Urban Bees is an organisation that aims to bring bees to cities, promoting sustainable and responsible urban beekeeping. Since starting beekeeping in 2006, they have worked with an impressive range of companies and organisations across London, including the City of London Festival, the Co-Op Group and London Wildlife Trust. Co-founder Alison Benjamin kindly answered some of our questions about their work and the importance of having bees in the city.
How did Urban Bees grow from being at the bottom of your garden to an organisation with links all over London?
We founded Urban Bees after keeping bees in the bottom of our garden for a couple of years. Brian McCallum, my partner, was a trained teacher and had become very knowledgeable about beekeeping and bees. I’m a journalist at the Guardian and started writing about bees. We devised a taster course that was for urban professionals to learn about beekeeping in cities. We started teaching in a hall in south London that was attached to a friend’s house. Around the same time, Keeping Bees and Making Honey was published and A World without Bees, about why bees were mysteriously dying. We then set up a training apiary at Camley Street, a London Wildlife Trust nature park in King’s Cross, funded by the Co-op Group’s Plan Bee campaign. We taught 60 new urban beekeepers over 3 years. Since then Urban Bees has worked with a number of community groups including Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, and companies across London including Grosvenor estates raising awareness about bees, beekeeping and forage.
We also have created ‘Hive Talking’, a map on our website, that brings would-be beekeepers together with experienced beekeepers or people who want to host a hive to improve responsible urban beekeeping.
Why is it important to have bees in the city?
All bees – honeybees that we keep, and wild bumblebees and solitary bees – are important for the environment and biodiversity. They pollinate trees and flowering plants which then provide berries, nuts and fruits for us and the other creatures we share our cities with, such as birds. Bees pollinate one in three mouthfuls. If we make our cities better for bees by planting more bee-friendly flowers and trees and creating more habitats they become more pleasant places for us to live in as well.
Canopius, Lloyd’s Building
What are the advantages to companies to keep bees, for example, on the Lloyd’s building?
It can tick the CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility] box. It can boost staff morale. Everyone gets very excited about keeping bees and helping bees. It can improve team building if teams of employees learn about beekeeping. It can help improve the wider environment if the company improves forage for bees and other pollinators. If the bees make enough honey this can be given to clients or used in the staff canteen. But most importantly it opens people’s eyes to the environment around them and the fact that we all live in nature and are a part of nature. Working in an office all day on our computers and mobile phones we have become very detached from this reality.
There was a lot of press a couple of years ago about beekeeping in the city, especially within the corporate environment. Has this trend continued? Has it changed at all?
More companies than every before want to help bees. But many are now realising that you don’t have to have a bee hive to help bees. Some companies are changing their practices so that their environment is more bee-friendly by planting bee-friendly flowers on the roof or in planters or hanging baskets and installing bee hotels for solitary bees. Companies could also set up or support bee clubs where employers can visit bee hives and learn about bees and how to help them.
How do office/city buildings need to be adapted to make them suitable/more friendly for bees?
Retro-fitting roofs so they provide forage for bees all year round is a very good start. Lots of landscaping are low maintenance architectural plants or bedding plants neither of which are bee-friendly. They should do this by planting bee-friendly trees, and by creating green roofs that are flowering throughout the year. Here is a list of some of trees they could plant and Urban Bees can advise companies about proving better bee forage.
They also need to create sites where bees can nest by leaving areas wild and having log piles and drilling holes in old wood or making bee hotels where solitary bees can lay their eggs.
Kensington Roof Gardens in west London has 125 trees on its roof, so there is no reason why this can’t be done on new buildings.
Camley Street training apiary, King’s Cross
We do a tour based around the regeneration of King’s Cross and I’m interested in your work with at Camley Street nature park. How has the redevelopment around King’s Cross impacted on Camley Street (and its bees)?
We still have our bees in the same place. Some of the forage has been removed along the canal side. It’s too early to say how this has impacted the hives. There will be green roofs installed as part of the development. We are working closing with organisations and individuals in King’s Cross who will influence the landscaping to make the redevelopment more bee-friendly.
Could you tell me about The Honey Club and your work with them?
The Honey Club in King’s Cross was set up by youth charity Global Generation, brand consultancy, Wolff Olins and Urban Bees to bring young people and business together at bee-related events that will create a bee-friendly community. Events include making candles form bees wax, lip balms, cooking with honey and planting for bees. As part of the Honey Club, Urban Bees maintains hives at Global Generation’s Skip Garden and on the roof at Wolff Olins and gives talks and beekeeping sessions.
All pictures courtesy of Urban Bees.