As the wise bear Winnie the Pooh once said, “When you go after honey with a balloon, the great thing is to not let the bees know you’re coming.” Taking this worthy advice, we’ve been sniffing around London in search of the city’s finest bees. On every rooftop and in every wild urban garden, people have been busying themselves with looking after the bee population.
Bees are famously tricky to look after. They spend their life serving the queen bee, the only bee with fully developed reproductive organs. The queen bee spends pretty much all her time pushing out eggs while the worker bees, other females bees that don’t have any fully matured reproductive organs, look after her and feed her. During this process, the bees make honey, and it’s this luscious stuff that Winnie the Pooh recommends eating by the jar load.
If you’re interested, we have calculated what the average pot of honey might cost if a worker bee was paid minimum wage. This estimate is made using some seriously dubious maths in The Handbook office, based on a bee producing just 1/12th of a teaspoon during its lifetime (approx six weeks). Guess how much a pot would cost? Approximately £3.42 million…
High hive: Fortnum’s Bees
The bees on Fortnum’s roof have nicer houses than most of us in London. Built in 2012, there are four beehives standing at six feet high, almost twice the height of a normal beehive, each with a distinct triumphal arch entrance designed in a different architectural style – Roman, Mughal, Chinese and Gothick.
Each hive is painted in Fortnum’s signature Eau de Nil (a duck-egg blue paint), with copper-clad pagoda roofs and gilded ‘bee skep’ finials.
However, there’s a waiting list for their produce, even with the extra help Forntum’s gets from other nearby bees. The bees produce just one crop a year, harvested in September, under the watchful eye of Fortnum’s bee-master, Steven Benbow.
The honey, called simply Piccadilly London Honey, varies from year to year, depending on the flora available to the bees, but is usually a lovely pale, toffee colour with a soft consistency. Each year Forntum’s auction off these in-demand, rare jars of honey and donate the proceeds to the charity Bees for Development.
In 2014, Fortnum’s built a pied-à-terre for the Fortnum’s bees, with a new set of hives in Hoxton, East London. Based on the top of an old warehouse, this living space gives the bees a chance to roam through the parks and buddleia flower-swathed canals to produce the unique and delicate Fortnum’s Hoxton Honey. Not only that, Fortnum’s have bees at St Pancras International, the White Cube Gallery in Bermondsey, Somerset House and, most recently, the Royal Albert Hall.
Now that’s the true definition of a busy bee.
Park life: Bees at The Ritz
Back in the summer of 2017, The Ritz London installed three colonies of bees on top of the roof of the iconic Piccadilly hotel. The hives, named after the hotel’s signature suites (Green Park Suite, Piccadilly Suite, Prince of Wales Suite, Royal Suite and Arlington Suite) were made from sustainable pine wood.
Each hive has approximately 60,000 Buckfast Bees, a strain of the honeybee with extremely gentle and highly productive qualities, from a local bee farm in neighbouring Surrey. The number of bees in the colony naturally swell during the summer months and decline during the winter season.
The worker bees roam for up to a six-mile radius in London’s sunny parks, carrying the pollen from one plant to the next in their search for food, pollinating the flowers, and collecting the flower nectar on their legs. The carry the nectar back to the hive where it is deposited in the honeycomb and wax. The design of the honeycomb and constant fanning of the bees’ wings causes evaporation, creating sweet liquid honey.
During the two annual harvests, at the end of Spring and in September, the frames are placed in an extractor, a centrifuge that spins the frames, forcing honey out of the comb. Each hive is expected to produce 60kg of honey, which is used within the hotel.
Working in conjunction with the London Bee Keeper Association, The Ritz London has trained 12 internal beekeepers who, under the direction of Guillaume Brard, Executive Sous Chef, and Paul Winfield-Brown, Head of Engineering, are responsible for nurturing and protecting the bees in a healthy environment. Each hive needs a significant amount of forage, and The Ritz has planted a roof garden with aromatic herbs and flowers including lavender, thyme, rosemary and an apple tree.
