A Hive of Information
Introducing the Queen Bee of Bermondsey
From bee to jar, Bermondsey Street Bees work tirelessly to produce honey in the most environmentally friendly and sustainable way possible. I spoke to one of its founders Sarah Wyndham Lewis, about her business and fascination with this alluring pollinator.
Often seen as a food of the gods, honey has been with us since the dawn of time. This amber nectar shaped the plastic brains of the earliest humans, creating a pleasure pathway that still exists today. But it's not just the taste of this sacred syrup that has entranced us for millennia. The mysteries of the hive and the bee's importance to the environment have kept us captivated. Despite working with bees for over fifteen years, Sarah is still excited, curious and keen to learn more.
From Hobby to Award-Winning Business
It all started when city worker Dale Gibson, Sarah's husband, woke up one morning and announced he was going on a bee experience.
"I grew up on a farm, but he's the one with the green fingers and loved watching the bees pollinate the Damson tree on our allotment. The experience lit a spark in him. He met the Queen's beekeeper, John Chappell , and they got on like a house on fire. John’s wisdom has always been a guiding force."
Ironically, Sarah is allergic to bee stings, but her husband's enthusiasm was catching. He often tells her that "No honey bee ever left a hive with the intention of harming a human." Sarah took the plunge and has never regretted it, although it is Dale who runs the hives and tends the bees.
The couple started small, with a few hives on London rooftops, a practice that was ahead of its time. They began producing small-batch raw honey. Raw honey is honey that is simply taken from the hive, spun, strained and bottled. It is not pasteurised, microfiltered or blended, which means that it retains its unique flavour and nutrients. If a label tells you that a honey is blended, you can be certain that it's an ultra-processed food. At first, it may have seemed strange to people that bees could thrive in a city, but the Western honey bee is so adaptable it can be found everywhere except Antarctica. London bees have a wide range of foraging opportunities with so many gardens and public spaces, and exotic plants from warmer climes.
"Bees need a wide variety of pollen sources for good health. They need different proteins etc. They actively forage for what the hive needs."
Sarah, a trained honey sommelier, once identified 84 different pollen sources in one honey including eucalyptus, which has naturalised on the Essex side of Thames.
The honey they were producing was so good that their fledgling business did not remain a hobby for long. They began picking up awards for their produce and in 2016 won small artisanal food producer of the year for the whole of the UK. It became clear that Bermondsey Street Bees was destined to become more than a cottage industry. With a background as a writer for high-end interiors, Sarah wanted to create a brand that moved away from the twee image of honey and present a coherent product and service fit for the modern world.
Small but Perfectly Formed
Despite their success, Bermondsey Street Bees have never wanted to produce honey on an industrial scale. They have around 80 hives in 14 locations and take only the spare honey leaving the bees with more than enough to thrive. Pollen is left for the bees' babies, and they do not produce wax. Any naturally occuring waste wax is sold to chefs, bartenders or textile makers to use in batik. They work with a small team, happy with doing what they do well.
"Coming from a farming background, I know that the land and animals are the 1st concern, the products come second. We keep it small so that people can come and see the whole process. There is no offsite. If you get too big, you start to cut corners, and we want to be able to sleep at night."
Being small, Bermondsey Street Bees are able to show people the whole process from bee to jar. They have a comprehensive programme of training and educating hospitality professionals, promoting the sustainable practice of beekeeping, and supply some of the top Michelin star chefs with their superior honey. It may be a small company, but it is comprehensive and actively educates people to understand the sustainability issues in and around beekeeping in the modern world.
Bermondsey Street Bees never put profit over their environment and for the sake of their neighbours, ensure that their hives are not aggressive.
"An aggressive/bad-tempered queen makes for a defensive hive. This is not so important in the countryside, but in the city, it can create a problem for the neighbours. We naturally breed queens that are docile girls that can live close to people. Defensive hives produce more honey but they can be anti-social.”
Against Greenwashing the Gold
Since they started urban beekeeping in 2007, there has been an explosion in beekeeping in the capital. Many are not trained apiarists, and some large companies cynically place hives on their roofs to gain green credentials, claiming to be saving the honey bees.
"I really resent the media's misdirection of people's intention to do good. I spend a lot of time busting these myths." Contrary to common beliefs, honey bees are not in short supply and , according to the UN, the world has never had so many honey bees. London has the largest amount in the whole of Europe, and it's having its effects. Due to the overcrowding, the bees are robbing each other and spreading disease. For this reason, Bermondsey Street Bees are relocating many of their hives to safer spaces outside of London. Worldwide, Honey bees are often observed to be ousting other species due to global industrial farming.
Not the Bee All and End All
We tend to think of the honey bee as a cute fluffy bee, but that's a bumblebee, our knowledge of pollinators is limited. There are so many different species of bees and pollinators, including solitary bees, butterflies and beetles. Sarah firmly believes that everything in nature is about balance, and if we want to help the environment, we need to ensure that we care for all pollinators. A case in point is Lambeth Palace gardens which have 800 years of beekeeping history. Their planting attracts lots of other pollinators, and an ecosphere is being preserved. The bees here are not depleting what other species need.
"It's important to plant hedgerows & trees for all pollinators. Oaktrees, for example, sustain hundreds of different living species, from bees to lichens. Wildflowers are a lovely extra joy, but they are not the solution. Shift your gaze from the macro to the micro, and you will see lots of different bees."
How Can We Help?
"Planting, planting, planting. If you don't have a garden, plant a window box or join a community planting project. It's a mosaic. Each honey bee produces 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in her whole life. By planting even just a lavender bush, you are part of that mosaic."
Bermondsey Street Bees have produced this downloadable PDF with lots of facts and tips to get you started.
"Know that There's Always More to Know."
Speaking to Sarah, it's clear that she is passionate about bees and the environment, but despite her vast knowledge, she is eager to learn more.
"Everything about the hive has a purpose. We don't know everything yet, but the mystery hooks people in."
I was certainly hooked into the magical tale of the hive, and it's almost supernatural workings. This superorganism has been wowing humans for thousands of years, and Sarah and her team are ambassadors not only for the bee but pollinators and the environment at large. Their raw honey is not only sweet; it's a shining example of how food production can positively impact our planet.
I'd like to thank Sarah for taking the time out of her busy week to chat all things bee.
Honey Bee Facts:
During the winter, the bees surround the queen and shiver to create warmth.
The queen bee is the mistress & slave - she has to be fed, & if she fails, they kill her.
Drones die when they mate with a queen. Any drones still alive in the autumn are pushed out of the hive by their sisters, and if they return will have their wings chewed off. There are no passengers.