Private passions: To bee or not to bee?

Luciann Flynn is communications director at Liberty Wines. In her spare time she tends to her colony of 40,000 bees on the roof of the Liberty offices in Clapham. Flynn’s bees produced their first honey harvest last year and she’s anticipating a bigger crop this year from her new wooden hive. In the following interview she tells db’s Lucy Shaw about the trials and tribulations of being an urban beekeeper.

Luciann bravely tackles the swarm in her Marigolds. Photo credit: Wonderhatch

 How long have you been an urban beekeeper and how did you first get into it?

Liberty Wines became carbon neutral and installed the first hive on our roof at the Clapham North office in 2014. At the time, I thought it might be a small contribution towards compensating for our carbon emissions and then I became hooked. Last year we got a proper wooden hive and brought in a second colony.

How does urban beekeeping compare to beekeeping in the countryside?

Space and foraging for the bees is more limited but as the hives are literally above my desk on the roof it’s very easy to visit them.

Do you need to wear protective clothing?

As a rookie beekeeper, I still wear the full gear as well as the classic urban beekeeper Marigolds in a fetching light blue. Our brilliant beekeeping mentor, Camilla from Capital Bee, is so experienced she usually wears no gloves at all, or very thin ones. Maybe after another few years I’ll be brave enough to take my Marigolds off…

Luciann’s busy bees. Credit: Wonderhatch

How often do you get stung?

Only when the bees are upset, maybe once a month. We had quite an aggressive colony last year with a very determined queen and they became tricky to handle and stung us relentlessly every week. The colony takes the characteristics of the queen and luckily the two queens we have now are quite gentle.

Do urban bees have access to enough pollen to make honey?

We’re right on the edge of Clapham Common with not too many competing hives nearby so ours have good access to all the flowering trees there. That provides them with more than enough nectar for honey and pollen to feed the babies. Foraging’s a bit trickier the further you get from the parks in central London.

What exactly is honey?

It’s flower nectar collected and processed by the bees using special enzymes, then ripened. The bees create a constant breeze by fanning their wings to evaporate the excess water. When it’s ripe, they put a waxy cap across the cell to preserve it. Two million flowers need to be visited to make a single jar of honey.

How much honey do you make?

We had two harvests last year – a very small, long-awaited one for the first time from our plastic Beehaus and a much bigger crop from the wooden hive, which the bees far prefer. If we have a good summer, we should have at least 20 jars, hopefully more. I’m going to replace the plastic hive with a new wooden one so I’m anticipating a bigger crop.

Do you sell it? If not, do you give it to the winemakers you represent as gifts?

We eat it all in the office! I’d love to give some to our winemakers when we have a bigger crop.

Do you also make other products like candles and royal jelly?

Yes! One talented colleague has made both little candles and polish from the beeswax, but we leave the royal jelly for the baby bees.

Show me the honey! Credit: Wonderhatch

How many bees are in your hive?

At peak season, I think there are around 40,000 – that’s about 39,800 female worker bees who run the hive, forage for all the food and drink, bring up the babies and fend off intruders and just 200 male drones, who simply wait for a chance to suicidally mate mid-air with any virgin queens that pass by – #alongfortheride.

Where do you get your bees from?

We’ve benefitted from a couple of swarms collected by Camilla from Capital Bee and one very productive colony from Thorne’s in Windsor.

How long does it take to make honey?

As soon as the nectar starts flowing in the spring, the bees start making honey and we harvest it once the nectar stops in the autumn. It takes pretty much the whole summer to make a good quantity. If the weather’s inconsistent or wet, then it takes longer for the bees to gather the nectar and it’s harder for them to ‘ripen’ the honey if it’s too humid.

What is the role of the smoker in beekeeping?

The smoker helps calm the bees – when they smell smoke, they race back into the hive and eat honey ready to abandon the area ‘on fire’. The honey has a calming effect and they settle down more quickly. I now have a no-smoking policy and try to handle the bees gently enough to keep the smoker to a minimum (and the honey levels at a maximum).

The queen bee is marked in white

Tell me an interesting fact about bees….

Everyone knows bees do a waggle dance to tell each other where the nectar is and how far away, but my favourite sight from last year was the ‘joy dance’ when happy bees communicate that all’s well in the hive with an on the spot shivery wiggle.

Does the type of nectar the bees forage affect the final taste of the honey?

Definitely! Early flowering trees like lime trees give a light, more floral, perfumed honey than chestnut trees or heather, which is completely different. We have a mix of trees on Clapham Common so our honey is surprisingly dark and rich.

Our Italian wine producers like Selvapiana make a fabulous ‘single varietal’ acacia honey, which is very light gold and fragrant.

How much work does beekeeping require?

When everything’s going smoothly, the minimum is probably a couple of hours a week from March to October, but it’s hard not to look at them more often because they’re so fascinating.

Are there many urban beekeepers in London? 

The London Beekeepers Association shows around 80 members but I’m sure there are more. Bee Urban in Kennington Park, who work with one of the beers we supply (Hiver Beer), is a great place to get hands on and learn more about it.

Would you ever consider making mead?

One of our apprentices, Seb Barnick, is already making mead and I hope we’ll have sufficient honey to supply him too, this year.

What is the most challenging aspect of being an urban beekeeper?

The emotional rollercoaster of a swarming colony can’t be underestimated, but I don’t think that’s specific to the urban beekeeper. All beekeepers must surely dread the roar of a swirling swarm determined to flee the hive in search of a new home, or the sight of sick, crawling bees staggering around, too weak to resist being thrown out of the hive.

Do you believe honey has health benefits? If so, what?

Lavishly spreading our ‘Liberbee’ honey on local Post Office Bakery Brixton rye has proven to have exceptional mental health benefits, that’s for sure.

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