When stockbroker Dale Gibson set up his first beehives on a Bermondsey Street rooftop in 2007, neither he or his partner Sarah Wyndham-Lewis could have predicted the experiences that lay ahead. Over a decade later, they reflect on the journey of their award-winning business and share thoughts on the crucial role of sustainable beekeeping in London.
Do you still think of beekeeping as a hobby?
It started out as a hobby and has progressed into a mild obsession and a disruptive business! We’ve got a concept here that we think is unusual, which makes it easy to be passionate about. Sarah and I have developed experience over 30/40 years in the city and marketing sector, so we’re stepping into the bee, honey and consulting business as well as applying basic bee husbandry skills. We’re having a great time doing a lot of things we never anticipated doing. We’re very lucky to be working with so many different people who care about bees as much as we do – its helped us to develop what started as a hobby into a professional bee enterprise.
Do you and the bees have a daily routine?
The bees are variable, as they tend to do very little during the winter. The rule is that you have to have a reason to open up a bee hive, rather than just doing it on a curiosity basis. We have schedules to inspect the bees, especially during the swarming season (when the first dandelion appears). The intensive period is between May/June where we’re on absolute peak duties, before things slow down after summer solstice when the queens egg laying rate starts to diminish. There are many things we can get on with in winter, processing the honey, bottling it, selling it, doing talks and making plans for new apiaries, but it’s different types of work at different times of the year.
“The rich history of bees in London is a wonderful thing, but we’re looking to ensure a rich future too.”
What are the differences in how you practice urban beekeeping, to rural beekeeping?
Aside from the logistic/ environmental differences, the benefits of keeping bees in London is 3 or 4 fold, firstly the temperature is 2 or 3 degrees higher than the surrounding countryside which means the plants are able to give nectar and to flower for longer. Also, because of people’s personal ambitions and tastes, we have a vast variety of flowers in gardens. Plus, there’s the benefit of inspired municipal planting, for example in Potters Fields Park. Ian Mould, the gardener puts in sequential planting so that the bees have something to eat all year round, he’s very observant and thoughtful about it. A particular focus and passion of ours is the creation of forage and ensuring that when we introduce more bees into a city like London, there will be sufficient creation of forage to to ensure our bees and the existing city bees will have enough to eat. That’s the primary responsibility of any farmer, sustainability. The rich history of bees in London is a wonderful thing, but we’re looking to ensure a rich future too.
In terms of being a responsible beekeeper, what advice would you give local residents with an interest in bee-friendly planting?
Let’s start with some really broad brush strokes – anything blue or purple is good as the bee’s vision is acutely adjusted towards those sort of flowers. Think of your garden as if it’s something that’s going to bear fruit and have flavours – herbs, fruit trees. We have a lovely damson tree on our allotment and herb garden here up on the roof. We always feel like there’s something for us to have, taste and enjoy the flavour of as well as the bees – all things can fit together and consciously bridge the gap between people and bees. Team London Bridge has done a fantastic job of developing green spaces in the area, projects like the Greenwood Theatre, the Druid Street wildflower meadow, the hanging baskets – it all helps! We have planting guides on our Bermondsey Bees website, great for rooftop plantings which have high wind and are prone to being quite arid.
Does Bermondsey Street Bees honey have a signature taste?
Every honey has its own terroir like a fine wine or olive oil, they’re all in their own batches. No two vintages will be the same. The honey is affected by the weather and the plants that thrive in different conditions. Ours has a clarity and a slight tang with a lift of mint in the final taste. It has a little twist of citrus (lime tree rather than actual citrus fruit), and that multi-floral complexity that London honey often has. We don’t heat the honey above the hive temperature, which is the opposite of super-heated, filtered and entirely denatured squeezable supermarket bottles. Each jar will always have its own personality, body and soul, that captures the essence of the surroundings and the year itself, and and we’re proud of that.
“Each jar will always have its own personality, body and soul, that captures the essence of the surroundings and the year itself, and and we’re proud of that.”
What is your relationship with the local community?