Roof with a view: Hamyard Hotel Bees
On the fourth floor of the Hamyard Hotel, there is a large, leafy roof top garden with sweeping views over the London skyline. A private garden, the terrace is only available for hotel guests and private parties (at around £720 per hour), but if you do decide to go up there, you’ll also find the Hamyard’s two beehives. They are tended to by dedicated beekeeper, Camilla. The first batch of honey was produced in August 2015 and the bar staff continue to use the honey in the cocktail menu, so make sure you ask for the right kind of cocktail the next time you go.
Honey must be funny, in a rich man’s world: Coutts Bees
Over on the Strand, Coutts, the private bank and wealth manager, has a roof-top garden that’s home to some happy bees. Packed in tightly across 400 metres of outdoor corridors, the Skyline Garden is divided into four separate plots, which each produce fresh produce.
In the 8 years that the garden has been open, the roof has become home to roughly 18,000 plants, herbs, fruits and vegetables. From wasabi to guava, and Sichuan peppers to ice lettuce, there’s a pretty eclectic mix. And it’s also the residence-of-choice for 80,000 bees.
There are three colonies of bees helping to pollinate the fruit and vegetables. Coutts’ dedicated beekeeper visits them weekly during the spring and summer months to make hive inspections. The honey is then used by executive chef, Peter Fiori in his fine dining menus for hungry colleagues.
The bees knees: Gosnells mead
In the heart of East London, Gosnells is making a delicious alcoholic beverage from honey – mead. They have their own Mead Garden in Peckham, working closely with local beekeepers to capture the unique flavour.
The tradition is apparently around 9,000 years old, and produces a lovely sparkling honey wine. You can try some canned mead, bottled mead, have a go at some online testing sessions or drop into the brewery when it’s back open again.
Feel the buzz: Keepers Restaurant & Bar
As champions of urban honey, Keepers serve up food and drink inspired and created by their rooftop bees. Dine on their house honey in their signature dishes and honey-inspired cocktails.
They offer a refreshing twist on traditional British cuisine, with the honey harvested from their rooftop hive. When it’s open, feast on honey-drenched chicken wings and honeycomb-topped rocky road sundae.
Air bee & bee: St Ermin’s Hotel
St. Ermin’s Hotel has a luscious roof garden that is home to happy bees. You can take a trip to the third floor and watch the 350,000 bees safely from behind glass, and see these industrious insects go about their daily business.
For the bees that do not live in the hives, there is the ‘Bee and Bee Hotel’. These special hexagonal suites offer a wide variety of bees a comfortable home; bamboo nesting areas and condominiums are for solitary bees such as leaf cutter bees, whereas the boxes are more suited to social varieties like the tree bumblebee. Following the hotel’s ethos that everyone is welcome, the ‘Bee and Bee Hotel’ is also home to helpful insects such as lacewings, ladybirds, earwigs, woodlice and spiders that can rest in peace amongst the crevice stacks.
Un-bee-lievable beer: Hiver
In 2013, Made of England was founded to merge well-made beer with sustainable produce. One of their key brands if Hiver honey beer.
Hiver helps independent British beekeepers by buying their honey to nurture both urban and rural hives, creating healthy colonies that can do the heavy lifting of pollinating the food we eat. They use the honey as an integral part of the brewing process, helping to deliver a crisp, light-tasting beer with a subtle honey aroma. The beer isn’t pasteurised either, which means you always get the freshest, most natural beer in your glass.
Montague in the Gardens
In Holborn, Montague in the Gardens take beekeeping very seriously. You can get up close and personal with their bees in their garden. Don some protective wear and see how the bees live in their environment, while the team share facts and information. The two hives were installed in partnership with The Bedford Estates, with 20,000 honey bees delivered from the Woburn Abbey Estate by their chief beekeeper.
After your introduction to the bees, you can sip on a honey-based cocktail in the Leopard Bar.