CHAPTER 1: The New Faces of Beekeeping

Beekeeping, once commonly associated with elderly men in big white beards, has now attracted a wide range of hobbyists. Several schools have integrated beekeeping into the curriculum, while global corporations have placed hives on the roofs of their headquarters. Sara Ward, a beekeeper in Brentford said: "The demographic has changed considerably. You get lots of different people who are championing the cause."

A Growing Diversity

During the last ten days of Ramadan, Muslims crowd into the prayer halls of the East London Mosque, choosing to stay within the confines of the building to devote themselves wholly to worship. On the rooftop above, Khalil and Salma Attan participate in another form of meditative practice

As the sun blazes overhead, the married couple don their beekeeping suits and set off to visit the 100,000 honeybees residing on one of the largest mosques in Europe. Positioned at opposite ends of the hives, Khalil and Salma work together seamlessly as they inspect each frame, pausing occasionally to hand each other equipment and ask if the other had spotted the queen.

Before setting each frame back in place, Khalil and Salma gingerly brush a few bees out of the way, ensuring the insects don't get crushed in the process. Shuddering as he recounted the occasional crunch, Khalil says of his gentle approach: "If you're going to take care of them, you might as well do the best you can."

"If you're going to take care of them, you might as well do the best you can."

Their journey began more than five years ago. Khalil, who had always been interested in nature, recalled tasting local honey for the first time. He said: "I had quite bad hay fever, and local honey is said to be really good for it. We managed to find some for sale at a local market- up until then, we'd only ever had shop honey. The local honey tasted so good, and since it was quite hard to get ahold of, we thought, 'Why don't we try this for ourselves?'"

After enrolling in several courses and gaining the proper training, Khalil and Salma approached the East London Mosque in 2011 with the idea of keeping bees on their rooftop. He said: "This mosque is very forward thinking. They do a lot of things for the community- their doors are usually open to everybody. We didn't know what they would say, but they were really positive and actually got quite excited about it."

That excitement still persists three years on. The couple are regularly approached by members of the mosque. They are most frequently asked: "When are you going to get your honey? Can I have some?"

In fact, when the East London Mosque began constructing the Maryam Centre in 2009 to provide additional prayer space for the congregation, they intentionally designed an integrated outdoor area to house an additional observation hive. Safely located behind glass panels, the bees attract everyone from the maintenance staff to school children.

Salma said: "Sometimes I'll just be there inspecting the hives, and I'll look up and there will be about five faces that I didn't even realize were there. Sometimes it's quite surprising how many people are there standing and watching!"

Khalil said: "It's quite fascinating for people. The mosque has quite a few high profile visitors, and everyone goes past that new area." Salma proudly added: "That's the showpiece."


Coincidentally, Aseem Sheikh and Munir Ravalia, who were trained under the Co-Op's Plan Bee Campaign , established hives on top of the Kingston Mosque at around the same time. The two beekeeping groups, who did not initially know of each other, soon linked up, sharing equipment and offering each other advice.

While the bees at Kingston Mosque failed to survive after a little more than a year, Sheikh wrote in an email message: "We will aim to pick this up properly in due course when we can spend time on it fittingly."

Sheikh also explained: "Mosques are often situated within residential areas that have to put up with noise and traffic. I see beekeeping as a mutual language – everyone loves honey – and it is a very recreational activity and can help distill some people's preconceptions about what occurs inside mosques.

"There is also the ability to give neighbours honey at times such as Eid and arrange school trips to show mosques can host a range of social activities. It was also a good way to interact with many foreign communities within the mosque from African regions that had bee keeping skills from back home."

"We have our interests external from what you might read in the papers sometimes."

Bees, as well as honey, have a special significance in Islam. The Qur'an states: “And the Lord taught the bee to build its cells in hills, on trees and in (men’s) habitations; then to eat all the produce (of the earth), and find with skills the spacious paths of its Lord: there issues from within their bodies a drink of varying colours, wherein is healing for men…"

Khalil said: "It's a good thing for people to see, that as Muslims, we're the same as everyone else. We're not detached from nature, and we have our interests external from what you might read in the papers sometimes."

