Urban Honey Bees

Lb and 1/2 Lb Jars of Balham Garden Honey

As a country boy moving to London, I’m still not used to the business of the big city:  the ever-present roar of traffic; the frantic scurry of endless herds of commuters; the high-rise sky-line under a sky criss crossed with aeroplane trails.

This human activity, however, doesn’t begin to compare to the industrial hotspot at the bottom of my aunt and uncle’s South London garden. During the height of the summer, around fifty-five thousand honey bees buzz in and out of each of the three hives. As I cycle six miles to work, Richard’s bees commute just as far in their search for food. Just as we humans can find pretty much any type of nosh we fancy in London, Richard’s lucky bees have a huge variety of floral delectables to sink their greedy proboscides into. Whereas in the countryside the farmers grow field upon field of single crops, the gardens of the city hold a dense variety of plants and flowers.


Bee hives at the bottom of the garden

While the life-span of the average worker bee is just six weeks, the queen bee, who doesn’t leave the hive, can live up to five years. This discrepancy gives an impression of just how hard the worker bees work. As the days get shorter and colder, there is less food (nectar and pollen) for the bees and accordingly, the queen lays fewer eggs. By mid winter the colony reduces to around the ten thousand mark as the worker bees die off and are intentionally not replaced until spring.  

The jars in the picture are this year’s first harvest. It is a beautifully light and fragrant honey with a lovely runny consistency. When freshly taken off the hives, the honey is at its best, while the texture is still drizzly. Being a natural product, the honey can become stiffer as it ages, though it retains its excellent taste. If kept in a sealed jar it can last for millennia; Tutankhamun’s tomb contained jars of still-edible honey dating back to 1323 BC. I wonder which brave archaeologist decided that they had to have a taste.



Urban Harvesting

Alf with the pigs

Me with the pigs in Somerset

Growing up on the rural Devon-Somerset border I have always been aware of the crops the other side of the hedgerows and the animals grazing the fields. In our back garden we grew our own vegetables and had chickens scratching around, laying eggs in all the wrong places and getting in the way of our football games. I’ve missed this while living in the city, but you can’t take the Westcountry out of the boy and I’ve found a surprising number of ways to harvest produce in an urban environment.

1) Foraging;

In Norwich in the summer there is an abundance of elderflowers to be made into cordial; if you know where to look there are sloe berries to flavour gin and blackberries for pies. The Rosemary used in the Anchovy and Rosemary Butter came from a bush just down the road.

2) Allotments;

Norwich is a green city, it is home to more than 1,619 allotment plots on 18 sites. The average rent is £40 per year for a 250 square meter plot; plenty of space to keep you in vegetables throughout the growing months. The only problem is the waiting list, which was three years when I last checked; clearly a popular option!

3) Roof gardens;

Edible roof gardens absorb water, clean the city air and promote green living in an urban environment. In the past growing food in London has been a pipe dream for many, but developing roof space into gardens is opening up acres of previously unused space. Urban gardens have been endorsed by Boris Johnson as part of the capital’s Climate Change Adaptation Plan.

4) Guerilla gardens;

In the city of Los Angeles there is 26 square miles of arable land, enough space to grow 724,838,400 tomato plants. Guerilla gardening is Ron Finley’s way of reclaiming the streets and providing an alternative to fast food; projects for the mental and physical health of the community. His team of volunteers dig up vacant lots across the city and plant fruits and vegetables; “we’ve got to flip the script on what a gangster is; if you aint’ a gardener, you aint’ gangster, get gangster with your shovel, ok? and let that be your weapon of choice”.

5) Aquaponics;

Dan Barber is a chef and researcher. His research into aquaponics led him to Veta La Palma in South West Spain where he discovered “A farm that doesn’t feed it’s fish; a farm that measures its success by the success of its predators; a farm that is literally a water purification plant… farming extensively, not intensively”. Aquaponics relies on creating a self-sustainable ecosystem, which is why the farmers at Veta La Palma don’t scare away the birds who eat 20% of the farm’s fish. The pinker the flamingos’ feathers, the healthier the system is and therefore the tastier the fish will be. Companies like FARM:shop in London use aquaponics on a smaller scale to inspire the local community to grow and eat their own food.

The act of harvesting fruit and vegetables, whether they are foraged from the wild or cultivated in a garden, is the best possible incentive to eat a healthy diet free from processed foods. Gardening is a therapeutic process that sustains the body at the same time as satisfying the mind. There is nothing like the feeling of planting a crop, tending it, and cooking straight from the garden; as fresh as fresh can be.