Locality : Bermondsey Street Bees

27 May 2015

Bermondsey Street Bees
Bermondsey Street Bees

With spring in the air, wild flowers in bloom, and bees busy collecting nectar, I thought it would be apt to share my visit to Bermondsey Street Bees, as part of my "Locality" series.

Bermondsey Street Bees is located in the heart of Bermondsey, an urban neighbourhood located south of the Thames river in London. Borough Markets is not far and if you are standing in just the right spot, you can view The Shard (that spikey skyscraper with jagged peaks). It sounds like an unlikely environment that is suitable for housing bee hives. But it is possible. And this is where you will find Dale Gibson managing his 6 bee hives, located 4 stories above street level, on the roof terrace of his home.

Bermondsey Street BeesBermondsey Street Bees
Bermondsey Street Bees

A chat with Dale will quickly reveal how genuinely passionate he is about bee keeping, and raising awareness of the importance of planting more forage suitable for bees, particularly with the city council. What started out as a hobby 8 years ago has turned into a thriving business that includes producing honey under the Bermondsey Street Honey label, as well as a consulting service that carries out bee hive risk assessment and installing hives for hotels and chefs who want to produce their own honey.

Bermondsey Street Bees
Bermondsey Street Bees
Bermondsey Street Bees

I have been fascinated with the idea of the urban bee keeper for some time, and in a city like London, I was surprised to learn that there are more bee hives than I thought possible. There are at least 2,500 bee hives just within a 10km radius of Bermondsey. The next time you are in the neighbourhood, look up and you might just spot some bees taking their nectar back to Dale's hives.

 I hope you enjoy learning more about Bermondsey Street Bees.

You find out more about Bermondsey Street Bees on Facebook, Twitterwebsite and their blog.

// What inspired you to get into beekeeping?

Bees, quite simply. Several years ago, I was digging over my Bermondsey Spa allotment and stopped to watch a bee foraging on damson blossom. It dawned on me there and then that, together with my fourth-storey Bermondsey Street rooftop, I had the means, the motive and the opportunity to start keeping bees in the middle of London.

Now, eight years later, my bees have won top awards at the National and London Honey shows for our honey and I have set up successful apiaries for clients in both urban and rural locations .

// You’re a stockbroker by day and bee keeper by night/weekends. How many hours a week do you spend bee keeping and maintaining your hives?

When I started, I told Sarah (my highly bee-sting-allergic wife) that keeping bees would take 10 minutes per hive per week. Sarah often reminds me of this bold claim, with a slightly raised eyebrow. And I gently remind her that she has not been stung in the last 8 years of living with bees on our roof terrace.

Well, to go back on topic, it's true that if you know exactly what you are doing and your bees are fully obliging and robustly healthy, 10 minutes per hive per week is plenty. But even then you have to add in the considerable time it takes to make frames, build hives, move the equipment, spin out, filter and jar the honey, chat with other beekeepers, and find new and unexpected combinations of swear-words when things go wrong. As my mentor, John Chapple, once drily observed, "The bees don't read the same books that we do."

Trust me, John knows about bees. And, like me, I'm sure that he would advise against beekeeping at night. Sunny, still and over 14°C = Perfect. Rainy, cold and blowing = Best not, but needs as needs must.

Anyway, the way I look at it, the best results in both stockbroking and beekeeping come from high-knowledge, low-frequency interventions. As is often the case, opinion is divided on these issues. But I have high conviction on my position.

What is beyond question is that there is a distinct pattern of seasonal activity in U.K. beekeeping, though. Absolutely minimal interventions in November, December, January and February, balanced by strict 10-day intervals between inspections in May, June and July. These differences are dictated, as are most beekeeping imperatives, by the breeding cycle of the bees, which is as regular as clockwork.

// You have given each of your hives a specific name. What are your hives called and the significance behind the names?

The naming of individual hives is crucial for record-keeping. I'm currently responsible for 40 hives right now, so I need to know what my expectations should be for each individual hive when I come to stick my head in it, some 10 days and 39 inspections since I last saw it.

