Urban beekeeping has taken off in recent years. On the face of it, a concrete jungle seems a hard environment for a bee, but in fact urban bees actually have a more diverse diet than their pastoral cousins and, dare I say it, may make tastier honey. Although bees have been buzzing around in the background forever, in the last decade their plight hit the public consciousness with news of colony collapse disorder (CCD). This is when bees suddenly abandon hives full of honey overnight. For a domestic beekeeper, this was heartbreaking and confusing; for commercial beekeepers it was desperately worrying: the pollinated crops industry is worth billions. In the last decade, North America and Europe lost over a third of its managed colonies. This was when we started reading Beemageddon ‘facts’ like ‘if the honeybee dies out, the world dies with it’. The reason for CCD is not fully known; theories put forward involve the use of pesticides and loss of habitat. In the spring of 2012, a study by the University California, San Diego showed that even a small amount of crop pesticide (neonicotinoids in particular) turned bees into fussy, reluctant foragers and waggle dancers. The other bee nemesis is the varroa mite, which was discovered in the UK for the first time in 1992. It has been responsible for millions of bee deaths by spreading viruses and causing deformities.
Although people don’t tend to tweet pictures of a cute honeybee, their plight did bring the bee to the attention of the general public and the number of urban beekeepers exploded. The more traditional wooden hives were joined in 2009 by the comes-in-colours, plastic Beehaus made by Omlet (the company who helped urbanise chicken keeping with the Eglu, the plastic chicken house). You could buy bees by post. Beekeeping courses got booked up. When I tried to get on one, I was told to ring back next year by a rather stuffy old gentleman. Forget Hermès handbags: there was now a waiting list to learn about bees.
So without the possibility of producing your own magical honey in the near future, the best thing to do is find a local beekeeper who will sell you a jar for about a fiver. Be suspicious of anything that costs less than £4 a jar: proper honey is not cheap – it shouldn’t be. Local beekeeper honey will likely be raw but it won’t say so on the label, so ask. If it’s been heat-treated much of the goodness will have been cooked out of it. Good honey will also be coarsely filtered to retain some of the pollen. It is a real superfood.
Organic honey? Bees forage for up to two to three miles, so while it’s theoretically possible that they may only have stuck their proboscis into organic flora, it’s highly unlikely. No one tells a bee where to go.