Meet Bermondsey Street Bees! They’re championing artisan honey, beekeeping and sustainable food in the heart of London.
Chatting with Sarah Wyndham Lewis about Bermondsey Street Bees was a joy; her commitment to creating a truly artisan product stands out and passion for bees is infectious. This is genuine, authentic food production at its best.
Q: What is so different about Bermondsey Street Bees?
Bermondsey Street Bees is a multi-award winning sustainable beekeeping practice and artisan honey business, founded in 2007 by Dale Gibson and myself, Sarah Wyndham Lewis. We have over 100 hives in Central and East London, as well as Essex, Hertfordshire and Suffolk. To this day however, Bermondsey Street Bees’ base remains in Bermondsey Street itself…with the original eight hives still on the rooftop of our scenic Victorian warehouse, overlooking The Shard. Every honey produced by Bermondsey Street Bees is single-source and raw, preserving all of the nutritional benefits and rich complex flavours.
Bermondsey Street Bees also pioneers sustainable urban beekeeping strategies through its forage planting initiatives, collaborations with local gardening charities, teaching and other projects including its best-selling book ‘Planting for Honeybees’. Voted Britain’s ‘Small Artisan Producer of The Year’ in 2016, Bermondsey Street Bees has also twice been awarded ‘Best Honey in London’as well as being named as one of London’s ‘Top 20 Food Producers’ and ‘Top 50 Food Heroes.’
Q: Why did you start Bermondsey Street Bees?
The moment that Dale completed his training and brought his first hive home in 2007, our bee project gained its own volition. It was never meant to be a business, but winning ‘Best Honey in London’ in 2011 brought so many opportunities to our door that it was impossible to resist the pull to commit to ‘going public’. Both of us have big business backgrounds and are communicators, comfortable in front of any audience; this too has played a role in our transition from hobbyists to professional beekeepers promoting sustainability and best practice.
Q: What inspired you to start? What most inspires you about bees?
Big picture: they are crucial to the environment and we wanted to support that.
Small picture: Once you start living and working with bees, your ‘pulse’ slows, you live by the seasons, you feel privileged to share their extraordinary, dedicated, purposeful life and it lends purpose to your own life.
Q: How do bees survive in London?
Surprisingly well! London has a wonderful diversity of forage sources and a longer growing season because cities are warm places. The problem in London is no longer a shortage of honeybees; beekeeping is super-fashionable and this city now has the densest hive count in Europe. So now we need to make sure that they all have enough to eat – and with urban green space shrinking every year, that means urgently spotlighting bee-friendly plantings in public and private spaces.
Q: What’s the one thing you wish people understood about bees? What are popular myths are that need changing?
I get impatient with the idea that just cramming more honeybees into the environment is the answer to anything. All beekeepers now need to take direct, personal, responsibility for making sure that their bees will be well-fed by the local environment, or take direct steps to augment the forage through planting. The other myth is that scattering wildflower seeds will make a difference. It’s a sweet idea, but not helpful as a message: The majority of honeybees’ forage actually derives from flowering trees and bushes.
Q: What’s your biggest achievement to date?
Personally, having my book ‘Planting for Honeybees’ published by Quadrille in the UK, Europe and the USA earlier this year. As partnership, we have won many prestigious prizes for our raw honey and for our sustainable approach to beekeeping – including being named the UK’s ‘Small Artisan Producer of The Year’ in 2016. That was a very proud moment and this type of recognition gives us the contacts and the credibility to move on to ever more far-reaching projects.
Q: What’s your plans for the next 6 months or 1 year?
We have a really exciting new apiary within the Tudor Palace of Charterhouse in London’s Smithfield, which we are developing as an educational resource. We’ll be starting to run courses and experiences there in 2019 to take the message of sustainable beekeeping and artisan honey production very directly to a far wider audience. Our work is also supported by a number of high profile chefs who use our honey and we’ll be developing even closer links with them, as key influencers. We are also part of an important new science initiative to support honeybee research worldwide.
Q: What do you wish you’d known at the beginning? Has inspiration come from unexpected places?
Oh so many things I wish I had known! Not least that beekeepers can’t take summer holidays (need to be on the spot from March – September) and that every surface is sticky all the time. On the upside though, us being beekeepers somehow unlocks people’s natural reserve and they share amazing stories about other beekeepers in their family, their childhood memories of honey and their cultural perceptions of bees. I use many of these stories in my writing and teaching.
Q: Urban farming is relevant recent phenomenon. Why is it so important?
Cities can be brutal environments, stressful and depleting to us as humans. The urban farming movement is growing in strength as people look for new way to live healthier lives and soften the environment, using the city’s architecture and infrastructure in unexpected ways. I find the sheer resourcefulness of this incredibly exciting, but yet again, it throws the responsibility on anyone drawing on the city’s limited resources to ensure that they are also paying it back in full.
Q: Typically, urban farming lacks economy of scale. Is this a challenge or an opportunity to re-think our food procurement/ operations?
It’s expensive and difficult to be a food producer in London; rents are sky high and the logistics of keeping things moving very challenging. It is this, rather than ambition, which limits growth potential for many people. However, there is another side to this story. Some people, like us, have no ambition to become a huge business but staying small can pose a stumbling block for sales. A significant number of potential customers are imposing impossible procurement strictures on artisan producers – and missing out on great produce as a result.
Q: Will Bermondsey Street Bees honey ever be more than an ‘artisan’ product?
No never. Raw honey is, by definition, a luxury artisan product. The moment you try to scale up beyond a certain point, you are faced with production issues which compromise the nutritional and taste values of the product. We’ve seen it happen to other beekeepers we know and we are too proud of what we do to allow to happen to us. It has commercial consequences of course, but we’ve stuck to our guns. We are not in competition with the heavily processed product sold as ‘honey’ in supermarkets.
Q: How can people get involved?
If you are desperate to become a beekeeper, contact the BBKA (British Beekeepers Association) and find your local Beekeeping Association, which is the portal to advice, experience and the – absolutely vital – training you need. Having your own bees is a big commitment and you need to be well prepared to take it on. The BBKA also runs a brilliant’ Adopt a Hive’ scheme which is a great way to get involved without having to take direct responsibility. And the other really crucial way to help is to get planting pollinator-friendly forage, either in your own space or by joining community planting groups.
Of course, you can buy Bermondsey Street Bees honey through selected online retailers or come to one of the special events or workshops and follow us on social media: Instagram: @btreetbees @plantingforhoneybees and Twitter: @bermondseybees