Urban buzz: Beekeeping in the city

From central London to downtown Tokyo, the word on the street is that inner-city beekeeping is soothing souls and fostering sustainability. Vision.ae explores a growing phenomenon

High up on the roof of luxury London department store Fortnum & Mason, nestled among the chimney pots, is a small cottage industry: a row of five wooden bee hives painted in the store’s trademark eau de nil. These elegant homes house up to 50,000 honey bees each. In the height of summer, they will fly up to three miles to forage for nectar and, in a good year, when the weather is dry and warm, these hives will produce 1,000 jars of honey for Fortnum’s.

From Buckingham Palace to the Intercontinental New York Barclay; from Tokyo’s Ginza designer shopping district to individuals’ back gardens, urban beekeeping is on the rise. It soothes strung-out metropolitan souls. It adds green credentials to businesses. And it helps to increase bee numbers, which have plummeted in recent years.

And then there’s the honey: London honey produced by urban beekeeper Steve Benbow – who manages the hives at Fortnum & Mason and Tate galleries – is delicate, translucent and soft.

Growing uptake

“The biggest change we’ve seen in the past few years is people electing to take up beekeeping for themselves, not because their grandfather did it,” says Tim Lovett, Director of Public Affairs at the British Beekeepers Association, whose membership has doubled in the last three years to 23,000, much of that in cities.

The growth in apiculture reflects society’s growing interest in, and awareness of, food and self-sufficiency: people really care about food miles, flavour and provenance. “Beekeeping might be dying as a profession, but it’s thriving among amateurs,” says Benbow.

The rise in urban apiculture is helping build bee numbers back up again, says Lovett, after they fell 30 per cent four years ago due to a combination of disease and starvation. 

Compared with their country cousins, which often forage on single crops, urban bees have a rich, varied diet – essential to keep them healthy and producing tasty honey. Honey will taste subtly different depending on what the bees are feasting on – it changes week by week, from snowdrops to hazel to lime trees. London bees foraging near Tower Bridge, for example, will infuse their honey with traces of thyme and acacia, giving it a citrus taste. Their cousins in Sydney, meanwhile, who favour eucalyptus trees, produce honey with a sharp, peppermint-like taste. Urban honey is healthier, too, as flowers, shrubs and trees in cities are less likely to be sprayed with pesticides.

Bars and restaurants are capitalising on producing their own honey from hives on their roofs. The Skylon restaurant in London’s Southbank Centre sells honey cocktails and honey jewellery from honey produced on its roof. Mikey Tomkins manages the hives: “It’s not a commercial enterprise – we don’t want to maximise honey production as you have to leave some for bees over winter – but it’s great for people to have a taste,” he says.

Beekeeping around the world

London is not the only city to embrace beekeeping. From Melbourne to San Francisco, beekeeper numbers are rising. No one has more bees in New York City than Andrew Coté. A fourth-generation apiarist, he has hives across Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, upstate New York and Connecticut – on the roofs of schools, offices, balconies, gardens and his own apartment building on the Lower East Side. A university professor until a few months ago, Coté now tends bees full-time.

“I learned beekeeping from my father,” says Coté, “People in cities need a means to connect to nature, and keeping bees is a great way to do it.”

Coté founded the New York City Beekeepers Association, and says there are now around 250 beekeepers in the city. He helped lift a ban on beekeeping in 2010, and since then, numbers have swelled.  

In Germany, the Jumeirah Frankfurt hotel hosts around 40,000 honey bees in four hives on its roof. Beekeepers come once a week in summer to collect the honey, process it and bring it back to the hotel.

“It’s quite special serving home-grown honey to guests,” says Executive Chef Martin Steiner, who came up with the idea of keeping hives on the roof of the hotel. Steiner cooks with the honey – specialities include a moist cake, apple jelly and a traditional Frankfurt pudding. And, of course, it is available at breakfast to spread on toast, fresh from the honeycomb.

They may be contributing to the survival of an important species, and they may enjoy the taste of fresh, healthy honey, but for most dedicated city apiarists, beekeeping is a simple, old-fashioned pastime that helps to slow down their fast-moving urban lives.