The buzz around town: How one man made urban living a real honey trap for bees
Sunday 25 November 2012
t's amazing. When I started eight or nine years ago, I kept trying to talk to people about it and no one was even slightly interested." Luke Dixon, urban beekeeper, laughs as he tries to explain his joy and astonishment at finding the rest of the world suddenly fascinated by his solitary hobby.
In the wake of global concerns about hive decline, Dixon reckons, the British public have woken up to bee appeal. "And they have all kinds of questions. They are amazed there are beehives in towns. Where are they? And where are all the bees? They want to know if the honey is polluted, is it full of smoke and smog, which of course it isn't. And the most important question: do you get stung?"
The answers to all these questions and more are in Dixon's excellent new book, Keeping Bees in Towns and Cities (£14.99, Timber). From Hong Kong to Harvard, Kyoto to Los Angeles, Dixon has found beehives and bees, often with a distinct regional twist. A traditional Japanese beehive, for example, has an unmistakable flavour of the temple pagoda about it; one in Tucson, Arizona, a touch of Donald Judd. But all have one thread in common: the sheer delight of keeping bees.
"You have to work at the pace of the bees," Dixon says, "at the speed they'll allow you to work. You notice the weather and the seasons in a much more acute way once you keep bees. And it is endlessly fascinating, sitting at the front of the hive, watching them go in and out, and wondering just how they do it."
Despite his apiarist tendencies, Dixon is a theatre director by day job. "I've spent my entire life since school working in the theatre. Dark places, with other human beings." But he hankered, like most of us, for a bit of fresh air and some sort of connection with the natural world. Living in central London, Dixon set his heart on beehives.
Riding around London on his scooter, he ended up convincing the Natural History Museum to let him place hives in their wildlife garden. Then followed other enthusiastic takers, including the London College of Fashion, the National Magazines Company, LSE and even Kensington Palace. "Companies are motivated by their greening policies. They come and say, 'OK, we've changed all the lightbulbs, what can we do next?'"
For some companies, it's had unexpected bonuses. The Lancaster Hotel, overlooking Hyde Park, had Dixon's biggest-yielding hive this year, with an astonishing 80kg of honey. "I had to go down and help as it had grown so tall! And now Hyde Park is full of conkers, which wouldn't have existed without the visits of the bees, and guests can eat their Hyde Park honey and toast looking out over this autumnal scene."
But beekeeping is not always joyful. "It can be heartbreaking," Dixon says. "About two weeks ago, one of the hives on the roof of the headquarters of Ted Baker was decimated by wasps. Wasps are always a worry at the end of the season, and in a single week they destroyed the colony. The poor staff team were really upset because they'd never seen it before."
So what does Dixon think about recent news reports that urban bees are making less honey as they compete with other city hives? He sighs. "My take is that it's unsubstantiated," he says. "Yields are down everywhere, because the weather has been so foul this year. Most of the bees in London forage on trees. The two main flavours of London honey are lime and chestnut. One decent chestnut tree is the size of a 10-storey building, which could feed any number of hives. And there are 135,000 trees in the London Royal Parks alone!"
So I guess I just have that one final question: do you get stung? At which he laughs. "Of course you do!"
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