After nearly three hours on the roof, Khalil and Salma stepped inside and unzipped their suits. Temperatures had climbed to over 30C and shedding a layer was a relief. Khalil and Salma, who were fasting during Ramadan, tore off their sweaty gloves and wiped their foreheads. "Some water would be nice right now," Salma said wryly. The two splashed their faces with water instead.

A Younger Generation

For a surprising number of beekeepers I spoke to, the hobby has become a family affair. Tsieske Van Der Broek, a graphic designer who keeps bees in Clapham Old Town, mentioned that her interest in beekeeping rubbed off on her boyfriend as well as her father. "It can be a bit contagious," she said.

Eric Beaumont recalls watching his own father keep bees as a child in the 60s. After a fifteen year career in illustration, Beaumont was working as a gardener when an opportunity led him to take over a deceased beekeeper's hives. Beaumont, who has more than eight years of experience now, gets his teenage daughter involved by offering her pocket money in exchange for a helping hand.

Beekeeping has also piqued the interest of Khalil and Salma Attan's children. Salma said: "It's become integral to our family life. We've got beekeeping equipment at home, and everyone gets involved with extracting the honey. Both our sons want their own hives at some point."

For Khalil, it's a useful teaching experience. He said: "It's good for kids- it gets them in touch with nature…living in London you don't really get to experience that. Especially with kids nowadays, they'll spend their time on the computer or playing games at home. Beekeeping gets them out and thinking about something different.

"Looking after the bees teaches them to be gentle and calm. With a beehive, you have to be gentle, you have to be calm; if you're not, the bees will let you know (laughs). They'll give you a few reminders."

"It captures their imaginations and proves things don't just grow in supermarkets."

Gustavo Montes de Oca, a director at The Golden Co, expressed similar sentiments, saying beekeeping helped teenagers manage their emotions and confront their fears. The Golden Co, a social enterprise based in East London, exposes teenagers to beekeeping while passing on business skills. Their summer programme offers teenagers the opportunity to make, market, and sell lipbalms made from beeswax at Borough Market. Director Ilka Weißbrod said: "I think its useful that in the end, there's a real product. It's not just an imaginary summer project."

Tahrir Chowdhury, 17, of Tower Hamlets, heard about The Golden Co from one of his friends. He soon found himself overlooking the whole of London as he helped plant flowers on the roof of Nomura Bank. Chowdhury went on to sign up for the summer programme and said: "It was pretty amazing. You always see hives in films but normally you wouldn't get the chance to be close to 20,000 bees. With The Golden Company, you can literally just go have a look."

John Mead, a retired policeman and school caretaker started beekeeping at the Sir John Cass's Foundation Primary School in the City of London. He spoke of the importance in getting younger generations involved, saying: "It captures their imaginations and it proves to them things don't just grow in supermarkets. It's also an opportunity to get their hands dirty."

CHAPTER 2: The Highs and Lows of Beekeeping

Given the diversity of beekeepers in London, their opinions, motivations, and personal experiences vary dramatically as well.

Simon Wilks, a beekeeper in Sydenham, fell into the hobby quite incidentally; after some bees had taken residence in his ceiling, he began learning more about the insects and soon found himself attending monthly meetings put on by the London Beekeeper's Association (LBKA).

For Sara Ward, beekeeping was a steady and natural progression. She began cultivating her backyard garden in Brentford, and started raising chickens before adding bees to the mix in 2011. She said: "For me, it was all about what food we could produce out of our garden with an understanding of environmental issues."

"After a day of beekeeping, I'll just reek of smoke. But I've come to like it- it's always a reminder that I've had a day off."

In London, beekeeping offers a temporary escape from the stress of city life. Tsieske Van Der Broek recounted the sensory experience, saying: "After a day of beekeeping, I'll just reek of smoke. But I've come to like it- it's always a reminder that I've had a day off."

For Ward, the weekly inspections are a time to tune out any distractions. She said: "I'm normally a busy person, so I'll say to myself, 'Right- ignore the phone, ignore the emails, I'm just going to do this and take as long as it needs'. And its just me and the bees, and I'll talk to them…I find there's something quite therapeutic about keeping bees."

The experience has also allowed Ward to connect with nature in a new way. "I'm used to the ebbs and flows of the seasons. It makes you love every part of the year. It just gives you a deeper sense of connection to the environment, and a thankfulness for it all."

