Camley Street Natural Park entrance


The London Wildlife Trust has several small urban nature reserves close to the centre of the city. The Camley Street Natural Park was created in the early ‘8os on the site of a derelict coal yard, sandwiched between rail tracks and a canal. The site had become naturally colonised by plants over the years, and the small strip of land was preserved as a wildlife haven near the very heart of London

IMG_4083IMG_4084URBAN BEES runs beekeeping taster courses at Camley Street. We went there last weekend to taste the taster course, which is run by Brian McCallum and Alison Benjamin. Both are very experienced beekeepers, and the joint authors of 3 excellent books (two of which I already owned, but I had dimly failed to link the authors with the course leaders). More details of the books are at the end of this post. The early morning had seen inauspicious dark clouds and very heavy rain in London. Slowly it began to clear, and by mid-morning the skies were blue and the sun shone brightly.IMG_4089By 11.00, 20 of us had been welcomed to the lecture room by Brian and Alison, and we all settled down in learning mode. It quickly became clear that Brian’s relaxed yet sparky presentation would be (a) informative and (b) entertaining. And so it proved. We covered the ground quickly: bee varieties and their place in the world and in the hive; the caste system; bee anatomy; the birth and life cycles of bees; the basic hive structure; first steps to keeping bees; the pros and cons of keeping urban bees; the equipment needed and the (considerable) costs involved; and varroa.IMG_4091Brian presented the information clearly, with occasional interventions from Alison. They made an instructive double act. Time for a break and a practical demo, so we all trooped out into the fresh cold air and sunshine to visit the hives at the far end of the Park. This involved threading our way alongside the canal and past wild and picturesque ponds.IMG_4094IMG_4093IMG_4099At the ponds, youngsters (with adults!) were encouraged to use small nets to scoop out water and weed and inspect the contents. The rattle of the trains on the tracks into St Pancras barely seemed to intrude on this surprisingly pastoral strip of land.  IMG_4105Beyond the ponds were our targets – real hives with real bees. But would they be showing themselves in January? The team marched on to find out.IMG_4103And suddenly there they were. HIVES! BEES! And active, too (at least in the 3 hives actually in the sun) IMG_4115Brian was kind enough to demonstrate his own “waggle dance” (joking – he was saying “some grow this big…”)IMG_4116With the hive lid removed, we were able to view the hive through perspex. Brian showed us some winter food for the bees. I lost track a bit here – as the tallest person in the party, my head was slightly above the Park fence, and I became aware that it was on some bee ley-line direct from forage to hive… Minor avoiding action was called for (bent knees).IMG_4120 IMG_4123Under the hive was a tray designed to catch varroa mites in particular. The number on the tray is a good indication of the health of the hive. Although Varroa has only been around in the UK for about 30 years, surprisingly there are now no hives completely clear of infestation. So varroa mite control is a matter of limitation, not eradication.IMG_4124On this tray, we were clearly able to see a number of mites amongst the other debris – tiny shiny creatures capable of wiping out an entire hive if left uncheckedIMG_4125Having completed the outdoor practical stage, we wandered back to a sustaining lunch, before the afternoon sessionIMG_4110IMG_4131IMG_4095After lunch Brian dismantled a hive for us, explaining the structure and the purposes of each part. We entered the technical arena of frames, brood-boxes, supers and nukes. We learnt about identifying the queen; and swarming and how to control it (in theory). Any ‘beeks’ reading this (you perhaps, Miss Apis Mellifera?) may be chuckling at the naivety of all this.  Please smile benignly – we all have to start somewhere… By the end of the hive demonstration, interwoven with much of the bee material we had learnt about in the morning, we felt we had had a very thorough and clear introduction to the world of bees and beekeeping.Cliveden Bees 8

Brian and Alison posed some big questions. Why do you think you want to keep bees in the City? Might you be better finding a beekeeper you can help while you get some experience first? Do you believe you will make a living out of it – honey money? (Short answer – there’s no way you ever will). Are you trying to save bees from extinction? And if so, have you considered other ways to achieve this, not just for honey bees but for all bees. Planting bee-friendly flowers and plants is a good way to achieve this, or becoming involved in bee-related groups and projects locally.

