Beekeeping: A Pretty Sticky Business

Close to the intermittent roar of an airport, nestled on the outskirts of our rather raucous city, there is an area unassuming: a grassy curb-side patch. Most casual passers-by are oblivious to what lies within. Here, in this ersatz oasis, East End insects hum. It’s a heaven of hives and honey.

Dale Gibson, the man behind Bermondsey Street Bees, is one of London’s most accomplished beekeepers and a prominent apiculture consultant. Dale swapped banking for beekeeping in 2006 after persuading his employers to launch an early retirement programme… which he promptly made use of. 

‘Whilst sat in my allotment, wondering what to do, a bee landed on the blossom of a damson plum in front of me. That’s when I thought about having a beehive at home, to connect to a more natural world. It grew very quickly from there.’ Dale explains. It’s a quintessentially summertime scene: the plum, the bee, the ‘eureka’ moment in an allotment, all rippling with rich foliage, kaleidoscopes of flora swaying in the wind. 

Dale inspects the bees.

dale gibson, the man behind bermondsey street bees, is one of london’s most accomplished beekeepers…

It’s exactly this set-up that leads to good honey: a sustainable environment, full of forage fit for all sorts of pollinators. Dale, gently sifting through the sacculated goodness of a hive situated on a brownfield site on the old Royal Docks, points, ‘Look at the bottom of the hives, you’ll see lots of pollen and debris from the wax. This is great news! If they’re building wax, it means they’re bringing in pollen.’

The arrival of summer marks a very busy time for the bees. According to the London Beekeeping Association, just to continue living a colony needs to collect 50kg of pollen and 250kg of nectar a year, across an estimated 55,000 miles of flight and 4 million visits to flowers. All this to produce just one pot of honey.

A bee colony.

Just to continue living a colony needs to collect 50kg of pollen and 250kg of nectar a year…

Collecting requires forage, and the lack of it is driving part of the problem with urban beekeeping, something which Dale is worried about. It may surprise some to learn that London is 47% green space. However, these green spaces are not adequately planted, or curated, for insects in need of a polycultural environment. London, as of 2021, had an estimated 7,400 hives. The number has doubled in ten years due to the newly ordained swarm of amateur beekeepers, often galvanised by the ‘Save the Bees’ message. Yet they place huge stress on the bees who already lack adequate sustenance and now have to live in an unsuitably dense ecosystem. The result? Spikes in disease and decimation of colonies.

‘If you look at the UN data for global managed hives, Honey bees are at record highs. The “Save the Bees” message does not apply to them.’ The team at Bermondsey Street Bees now turns down inappropriate enquires from people seeking to install hives without sufficient knowledge.

The UK is home to over 250 species of native bee, and it’s these insects that are in vital need of help. ‘In the summer of 2020, we decided to move 30% of our hives outside of London. We can’t say to other people, “look, this whole situation is difficult and unsustainable”, then not do anything about it ourselves. We have decided to lead by example and do what we believe is right.’ 

One of Dale's sites in the East London docklands.

But what if we want to help? Here’s Dale’s advice: Build a garden! Be it your own or a community project. Plant lots of native plants for the pollinators, then youll see plenty of bees coming to you.’ Gardening is an achievable – and pleasingly straightforward – way to improve the habitat in our city. It’s certainly better than hiring someone without Dale’s ethical stance, who might agree to install hives on tall rooftops or in dark corners of gardens, where it’s a nightmare for the colony.

here’s dale’s advice: Build a garden…

Should you need extra information, Dale’s wife, Sarah Wyndham Lewis, has written a bestseller called Planting for Honeybees. ‘She’s actually mildly allergic to bee stings, so unfortunately we cant be beekeeping buddies’ Dale chuckles. ‘Her book, however, sold very well. Which, thinking about it, may have had more of an impact at times than even tending to the bees has.’

Keep an eye out for the Royal Horticultural Societies ‘perfect for pollinators’ mark of approval on wildflower packets. In no time at all you’ll be welcoming in a host of native pollinators, insects and bees. Take extra pleasure from knowing that somewhere, there’s an expert beekeeper who’ll happy we’ve listened. ‘You have no idea how happy bees make people who love bees!’ Dale told us, a huge grin on his face. 

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