While beekeeping is usually a solitary activity, it is conducive for meeting new people and forging relationships based on this shared interest. Whether it's seeing the same familiar faces at various events, or commenting on each other's Facebook posts, beekeepers in London are a well connected bunch.

Van Der Broek, who keeps bees in a septuagenarian's backyard, said: "One of the things I like best about beekeeping is that I meet so many people I wouldn't normally." She said: "I wouldn't otherwise know anyone in London who is that age."

Salma Attan said: "It's definitely a talking point. People are always fascinated by it. Where people wouldn't naturally speak to each other, they will when they see you in a bee suit with a comb of honey in front of you- they will come and speak to you."

Wilks, however, doesn't see anything particularly novel about beekeeping. As someone who has over fourteen years of experience, he said: "It's just something I do. It's like painting or playing the piano." Like any other hobby, "it passes the time, and it gets me out of the house".


Despite the benefits of beekeeping, it proves to be a time consuming and expensive hobby. While many articles and initiatives suggest that anyone can become a beekeeper, it doesn't come without its challenges.

Equipment, for one, can be extremely expensive. The cost of the essentials to get started in beekeeping, based on prices listed on online, shows that the overhead is quite steep at nearly £550 (see right for breakdown). While costs can be alleviated in a number of ways, this does not take into account the slew of other equipment needed once a beekeeper progresses beyond the initial stage.

Even experienced beekeepers who sell all of their honey claim their venture is one with measly returns. Tsieske Van Der Broek hoped to break even this year for the first time, and Sara Ward said: "I'm not making money from it. There's no money in beekeeping, unless you go big scale and you give your whole life to it."

Eric Beaumont estimated that a beekeeper had to be able to manage at least 300 hives before he or she would be able to make a living from it. He added: "And then you'd be taking something pleasurable and turning it into something like a factory."

For aspiring beekeepers in London, finding the space to place a hive is also a constraint. Laura Scott was interested in keeping bees a few years ago, and went so far as to attend introductory courses. However, she said: "I live in Angel and have no outdoor space to be able to keep a hive. I looked for about a year for somewhere close by to be able to keep a hive and had no luck so have more or less given up for now."

On top of all this, Khalil Attan said: "Beekeeping takes up a lot of time. You've got to work around your work time, your family time, your free time."

Aidan Slingsby, the Membership Services Officer at the LBKA, spoke about having to postpone his vacation every year, for fear that leaving his bees for over ten days in the summer months would result in unfortunate results. Karin Alton said: "Urban beekeeping is more time consuming than rural beekeeping. Rural beekeepers can afford to let their bees get on with it a bit more, because if they do swarm, its not a big deal…But you can't really afford to do that in urban areas."

To prevent swarming requires experience, commitment, and a certain level of vigilance in the warmer months. This summer, for example, a swarm of bees made headline news when it settled on the storefront of a Topshop in Central London.

Once a colony has reached a certain size, the queen flies off with half the bees in search for a new home, leaving a new queen to take over the remaining bees at the original hive. Swarming is a natural process of reproduction, and a sign of a strong and healthy hive. Contrary to reports of bees "attacking" innocent bystanders, the insects are not usually aggressive during the process. Regardless, getting caught up in a flurry of a few thousand bees can be an alarming and disruptive experience for the general public.

Mark Patterson is a project manager at Groundwork, an organization that promotes green spaces in disadvantaged parts of the UK. He said: "When it goes bad, it goes very bad". He cited one instance in the London Beekeeping Association's Facebook group, writing: "One chap I helped out in 2012 had received only 6 hours of theory training….You can imagine his panic when they swarmed causing mayhem. The poor guy literally broke down in tears. He had been taught nothing of swarm management or prevention. His swarm cost a local business a mornings profits. His hive didn't survive the winter."

While local councils offer pest control services to treat unwelcome wasps, the job of catching a swarm of bees is left to experienced beekeepers, most of whom have full time jobs in addition to taking care of their own bees. Eric Beaumont, a beekeeper who collects swarms in North London, is constantly on call during the spring and summer months. In addition to actually removing the swarms, he said a large part of the job involves calming people down. He said: "It's very tiring."

