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BEOCOERLS

 photo: Janice Perry

‘I know a bank where the whereon the wild thyme blows,

Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows

Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,

With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine.’

- Shakespeare

London in Shakespeare’s day was confined to the north bank of the River Thames. Across London Bridge on the south bank and outside of the confining walls and statutes of the cities of London and Westminster was another world. Here were the theatres, and it was here that the actor playing Oberon in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, and his audiences, could reasonably claim to know a bank where the wild thyme blew, for wildness was all around them.

At Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on the South Bank of the Thames, wildness was all around, on the Thames and its banks one side and in the fields and meadows the other. Wildness remains only footsteps away from the reconstructed Globe if you only know where to direct your feet. Not far from where Oberon’s lines were first spoken to a London audience four centuries ago, is a community apiary in a corner of a London Park that produces enough Kiwi fruit for an annual harvest festival and day of jam-making, the flowers of the Kiwi trees pollinated by some of the bees in the apiary’s fifteen hives. It is not just Kiwi fruit to be found there. There is plenty of other produce to feed on, and the apiary has regular party nights, with dough cooked in its al fresco pizza oven and a chef who has a secret spot nearby where he forages for wild truffles to slice on his most sought-after pizza. This is Kennington Park.

W.H.Hudson, writing at the end of the nineteenth century, described Kennington Park as ‘a small and far from other breathing-space, in the midst of a populous district. The blackbird, thrush, hedge-sparrow, and robin are here; but it is hard for these birds to rear their broods, in the case of the robin impossible I should say, on account of the Kennington cats. Here, as in the neighbourhood of the other open spaces in London, the evening cry of ‘All out!’ is to them an invitation to come in.’ R.S.R.Fitter, writing just after the Second World War, adds rats to cats as predators of London’s bird life.

Kennington Park is a pleasant stroll on a warm afternoon from the playhouse and the players of Shakespeare’s Globe. The hives of the parks apiary are not confined to just to the park but can be found on the estates around, on garage roofs, and even on the terraces of the National Theatre. It is perhaps the biggest beehive operation in London today. The beekeepers plant plenty of thyme by their hives. The bees enjoy its nectar, attracted by the scent and colour of the flowers, and the essential oil in the plants’ leaves deter the pesky varroa mite that has decimated the honeybee population since it first arrived in Europe in the 1990s.

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Across the river from the Globe, in the City of London, the doors to an observation hive are open and Liz Samuelson is standing peering through the toughened glass windows on the lookout for bees doing their waggle dance. She has a stop watch in hand. Every so often she will click the watch to start timing a bee as she sees her begin her dance and then click again when the dance has finished. Sometimes the dance will last just a few seconds. Then having checked the length of the dance, and glancing up at the sun, she will shout a direction and point with her arm: ‘Two kilometers that way!’ Glenn Ahearn, standing close by her, will position the map on his phone, make his own calculation and give a location: ‘Victoria Park’. Then a much shorter time lag between her clicks and a point in different direction. ‘Half a kilometre over there!’ ‘Bunhill Fields,’ comes the reply.

This is the roof of the Bloomberg Building in the City of London, as urban a location as you will ever find a beehive. Liz Samuelson is a researcher from Royal Holloway College, University of London, and Glenn Ahearn is the man at Bloomberg who helps me look after their bees. Liz is researching into where bees forage for food. She has twenty hives set up in urban and rural locations tracking where the bees go to forage and what they bring back to the hive. This is her innermost urban location. As a bee returns to the hive with pollen or nectar, she, for they are all females, sisters and half-sisters, and daughters of the one queen, will do a dance brushing against the other bees to tell them how far away and in what direction they can find the flower that she has carried the scent of back to the colony. The stronger the dance, the richer will be the source of forage, and the greater the number of bees who will leave the hive to collect from the flowers that the dance has told them of.

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Londoners have always kept bees. From his shop a mile or so from the Bloomberg roof, at 326 Holborn, Daniel Wildman sold both bees and hives in the second half of the eighteenth century. Wildman’s hives were based on the traditional English skeps, woven from straw and looking like upside-down waste paper baskets. His innovation was to put bell jars above a hole at the top of each hive into which the bees would build comb and store honey. The queen, abhorring sunlight, would stay below in the skep and not come above to lay eggs in the glass jars. When the jar was full of wax comb and honey it could be removed, with no eggs, larvae or brood contaminating it, and with no danger to the queen, and then be replaced with a fresh jar. So it was that Daniel Wildman harvested his honey. Like Liz Samuelson he too was curious to know where his bees foraged for the nectar they transformed into honey, and so he would sit at the front of his hives in Holborn and dust his bees with flour as they left in search of forage. Watching the direction of their flight, he would mount his horse and gallop off behind them. If his luck was in, would come across a flour covered bee sucking nectar from a blossom, or packing pollen from a flower into the sacs on her back legs. He tracked them as far North as Hampstead Heath four miles away.

