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28 August 2014
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Gardening for bees

If you’re wandering through London‘s West End next summer, look out for bumble-bees.


Beekeeping in the city

If you spot one, chances are its home will be on top of one of London’s best known department stores. Fortnum and Mason began making their own honey two years ago. At the moment, their bees are living in rural tranquillity in Shropshire. But after Chelsea, the beautifully-crafted beehives in the Fortnum and Mason Garden will be relocated on the roof of the store in Piccadilly, W1, ready for the bees to move in next spring.

Fortnum and Mason Garden's hives

"You’ve got so many flowering plants and trees in London,” says Steve Benbow, who looks after the bees for Fortnum’s. "There are so many parks, so many window boxes - the yields are amazing."

In return, you’ll have pots of delicious honey - and city beekeepers argue it tastes far nicer than anything produced in the countryside.

Keeping bees in the city isn’t quite as unusual as you’d think. Steve himself has been keeping bees all over London - including on the roof of his flat in Bermondsey - for years. About 40,000 people keep bees in the UK, and a growing number of them live in towns and cities.

Philippa O’Brien has been keeping bees in her garden in Hammersmith for about a year. She’s designed an urban garden for the British Beekeeping Association (BBKA) at the show, for the Lifelong Learning section of the Main Pavilion, and says you don’t need much space to set yourself up with a hive.

"You need open access - a roof terrace is very good, because you tend to be up high. Bees follow a beeline - so you need a flight path in and out that’s high up, above people‘s heads."

In return, you’ll have pots of delicious honey - and city beekeepers argue it tastes far nicer than anything produced in the countryside.

"A lot of the countryside is covered in oilseed rape, which makes absolutely disgusting honey," says Philippa. "In a town you get sycamores, limes, horse chestnuts, and a mass of different herbaceous plants in people’s gardens, so you get really interesting, deep-flavoured honey."

Gardening for bees isn’t strictly necessary if you have a hive of your own - bees rarely stay close to the hive, instead ranging for miles to find sources of nectar. But if you want to encourage bees, Philippa recommends including plenty of plants with small flowers, like lavender, catmints and wisteria, or open flowers like asters and rudbeckias. Double flowers are best avoided, and bees prefer big drifts of plants to single specimens.

The only serious problem is the voracious varroa mite, which has been known to decimate bee colonies - but any course for new beekeepers will give you a range of measures you can take to keep it under control. It’s not much to ask in return for as much honey as you can eat - and the ultimate stress-busting hobby.

"In London, there’s just so much activity going on," says Steve Benbow. It’s so busy, so stressful, so full-on. And then six storeys up, there’s someone looking after bees. There’s something very calming about being with bees in such a busy city.”

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