Getting stung is also an inevitable part of beekeeping. Wilks said: "Even these days, I'll wander in, do my beekeeping, and realize I forgot to do my hood up. I have had a few dozen stings to the face. Its…not nice."

For an unlucky few, getting stung is more serious than the pain and swelling that most people experience. Aseem Sheikh is a beekeeper who is actually allergic to bee stings; miraculously, he has never been stung. Regardless, he is extra cautious, and makes sure he carries an epinephrine autoinjector (commonly known as an EpiPen) to prevent him from going into anaphylactic shock, a serious allergic reaction that may cause death. He wrote: "Beekeeping is cool but my daughters are even cooler."


While honey is seen as a payoff for all the hard work beekeepers put in throughout the year, the process of extraction it is unfortunately a difficult one as well. Eric Beaumont described it as "tedious". The bees collect nectar, which is dehydrated down to become honey. Once the consistency reaches about 17% water, the bees will preserve each honey-filled cell by sealing it with a thin layer of wax. Beekeepers have to remove this before they can extract the honey; machinery costs a few thousands pounds, so Beaumont picks the wax off by hand with the help of a tool aptly named an uncapping fork.

This is undoubtedly the most time consuming part of extraction. Beaumont, who agreed to be filmed during this process, averaged about 5 minutes per frame (each cell on both sides needed to be uncapped). With about 9 frames per hive, and a total of 25 hives, Eric will spend almost 19 hours on this step alone.

Honey yields vary from year to year; like other forms of farming, this is largely dependent upon the weather. The Honey Survey, conducted by the British Beekeeping Association, reported that yields were particularly low in 2012 with an average of only 8 pounds of honey per hive. Conditions were considerably better in 2013, with an average of 24.7 pounds per hive. Although conclusive reports have not been made for 2014, an overwhelming number of beekeepers mentioned that this year was the best in recent memory.

Simon Wilks estimated that he had about 65 pounds of honey per hive this year. He said: "I think its partly because the summer has been warm, and there's been a mix of sun and rain, with the rain being fairly limited. So the nectar can flow and the bees can go and get it.

"Of course it'll be horrid next year, because we never have two good years in a row."

Just as honey yields vary, the taste can be a surprise each year. Khalil Attan explained: "We'll have two hives right next to each other, and the honey each hive produces is different."

Ward, who won the 2012 award for "Best Honey in London" at The National Honey Show, attributed the nuanced flavour of her honey to the multitude of green spaces near her home in West London. Ward recently wrote on her website: "I’ve got my new honey jars at the ready and will be harvesting the liquid gold at the beginning of September. This gives the bees a few more weeks to gather nectar from the late flowering herbs, which adds a lovely botanical taste to the finished honey."

CHAPTER 3: Ecological Concerns

Since reports of declining bee populations began making headlines in 2007, numerous organizations have encouraged people to take up beekeeping while public figures like Boris Johnson and The Queen have backed their own programmes.

Like many others, Geoff Rimington, 41, a lawyer residing in Dalston, said: "Once I heard about the decline in bee numbers, I became interested in finding out what I could do to help. The obvious thing to do was to keep bees." After taking an introductory beekeeping course, Rimington said: "I was much more aware of the practicalities of beekeeping and the different ways people can become involved without necessarily having hives of their own."

Sara Ward acknowledged the human impulse to help. She said, "If you see poor little fledgling birds, you'd want to protect them. You'd want to help, but you can't really get involved. With bees, you can get involved. They are wild, but they respond to you, and you can be rewarded for it [with honey]."

"If you see poor little fledgling birds, you'd want to protect them. You'd want to help, but you can't really get involved. With bees, you can get involved."

A report in The Biologist states: "From 2008-13, the number of beekeepers in Greater London tripled from 464 to 1237." To put this in perspective, the density of hives in London is more than ten times greater than the density in England and Wales as a whole.

Beekeeping seems like a logical solution to combat declining bee populations. However, the situation proves to be especially complex in London. Issues like competition between different pollinators, foraging, disease control, and inadequate training are being raised, suggesting a possibility that too many beekeepers can in fact create adverse effects.


Angela Woods, who served as LBKA's Secretary for three years, said: "There's a high level of interest in bees, but a high level of ignorance as well."