Sussex - thirsty bee 6

For our part, we left feeling we had had an excellent day’s course, with information imparted thoroughly but in an easily assimilable way. And we both agreed that we will not be buying a hive, bees, a spacesuit and a smoker. Instead we will add some more bee-friendly plants to our garden, doing our bit that way – and buying local honey (very good as it happens) rather than the bland honey blends that come to us from halfway round the world. (Oh, and the mystic ingredient of Manuka honey that makes it 3 or 4 times more expensive than any other? Marketing skill, apparently…)

Bee engraving 1852

Plate 70, from Volume 2: A History Of The Earth And Animated Nature by Oliver Goldsmith, 1852

I bought the lovely original plate above 2 or 3 years ago for around £10 (there’s one on eBay now for about £11, though not in very good condition). It is featured on page 11 of one of Brian and Alison’s books. Which brings me to Brian and Alison’s joint-authored bibliography. Of the 3 books shown below, I would recommend the first for anyone looking for a well thought out and well illustrated introduction to beekeeping in all its aspects. All can be found on Amazon, ABE and other such places. Or contact the authors with this link URBAN BEES

Keeping Bees And Making Honey    Keeping Bees and Making Honey

A World Without Bees           A World Without Bees

Bees in the City: The urban beekeepers' handbook          Bees in the City

Finally, two recommended websites of active bee-keepers who describe the day-to-day reality of keeping bees, meeting the ‘twin imposters’ along the way and treating them just the same. Also included are details of the beekeepers exams, to challenge the the more experienced beekeeper.



Pride? Ambition? Frustration? What’s going on here?

Cliveden Bees 9

And is there any room for honey-based music and humour? There surely is…


4 thoughts on “TO BEE OR NOT TO BEE: “A TASTE OF HONEY…”

  1. It seems a brilliant course whether you want to actually keep bees or not. When information is well presented it is better understood and retained. I am learning too but on a much less structured way. I may decide to keep bees one day but in the mean time I am adding all the time to my bee-friendly plants in the garden. I had different types of solitary bees in the garden last year and they are important too. It is not just flowers that need to be planted. My Viburnum tinus is in flower and attracting bees now and it is a cheap, very easy shrub. I’ll be interested in any plants you find that work well in your garden.


    1. How do you manage to attract the solitary bees? We’ve had a bee house (lots of holes) for about 5 years – I’ve never seen a bee on, let alone in it! As for bee flowers (besides usuals like daffs and roses), in London we have Penstemon, Perovskia / Russian Sage, Viburnum, Lavender (lots), globe thistles, hypericum and sedum. In Dorset, fuchsia, cotoneaster (very popular with honey bees), buddleia, penstemon, lavender and flowering ivy. All that would make a good honey mix!


      1. You seem to have lots of bee friendly plants. I think the Nepeta is a star as it lasts all summer long. It may be that the solitary bees are attracted if there are food sources for them at the right time. My mason bees came in April last year and I am just preparing more nests for them. You have just given me an idea to trawl through the photos to see what was flowering in the garden at the same time. Of course, it might have been something outside that they were feeding on. I am also trying to see if I can gradually have some food all year round with no lean periods as the bees fly all year here during the short warm periods. At the moment I have lots of flowers on my winter honeysuckle, Viburnum tinus, Sarcocco confusa (haven’t seen bees on this yet) I have snowdrops and saw my first violet yesterday. But are there as many nectar containing plants in the spring? I’ll have to check.


      2. Nepeta – forgotten that. Yes, we have it and it’s very popular. Good idea to photo-match flowers and bees seasonally. I’m going to move that bee box (now nicely weathered) to another site and try again!


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