The temperature is above 10 degrees Celsius as Dale Gibson checks his rooftop hives and his charges are on the wing. Within a few hundred metres in all directions, his honey is being consumed and sold.
To the North East stands The Shard, a man made hive, where guests at the Shangri La Hotel breakfast on his honey. To his South, neighbourhood favourite Pizarro Restaurant drizzles it over fried Spanish goat’s cheese. Directly below, foodies buy it by the jar from neighbourhood deli, Giddy Grocers.
While Bermondsey Street Bees has the locavore box firmly ticked, honey is not the only thing the enterprise brings to the neighbourhood. Walk past a piece of scrubland planted with marjoram and hyssop, or a sapling bush in St John’s churchyard, and there is a good chance Dale and his wife, Sarah Wyndham Lewis, will have had a hand in it. The reason? Their bees need pollen and nectar.
“We beg and borrow any patches of land we can find, and we dig!” he says, “There are currently over 3,250 hives within 10km of our Bermondsey Street hives, that’s a lot of mouths to feed.”
Not only do the plants provide forage for the bees, they contribute to the wellbeing of the local residents. Dale, for example, recently worked with the residents of the Dickens housing estate to secure a £11.5k grant to transform a piece of wasteland into a bee friendly community garden.
“We beg and borrow any patches of land we can find, and we dig!”
Over a hot drink – honey and lemon, of course – he explains how he quit a career in stockbroking to start Bermondsey Street Bees. It started when he was unexpectedly bequeathed a beehive by a friend of a client. Though he did not take up the offer (it would be irresponsible without training), the gesture seeded an idea.
“I had ten years active career left and I had to decide whether to keep doing the same thing or do something different. I woke up one Saturday morning and told Sarah I was going on a beekeeping course. The only problem was that she is allergic to bee stings.”
Convincing her that he would only raise calm bees (more of which later), Dale took a beekeeping course in 2006 under the Queen’s beekeeper John Chapple, who remains his mentor today.
Today, Bermondsey Street Bees has eighty hives and a thriving consultancy business that helps commercial firms, such as Soho Farmhouse and Berkeley Homes Group, design and maintain sustainable apiaries. The honey, which has won countless awards, is used by top name restaurants including Hakkasan, Kerridge Bar & Grill and Roux at The Landau.
‘Honey HQ’ is the couple’s Bermondsey Street home, a four-storey former sugar warehouse that houses eight of the hives on its roof. The building that they share with two dogs and two cats operates much like a hive itself, with a lot of the work taking place on the ground floor. It is here that Sarah, a trained honey sommelier, keeps her library of world honey. This is used to give chefs tasting sessions, as well as to educate them about the sinister world of honey forgery.
The difference between the complex flavours of Bermondsey Street Bees’ raw honey and the cloying sweetness of a mass produced brand is down to the fact that Dale never heats, blends or micro-filters his honeys. Commercial ‘supermarket’ products are blended from honeys bought on the world commodity market, often adulterated with other sugars. They are typically subjected to harsh processing to produce a low-cost, rigidly uniform product. Micro-filtering, which strips out the protein-rich pollens from the honey, is routinely used to delay natural crystallisation and to remove the honey’s traceability. Filtering out these pollen grains obscures the origins of the honey, allowing unscrupulous sellers to smuggle non-EU honey into the region.
“You have a responsibility as an urban beekeeper to raise calm bees. One of the keys to this lies in providing enough forage. Like humans, bees are angry when they are hungry.”
By contrast, Dale’s honeys are always single source, unprocessed and, just like a fine wine or olive oil, show exceptional variety year to year according to forage availability.
“Pollen analysis of our 2018 harvest shows that our Bermondsey Street hives foraged from 26 different plant species from wild bramble to sweet chestnut,” he explains.
Another serious consequence of imported mass produced honey is its contribution to the demise of UK honey bees. “So many of the UK’s artisan honey producers have lost heart in trying to sell their fine specialist honeys against the flood of cheap, imported and low quality products. Today less than 15 per cent of the honey consumed in Britain actually comes from UK producers,” says Dale.
Dale and Sarah are determined to reverse this trend, not only with their own hives and consultancy work, but through education about bee friendly planting and real honey. Sarah’s book ‘Planting for Honeybees: The Grower's Guide to Creating a Buzz’ was published last year and has already undergone a second print run.
Back on the rooftop, Dale seems to have honoured his promise to raise friendly bees. A rogue escapee does not seem to mind when he gently plucks it from his bee suit and returns it to the hive. This is good news for Sarah (who, thankfully has only been stung twice since the business started) as well as the couple’s neighbours, one of whom has a hot tub metres from the hives.
“You have a responsibility as an urban beekeeper to raise calm bees,” Dale says, “One of the keys to this lies in providing enough forage. Like humans, bees are angry when they are hungry.”
This brings a whole new dimension to the planting project. Not only does it bring honey and horticulture to the neighbourhood, but harmony too.
Explore the neighbourhood – Gibson's guide
José Tapas Bar Bermondsey, 104 Bermondsey Street, London, SE1 3UB
When we heard a sherry bar was going to open, we had this idea of a quiet place frequented by vicars! In fact, it has as much bustle as a bar in Barcelona. Owner, Jose Pizzaro has fitted out the place with grace and consideration and the food is always exceptional.
Kin + Deum, 2 Crucifix Lane, London Bridge, London, SE1 3JW
This was a traditional Thai restaurant called Suchard until last year when the owner’s children took over and gave it a new name and a modern menu. The restaurant is incredibly neighbourhood focused and is dog friendly too.
Giddy Grocer, 80 Bermondsey Street London SE1 3UD
An independent grocer that stocks food from artisan British producers, including our honey! It’s like having a mini Fortnum & Mason across the street.
Chapter 72, 72 Bermondsey Street, London, SE1 3UD
Best local coffee shop in the Time Out’s 2018 awards, Chapter 72 specialises in coffee and cocktails (and cocktails made with coffee). The owners too are a brilliant addition to our neighbourhood.
Bermondsey Street Bees