In his book A Sting In the Tale, Dave Goulson, a researcher at The University of Sussex, wrote: "It's a common misapprehension that there is just one species of bee: they have yellow and black stripes and they sting; they live in wooden boxes, where they are looked after by bearded old men in funny hats and white suits; they pollinate crops and wild flowers; and they produce honey…."

"There's a high level of interest in bees, but a high level of ignorance as well."

In the UK, there are around 250 species overall. About 225 of these are solitary bees, while there are 24 species of bumblebees. Beekeepers look after the honeybee; in the UK, there is just one species, the apis mellifera.

While beekeeping does help maintain a honeybee population, introducing a large number of them within a short period of time can create an imbalance in the ecosystem. This may prove to be a threat to other bee species, not to mention pollinators like flies, butterflies, or moths. Karin Alton, a researcher at the University of Sussex said: "If you put a load of bees in a place with limited forage, there will be competition! Nectar is a finite resource."

In fact, "the honey bee may have declined in number but is in no imminent danger of becoming extinct, unlike some other critically endangered insects in the UK." Why is there such a focus on honeybees, when other bees are in greater danger of extinction? Alton explained: "Honeybees have commercial value. It's what people identify with- we eat honey, we have candles...even propolis is used in toothpastes."

Goulson, who specializes in bumblebees, recently tweeted about his frustration with BBC's Hive Alive programme, a documentary series chronicling the honeybee.


Another major concern with the influx of beekeepers in London is whether the city's green areas can support the number of honeybees that have been introduced in recent years. Save for the occasional feeding of sugar syrup or fondant administered by beekeepers, honeybees subsist on the nectar found in certain flowers. Capable of traveling up to a 1.5 mile radius from their hive, the bees are particularly adept at finding food sources; despite this, researchers worry there is a shortage.

In The Biologist, researchers Karin Alton and Francis Ratnieks asked: "If there is a growing shortage of flowers due to agricultural intensification and urbanisation, will increasing the number of hives help honey bees?"

Mark Patterson said: "People like to point out that there were a lot more beekeepers during World War II than there are now. Beekeepers had special privileges during the sugar ration, so it became extremely popular. But London has changed an awful lot since then."

"Will increasing the number of hives help honey bees?"

In fact, Alton and Ratnieks found that the sheer amount of flowers needed to support each hive in London is astounding: "With the number of colonies of honey bees increasing from 1,677 to 3,745 in just six years, these additional 2,068 hives would need 2.1 km2 of borage or 17.2 km2 of lavender. Clearly, this, or the equivalent in other flower varieties, has not been provided, and neither would it be practical to do so."

To put this in perspective, 2.1 km2 is approximately the equivalent of 882 football pitches. Borage and lavender are also two extremely bee friendly flowers out there; calculations with other variations of plants could prove to be even more. It should also be noted that while London ranks as the third greenest world city, large fields of grass and a surprising number of plants are completely useless to most bees.

With over 38% of land designated as green spaces in London, utilizing these areas to benefit bees and other pollinators can make a significant difference. However, instituting top down change is not always easy. Patterson cited budget constraints and limitations in infrastructure as two main challenges in getting councils to do more.

Salma Attan did notice a growing awareness for the importance of pollinators, saying: "There's been a big emphasis on creating bee friendly areas around the Olympic Park area, whereas before, you might see just grass. I think the councils are making better use of the space."

Rules and Regulations

In New York City, beekeeping was banned until 2010 as bees were considered dangerous animals akin to tarantulas and dingoes. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are no restrictions on beekeeping in London. Bees can be purchased online, the same way one might order a pair of shoes.

Enrolling in beekeeping courses and passing standardized examinations are all highly encouraged, but ultimately not mandatory. While Alton advises newcomers to shadow experienced beekeepers for at least a year before taking on their own hives, other beekeepers have encountered enthusiastic beginners who dive in without a solid foundation of knowledge or experience.

"People who have only been on a one day course will come to me all the time, asking if I can supply them with bees. And I say: 'No.' You need more than just one day- even learning from theory is not enough. At the end of the day, bees are wild animals," said Khalil Attan.

