Why London's beekeepers are a growing band

Laura Barnett finds out what beekeepers get out of it - and why shops are clamouring for their honey

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The first summer that Nicky Faith kept bees in her back garden, she built a pyramid 15 jars wide with the honey they made. Now, 10 years on, her three beehives take pride of place in her garden, and the labels on her jars of Willesden Green Honey picture a bucolic scene far from this crowded corner of north-west London.

Nicky, a part-time adult literacy teacher in her fifties, is one of a growing number of Londoners keeping bees. According to Government estimates, at least 2,000 people keep bees within the M25 - double the number recorded in 1999. For many city-dwellers, having beehives offers a way to get closer to nature and ensures a supply of pure, locally produced honey. Keeping bees is less a hobby than a green way of life.

"I've always been green, I suppose," Nicky says, sitting at her scrubbed kitchen table in prime position to observe her bees at work around the magnolia tree. "I care about having locally produced food. And I've always loved country life - this is the closest I can get to keeping livestock."

John Chapple, beekeeper for 25 years and chairman of the London Beekeepers' Association for 10, also believes that keeping bees is an ideal way for people with limited space to feel more in touch with nature.

"What other kind of animal can you keep in two square feet of space?" he points out. John once had 40 beehives on allotments and at his home in Acton, west London. He now keeps bees in Regent's Park.

But London beehives are not confined to parks and gardens. Robin Pemberton-Jones, a former governor of the Bank of England, kept hives on top of the Bank, and LBA beekeepers provide honey for the Archbishop of Canterbury from hives in Lambeth Palace's gardens. Other LBA members keep bees at the Natural History Museum and on top of Fortnum and Mason.

"People from all walks of life keep bees in cities," says John. "I've seen hundreds of new members join recently. When I started, they were all old men; now they're mainly ladies, and a lot of younger people too. They're health-conscious and more environmentally aware."

Surprisingly, smoggy urban streets are said to provide a purer honey than rolling fields. City gardens, parks and allotments offer a wider variety of flowers than is found now in the countryside, and pollution seems to have no effect on honeybees. According to a survey conducted last year by French beekeepers' association, Unaf, city-dwelling bees are healthier and more productive than their country cousins, avoiding the ill effects of pesticides used by farmers and filtering out urban pollution.

"The countryside seems green and clean, but the crops are often covered in pesticides," explains James Hammill, a former actor turned owner of The Hive Honey Shop in south London, which stocks honey produced at the Hammills' 40 hives across London and southern England. "Bees in cities produce more honey. We get 40 to 50 jars per hive every season in our country apiaries; in the city, we get more like 150 jars."

Not only do urban bees enjoy the range of flowers on offer, they can help keep cities green. Bees are crucial to pollination, so keeping bee colonies, even on a small scale, can help plants to flourish. "The more we keep bees, the more flowers and trees there will be," Nicky Faith comments. "It's a green activity."

Amateur and small-scale commercial beekeepers also avoid the blending and processing methods employed by many of the major supermarket chains, producing a more natural honey.

Nicky shudders at the mere thought of mass-produced supermarket brands. "When people say they don't like honey it's because they've only tried the ones you get in the supermarket," she says. Robert Carpenter-Turner, one-time opera singer, portrait photographer and president of the North London Beekeepers' Association, agrees. Membership of the NLBKA has grown to more than 120. He believes this is mainly due to people's increasing concerns about where their food comes from.

"There's a greater desire to eat organic, locally produced food," he says. "Supermarkets usually blend different types of honey to get a certain colour. There's nothing like eating your own honey, and London honey is absolutely premium stuff."

There is a growing demand for good honey. In January, Waitrose reported that sales of honey overtook those of marmalade for the first time. Demand for London honey outstrips supply; Robert and Nicky are approached by health-food shops and delicatessens, and can seldom meet demand.

It's not just the taste of urban honey that's sought after - many claim that it offers health benefits. As bees feed on the pollen in a particular area, those suffering the effects of the high urban pollen count can find eating local honey alleviates symptoms.

"People come to me for honey because they have hay fever," Robert explains. "If it's local, it seems to have a sort of immunising effect."

Other London beekeepers are used to this request. James Hammill started stocking honey-based hay-fever remedies when friends began to swear by them, and John Chapple has hay-fever sufferers coming back year after year asking for his west London honey.

But keeping bees is not just a matter of buying a hive and waiting for the honey to flow. City-based beekeepers face concerned neighbours and the threat of vandalism, and need considerable training to manage hives of up to 60,000 bees.

At introductory courses run by the London Beekeepers' Association, Robert's north London-based group, and the Hive Honey Shop, prospective urban beekeepers can get a feel for beekeeping, meeting experts ready to impart advice.

It is standing room only at the final session of a 10-week LBA course held at Roots and Shoots, an environmental charity just south of the Thames. Mostly under 50, the students are evenly split between men and women. They include 16-year-old Simon, attending the course with his mother, and Elizabeth Dix, a 27-year-old broadcast assistant for Radio Three.

"I grew up in the Jersey countryside and always fancied having animals," says Elizabeth. "Bees are perfect to keep in London - it's like having pets, but you don't have to spend all your time with them."

For stressed-out city-dwellers, the time they do spend with their bees can prove therapeutic. Investment manager Julian Lim, also on the course, says his degree in philosophy drew him to bees. "I'm fascinated by the primitive social language of bees," he says.

The magic of keeping bees so compelled James Hammill that he decided to continue the beekeeping tradition started by his father and grandfather in California.

"Watching bees is a form of meditation," he says. "It really is therapeutic; it relieves stress."

Nicky Faith agrees. "But the greatest moment is opening the hive and seeing the honeycomb," she says. "That's a kind of miracle. That makes it all worthwhile."

Bee prepared

Books about beekeeping can provide a good introduction, but there's no substitute for practical experience. Contact your local beekeeping association to find out about courses for beginners.

n London Beekeepers' Association www.lbka.org.uk

n British Beekeepers' Association www.bbka.org.uk

Think carefully about where to put your apiary. Hives should be sheltered from wind, preferably south-facing for warmth, and close to a source of water.

Talk to your neighbours before installing hives. People can be taken aback by the sight of thousands of bees suddenly feasting in their garden.

Try hiding your apiary behind a trellis or wall. This reduces the risk of vandalism and will help avoid confrontations with neighbours. And look for good-tempered bees. Like all creatures, some types of bee are more docile than others. Local bee inspectors and experienced beekeepers can advise on which strains are least likely to sting.

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