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 space 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."