Aidan Slingsby said: "Many beekeepers are a part of the problem," going on to explain that inexperienced hobbyists may inadvertently cause the spread of diseases. The varroa mite, for example, is one particularly common parasite found on bees. If the hives are not properly monitored and treated, or if equipment hasn't been thoroughly cleaned, the varroa mites can live on and grow to dangerous numbers. With the density of beekeepers in London, this also makes the spread of diseases between hives a potentially devastating problem.

To make matters worse, beekeepers are not required to register their hives with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It is estimated that as many as 50% of beekeepers are not registered. In addition to a lack of accurate data on bees and beekeeping in the UK, unregistered hives make it difficult to monitor and prevent diseases.

For those who do enroll in beekeeping courses, the standard of training may vary from organization to organization. Alton said, "Unfortunately, we don't really have a proper training program in place for all. Anyone can set themselves up as a beekeeper…Usually, you hope to get decent quality training by going through the local association. It doesn't always happen, but mostly it does.

"They say if you've got four beekeepers you'll probably have five different opinions"

"There is such a difference in opinions. They say if you've got four beekeepers you'll probably have five different opinions and that's probably true. There are different ways of keeping bees, and as a beekeeper you have to find a way that works best for you. Bees don't follow books. I've been keeping bees personally for 5, 6 years now, and no two years have been the same."

CHAPTER 4: Looking Forward

Are there too many beekeepers in London? Alton claims "there is no magic formula".

Ultimately, the exact number of beekeepers and hives in London is unclear, as is the number of bumblebees, solitary bees, and other pollinators. What has become clear, however, is that beekeeping in London is not a straightforward answer to saving the bees, which have on a global scale, been on the decline.

This misconception is one commonly held outside the beekeeping community and unfortunately perpetuated by numerous organizations and online sources.

For the beekeepers I spoke to, their motivations lie elsewhere. Beekeeping has a significant value for those who partake in it, even if that value is misunderstood by the general public. At the end of the day, the work of beekeepers, whether it is catching a swarm, planting flowers, or simply debating amongst each other about the current state of bees, can not be boiled down so easily.

Other Approaches

Given the problems in the world, the enthusiasm people have for saving the bees should be appreciated and channeled in the right direction. Domestic gardens account for an impressive 23.85% of London's land, and Dr. Francis Ratnieks writes that planting bee friendly flowers is "the most widespread opportunity for the general public to help bees."

While numerous lists of these flowers have been circulated, Ratnieks warned that many of these are "simplistic" and include misleading information. The Laboratory of Apiculture & Social Insects (LASI) at The University of Sussex conducted a two year project proving that the following flowers are attractive to a number of different pollinators.

  • wallflower
  • lamb's ear
  • blue hyssop
  • greater knapweed
  • marjoram
  • borage
  • open dahlias
  • lavender
  • purple loosestrifes

Alton suggested going to a garden centre and simply using the powers of observation to see which plants the bees were gravitating towards. The safest and easiest bet may be to get a prepackaged seed mix; the LBKA and other organizations distribute these for free.

Mark Patterson also suggested that people make homes for solitary bees, which are often overlooked and struggle in urban areas primarily from a lack of shelter.Unlike honeybees and bumblebees, solitary bees (as their name suggests) live on their own. These bees require much fewer resources than an entire colony, and can be easily helped without the hassles of beekeeping.

Solitary bee houses can be built in well under an hour with various household objects (tutorials here, here and here). These shelters will attract bees in less than two weeks' time and can simply be left outside without any additional commitment. For the less crafty, these bee houses can also be purchased everywhere from Etsy to gardening centers for under £20.

While affecting any kind of institutional change is a long term process, Khalil Attan found that a simple conversation with his council about trimming lime trees after they had flowered was met with receptive ears. Numerous efforts ranging from petitions to protests have also been made to instill changes around the usage of neonicotinoids, a pesticide found to be harmful to bees.

"Just try to get more flowers in! That's really got to be the take home message."

Ultimately, Karin Alton said: "I think people are really really enthusiastic, and they really really want to help. However, to help bees, you don't have to be a beekeeper. However well meaning you are, it's got to be about the bees; it's not about you thinking you're saving the bees. If you want to invest money, or if you're a company looking to invest money, invest in gardening projects or proper green roofs. Just try to get more flowers in! That's really got to be the take home message."

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