In cities, your door often opens straight onto the street: rather than a long row of trees leading up to a long drive, or a deep suburban garden with a hedge or wall around it. We just flow straight onto the street and straight into the community. For the last 10 years, we’ve been intimately associated with Bermondsey Street, whether that’s previously being secretary of BSAP (Bermondsey Street Area Partnership) or judging a dog show at Bermondsey Street Festival! We always use local suppliers for our products, like French Flint, the local glass guy by Leathermarket or collaborating with local brewery Hiver Beers who we’re collaborating with on selling honey beer at a retail space in Maltby Street market.
We’ve also been quite successful in getting out into the community where we’ve been planting in St Mary Magdalen Church Yard with a large grant from Southwark’s ‘Cleaner Greener Safer’ fund. We planted an edible garden in Leathermarket gardens with the help of BOST (Bankside Open Spaces Trust) and we’re currently working with Team London Bridge and Southwark Council to put together a green roof with the aid of local artist Austin Emery and Leathermarket JMB. These joint ventures from very local enterprising focusing on a single outcome can be very powerful, the help we’ve had from the larger organisations as small individuals has been enormously encouraging. We feel fortunate to be in the middle of an environment where we had cooperation and collaboration across the board.
You mentioned Sarah’s background in marketing, what is Sarah’s role in Bermondsey Street Bees?
Dale: She’s my partner…
Sarah: Whether I like it or not! It’s crept up on me somehow. I do branding, marketing, design, product development, and project management. I also manage the retail and wholesale sales.
Dale: Sarah is also the loony project prevention officer. I’m very keen on embarking on mad projects, and Sarah is very keen on not allowing me to do that!
Sarah: There’s a great saying from someone I used to work with, he said ‘there’s a very big difference between starting a business and being busy fools’. We try to keep the business progressive, moving forward, taking people with us on a journey. This is a big learning curve because of all the sustainability issues. My parents were farmers so I do have that background of using the land and being respectful to creatures, but you start applying that to urban beekeeping and you suddenly realise how fragile the urban economy is for a bee or for a small creature. At one point I questioned, why should we expect to have bees in London?
Is it reasonable for Londoners to expect to have bees?
Sarah: There are actually lots of answers. One is- why shouldn’t Londoners have local honey? Bees do a great job pollinating people’s allotments, parks and gardens, and by pollinating, they’re also feeding the birds. When the seeds and fruits are properly pollinated, the trees and bushes can be more productive, so there’s an entire eco-structure being supported by the act of keeping bees and feeding them. It’s all very delicate and sensitive, and one disruptive factor, like taking away some green space and building on it can make a tremendous difference.
Dale: People have got the message that a dog isn’t for Christmas, but a beehive isn’t just for decorative purposes either! We want to raise the standard to this becomes the norm for how people take care of bees, and for it to become the next step in sustainable beekeeping.
Eddie the pug. Sarah also founded Holly & Lil, the canine fashion boutique which previously shared the ground floor of Bermondsey Street Bees HQ
We’ve got some great projects coming up, we’ve recently opened a honey library and prep kitchen which is specifically designed for our commercial clients for chefs to come in, recognise an environment which they’re familiar with and come and taste and talk about honey as a key ingredient in cooking. We think that’s going to be our target market so we want that to the focus of for the particular venue. We’re also opening up in Hiver Beers arch in Maltby Street, where we’ll have a small retail concession, which will hopefully give us some sort of visibility.
Sarah: We’re currently doing something special with the Shangri La at The Shard. We designed a unique honeycomb stand inspired by The Shard for hotel breakfast tables – and Shangri La bought the very first one. We’ve also organised a supply chain for them with one of our partner beekeepers. It’s very artisanal: He went into his fields in the depths of the country – and set up some hives to make honey exclusively for the Shangri La. It’s just fantastically natural and straightforward…. I love the idea that visitors from all over the world are getting to taste a fine, raw English honey, and it’s presented in such a glamorous way!
This interview is from the 2016 AtLondonBridge archives
You can sneak a glimpse into the world of Bermondsey Street Bees in this episode of BBC’s Inside Out London. Featured from 21 minutes.
Find out more here.