Not many beekeepers ferry so many black bin liners in and out of their tower block that the local council suspect them of running a crack den (the same council who have missed the real crack den in the basement). Not many beekeepers transport their hives in a decommissioned London taxi, narrowly avoiding disaster when a would-be passenger tries to get in. Not many beekeepers end up having to coax their swarming bees into a cardboard box on Oxford Street, surrounded by people taking pictures and asking if they sting. Not many beekeepers, in other words, keep bees in London.
Or rather, they do. The increasing popularity of the hobby in the capital has prompted Steve Benbow to produce The Urban Beekeeper, an informative and often touching book. Aimed at those considering a life with the hives, it nonetheless gives the rest of us an entertaining portrait of a typical apiarist’s year, and of how urban honey production differs from that in the countryside.
Benbow has done both, which is why he’s immune to the ‘Trendy Towny’ charge. Schooled in beekeeping by his grand-parents during a Shropshire childhood, he dislikes the terminally-hip Borough Market, shuns designer equipment and is more than aware that London’s growing bee population could threaten its supply of nectar. Though he points out that with 42 per cent of the city being open space, and a further 24 per cent private gardens, the answer is surely more flowers rather than fewer bees.
The facts about these humble little creatures are enthralling. An average hiveful flies the distance to the moon and back each year, though when you move them it has to be either more than three miles or less than three feet; anything in between confuses them. They advise colleagues on the location of good flowers by waggling their bottoms in the appropriate direction, and can smell when you’ve got a hangover or BO (they like neither). Marijuana, Benbow learns in Brixton, has the opposite effect on them to the one it has on us, so you’re ill-advised to use it in your smoker. And bees are monarchists: they get grumpy without a queen. In the old days queens were often imported from Europe, the same policy operated by our own royal family.
Benbow has travelled all over the world to observe how other cultures keep bees, which is why he knows that the Zambian honey badger can kill a bull-elephant simply by jumping up and biting its testicles. Not that his own gentleman’s area is safe; he was once stung there while driving some of his charges to a new location. Mick Jagger is alleged to have deliberately had the old chap stung to increase its size, though Benbow says it’s not actually the most painful location — that title is awarded jointly to ‘inside the ear’ and ‘end of the nose’.
As we follow the author through his annual routine, zipping around his various London sites (including the roof of Fortnum and Mason) to produce more than two tonnes of honey, a picture emerges of his relationships. With girlfriends, who tend not to last long; in busy summer months he has been known to spruce up for first dates with a car air-freshener. With his ex-partner and young son, the latter already a keen hive-hound, working with Benbow’s grandmother’s leather driving gloves gaffer-taped to his wrists. With the city and with the countryside — and the pros and cons of both. One of London’s advantages is the absence of oil-seed rape, which produces feeble honey.
But above all we see Benbow’s relationship with his bees. He cares for them, not in a sentimentalised eco-fairy way (he knows they’re his livelihood) but as someone who has come to know and respect their strange little world. In the early years, on warm evenings, he would ‘sit in front of the hive with a cup of tea, waiting for the last foragers to return — like a father waiting up for teenagers to come home after a late night’. And to this day he follows his grandfather’s advice: ‘always tell your bees your worries’.