November.

On Saturday 23rd November 2013 from 10am-2pm, I will be selling my Southwark Honey for £10 per 300 g jar (this year I have been able to make a “second” honey from local Southwark hives) and making pre-ordered Bermondsey Street Honey available for collection from our pop-up stall at Bermondsey Square market .

For additional Christmas gift ideas, Sarah’s delicious Bermondsey Street Roasted Cumin & Rosemary and Chili salts , which have be sell-outs in previous years, will also be available.



Bees CloseUp_edited-1
Top-Down View Into A Cluster – Dark Seams Full Of Winter Bees

Three times last week, it happened. That’s a record. Once walking the dog in the rain, once while reviewing a CV for a client and once when pouring white wine for Sarah’s friends: the question on everybody’s lips was : “What Do Bees Do In Winter ?

Well, for starters, they don’t hibernate. Not in the sense that they curl up for a 3-month metabolic nap and lose half their body mass in the process, although, looking at a beehive on a frosty morning, that might seem a credible proposition.

We are warm-blooded creatures. Unlike bees, which are cold-blooded, we do not fall into a bottomless “chill coma” if the temperature drops below 10°C. So in winter, the bees adopt a communal strategy to avoid this outcome and form a cluster for survival. It is almost as if this reflex was just another stage in the bee lifecycle: egg, larva, pupa, bee, cluster.

So during extended cold periods, you can visualize honeybees drawing themselves together into the shape of a rugby ball (not unlike a settling swarm). In my mind’s eye, I’m seeing a small nation of bees, huddled between the frames in a hive over winter. I playfully call it “hivernation”. (OK, so it’s the French word for hibernation, but in English it crackles with connotations, which at least steer us away from the popular misconception of honeybee “hibernation”).

Our comprehension of the finer thermodynamics of the bee-cluster is imperfect, but the big picture is undisputed: the bees in the cluster vibrate their flight muscles while keeping their wings still, thereby raising their body temperatures, like a shiver. With thousands of bees “shivering” constantly, this warmth-creation in the broodnest, at centre of the cluster, packs out a temperature around 35°C, which is more or less our own human body temperature. That compares to a toasty thermostat setting of over 20°C required for the Queen’s survival and a risky, fuel-allowance-level of 10-15°C  for the insulating perimeter of the cluster. But be reassured. Intense outside cold is manageable – beekeepers in Finland will tell you that bees do not die from cold, given a proximate food source and adequate shelter. On the other hand, excessive humidity, heavy varroa loads, an outbreak of nosema or starvation can kill a colony.

The winter bee-cluster provides the key to unlock a second, more fundamental two-legged misconception about bees. Consider: we humans are fiercely proud of our individuality. We celebrate it in our choice of words, our clothes, our loves, our tattoos (or indeed, lack of the same). When we are in a crowd, we still profess our own identity and self-determination (consider the 37,000 runners in the London Marathon!). We can be inside a crowd, but we are not the crowd: we are, all the time, our own selves within that crowd.

Not so with bees. To our eyes, any single bee may appear to be an individual unit because of the imposition of our own insistence on uniqueness onto bees. But that is our error. In reality, that individual bee is always part of a higher organism: the bee colony. Think of it like this. Each bee is a solitary drop in the bee-bucket. The cluster illustrates this perfectly: the welfare of the colony is paramount, the outcome for each component is trivial. The bees aren’t just in a cluster – they are the cluster.

So what happens inside the cluster, when it’s at home? Well, it’s a slow-motion microcosm of the normal bee-world: a brood area in the middle, along with the Queen, surrounded by the winter bees. When those worker bees on the outer edge of the cluster become cold, they knead themselves towards the warm centre of the group to recover, and, dynamically, other bees will pulse up to the surface, taking their turn to shield the group from the winter chill. It may be that, in warmer interludes, the cluster will move to the honey stores, or move the honey from the comb to the cluster. But over an average winter, a colony will need some 30lbs of honey as fuel to burn at its economical, night-storage rate of activity. For beekeepers, “hefting” or weighing the hives is the best way to gauge whether the bees are light on stores and need an emergency food-parcel of sticky, white baker’s fondant (inverted sugar) onto the top of the cluster. Importantly, this has to be placed in direct contact with the cluster – it is an astonishing reality that bees will perish from starvation, torpid heads down in the empty food cells, just millimetres from ample energy reserves, rather than break the cluster in cold winter months.

