Walking down Turney Road in early April, there was a break in the traffic, and for a few minutes I could hear the trees vibrating with the hum of honeybees collecting their first nectar of the year from the flowering trees lining the street. Dulwich is a bee haven, with a number of beekeepers in Dulwich - you may have spotted hives in Rosendale, Grange Lane, and Grove Lane Allotments, as well as in some private gardens. These hives not only produce excellent local honey, but the bees provide the essential service of pollinating many of the flowers in parks and gardens - vital for anyone growing fruit and vegetables as well as those who save seed year on year for their gardens.
Paul Bond has been keeping bees for over 40 years, and for 35 years in Dulwich. When he first moved to Dulwich, Paul was able to place his apiaries in a corner of Dulwich Park. After this site was developed into the carpark, the Dulwich Estate kindly offered him the use of Grove Meadow for his five hives. Paul describes the site as perfect: the hives receive morning sun, and at midday are shaded provided by the copse behind the meadow. The annual rent to the Dulwich Estate for the use of the field is six jars of honey.
In a good year, Paul’s hives can produce 35 pots of honey per hive, but one hive produced an extraordinary 120 pots one year - the result of careful husbandry combined with the excellent forage provided by the parks, gardens and other green spaces nearby (honeybees commonly fly up to one and a half miles to collect nectar to return to the colony).
Contrary to expectation, honeybees thrive in cities due to higher air temperatures, a greater range of plants grown in parks and gardens than monoculture fields in rural areas, and less heavy pesticide use. However, urban bees are still threatened by the parasitic varroa mite, and by the more recent phenomenon Colony Collapse Disorder. While the causes of Colony Collapse Disorder are still being investigated, there are a number of steps Dulwich gardeners can take to support the health and foraging opportunities for local honeybee populations, and by extension, the welfare of other pollinating insects including bumble bees, butterflies and moths. The campaign Bees’ Needs (run by The Wildlife Trusts) recommends the following to improve available forage. Firstly, grow more flowers, trees and shrubs. Next, let patches of land grow wild, and cut grass less often. Don’t disturb insect nests and hibernation sites, and finally think carefully about whether to use pesticides.
Those with the space can build a bug hotel to support a large range of pollinating insects, such as the bug hotel in Brockwell Park Community Greenhouses, and if you are considering keeping bees, find a course run by an experienced beekeeper before you start (details below).
There is one problem for beekeepers that even the steps above cannot combat. Once a year, DUCKS Kindergarten and Infants’ School hosts a fireworks display that causes panic amongst Paul Bond’s bees, which, if they are left in situ, may cause them to die of shock from being woken from hibernation. DUCKS alerts Paul to the date of the display, and he seals the hives, loads them into a van with the help of a friend, drives them to the Crown and Greyhound for some refreshment (for the beekeepers), returning the hives once the bangs and pops have finished. Yet another aspect to the hobby which makes it so appealing!
London Beekeepers’ Association http://www.lbka.org.uk/courses.html
Friends of Bromley Beekeepers http://www.kentbee.com/bromley/courses/index.shtml
Walworth Garden Farm (free 10-hour introductory course) - www.walworthgardengardenfarm.org.uk/beekeeping
Further reading: Plants for Bees: A Guide to the Plants That Benefit the Bees of the British Isles by William Kirk and F. N. Howes. Published by International Bee Research Association (2012)
An online list of plants for pollinators: https://www.rhs.org.uk/science/conservation-biodiversity/wildlife/encourage-wildlife-to-your-garden/plants-for-pollinators
And if you see a swarm?: you can locate your nearest Swarm Collector through the London Beekeepers’ Association website (there are an astonishing 8 collectors within 2 miles of Dulwich Village)