Lee Westcott’s a rising star of the London restaurant scene, with his uber-cool Typing Room in Bethnal Green Town Hall setting a high standard of finesse and pure enjoyment of food and flavours. Continue reading “Too Many Chefs?”
In life, as in beekeeping, when you collaborate with talented people, good things happen.
When Hung (pronounced “Hoong”) Quach approached me to propose an article about the Bermondsey Street Bees‘ rooftop apiary, in the “Locality” section of her Jet and Indigo blog, I was delighted to accept. I had been especially impressed with the crispness and clarity of her photographs (and her food images in particular) and Hung’s bee photography certainly did not disappoint! Continue reading “In The Apiary : Mid June : Jet and Indigo”
At 5.31pm precisely the doorbell rang. It was the Seasonal Bee Inspector for South London, Brian McCallum, sent from the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) on a routine visit to the Bermondsey Street Bees. In the 8 years in which I have been keeping bees, this was my first visit from an inspector. Or, as I like to look at it, the first time I have been offered a free beekeeping lesson from an expert, paid for by Her Majesty’s Government. Hey, Brian, great to see you! But what kept you so long? Suiting-up on the roof terrace, I noticed that Brian’s bee-suit’s breast pocket has a badge with the insignias of “Fera” and “National Bee Unit” sewn into it. Now, there used to be a government department called Fera, which was formed in 2009. But Fera is now a limited company, owned 75% by Capita plc and 25% by DEFRA (Department of Food and Agriculture). Of course, DEFRA was created to absorb the splendidly-titled Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) in 2002. And the Bee Inspectorate was transferred from Fera to APHA late last year. Can anyone out there explain why government departments change their name-tags as freqently as those of the baristas at your local Costa Coffee? Dizzying, isn’t it? Anyway, smoker lit, we set straight to work. Brian was soon performing the slow ballet of beekeeping on our precarious fourth storey rooftop. Standing in a narrow gully between the pitched slate roof and the brick parapet on which the hives stand, we danced a pas-de-deux, as elegantly as possible in our veiled bee-suits, visiting Abbey Hive, Square Hive, Swarm Hive, Neckinger Hive, Leathermarket Hive, Shard Hive and Thames Hive.
Spring has been a long time coming, but finally, I’ve been able to crack open my hives and inspect the Bermondsey Street Bees, checking up on their health, development and well-being – and especially on each hive’s Queen.
Let’s take a closer look at these Green Queens. Green was the Queen marking colour for 2014, when these Majesties were born. This year’s dab of fast-drying marker pen on a new Queen’s thorax will be Blue. But more of that another time. Let’s focus on the Queens in each hive as the business end of 2015’s season gets underway:
Abbey Hive is my breeding hive. It has consistently produced excellent, well-tempered and productive Queens for my Apiary. Queen Jade is no exception: victorious, happy and glorious, indeed. Right now, Abbey Hive is the most populous of all my Bermondsey Street hives and it has a smattering of drones already, with a few more to come, but the look of the cells on the bottom of a couple of the frames and some empty “play cups“. Taking my cue from the bees I have just put a Snelgrove board in, with the intention of raising some more model Queens from this genetic dynasty.
Shard’s Queen Esmeralda was introduced to this queenless hive 10 days ago and she is going great guns. Amazingly, she seems to have physically grown in stature since I moved from a small mating hive into the more capacious Shard hive. Just goes to show…
It looks as if Myrtle, Queen of Thames hive, has been bustling around vigorously, too, given the faded patch of paint on her thorax. Not to worry. I’ll get her a makeover soon.
Finally, a glimpse of Grunhilde, Queen of Neckinger hive – she starred in my rooftop video (“Extreme Beekeeping“) earlier this week – so I don’t want to all this media exposure going to her head!
So there we are: an introduction to the Bermondsey Street Bees and their anointed Queens. And there’s more: there’ll be updates “In The Apiary” updates every month throughout the summer!
Life’s never perfect, is it? Yes, the sun was shining. And indeed, the temperature was balmy. But it was blowing a storm on the Bermondsey Street Bees’ rooftop when I transplanted Neckinger Hive from a 5-frame nucleus into a full-size hive, having waited all weekend for better weather. Welcome to Extreme Beekeeping !
Last Saturday, 4th April, BBC Radio 4 joined me on my rooftop to meet the Bermondsey Street Bees. In case you missed it, here is the BBC podcast of the show.
Open the 4th April show and advance to 44 minutes and 20 seconds into the programme. That’s the start of my slot.
It was all great fun and R4’s Pete Ross was rock-steady up on the roof with the bees – a consummate professional.
My one regret was that the impassioned words on my Forage Campaign were left on the cutting room floor. So here’s are the “stab-points”: “Bees can’t eat kind words“. “Bees won’t thrive on good intentions“. “It is the moral responsibility of every beekeeper to ensure sufficient forage for their bees“. Rant over!
So I am resigned to going down in posterity as the guy who ended up under Helena Bonham-Carter (in the show’s interviewed guest list, that is), rather than as the Martin Luther of modern beekeeping.