And then there’s the inconvenient question – if the bees spend all winter eating honey and “shivering”, when do they get what our coy American cousins call a “comfort break” ? Well, a bee’s rectum expands to accommodate the waste material over the winter months and on the first warm day of spring, bees break the cluster. Chipped away from the block, a bee may leave the hive on a “cleansing flight” to jettison that accumulated waste. And so the bees appear again to us, popping out of the hive one by one, as solitary tokens of springtime. But what the cluster has taught us is that the colony itself is the organism. Then we can see each bee for what it is: a single strand in the weave of the colony’s fabric.

Time to get back to the mundane practicalities of existence: it is generally agreed amongst higher life-forms that it is best not to put your washing out to dry on the line on that very first fine, warm afternoon of the year! For obvious reasons…..

O For The Wings Of A Dove

Dale and Ivor In Trafalgar Square
My Younger Brother And I In Trafalgar Square

If you’ve come to read about bees, then you’re welcome to skip to the last 2 paragraphs. But if you don’t mind taking the scenic route, with a detour through the urban landscape of the London pigeon, please read on.

In my childhood, a half-term treat would be a family excursion to the West End of London. We’d start with a visit to the Pathé fim/cartoon cinema in Victoria followed by lunch at a Wimpy bar and then on to Trafalgar Square, at the heart of London, for the highlight of the day: feeding the pigeons. Quick beaks mobbed the birdseed sprinked all the way up the outstretched sleeve of my grey plastic mac, as if the rationing of the 1940s and 1950s were still embedded in their feathery psyches.

But how times have changed: the pigeons have been all but evicted from Trafalgar Square, Wimpy bars are rarer than red telephone boxes and YouTube has atomised the cartoon cinema concept.

For now, let’s focus on the pigeons (wild rock doves or winged rats: take your pick) which were routine walk-on extras in each reel of eastmancolor London. They say that Trafalgar Square is now host to just a couple of hundred feral pigeons, down from the 40,000 post-war peak. Nowadays, spikey anti-roosting strips prevent them perching on ledges and railway arches are festooned with netting to prevent them nesting. Ken Livingstone even deployed a pair of Harris hawks in Trafalgar Square, which were designed to deter the pigeons, but several hundred ended up “deterred to death” by the raptors. Not since the RAF saw off the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain have the skies over London seen such a dramatic change.

It is astonishing, isn’t it, how perceptions can change, too: from top biblical billing as Noah’s olive-branch bearer, revered namesake of St.Columba in the cradle of British Christianity and, in my youth, those spangly pigeons with their jaunty strut were cherished as the archetype of London’s “feathered friends”. Now they are considered to be vermin. (Foxes, cunning beasts, have managed to conjure up precisely the opposite outcome!) Marvel too, at the topsy-turviness of London’s political leadership on winged wildlife: the current Tory mayor has put in place several sustainable bee-friendly, grass-roots campaigns, while the previous Socialist incumbent visited medieval bloodsports on the pigeon populace of Trafalgar Square!

And speaking of medieval: in the Middle Ages, the peasantry had good reason to resent the dovecotes of their overlords. Jealously enclosed behind high walls, these pigeon-hives contained the flocks which not only pillaged their precious seed-corn and crops, but also provisioned their seigneurs’ table with plump paloma breasts and fresh eggs  – a glaring iniquity. And yes, my bees harvest nectar, pollen and propolis from the flora provided by my urban neighbours and then deliver it to my rooftop – but in keeping with tradition, this beekeeper ensures that each of his neighbours is “dotted” with a jar of honey in a effort to redistribute the booty.

So we have finally reached our destination on this avian excursion: it is the news that a UCL scientist has developed a downloadable Pigeon Sim which permits you to take to the skies above London, as if you were a pigeon.

Or – why not – a bee ? You see, I love to watch forager bees shooting out of the hive on that determined diagonal, disappearing into the middle distance of the London skyline, zeroing in on a rich nectar source. Yet as the excitement of that blast-off from the beehive fades, it’s replaced by twinge of regret when each bee-dot merges into the horizon – a small pang of abandonment. But, with a little flight of fancy, the Pigeon Sim summons up the spirit of my plastic-macced, fledgling boyhood and sends it soaring skywards.

As Dorothy Parker is reputed to have said (the origin of words, like bees on the wing, is impossible to attribute with absolute certainty): “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity“. Bees re-awaken in me a child-like sense of wonder, criss-crossed with curiosity.

And for that I thank them, from the bottom of my name-tagged, woolly socks.

And Is There Honey Still for Tea ?

Tea And Bees
Stands The Church Clock At Ten To Three?

Yes, Mr Brooke, there is “Honey still for tea“!

The BBKA survey reveals a recovery in 2013 honey yields over the disastrous 2012.

