Beekeeping in Bloomsbury

Lucy Bodenham reports back from a rooftop excursion near Senate House to learn about beekeeping
A comb showing the bees on ILAS rooftop near Senate House
A queen bee can lay up to 2,000 eggs per day
This was also the first time we extracted honey from our hives which was sold in the café in Senate House with funds going back towards maintaining our bees

This year the University of London had its first course in beekeeping with eight members of staff learning hands-on about the practical aspects of beekeeping.

As part of the University of London’s sustainability programme two new beehives were installed in the summer of 2013 by our tutor Camilla Goddard. Camilla is director of Capital Bee which was set up as an ethical business to respond to the current shortage of honey bee colonies in Britain.

Two hives were initially established with money donated by Aramark, the University’s caterers, and these bees are now making a big contribution to the local urban biodiversity and pollinating plants within a three-mile radius in Bloomsbury.

The apiary is sited up on the roof of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (IALS) where we can look over towards Senate House and Russell Square park.

This was a productive year for our bees, making for our first batch of honey. Factors of the mild winter made for a longer summer and the two hives were split and a third queen bee was recruited to set up the new hive.

This was also the first time we extracted honey from our hives which was sold in the café in Senate House with funds going back towards maintaining our bees.

John Bailey, our sustainability manager, said the honey tasted a bit minty which may be attributed to a row of lime trees nearby. Honey can taste so diverse depending on what flowers are nearby. Bees are commonly known to fly up to four miles to collect pollen from their environment.

After an unseasonably cool August in London, the bees are now winding down as we head towards autumn. To ensure the bees have enough to eat, the beekeeping team set up syrup feeders for the bees to see them through the quieter months of winter.

Our beekeeper Camilla GoddardI also asked John about some background and any future plans for our bees:

Why was the roof of IALS picked as a location for the beehives?
The roof at IALS was chosen because it is perfect for central London bees. The roof is south facing, meaning it gets a lot of sun, and it looks over Russell Square which is packed with trees, shrubs and plants that provide fantastic forage on the doorstep!

How is the honey extracted from the combs?
The honey is put into a honey extractor, a contraption that works a bit like a cider press crossed with a washing machine! The caps are taken off the cells of honeycomb that contains the honey and the frames of comb are spun around in a circular motion. The honey comes out and fills a big bucket with our honey.

What are future plans for the hives?
We are planning on continuing with the current group of hives and seeing how we get on. I am planning on enrolling another group of staff on the beekeeper training so that we have a whole host of people trained up to look after them. On top of that we are exploring other options for products from the hive, including some of our very own University of London beeswax – due to hit the shops for ‘Movember.’

Watch the video of us checking the hives in August:

Visit the bees during the Humanities festival

Being Human is the UK’s first national festival of the humanities. As part of the festival, the School of Advanced Study is hosting a day of activities featuring candle making, honey tasting and a guided tour of the beehives. Bee-ing Human takes place on Friday 21 November – more information and booking for the event is available on the Being Human website.

Some interesting facts about bees:

  • Bees are essential to our food chain. Apart from providing honey, they fertilize many of our crops and fruit trees.
  • Queen bees are extraordinarily productive and can lay anything up to 2,000 eggs a day.
  • Swarming happens when the hive gets too large and the old queen bee leaves to establish a new home.
  • When it is time for the queen bee to leave the nest, her pheromones will attract drones to escort her on her journey for a new nest.
  • Male bees only mate once and usually die in the process.
  • In summer, bees have a short life – usually about six weeks – and in winter, bees slow down and can live up to nine months.
  • Bees use the position of the sun to navigate their way about. On cloudy days they use photoreceptors to find the sun’s place in the sky.
  • Honey has anti-bacterial qualities and could be very effective in healing wounds or reduce the growth of drug resistant bacteria such as MRSA.
  • In midsummer, a hive can contain up to 35,000 bees.
  • Bees like purple flowers which are not too long so they can reach the nectar.

Watch the Royal Holloway, University of London video:

This study on bumblebees shows how two commonly used pesticides affect the foraging behaviour of bees and their brood colonies. The video forms part of Dr Nigel Raine’s current research into the impacts of pesticides on bees.