Wildman was a showman as well as a beekeeper. Advertisements in the London press announced that:

‘At Mrs. Dobney’s Tea Gardens near the ‘Three Hats’ pub in Islington, Mr. Daniel Wildman will give an exhibition of bees on horseback… this and every evening, until further notice (wet evenings excepted). The celebrated Daniel Wildman will exhibit several new and amazing experiments, never attempted by any man in this or any other kingdom before. The rider standing upright, one foot on the saddle and one on the neck, with a mask of bees on his head and face. He also rides standing upright on the saddle with the bridle in his mouth, and, by firing a pistol, makes one half of the bees march over the table, and the other swarm in the air and return to their hive again, with other performances too tedious to insert. The doors open at six; to begin at a quarter to seven. Admittance: - Box and gallery, 2s; the other seats, 1s.’

Wildman’s book, ‘A complete guide for the management of bees’, published in 1773, was a best seller, running to numerous editions and being published in French and Italian translations on the continent.

There has been an association for beekeepers in London since 1883. A century ago there were an estimated one million managed colonies of bees in Britain, now the figure is a quarter of that but is growing again. When I began keeping bees back at the turn of the millennium, there were just a handful of members left in the London Beekeepers Association. Social antipathy to having bees in the city, the encroachment of oil seed rape the nectar of which produces rock hard honey of no use to man or bee, and the coming from the East of the varroa mite (Varroa destructor) had seen a rapid decline in the population not just of bees but also of the amateur beekeepers.  Things turned around a year or two later when media coverage of the decline of the honeybee and increasing awareness of human dependency on the honeybee for around a third of all the food we consume, led to a sudden upsurge in interest in beekeeping not just in London but in cities around the world. A new, young, ecologically aware generation took up the ancient crafts of husbanding bees.

Most of the new breed of beekeepers is amateur each with a hive or two in their garden or local allotment. The amateur beekeeper is a relatively new phenomenon. The ‘Rectitudines Singularum Personarum’ written in 1000 AD itemised all the jobs and relative status of the various people who worked on the land. One of those jobs was that of the Beocoerl, the Beekeeper, lowest rank of free men and equivalent to that of swineherd. In the Doomsday Book beekeepers are called Mellittarii and Custos Apium, the first literally means Honey-er, the second Keeper of Bees. The Doomsday Book, William the Conqueror’s ‘Great Survey’ of 1035 which confirmed the ownership of all the land in England and who was responsible for the taxation due on it, also mentions one very special Custos Apium who was The King’s Beekeeper. Beocoerls were itinerant, travelling the parish or further afield, husbanding people’s beehives. Even as late as the 1880s members of the Middlesex Beekeepers Association would call on a professional beekeeper to extract their honey and prepare their hives for winter. It was only with the coming of the modern hive with its removable frames that amateur beekeeping became possible. Until the Rev. Lorenzo Langstroth noticed in 1851 that the bees in his hives always built their comb in vertical sheets and always with just enough space between them for the bees to pass one another on facing sheets of comb without knocking each other off, that modern beekeeping began.

Langstroth came up with the idea of persuading the bees to build their comb in frames which could be removed without damaging the hive. As long as the frames had the requisite ‘bee space’ between, the bees would contain their comb within the frames and they could be removed, the honey extracted, and then the frames replaced with minimal disturbance to the colony. If the combs of a hive could be kept between ¼ and 3/8 of an inch apart (6mm and 9mm) the bees would be able to work and both sides without knocking each other off and without the need join them together with bits of bracing comb. Langstroth devised a hive with movable wooden frames kept in boxes which could be piled on each other and removed at will without destroying the nest. For the first time it became possible to inspect the bees, remove frames and extract honey, add extra boxes of frames to encourage honey production and so on, all without harming the colony. The story goes that Langstroth experimented with an old wine box and it was the size of that box that dictated the dimensions of his frames. Whether true or not, Langstroth created the first modern bee hive and all those made since have been constructed on his principles. Before that Beocoerls would have to use smoking sulphur to remove the bees before harvesting the honey from the skep, often destroying the colony in the process.  Unless that is the bees were in one of Daniel Wildman’s fancy hives topped with bell jars full of honey.

