• bermondsey hive
  • honey

Interview with Bermondsey Street Bees

Dale Gibson, an urban beekeeper, will be at this month's Make, Do, and Mend Yourself workshop. Here we find out more about the apiary on Bermondsey Street.

Tell us a bit about Bermondsey Street Bees.
First and foremost, we keep healthy, happy bees. We are advocates of the Slow Food movement and are active proponents of sustainable beekeeping in London. Commercially, we specialise in providing exceptional honey for chefs and restaurants. We design, install and manage apiaries for corporate clients. We also run the U.K.’s first beekeeping consultancy service, working with hotels, insurance and residential property companies. Our Bermondsey Street Honey has consistently won awards at major honey shows and professionally-tasted events. Our website will tell you a lot more about us.

Why did you decide to start beekeeping?
I started keeping bees in 2007, after being fascinated watching a bee on a damson blossom at my allotment. My next step was to convince my wife, that it would be a good idea to receive a year’s training with my local Beekeeping Association and then get a hive of my own. I found that my 4th-floor urban rooftop in London was an ideal location for our small apiary and became increasingly captivated by the bees themselves.

What’s the biggest challenge about running a beehive in the heart of central London?
Forage. Which means making sure that the bees have enough to eat: because starved bees are prone to disease and bad temper. Amazingly, there are over 3,000 hives in a 10 kilometre radius of my Bermondsey Street apiary. That is an extraordinary density of hives. And London is not growing any more green spaces. We are passionate about forage provision for new bee colonies in London. Our campaign “Bees Can’t Eat Kind Words” highlights our belief that a beekeeper installing a new apiary in London has a practical and moral duty to provide sufficient forage to feed it - that’s basic good husbandry for any farmed animal.

What is the most rewarding aspect of beekeeping?
It’s all about the bees: these gentle, industrious creatures, with a history many millions of years longer than the human race, produce honey as a raw, genuinely slow food. If you think about it, the honey you eat today tastes the same as the very first honey consumed by mankind - it is the original luxury item - healthy, nutritious and delicious.

How many hives are currently based on your rooftop?
There are 8 full hives and several mating nucleus hives (shoe-box size) on my rooftop. As well as a table and chairs for us to sit out, along with our two cats and Eddie The Pug.

How do you get involved with the local community?
In many ways. As our name suggests, we are very local enterprise. We’re a firm fixture at the Bermondsey Street Festival (17th September this year) with our educational stand, observation hive and touch-pool displays. We source all our jars, labels, printing and labour locally. We also organize volunteer groups to participate in our pollinator-friendly plantings, with grants from Southwark Council and collaboration with Bankside Open Spaces Trust. We are working with local residents, London Bridge BID and Leathermarket JMB to install a green roof on a janitor’s building in White’s Grounds estate. And we give our many neighbours a free jar of honey every year – an ancient beekeeping tradition.

Does Bermondsey Street Honey have a distinctive taste?
Well, our Bermondsey Street Honey has just been acclaimed as one of the “Top 50 U.K. Foods” in the Great Taste Awards 2016: here’s how they summarized our Honey: “Bermondsey Street’s raw urban rooftop honey, wowed the judges with its viscosity and the myriad flavours on show. The panel detected a “surprisingly refreshing taste of limes, mint, fennel and liquorice”.

How much work does it take to look after the bees and hives? Describe a typical day at the apiary.
Currently I manage 50 hives in many different locations - from those on my Bermondsey rooftop, to those in the garden of Lambeth Palace and those on a Cotswold hillside. I also have some private clients. A typical day would involve reading the hive notes from my previous visits, ensuring I have the right equipment for the job, then inspecting each beehive on that day’s list with care and attention. I remember well that, when I started beekeeping, I had read that “ten minutes, per hive, per week” was the recommended time-span for inspecting bee colonies and I confidently passed this information on to my wife. I have since learnt that the bees don’t read the same books that we do. Each hive inspection takes as long – or as little – as it needs to. And I have a very patient wife.

Tell us about the bees themselves, where did you source them, what type of bees are they?
They are calm bees. We breed our Queen bees to produce docile, but productive colonies. My original hive, Abbey Hive, came from the London Beekeepers’ Association, after I had studied beekeeping with that group for a year. I always tell people that the amount of enjoyment which they will get from their bees is directly proportionate to their knowledge about bees and beekeeping.

Meet Dale Gibson at this month's Make, Do, and Mend Yourself urban gardening workshop from 12.00-3.00pm on 25th August.