The bee-keeper of London

The bee-keeper of London

It's the secret places that I enjoy the most. London beekeepers are as old as the city itself. But we are not always easy to find. Hives are for the most part hidden away: tucked into the corners of gardens, hidden behind hedges and fences, wedges into balconies, and most commonly of all up overhead on the roofs of the city. 

There are few greater pleasures than to be given keys to secret gardens or access to miraculous roof spaces, and find oneself in oases of calm just yards from the bustle of busy streets. Few would ever know as I tend my hives that they are walking or working so close to the honey bees whose pollination provides for a third of all we eat and drink. 
 
An office beside London Bridge had not only hives, but a manicured garden and putting green on its roof back in the 1930s. Waterloo Station had its own hives in the 1960s. A governor of the Bank of England kept bees for years atop The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street through the 1980s and 90s. But by the time I started keeping bees a decade ago, beekeeping had gone into a steep decline. A little mite from Asia was killing off the bees - and with them the enthusiasm of a lot of beekeepers.  
 
Over the last year or two the plight of the honey bee has attracted much media attention, and now the numbers of hives in the capital are growing again. "Bees", someone said to me, "are the new black". And a younger, fashionable type of urban beekeeper is to be found reviving a hobby that is vital to our economy and our ecosystem.
 
I tend hives in a garden at Kensington Palace that only beekeepers, gardeners and royalty ever enter; climb every week up to a green roof where if I stretch out I can almost touch the golden top of The Monument; have a key to a gated garden in Bloomsbury where mostly I am just alone with the bees however chaotic life is outside the railings; clamber through a skylight out onto the top of a fashion house beside the canals of Camden; and have access to a crumbling concrete gun placement by London City Airport. London bees are kept in some interesting places.
 
I had been keeping bees in London for a ten years when I started writing my book. It wasn't until I started talking to the other beekeepers around the world that I realised that London was not the only town or city where people were discretely keeping bees away from the public gaze. As well as my story, the book includes those of nearly thirty other beekeepers. My favourites include the hostel manager in Berlin who looks after hives on the presidential palace, the artists and craftsmen in Hong Kong who even manage to produce honey in the most populous place on the planet, and the school in New York who teach their pupils beekeeping on a roof overlooking Central Park. 
 
Next time you're in London, look above and about you. You may just catch sight of a bee in the air and be able to watch it zoom back to its hidden hive.
 
 
 
Keeping Bees in Towns and Cities is out on 4 October, published by Timber Press.