As London became urbanised bees became fewer. Before the Industrial Revolution every second or third dwelling had a bee hive. As the cities encroached on the countryside, many of those hives disappeared. Some survived in parks and gardens and allotments. Others just moved upwards onto roofs. Britain has one of the highest population densities in the world, some 672 Britons per square mile, yet most of those are crammed into the seven per cent of the country that is classified as urban. Stretching over 388,284 acres, the urban sprawl that is London has more green space than any other European capital city: 47 per cent. The parks and wild areas are huge. Hampstead Heath where Wildman’s bees went off to forage is 790 acres, Wimbledon Common 1140 acres, Richmond Park, largest of London’s green spaces a vast 2360 acres, and in the very heart of the city bounded by Mayfair, Kensington and Bayswater are the 630 acres of Hyde Park. A campaign launched in 2016 aimed to make London the first city to be declared a National Park. It cited these numbers to change the Urban Jungle paradigm to an Urban Park paradigm, for within London are:

 

2 National Nature Reserves

1400 Sites of importance for nature conservation

 300 parks

300 farms

142 local nature reserves3.8 million gardens

83 million trees

30,000 allotments

13,000 species of wildlife

 

Writing about beekeeping in London in 1866, Alfred Neighbour, who himself kept bees in Holborn and in Regent Street, noted that, ‘many persons now in this noisy city pen.... should doubt even the possibility of bees feeding themselves amidst such an “endless meal of brick”.’ Neighbour bought and sold bees. In the summer of 1865 he had a swarm waiting to be taken to a buyer in the country and temporarily housed it overnight, ‘on the leads at the back of our house, 149, Regent Street. The sun shining hot on the hive, or some other cause, induced the inmates to decamp. A passer-by called in to inform us that some bees had arrested the progress of a cab. We at once conjectured that they were those of our missing swarm, the absence of which had previously puzzled us not a little; so we sent our man with a straw hive to bring the truants back, which he succeeded in doing, followed to the door by a crowd, who were amazed at the sight of the “’oney-bees”, as the Cockney lads called them. Cabby had to be compensated for the loss of his fare, for the affrighted passengers had left him in a hurry, so that, altogether, no little commotion was caused – a crowd so soon collected in London streets.’

I began keeping bees after a lifetime working in the theatre. I took an evening class to learn what I could, found a generous and knowledgeable old beekeeper to mentor me and give me my first swarm, and then searched for a site where I would be allowed to keep a hive. It was the Wildlife Garden at London’s Natural History Museum that came to my rescue after everywhere else I approached refused my advances. The Wildlife Garden is one of London’s most astonishing oases. Perhaps just an acre in size, it was designed and planted up in 1995 to demonstrate in living form the wide variety of British lowland habitats. Its mission was to allow Londoners to experience ‘the English countryside in the middle of the capital’. Into its small space are to be found deciduous woodland, chalk meadow, heathland, reed bed and ponds. All the habitats have matured and over 3,000 species of animals and plants make their home there. It is a haven for humans too, and with its own bore hole for water, composting toilet, and log burning stove inside the wooden shed that doubles as an office, the garden is a pioneer of self-sustainability.

The keeper of the Garden, Caroline Ware, aware of the need for pollinators to keep her richness of flora seeded, had been looking to have a beehive.  This was at the time when the honeybee population in London and elsewhere in the UK had declined so much as to become critical. A phenomenon which came to be known as ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’ was destroying hives, and those dependent on seasonal beehive movements to pollinate their crops were becoming anxious that the very future of European and North American pollination dependent agriculture was under threat. Media attention about the plight of the honeybee helped to grow public awareness, increasing numbers of organisations and individuals wanted to help, and within a year of two of my putting a couple of hives in the Wildlife Garden, I was being asked, as one of the few remaining amateur beekeepers in the city, to become a professional. So it was that I became a Beecoerl.  Now I am not alone. There are professional and semi-professional beekeepers in London and across the UK once more.

And they are to be found overseas as well.  Even New York, where beekeeping had been illegal since the city was founded, embraced the new trend and legalised the keeping of bees in 2012. A handful of guerilla beekeepers had been keeping bees in the city but now there are more than three hundred registered beekeepers in New York and the highest urban hive in the world is to be found there sixty-seven stories high on a hotel terrace overlooking Central Park. New York City Police Department has its own team of swarm collectors who speed across the city during swarm season to collect the bees. Now in New York as in London, and many other cities too, a new generation of Beecoerls helps husband the honeybees, along with small armies of amateur beekeepers. In Valencia, where the keeping of bees in the city is a very new phenomenon, it is the fire brigade who are charged with collecting swarms alongside the beekeepers of the city’s parks department.

