Build A Bee-Hive
Construction Site

I’m an optimist. It goes with the beekeeper territory. For me, each New Year is an onrushing utopia. And late December is when that optimism goes into overdrive and I shift into construction mode to accomodate an expanding bee-population. If the innkeeper in Bethlehem, 2014 years ago, had been a beekeeper with similar impulses, then the entire Nativity story could have been different and we would be singing carols like: “Away In Brood-Box”, O Come All Ye Foragers” and “O Little Hive Of Bermondsey“.

Anyway, last weekend’s build was designed to shelter a single mother and her 50,000 offspring (from up to 20 different, all mysteriously deceased, fathers) from the mean streets of SE1. That’s a tall order. The material for this 14” x 12” brood box was cedar, a light and durable wood. Hand-crafted construction, a modicum of low-impact nailing, a dab of wood glue – et voila! – the perfect four-wall habitat for raising a large family in central London.

Measure twice, cut once, is the carpenter’s motto. And the measurement at the root of all beehive construction is an improbable fraction: 5/16 of an inch. That’s the magical “beespace”,which is the gap between two surfaces which will allow two bees to pass, back to back. Any bigger than 5/16 inch and the bees would span my serried, removable brood frames with wax “brace” comb. Any smaller than 5/16 inch and they would gum up the gap with propolis. In both cases, the frames would become as rigid as a toast-rack. To get the right results, precision is key.

It’s a funny old thing, beespace. At 5/16 of an inch, it shares its awkward mathematics with other constants like pi, attractively packaged at 3.14159, or the speed of light, which clocks on at precisely 299,792,458 metres/second. In a parallel universe, in which Douglas Adams wrote the Beekeeper’s Guide to the Galaxy, the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything would be 5/16 of an  inch (rather than the correct answer of 42 for our own universe, of course). So my cheery Advent optimism was severely challenged by a visit to one of the last functioning limbs of the necrotic Heygate Estate last week. Yes: the discovery of an eternal formula for harmonious human habitation would be a good thing. I half-thought that I was onto something when I saw that the red bus which served the Estate was numbered “42”. But even that happy integer could not lift my hopes that human beings might be able to mimic the Extremely Social Housing of the beehive anytime soon.

That said, it’s hardly surprising that the same sort of things which diminish human quality of life in social housing are very similar to the things which will really upset bees in their boxes, too. Take this article from the Guardian on the Housing Associations Charitable Trust’s seven top negatives for social housing, in descending order of degrading the quality of human life…..

  1. Noise: If you want to see angry bees, try pushing a two-stroke-engine lawn-mower past a moody hive.
  2. Damp: Moisture is more fatal for bees than cold: it promotes mould and can block breathing tubes.
  3. Poor Lighting: Obvious when you think about it, but the inside of a hive is dark ! The exception.
  4. No Garden: Yep, I can see how that works for bees and humans alike.
  5. Condensation: See “Damp”. Another problem is that the varroa mite loves high humidity.
  6. Rot: Another product of high humidity. Ever picked up a rotten hive and the bottom fell out? I have!
  7. Vandalism: Bees are happy to pilfer each other’s stores, but averse to wantonly damaging property.

(If you are feeling like delving deeper into the human aspect of Social Housing, take a peek at Chris Brown’s excellent regeneration blog)

As for the build, take it from me that the Bermondsey Street Bees will be delighted with their brand new hive….and that, without the faintest shadow of a hint of a doubt, 2014 will be a much better bee-year than 2013 !

Bee-Hive Built
Extremely Social Housing


Primrose, Queen Of Thames Hive

Check out the Bermondsey Street Bees’ dedicated video channel BermondseyStreetBeesOnAir.

Here you will find some fascinating hive-by-hive views of busy bees in Bermondsey and Suffolk – as well as the cult-classic “short”: “The Day The Queen Came To Tea“.

And by the way, Bermondsey Street Bees on Facebook notched up their 1000th ” Like” this week and @BermondseyBees on Twitter now has over 75 followers.

It’s fair to say that the beekeeper does get out more than the bees at this time of year, so on FB and Twitter you’ll see more of the wide world than on “Apis“, which keep its focus trained on the bee-stuff. Mostly.

At least no-one could accuse the consistently award winning Bermondsey Street Bees of idling during the Winter months!

Top Party Tips

9 Out Of 10 Bees Prefer It

Resplendent in my festive sequined bee deely boppers, I’d like to propose a couple of top tips for enhancing the Christmas Party experience.

First of all, on no account get trapped in the corner by someone spouting popcorn philosophy about bees. Top of my avoid-list this year is the orwellian platitude: “We are all beekeepers“. Recoil, make your excuses and leave…..

Secondly, next time you are scanning a wine list for a light, lip-smacking white wine, see if you can spot a Fiano. And make a bee-line for it! It’s delicious and it’s tinged with bee-mythology.

I had haphazardly ordered a bottle of Fiano from Mezzogiorno in Puglia for (an admittedly self-styled “Three Wise Men”) Christmas lunch. I suppose the bottle was keenly-priced and I just liked the idea of drinking a wine from a producer called Mezzogiorno at lunchtime. The wine-waiter poured and I tilted my glass and inhaled – but he really got my attention when he extolled the virtues of the Fiano grape variety for Italian bees.

Intriguingly, it is the sweet pulp of the Fiano grape which holds a peculiar attraction for foraging bees. Which makes sense, since the modern Fiano grape is said to have been the grape known in Roman times as vitis apiana, which made the legendary Roman wine Apianum.

I’ll leave the last word to a pro: here’s a Fiano Mezzogiorno tasting note from James Goodhart of Bon Coeur (geddit ?) Fine Wine: £7.79 :”Bright lemon colour, vibrant white with scents of peach, orange zest and a touch of honeysuckle. Crisp, fresh and dry this wine has good texture and nice length. Palate has same stone fruit characters, zingy passion fruit and long finish with soft mineral notes.”

No wonder 9 out of 10 bees prefer it!

“B Is For Bill”

Beekeeper And Four Hives – Bill Woodrow RA

If you’re looking for a break from the mayhem of Christmas shopping in London’s West End, you could do worse than pop into the Royal Academy on Piccadilly.

This article B is for Bill  from the Royal Academy Winter magazine features Bill Woodrow RA as an experimental sculptor and a recent convert to the craft of beekeeping.

There is a small beekeeping element in the video clip embedded in the article. In particular, Bill discusses his 1997 sculpture “Beekeeper and Four Hives” (see image).

The good news is that Bill Woodrow’s Exhibition is open until 16th February 2014 (so it works as a haven from the New Year Sales, too!) in the RA’s new Burlington Gardens venue.

December Blossom

City Hall Blossom

December blossom at City Hall : sunny, blue skies and 11 degrees….perfect for a Sunday stroll. And so the Bermondsey Street Bees are flying on 8th December 2013 ! Merry Christmas !