The fact is that the hive is the organism with which the beekeeper interacts, rather than with each single bee, so the hives genuinely deserve a name to aid recognition of their diverse traits. That said, the names of the hives in my Bermondsey Street apiary reflect local history and place names: Neckinger, Thames, Shard, Leathermarket, Morocco, Druid and, of course, my very first bee-hive, Abbey Hive.

This hive was named after Bermondsey Abbey (completed in 1082), but can also be playfully pronounced as "A Bee Hive" and even works in French as "abeille" Hive!

It's also worth noting that I give the Queen bee in each hive her own name. In the Bermondsey Street apiary, I base their names on each year's queen-marking colour. For example, 2014 queens were marked green, so Queen Jade of Abbey Hive was my star breeding queen last year.

So far, this year's blue queens include Queen Indigo and Queen Iris. (My Queens also have breeding names, like Queen Jade's CK.2.1.L.7.14.BS, but that's another story.)

// What are some of the highlights that have occurred with your bee keeping projects?

Every single healthy, harmonious and busy hive is a highlight in itself. But I get the most satisfaction from the problem-solving aspects of beekeeping.

In the last year, I have started a business for the design, installation and management of custom-built apiaries, That is what Apis Beekeeping Consultancy does. As far as I am aware, it is the only beekeeping consultancy in the world. I love the challenge of researching and planning an apiary to fit a unique specification. That job requires strong business management skills, as well as knowing your way around a bee-hive. Working with other people who are passionate about what they do is always inspiring and I'm proud to deliver beautiful and productive apiary sites for my clients in both urban and rural settings.

But when all's said and done, there is nothing quite like taking the lid off a bee-hive for someone who has never seen inside one before - and looking at the awe and wonder in their expression!

// Does your wife Sarah is plays an important role in the business (PR, design of labels and makes candles from the bees wax)?

One hundred percent. Sarah is expert at brand-building strategy. Her Bermondsey Street Honey label won "Best Packaging" at the London Honey Show. As a creative herself, she has assembled a team of uniquely talented graphic designers, photographers and artists. Our new website www.bermondseystreetbees.co.uk is currently under development by Sarah and her crew and will soon replace the slightly homely one currently up - so watch this space!

// Where can we buy Bermondsey Street Bees Honey?

We sell Bermondsey Street Honey to a list of local clients. It sells out soon after release in Srptember, so the best way to get on the list is to subscribe to my bee-blog: www.apis.gb.com or e-mail me at keeper@bermondseybees.co.uk .

This year, we will be introducing our sub-brands of rural ("Union") and urban ("Metro") honeys, sourced from artisan honey producers who share our raw, natural approach to honey. We have Cotswold Summer, Hackney and Borage honeys in our sights, with more to come. We will curate this small range of honeys with each jar having a swing-tag describing its individual provenance. As winners of the award for the "Best Honey In London" at the National Honey Show in 2011, we know excellent honey when we taste it!

// Bee keeping is more than just a hobby for you. Where do you see Bermondsey Street Bees going in the future? What are some of your future goals for the business?

Beekeeping is a complex subject. Yes, it begins and ends with the bees. But let's not forget the "keeping" part of the equation: that means that we have to keep them - not losing them to swarms and also preserving them in good health. We have to decide on a hive type, a location, a pest management regime, our beekeeping objectives, record-keeping regime, honey format (liquid, comb, sections) and ensure sufficient forage for the bees to eat.

Forage is my key campaigning issue, especially for urban bees. Let's not forget that bees are livestock. Just as it would be irresponsible and unsustainable to put too many cattle to graze on a single pasture, so failing to ensure sufficient forage for your bees is neglectful.

I have led and organised significant local planting initiatives (proper, long-term perennial planting season of trees, bushes, herbs and flowers) and over the last 5 years have lobbied Southwark Council officials to instigate more pollinator-friendly mowing regimes, municipal plantings and tree replacement protocols ....and we're getting there! The simple message is that London has limited space available for forage - we just have to make better provision for forage with what we have already got.

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