Now I spend my summer life working the hives of London town, tied to the seasons, to the lengthening and shorting of the days, to the clement and inclement weather, to unpredictable natural rhythms. In parks and gardens, on terraces and balconies, but mostly on rooftops there are hundreds of hives across the city.

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Millions of bees find forage to feed on in the city as they have done for millennia. Bees were here before the Romans’ arrived, bridged the river and founded Londinium. They were here still as the Victorian urban sprawl stretched and stenched, and Bazelgette built embankments and sewers to take the effluent away and down the Thames Estuary. And through all of the centuries of human encroachment they have been making honey as pure and sweet as that which they produced before man appeared on the scene. There are parks and gardens and window boxes and terraces, green roofs and brown roofs, bloody buddleia and a multitude of trees for London bees to forage on. A mature London chestnut can be ten stories tall and weighed down with nectar rich blossom ready to be taken to make chocolate dark woody tasting honey. The lime trees which also tower in the city have nectar to make a honey that is by contrast almost transparent in its clarity and citrus in its taste.

Sometimes the city bees will swarm. It is their instinct. It is the way they reproduce as a super organism splitting in half, the old queen leaving the hive with half her offspring to find a new home elsewhere. The bees left behind have already started producing their new queen. They will make many new queens, bathing chosen larvae in royal jelly in specially constructed cells, and when these larvae hatch as new queens they will fight it out amongst themselves till one survives, the others stung to death by their rival sisters. The survivor, un-stung as her siblings die, is the new virgin queen who will go off on a mating flight and return to take control of the colony until a year or two later it is her turn to swarm.

Sometimes a swarm can cause panic amongst the humans. Up until the Second World War swarms would have been a common sight the length and breadth of England, even in London, where everyone kept bees or knew of a neighbour who did. Today seeing a swarm in the city is a rare thing and a cause of curiosity and consternation.

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‘You’ve got to come!’, ‘There’s a swarm!’, ‘HELP!!!!’. Texts and emails and phone calls, with capital letters and emoticons came flooding in. One of the hives at Ted Baker had swarmed. The bees had swirled around the big glass windows of Ernst Goldfinger’s iconic ‘Ugly Brown Building’ north of St. Pancras Station causing gasps from the staff watching from inside. First the bees were at one side of the building, and then they were at the other, the staff feeling themselves surrounded and trapped in a dark undulating cloud of insects. Suddenly the air was empty again and the flying swarm of bees gone. It was someone outside the office who saw where the bees had landed. A solitary smoker, escaping onto the pavement for the welcome relief of a cigarette, saw the bees hanging above their head in a tree, just yards from the building’s main entrance. Despite the panicked messages, I knew there to be no rush and no danger. The bees were maybe twelve feet in the air and well out of reach. They hung down in a great clump the shape of a rugby ball, churning and glistening in the sunlight, a few scout bees coming to and fro as they searched for a new home. The swarm had made a temporary staging post; often it is a tree or bush, but it can be a street sign, satellite dish, or sometimes spread across a wall. They can stay there for days until making a collective decision to move on to their new permanent home.

Called out once to deal with a swarm in Paddington, I arrived to find the bees high above the ground clasping onto a street light. It took a couple of days to get the necessary permissions in order and the cherry-picker in place beneath the swarm. No sooner was my colleague in the cradle of the cherry picker being raised into the sky and towards the swarm, than the bees made their collective decision to remove to a new home, and within seconds they were off in a sky-darkening skein across the street and down into the depths of Paddington Station. Despite out best endeavours, we never found their destination and no doubt they remain there still hidden away in the wrought iron arches of Brunel’s great edifice.

By the time I arrived at Ted Baker to collect the swarm, the panic had turned into curiosity and connection. People were out with their selfie sticks taking pictures to post of themselves standing under the swarm. A connection between man and nature once so commonplace but now so rare, had been remade.

Alfred Neighbour had his London apiary at London Zoo where some of his bees could be seen, like those in Liz Samuelson’s hive at Bloomberg, through the glass windows of an observation hive which visitors found to be of ‘considerable interest’. When a new monkey house was built on the site of the apiary, Neighbour moved his bees to the ‘Fish Department’ of the Royal Horticultural Gardens, South Kensington, on the site of what is now the Natural History Museum and where I now keep my bees.