Dale Gibson, founder of the sustainable beekeeping practice Bermondsey Street Bees, runs the three Charterhouse hives on the Queen’s Walk. Here, he discusses some of the issues affecting urban bees.
Globally, habitat loss is acknowledged as the key threat to honeybee welfare. While bees have existed on earth for 80 million years, we humans have shared the earth with them for only 250,000 years, but in that short time, we’ve dramatically altered the environment, imposing profound stress on bees and other pollinators.
In London, as in other cities including Paris and Berlin, honeybees suffer a particular modern problem: over-crowding. London has the densest hive population in Europe (and possibly the world) and although we have so many green spaces, the available vegetated space in Greater London is still estimated to be shrinking at the rate of 2 ½ times the area of Hyde Park every year.
An expanding population set against declining food resources can never be sustainable. Relative to UK averages, the stresses on bee welfare in London are evident in lower honey yields, higher colony mortality and a steep increase in reportable diseases. All this despite the advantages of a wide variety of food sources (trees, shrubs, flowers) little or no pesticide use and a longer growing season from London’s heat bubble.
In this environment, the bees that we keep in the Charterhouse’s ancient garden are signposting the way forward to more mindful beekeeping. The long legacy of planting for pollinators is being continued by the new Head Gardener Katy Robinson, providing the rich and varied diet they need to support their immune systems. As sustainable beekeepers, we advocate high knowledge/low intervention approaches, ensuring the bees’ health using only our own expertise and naturally-derived pest management. Leaving the bees with more than sufficient winter stores of their honey, we harvest only the surplus that the three colonies can spare. And, as testament to the quality of the unique Charterhouse habitat, their honey was awarded “Highly Commended” at the 2018 National Honey Show.
It’s a tremendous privilege to keep bees in The Charterhouse gardens and we look forward to continuing our work in this historic place; nurturing urban honeybees through education, forage provision and passionate, best practice beekeeping.