Urban Beekeeping

| 23rd October 2012
Bees kept on the roof of St. Ermin's Hotel in central London. The chef uses the honey in many dishes.
Intrigued by the growing popularity of urban beekeeping, Edgar Vaid recommends a book that works well as a manual for aspiring beekeepers ...
Whether town or country, UK law regards bees as wild creatures in the custody of their keepers

In grappling with the mechanics of the Universe, Einstein famously explained the relationship between energy, mass, and the velocity of light. Less well known, however, but arguably of greater significance in terms of human-kinds’ medium-term future, was his reputed comment that “if the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left”.

This sobering observation returned to the forefront of my consciousness during the early summer of 2012 when, most unusually, our small orchard was almost totally bereft of any fruit.  Whilst many growers across England agreed that it had simply been a “bad year for apples, pears, and plums”, their sager members noted that spring blossom had been as plentiful as usual, but that most honey bees had been confined to their hives by the sustained damp and windy weather, and hence were unable to fulfil their pollinating duties. Indeed, it has been estimated that a third of all the food we eat is the result of pollination by honey bees.

Thus both timely and welcome is the publication of Luke Dixon’s Keeping Bees in Towns & Cities, providing as it does a wealth of encouragement and comprehensive practical guidance to the aspiring beekeeper.

For many of us “bee-keeping” may initially conjure up a resolutely sylvan image,  perhaps of ruddy-cheeked bucolic monks tending their hives amongst knee-high corn-flowers in a mature, sun-dappled orchard set in a rural idyll.  But as its title heralds, this book is both witness to, and encourager of, the urban beekeeper – those potential millions of us who, even without the smallest garden, may yet have access to a compact space on a raised patio or roof-top.

People have been keeping bees for thousands of years, as evidenced by images of clay hives found on ancient Egyptian tomb walls. However, the modern history of beekeeping might be said to date from 1851, with the pioneering activities of two rather splendidly named Americans, Lorenzo Langstroth and Amos Root. The Rev Langstroth made a key breakthrough with his invention of the re-usable hive, which was subsequently mass-produced by Mr Root.


London’s Association of Beekeepers was founded in 1883, but it is the 21st Century that has seen a particular resurgence in urban beekeeping.  This is partly explained by increasing societal awareness of the bees’ plight, for although not necessarily alert to the woeful depredations of the veroa mite, the average city dweller is probably now more aware of humans’ dependence for their food on pollinating honey bees.

Following from the warmer micro-climates generated by the mass of buildings in cities, urban bees will have access to pollen earlier in the year.  Perhaps more counter-intuitively, (or probably owing to the insidious effects of persuasive advertising), the text also suggests that because urban bees are better fed than their “country cousins”, they produce better honey. However, this claim actually makes sense when one appreciates that over vast swathes of rural England, for much of their foraging time bees are reliant on a monoculture of oil-seed rape blossom. 

Whether town or country, UK law regards bees as wild creatures in the custody of their keepers

The European or Western honey bee (apis mellifora) is an omnivore, and only in urban areas can be found a rich multi-flora wherever she flies – for up to three miles from the hive.  Thus “the complexity of flavours and scents in urban honey far exceeds that of honey from the countryside”.

The huge worldwide range of locations and cultures where beekeeping is practised in one form or another is reflected in the myriad styles of hive, and the materials used to build them – ranging from straw to cedar wood to polystyrene. The aspiring bee-keeper will get clear and reasoned guidance about the choice of hives, their construction and positioning, along with recommendations about buying bees, attendant bee suits, hats, veils, etc, and of course the handling of the bees themselves. When removing brood frames, for example, an analogy is drawn of taking a house apart “room by room while most of the occupants are at home” - the keynote here being respect.

Interestingly, there are about 30 sub-species of apis mellifora, each with its own characteristics. Some, (perhaps like humans), have a temperament more suited to urban settings. And importantly, the section on stings deals not only with advice on how to avoid and treat them, but also aims to allay perhaps one of our most primeval fears.  It points out that each year the vast majority of several hundreds of admissions to UK hospitals result from the stings of an altogether more aggressive insect – the wasp. Additionally there is the revealing statistic of an annual UK average of two deaths following anaphylactic shock resulting from bee stings – compared to three deaths from lightning strikes. 

Allied to such concerns is the issue of allaying neighbours’ fears – often a critical consideration in urban settings, and in which context it’s noted that Spain actually bans beekeeping within town limits. England and the United States represent another example of differing cultural traditions being reflected in bees’ contrasting legal status.  Here, bees are regarded in law as ferae naturae, i.e. wild creatures that are merely in the “custody” of their keeper, whereas American bees (whether or not they are aware of it) can be owned as chattels or “moveable possessions”.

Whilst the text is pleasantly leavened by occasional poetic flourishes (“returning with little bundles of colour on their back legs”), overall it’s eminently practical – almost akin to a manual.  Especially worthwhile are the summary “top tips” at the end of each chapter.  Straight-forwardly written, well illustrated, and including over 20 case studies from around the World of how beekeeping is influenced by different climates and cultures, this book is recommended.

Keeping Bees in Towns & Cities by Luke Dixon is published by Timber Press (£14.99).

Image courtesy of St Ermin's Hotel;


Edgar Vaid is a freelance book reviewer.


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