Next time, I’m shooting for Desert Island Discs. I bet no-one’s ever asked Kirsty for: “Ted Hooper’s “Guide To Bees and Honey”, please.“
I like radio. I’m told I have the perfect face for it.
Tune into BBC Radio 4’s “Saturday Live” from 9am – 10.30am on 4th April 2015 to hear all about the Bermondsey Street Bees.
It’s Abbey Hive’s first inspection of the year – and we’re shouting it from the rooftops!
The varroa mite is an ubiquitous parasite on British honeybees.
Just imagine having a spikey dinner-plate stuck to your back, vampiring your vital fluids – and you have an idea of what a varroa mite does to a bee.
So beekeepers treat their bees against varroa throughout the year, but this mid-winter application of a very dilute (3.2%) rhubarb acid (oxalic acid) in sugar syrup is the most important off all, since the hive should have little of no brood in it – which is where the varroa mites themselves breed – and so all the mites are on the bees (the technical term is “phoretic“) and they are vulnerable to the acid, which the bees transfer around their winter cluster.
In this video, the hive is opened for just one minute as the treatment is applied, so that the overwintering cluster of bees in the brood chamber, heated by the bees to a mid-20C temperature even on my chilly rooftop, does not get dangerously cold.
This will reduce the varroa load dramatically and set the Abbey Hive bees up for a healthy build-up into the spring. Merry Christmas !
At last Saturday’s Night Market on Bermondsey Square, we were selling our award-winning Bermondsey Street Honey. And we sold out.
Our stall was very much a family affair, with Sarah’s immaculate styling putting our product on elegant display and Xander, Maff and I selling the honey, candles, honey and salt hand-scrub, natural beeswax furniture polish, bone-china bee-mugs and organic T-shirts (OK, so we didn’t sell many T-shirts at a couple of degrees above zero!).
A shiver ran down my spine as it occured to me that our stall was precisely on the spot where Bermondsey Abbey had stood, founded just after the Norman Conquest on the site of a 7th Century monastery. That sudden time-shift placed the Bermondsey Street Bees as the inheritors of a 1300-year history of beekeeping in that very place.
While I knew that bees and monks went back a long way, I pondered on that connection and came up with a few reasons why monks would have been keen beekeepers.
Wax was an important commodity for churches. With stoutly-build walls to withstand Viking raids and small windows to allow maximum advantage to defenders against aggression, the ability of a beeswax candle to light the interior, even on the brightest summer’s day, was invaluable. Unlike tallow (animal fats), beeswax burns clean, with a heavenly smell of wax and honey. So the monks would have valued their bees partly for the devotional aspect of their wax combs.
Bees are excellent pollinators. Even though the science of pollination was unknown in the 7th century, the happy propinquity of honeybees with a kitchen garden – and many arable crops – would not have escaped notice. Bees would have been important to sustain a large religious community. But in a modern, urban brickscape like Bermondsey Street, it is imperative for us to create adequate forage. To that end, I have put flowerbeds into St. Mary Magadalen Churchyard (Southwark grant) and fruiting, edible plantings into Leathermarket Gardens (with plants from Bankside Open Spaces Trust) and I maintain an allotment at Alscot Road, by Bermondsey Spa. We need to do more than just talk about forage provision to ensure a healthy, happy bee-population in London.
And finally, there’s the honey itself. Let’s not underestimate what honey would have represented in when the Bermondsey Abbey was set up in 1082 by Alywn Childe. It had been a luxury item in nature long before human beings existed – ask any bear! And consider: when you put some honey in your mouth, that sunburst of sweetness is precisely the same sensation as the first human being would have experienced. True, the same would go for oysters – except that honey is a substance made by other creatures, it is not the creatures themselves. Surely that is part of the wonder of honey as a foodstuff.
It is humbling to acknowledge that honey had already reached its peak of perfection millions of years before mankind started walking upright and that, subsequently, the ingenuity of the human race has failed to improve upon honey’s sublime simplicity.
Remember that, in the 7th century, there was no sugar, no treacle, no chocolate, no candy. Honey was the only way to store sweetness to enjoy on its own or to add to another foodstuff. Honey, this rare and remarkable substance, once sealed on the comb, can be stored almost indefinitely.
And then there honey as a medicine, salving wounds and soothing allergies, and then again as an agent of fermentation, used to produce intoxicating drinks, like mead. And do you know what ? Bermondsey Street Honey is a key ingredient of award-winning Hiver Beer since the first batch was bottled in 2012. Another resonance, ringing down the years from ancient Bermondsey Abbey to today.
But before I get completely carried away, let’s just say that I’m proud to be carrying on the ancient tradition of Bermondsey beekeeping – and selling our honey with Sarah, Xander and Maff on the spot where Bermondsey Abbey used to stand.
Wouldn’t it be nice if there was no dividing line between your work and your way of life?
Spend a minute to meditate, if you will, watching the comings and goings at the entrance of Abbey Hive on my Bermondsey Street rooftop, hauling in the Lime flow.
Now apply to become a bee!