Throughout our city, bees flit from flower to flower, tree to tree, park to park. They (along with other pollinators) are vital for the nature that breaks up the concrete of the city. If you listen on  a summer’s day, you can often hear their buzzing. And behind this buzz, is the work of hundreds of beekeepers. 


In London, there are an estimated 5000 managed beehives, looked after by approximately 1400 beekeepers. Very few of them are professional - across the whole of the UK there are only 200 beekeepers who do it for a living. For most it’s a hobby, a way to connect with nature, help the environment and quite literally be able to taste the fruits of your labour. Some keep hives in their garden, others in allotments. My parents, two hobbyist beekeepers, keep four on our kitchen roof. 


I spoke to two local beekeepers, both of whom keep their bees on East London allotments. Zak and Padraig both took the craft up ten years ago. Zak, having started with two, now has six hives lined up behind his allotment plot while Padraig usually has about eight. 


‘It’s a hobby for me,’ Zak tells me. His twelve year old son is interested in the bees too, has his own bee suit, and likes to help his dad. Zak himself was inspired by his own father, back in Mauritius, who also kept bees. Padraig, on the other hand,  first considered it after watching a program on it, and then decided while doing some further research. From there, he decided that ‘probably the best thing to do was some training’. Then he’d know everything he needed to know. 


The British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) offers courses across the country, where prospective beekeepers can learn the tricks of the trade. This is what both of them did, learning all the different ways to care for bees, and deal with any potential problems. The biggest challenge is, according to Zak, “keeping ahead of the bees, especially if they’re swarming”. This is a natural process, which allows bee colonies to expand, but it can be a nuisance to neighbours and cause a beekeeper to lose approximately half a hive if they fly away. Padraig stresses that this is especially important in suburban areas - failing to control swarms is ‘one of the most irresponsible things to do’, at best causing mild panic and at worse ending with a bee colony in a chimney and some very disgruntled neighbours. Beekeepers aim to mitigate the risk of this, and prevent their bees from feeling the need to swarm. 


On top of swarming, beekeepers also need to manage for ‘Varroa’ and make sure that bees have enough food for the winter. Varroa mites, accidentally imported from Asia, are now endemic, and are one of the main challenges that beekeepers in Europe grapple with. They spread disease and, left unchecked, can spell disaster for entire colonies of bees. There are various treatments, some more natural than others. Like many beekeepers, Zak and Padraig administer this at the end of the season. At a similar time Zak also ‘feeds’ the bees with sugar syrup, to ensure the bees get through the winter. 


All summer, bees make honey, and these bees pollinate the local area and allotments all around. Both of them say that, even within one hive, the honey can vary in colour and consistency. This, Zak explains, is because when a bee finds somewhere where pollen is plentiful, she (worker bees are exclusively female) does a ‘bee dance’. This indicates to the other bees the direction and distance and her sisters harvest nectar from that specific area. Later, they move onto another, causing the golden array. Zak has produced about 50 jars of honey to sell this year, plus his year’s personal supply. His family uses it as a natural (and delicious!) substitute for sugar, and it compliments their coffee and tea. 


The success beekeepers have each year can vary, even between those within a few miles of each other. This year, Padraig explains, it started off well, but the bees were detrimentally affected by the dry spell in midsummer. This means that the bees are disinclined to go out and gather nectar, and instead just consume their honey. Padraig didn’t produce as much excess as he’d have hoped. 


Nevertheless, suburbia is an excellent place to keep bees. In contrast to pure urban locations and even the monoculture countryside, suburbia is incredibly varied, a myriad of gardens, parks, allotments and even the strings of train tracks, adorned with wild flower jewels. Padraig praises the councils’ decisions to not cut back some margins as far as they might have done in the past. Not only does this save local authorities precious money, but also provides a helping hand to the pollinators - which unlike the bills for grass strimming are arguably priceless! While warning against insecticides (‘not worth it’) which are likely to kill beloved pollinators as well as pests, he also commends wildflower mixes. These often provide a varied source of nectar to all pollinators close to their home, which is especially helpful in the evenings, for example, when they’re unlikely to travel as far. In short they’re ‘a brilliant idea’. 


Both beekeepers have well-honed their craft, and enjoy it immensely. Zak recommends the hobby to everyone. Padraig tells me how his ‘happiest time’ is with his ‘hands in a hive’. He likes to watch them ‘coming and going’ - provided that it was warm enough for them to be flying, he could even do this on Christmas! Both of them extol the virtues of local honey - not only are you supporting the environmental work of local bees, but it also tastes fantastic. Zak urges people to ‘stop buying cheap honey from the shops’, and Padraig agrees. It’s varied and natural - what’s not to like? 


‘Try it and see if you like it,’ Padraig advises. In these words he speaks for all suburbia’s beekeepers.