London Bee Summit

Last week Sustainable Bungay was invited to attend the London Bee Summit – a conference bringing together beekeepers from all over the country.  Our travelling group comprised Charlotte, Mark, Eloise, Elinor and Gemma. Although we were all keen to hear what the speakers had to say the main mission of the outing was to tell others about the success we have had in Bungay setting up the Community Bee group and how it works. The member tasked with this job was the queen bee herself, Elinor.  She made a splendid presentation to a room of 150 people.  Elinor was amongst thirteen speakers during the afternoon, with more factual and traditional elements of beekeeping in the first half and after the break those working with new ideas and insights along sustainable lines (Gemma). 

Elinor: My overwhelming impression of the London Bee Summit was one of positivity and forward thinking. Most people were there in response to their concerns about declining bee populations and as a group we were looking for ways to actively address the problem. Using a combination of gut feeling and emotion alongside (limited) research evidence, issues regarding agricultural landscape, pesticide use, commercial beekeeping methods and bee health were explored. Unfortunately, two major influential parties, namely Lord Henley (DEFRA) and Tim Lovett (BBKA) were seemingly unreceptive to any existing evidence about pesticide and neonicotinoid use in particular. I only hope Lord Henley stayed long enough to hear Nick Moles of the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) UK speak eloquently, knowledgeably and confidently about the negative effects of pesticides on bees. Quite frankly I thought he was fantastic.

I felt there was a high proportion of those actively looking for more sustainable ways in which to keep bees.  Many speakers emphasised the role of planting and gardening for bees as a vital measure for allowing them to thrive in our environment, which ties in with our Plants for Bees group and reinforces our determination on that front.

On a more personal note I had a fabulous day, spending time with friends and fellow BCB members listening to some interesting and inspiring people. There was also the tube adventure – trying to stop Mark getting on any old train that came along, the sharing of diverse picnic stuffs because I forgot to organise my own (yummy smoked sausage), too much strong coffee prior to my presentation and far too much honey tasting in the break (why do I always write about food – when I was seven I wrote a letter of congratulation to a Nobel Prize winner and told him all about my lunch…). 

It felt good to share a little of our project with others and I’m glad I took on the challenge even though someone else would undoubtedly have done it better. I even enjoyed the dreaded networking opportunities afterwards, although that’s not hard when someone stops you to say ‘I really enjoyed hearing about Bungay Community Bees….’. We all left in a hazy warm glow, wine and goodwill warming us to the tips of our ears and even the falling snow couldn’t put a chill on our day.

Eloise: The night before the summit I dreamed I was a bee and felt complete peace – a nice way to start the day!

I felt the vibe of the summit was one of change, of transition! Some speakers felt old and dusty whereas others felt  bright and cheery because they spoke from the heart.

I left feeling empowered and excited about the future possibilities of BCB’s involvement in the community. This is because the summit got me thinking. Bees have so much to teach us. We must do all we can to help them sustainably. There is something for everyone in their message and in the way they function (working together, caring for each other, being of service to life beyond themselves…), in their beauty. It is up to us to harness that and put it out there.

Nick Moles of P.A.N (Pesticide Action Network) got me all stirred up inside when I spoke with him.  We talked about bringing organisations working with bees together, either commercially or as a hobby, in order to present a unified and strong force to campaign for the ban of pesticides that weaken and kill bees.

Heidi Hermann, from the Natural Beekeeping Trust, spoke of now being the time to give something back to the bees, that we can’t just take take take. Her common sense talking was very powerful as well as her presence!

The lady from Bug Life spoke of the incredible rich variety of pollinating insects out there doing a vital job in the cycle of life, reminding us of the importance of repopulating the countryside with wildflowers. Bug Life have a really exciting project to create thousands of kilometers of wildflower corridors all over England.

Tim Baker from Charlton Manor Primary School, who spoke of children and their natural curiosity for the bee – the possibilities of helping children who have difficulties in numeracy and literacy via beekeeping I thought was very inspirational.

And Elinor talking up there amongst all those other people stood out, I felt, in expressing the unique potential that BCB has to work in many different areas for the benefit of the bees and ourselves: education, plants for bees, empowering members of the community, raising awareness, having fun! Let’s hope that more CSA projects will spring up around the country in time.

Charlotte: It was a great day. We had originally been invited because BCB was the inspiration behind Capital Bee, a campaign to find 50 “Bee Spaces” in London to house community-owned and managed hives. As well as to bring attention to the plight of the honeybee in the last decade and to bring together diverse methods of helping bees thrive in the UK, the conference was also to launch this new project.

The afternoon was intense: speakers came from across the full spectrum of bee guardians: politicians, members of the British Beekeepers’ Association, scientists, teachers, organic gardeners, insect lovers and a wide and wild range of beekeepers. There were murmurings of dissent as those hedging around the use of pesticides spoke (Britain still allows the use of neonicotinoids which have been banned in most of Europe) and great cheering went up as more radical  and natural methods were talked about. Elinor was terrific. Amongst the buzz she calmly outlined the shape of our project that began this year, step by step, and how we plan to expand in the next.

One of the highlights for me was the honey tasting in the break when we sampled 17 different honeys  from back gardens and rooftops all over the city (there were beekeepers from Highgate Cemetery, Fortnums and Masons, the Tate Gallery, Chelsea Physic Garden, Brockwell and other parks in the audience). I chose no.11 Dark Holloway, which was made from a mixture of sweet chestnut and raspberry flowers (it came second) from the murky Holloway Road. I am originally from London so the thought of the old smoky city of my childhood now buzzing with all these flowers and honeybees felt as if a new green world were emerging. Some things do get better!

The other was the joy of travelling together with a common purpose, crossing the river Thames in the snow, dancing to a band outside the Festival Hall, meeting up with fellow lovers of the earth and bees (including my friend Adrienne Campbell from Transition Lewes and the Natural Beekeeping Trust). We agreed that all Transition initiatives should keep one hive at least. I thought of going back to beekeeping last year and went for a walk in the woods, she told me, and there at the entrance was a swarm of bees! When Tim Baker made a garden out of some derelict land in his school playground in Greenwich a swarm appeared at the entrance of the school. The children were fascinated, he told us. It was the adults who were afraid.

Some people get smarter too!

Gemma: Some fascinating, as well as random facts, we learnt from speakers on the day:

– Thought to be the highest beekeeper, David Graves, has had hives 26 storeys up -on top of New York skyscrapers and when they need moving he apparently does it on the subway

– London is made up of one third back gardens and one third green space – what a haven for bees!

– 80 million tonnes of food is produced in the UK through pollination. Think of how much it would cost to do it artificially if we didn’t have bees

– Fictional character Sherlock Holmes retired to Sussex to be a beekeeper

– In the past there have been as many as 1 million colonies of bees in the UK

– There are hives made of recycled plastic

Photos: banner of BCB travelling to the London Bee Summit by Mark Watson; busy Bungay bees by Mike Southern; Beehives in snow from Natural Beekeeping Trust; young beekeeper with hive, Charlton Primary School, London; thyme flowers from Plants for Bees project, BCB climb the summit by Mark Watson