Tell 'em about the honey

Emily Partridge investigates the painful art of urban beekeeping
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The Independent Culture
london honey is a well-kept secret. It sounds like a bad idea: thin, grey and slightly gritty, produced by asthmatic and puny bees. In fact, as unlikely as it sounds, London bees produce more than twice the amount of honey per year than their rural cousins. Richard Tinkler, 54, a council employee and south London beekeeper, pointed out the simple logic behind this. "What do you see out of the train window in the country? Green and brown. That's what. No flowers, no nectar, so no use to bees. What do you see in every residential London street? Flowers all year round," he said with a triumphant smile.

Tinkler is a member of the 60-strong London Beekeepers Association that also boasts Tony Banks MP as one of its supporters. Banks, wary of the sleaze factor, is honest about his annual reward of 12 jars of honey in return for asking crucial bee-type questions in the House of Commons. The Ministry of Agriculture knows that millions of pounds worth of crops would be lost if the bee population wasn't there to pollinate them, so beekeeping is big business, not a half-hearted potter-around-the-garden hobby. On his south London allotment though, Tinkler's bees don't have pride of place, despite their lucrative yield of 110 lbs of honey each year. He keeps them, almost furtively, behind a battered fence next to the runner beans.

The only snag with urban beekeeping is the layperson's hysteria about wasps and bees, and with a council estate only a matter of yards from his hive, Tinkler is understandably cagey about his bees. "Even if people were tolerant it would be too much of a temptation to kids if they knew about it. There may be... a stinging problem," he mutters darkly.

His guilty secret began in a suitably shifty way five years ago. He got wind of an available hive in Epsom from an old couple who had to sell it because the wife's medication wasn't compatible with bee stings. Under cover of darkness, he collected the tea-chest-shaped hive in an unmarked van and drove it and its 50,000 angry occupants to his allotment. "I'd forgotten about the dazzling white beekeeping gear shining in the moonlight, but luckily no one noticed."

Tinkler often finds himself crawling on his hands and knees in full beekeeping regalia away from the hive trying to blend in to the background until it's safe to return to "mufti".

His current breed of bees make stealth particularly difficult. "The queens bred with a feral bee and they're bloody bad- tempered. You can hear the little thud as they impact on the veil, trying to sting me. It goes on like this for half an hour when normally it should be ten minutes after you've closed the hive."

He is predictably nonchalant about bee stings, preferring to stress the fact that the bee is de-gutted when it stings rather than the splitting headache he regularly gets when he is stung on the scalp.

Even having to live down an eye swollen to the size of a tennis ball at his job at the council after being stung on the eyelid is brushed aside. "It was no big deal," he shrugged. He gets more upset about the length of honey-bees' tongues. "They're no good to my runner beans," he sighs. "The tongues are too short to reach into the flowers." What he's really hankering after is a resident bumblebee - "they have massive tongues".

Bumblebees are the mysterious relatives of the honey-bee. They do not make honey or build hives and live only in minute colonies of 30-80 bees. Tinkler has fashioned a bumblebee home from an old bird's nest and a small wooden box, and is now waiting hopefully.

Tinkler, a rangy, loping figure, gets almost maternal about his bees, and while explaining the intricacies of the fiendishly cunning Snelson swarm preventer, tenderly thumbs the little bee gates with a stubby finger. Tinkler insists that swarming, one of the great dangers of the urban hive, is not a problem. With careful management the only risk is an open jar of honey near a window on a hot day. Bees from all around, driven wild by the seductive smell of honey, will plaster themselves to the window, carpet-like, until the lid is put back on.

Tinkler, who has gone off the taste since having to extract it from the combs, sells his honey "hot from the hive" to his colleagues at work, with the assurance that it is completely pollution-free. Bees magically eradicate any pollution during honey-making, an appetising process that involves vomiting it from their honey-stomachs and waving it around on the end of their tongues to evaporate the water. Tinkler, as with so much else about his hobby, keeps these details under wraps.