The fight to save the humble honey bee has become an urban battle, thanks to London beekeepers Chris Barnes and Paul Webb.

The fight to save the humble honey bee has become an urban battle, thanks to London beekeepers Chris Barnes and Paul Webb.

From a small suburban kitchen in Homerton, East London, Chris Barnes and Paul Webb manage a network of urban hives that swells to over a million bees during the summer months. Their urban beekeeping startup Barnes & Webb is helping Londoners reconnect with nature through a hive leasing business model, while producing ultra-local honey, labelled by postcode. But most importantly Chris and Paul are contributing to the fight to save the honey bee from the threat of extinction, which could have devastating knock-on effects for the rest of our food chain.

When we meet on a cold January afternoon, Chris and Paul seem relaxed. “This is the best time of year, when there’s not much to do,” Chris explains. “From October/November until March the bees are quite dormant and hopefully they’ll make it through to the spring.” In the autumn, around four fifths of each colony dies off, and only the stronger, fatter bees survive to protect the queen, which gives Chris and Paul a bit of time to breathe before things get real.

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“You’re responsible for 50,000 stinging insects, so it’s definitely not for the faint-hearted,” Chris explains. “You open a box of bees and they’re bubbling over and spilling out, bashing you in the face, trying to sting you, and that’s quite scary.” As temperatures increase the queen begins laying eggs in earnest and each colony balloons from around 10,000 to 50-60,000 bees. Overseeing more than twenty hives spread across the capital becomes an exhausting plate-spinning exercise. When colonies swarm – a “bee orgy” to you and I – they have to drop everything to avoid losing the colony or facing the wrath of neighbours being harassed by thousands of agitated bees.

“You have to be constantly thinking about how to keep your bees as healthy as possible, prevent them from swarming and increase your honey yields,” Paul explains. “It’s heavy work when you’ve got to lift off 120 kilos to inspect the brood box, it’s thirty-four degrees and you’re in a full bee suit with marigold rubber gloves on, your socks tucked into your boots and the sweat’s dripping off you.”

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Despite the sweating and the plentiful stings, they’re exuberant about playing a part in saving the bees. Global honey bee populations have been in freefall for over a decade and scientists in the US have observed a phenomenon dubbed colony collapse disorder, with yearly declines of up to thirty per cent. Data in the UK suggest similar falls and a handful of native species have already disappeared. Climate change has brought about warmer summers, which encourage parasites to flourish, and harsher winters, which kill off hibernating colonies. Industrialised farming has destroyed habitats and there is growing evidence to implicate pesticides.

“Pesticides are nerve agents,” Paul explains. “All kinds of insect pollinators are just being decimated. The pesticide problem is one of the most pressing environmental catastrophes of modern times but it’s kept on the down low because so much money’s being made.” In the US alone, the agrochemical industry is worth $12.5 billion and companies have resisted regulation worldwide.

london-beekeepers-3london-beekeepers-2“Governments won’t enforce strict legislation because of lobbying by huge multinationals,” Paul adds. “They have the best lawyers and money to make sure their products are used wherever they want them to be.” With up to a third of everything we eat dependent on honey bee pollination, it’s estimated bees contribute £26bn to the global economy and if they disappear, we’re left with a gaping hole in our food chain.

Chris and Paul had long been angry about the threat to the bees, but only worked out how to be part of the solution after Chris went travelling. In New Zealand he wangled himself a job at a commercial bee farm which rented hives, but thought it could never translate from spacious and laid-back Auckland to the concrete jungle of London, with its strict regulation and notorious congestion. After he arrived home, the idea kept buzzing around inside his head, so eventually he did some sums and called his best mate for a pint.

Two years after that pub conversation, Barnes & Webb now produce 500 kilos of honey each year. Logistics can still be a nightmare but London’s huge diversity of plants and trees provides their bees with ample nectar sources. Each of the five different postcodes have their own distinct characters, with a richness not found in supermarket honey, where the flavour and health benefits are pasteurised away.

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“This is more complex, you can taste toffee, lime or the floral notes, rather than just sickly sweetness,” Chris explains. “There’s a homeopathist in Stoke Newington who went apeshit when she realised there was N16 honey.” Besides tasting great, fresh honey boosts the immune system and people with allergies swear that eating local honey protects them from the pollens in their area.

You too can be a part of this urban beekeeping revolution. Providing you have a suitable space, Barnes & Webb will install a hive, help maintain it and split the honey with you each year. “Most of our customers find the bees magical,” Chris explains. “Just watching the bees is quite therapeutic.”

Chris and Paul have big ambitions for the future. They want to draw on their skills as graphic designers to build the brand and develop more products, including mead (an alcoholic drink made from fermenting water with honey), a mobile app and a hipster moustache wax made from beeswax. But ultimately they hope to bring disadvantaged groups into the fight to save the bees and put sustainable, ultra-local food production into the hands of the community.

“The bees are a good poster boy for all this, but it’s not just about the bees,” Paul explains. “Ecosystems are not just about us and our needs, they’re about a whole interconnected system.”

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