From my point of view, the strength and condition of colonies as we exit 2013 gives cause for optimism in 2014. There! I said it.

Good luck to all beekeepers out there for a successful overwintering.

LBKA : A Stinging Rebuke


I’m a beekeeper first and a blogger second. Whistleblowing comes way down my list (somewhere below allotment weeding, but just above buying cat litter and deleting junk e-mails).

Call me old-fashioned, but when I come across wrongdoing in an organisation to which I belong, my hackles rise.  Thus I felt duty-bound to blow the whistle on the demonstrably unpalatable activities of two recently-elected top officials of the London Beekeepers’ Association (LBKA) earlier this year. On 20th March 2013, I wrote an Open Letter of Resignation to the Committee of the LBKA, detailing the improper corporate governance by this small clique of senior officers.

I took my complaints about improper communication by the LBKA Secretary, Angela Woods, to the U.K’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).  My complaints against the LBKA Secretary and, by association, the LBKA Committee, have been fully upheld by ICO  (see page 3). Furthermore, as a result of my complaint, the LBKA has been required by ICO to amend its communication protocols with Members (see page 3) to bring them into Compliance with the Data Protection Act 1998.  The ICO decision also places the LBKA Secretary in breach of the LBKA Constitution, which clearly stated at the time of her improper communication with me that Members’ private: ”information will be stored on paper and computer records for use by LBKA solely for purposes directly relating to its activities”. This is a shameful outcome for the LBKA, one which diminishes its authority and credibility with its own Members, as well as the world outside the LBKA.

The LBKA Committee has made a mockery of its own democratic processes by not enacting the motion which I proposed and which was passed unanimously by show of hands at the 2012 LBKA AGM, which required disclosure of LBKA’s Officers’ bee-related commercial activities to the Membership. The inaction of the LBKA Committee in implementing this AGM motion does a disservice to its Membership and brings the LBKA into deeper disrepute.

What is more, the LBKA has also embarked on an ugly and unnecessary spat with its historic clubhouse, the Roots and Shoots charity in Lambeth, with the usual bellicose LBKA Officers leading the charge. I fondly recall my introduction to beekeeping at Roots and Shoots, when the LBKA was a beekeeping club, prioritising the communication of shared beekeeping skills between Members, and not a confrontational, headline-chasing hobby-horse for a small group of senior Officers.

Worse yet, a woefully incorrect article (co-authored by the LBKA’s newly-created Forage Officer) in the June edition of the British Beekeepers Association magazine, (pages 28-30), was effectively an advertorial for the other co-author’s FlowerScapes seed business and the LBKA’s branded wildflower-seed packs. The article concluded that hive density in London was equivalent to that required for the commercial pollination of orchards. The problem was that the data was grossly miscalculated – in favour of the commercial conclusion hoped for by the seed-sellers – by a factor of 30 times. That’s shabby science. A letter correcting the calculation by the Harrow BKA was published in the September BBKA magazine (Letters page) and a weaselly apology by the co-authors was submitted in mitigation of their error. This pseudo-science, pushing their product for profit, does no favours for the cause of bees, pollinator-friendly forage and beekeeping in London.

That flawed article also contained a further example of the LBKA’s Secretary’s habit of promoting her personal business interests under the LBKA banner (which was part of what ICO required the LBKA secretary and others to cease in their communications with LBKA Members). The LBKA Secretary runs a Photographer’s Agent business. In the article, there are 3 photos credited to her professional clients. The LBKA Secretary should be promoting LBKA Members’ interests, not her own. (I am sure that many LBKA Members have passable images of a beehive inspection, or of seed packets which they would be delighted to have representing an article with a strong LBKA association – do you expect that any one of the general LBKA membership was invited to submit photos for this article?)

This is precisely the blurring of personal and LBKA business interests which I found, and continue to find, distasteful and unacceptable, from elected LBKA representatives. I urge LBKA Members to consider how the actions of a small number of senior LBKA officers are consistently bringing the LBKA into disrepute.

Ironically, today was the 495th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his letter of dissent to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, which led to the Reformation.  In my own small way, I sympathise with Martin Luther’s frustration against a corrupt and oppressive 16th-century Church – my own protest is against a tyrannical Beekeeping Association (!) which is demonstrably more interested in selling over-priced seed-packets under false pretences (modern-day indulgences for the guilt-racked burghers of London!) and in self-promotion than in the craft of beekeeping. So I would like to think that, having nailed this missive to the LBKA’s beehive, a reformation will be set in motion.

Heigh-ho! In the meantime, I’m off to weed the allotment !