Author Archives: alison

Honeybee survival rate greatly improves

Honeybee colony survival rates over this winter are the best they have been since the British Beekeepers’ Association started  its annual survey six years ago. Hurrah…

This winter an average of just one in 10 hives perished according to the BBKA survey of close on 1000  members across England, compared to more than a third dying out the previous winter (2012/13)and an average of around 16% not pulling through across each of the previous four years?

So does this mean that bees are out of the woods and no longer need our help? It’s not quite as simple that. The threats to honeybees – the varroa mite, lack of forage and pesticide use – have not diminished. The big difference during last winter was the weather. We had an extremely mild winter and spring came early which allowed bees to get out and collect available forage early preventing starvation and allowing them to build up their strength to deal better with their foes.

In addition, many weak colonies were wiped out during the long winter and late spring the previous year, so the ones that made it through to summer 2013 were strong going into last winter.

The good weather conditions this spring and summer have encouraged much swarming and brood development. Since varroa feed and breed on honeybee brood we could see a build up of the mite in our hives which could weaken our colonies going into this winter. So beekeepers need to stay vigilant, or come this time next year we will  be lamenting significant hive losses again!

Bees’ choice at Chelsea

beeatchelsea2  BeeatChelsea

The bees’ choice at the Chelsea Flower Show 2014 was this lovely crimson thistle-like flower that was all over the show gardens.  Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum‘ or plum thistle. It attracted all the bees, including this honeybee, when I visited on Tuesday.

It usually flowers in July and August so not to late to order some for a sunny spot in the garden.

Glad to say the foxgloves were out in force so plenty for the bumblebees to feed on. And there was a wild feel to many of the smaller gardens so fairly bee-friendly with favourites including Nepeta and Anchusa Azurea ’Loddon Royalist’, both of which are flowering in our garden.


Planting edible bee pastures and fragrant walks


Chloe watering the Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris) plugs she has planted on the Clapham Manor estate as part of the bee-friendly planting day organised by River of Flowers and Urban Bees on Saturday.

The day was a great success. The weather was perfect and some 50 local residents and children came out to help plant three raised beds on the estate to create one end of a ‘river of flowers’ . The three beds each had a different theme:

Chloe’s at the Food and Flowers bed, where edible wild flowers including tufted vetch, red clovers and wild carrots are planted in clumps to create swathes of tasty forage for bees and other pollinators.

kendifoodflowers Kendi, 6, was another budding gardener. He came with his grandmother and said he really enjoyed getting his hands dirty and learning about bees and plants.


Sid and his 3 year old daughter, Rose, are helping to plant up the Bee Pasture bed with a mixture of wild flowers such as white campion, yarrow and lesser knapweed, with one of my favourite bee and butterfly ornamental plants  Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’.



Two enthusiastic young helpers on the Fragrant Walk, a long planter filled with ornamental plants that smell divine and are hugely attractive to bees and other pollinators.  The two best bee-friendly varieties of lavenders: Angustifolia ‘Munstead’ and ‘intermedia Grosso’ are accompanied by rosemary, mint, and marjorams, with bay trees down the middle.


As well as transforming what was a dark area on the estate to a much brighter, open space , this bed will provide much-needed forage from June to September. And residents can use the plants for culinary purposes. This bed also needs less watering as the plants are used to a dry Mediterranean climate.

Each of the wildflowers and garden plants  were carefully selected for pollinators and people so we hope they will be enjoyed by both immensely.

josh,kathyrn, alison, kerry

Some of the happy organisers at the end of the day’s planting:  L-R Josh Kerry (Lambeth council), Kathryn Lwin (River of Flowers), myself Alison Benjamin (Urban Bees) and Kerrie Mckinnon (River of Flowers). Thanks to Josh for inviting River of Flowers & Urban Bees to participate in the Clapham Greenways project and for getting the water butts on site, and to Kerrie for her invaluable planting plans for each of the beds.

Other thanks go to Crispin at Father Nature, whose volunteers and workers cleared each of the beds of tired old bushes and shrubs and prepared them with top soil.  And all the residents who came along, including the aptly named Rosemary, and especially to Nina who galvanised a lot of support.

Residents involvement is key.  Now the beds are planted,  two of them will need constant watering during this dry, hot spell.

It’s the  first community planting days that Urban Bees has been involved in. With forage such an important issue for all bees, we hope to do many more.

A second planting day on this estate will be held in June.  Dates tbc …  I can’t wait.

Tedx and River of Flowers video

Watch this delightful animation video from River of Flowers which explains why we need more wild flowers in our towns and cities.

This was the theme of a Tedx talk, the Urban Buzz,  that Urban Bees gave recently at Warwick University.

Thanks to everyone who supplied photos for the talk who I wasn’t able to credit. They include River of Flowers, (urban meadow in Hackney, east London, and the tree pit planted with flowers);  Melissa Cooper’s Out Walking the Dog blog which tracks nature in NYC and captured that greedy squirrel; Matthew Cohen of who took the fantastic photo of Vivian Wang with the Empire State in the background; and Silvia at Global Generation for her great photos of young beekeepers in the Skip Garden on the King’s Cross development site.

The pioneer of conservation in the US John Muir sums up what my talk is all about.
“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”
Thanks to illustrator Danielle Callagham for including the quote in her beautiful book The plight of the honey bee and for Jana Levitt, at LGA Architects in Toronto,  for sending it to me as a gift last Christmas.


Wildflower meadow


Alison, Urban Bees, sowing wild flower meadow

Laying a wildflower meadow turf on a council estate in south London and sowing a strip of wildflowers around it is the beginning of a project Urban Bees and River of Flowers are doing to transform pockets of ugly, unloved green spaces into vibrant, colourful bee pastures.

This is our first collaboration to improve bee and other pollinator habitats for food and shelter.

We were asked by Lambeth council to come up with ideas for improving the environment and making it more bee-friendly after calls from residents to brighten up the place.

We will be pioneering the planting of wildflower bee pastures for wild bees, honeybees and other pollinators. We’re also creating a ‘fragrant walk’ with flowering herbs that bees love and dotting some ornamental bee favourites around the estate including hebes, choisyas and wallflowers.

We’re hoping to get local school children to help us finish this bee and bug hotel.


Resident’s will be out planting in May to create the first bee pastures in raised beds. They’ll also be planting fruit and veg around the estate as part of a local residents’ food growing programme.

Thanks to Crispin and the fathers at  Father Nature for doing all the hard lifting, raking and laying for the wildflower meadow. (Now we have to hope for lots of rain and that people and dogs don’t trample over it.)

crispinlaying fathernature

And to our youngest helper.



The lessons we learn here will inform future Urban Bees/River of Flowers projects to make our cities more pollinator-friendly. So thanks Josh Kerry at Lambeth council for giving us the opportunity to do this for the bees.

Most expensive bug house in London?

Is this the most expensive bug house in London? This wood pile with holes drilled into the logs to provide nests for solitary bees has been created by Nick Butler, lead gardener for Grosvenor estates. And it is hidden away in a corner of Eaton Square no less.

eaton square bug hotel

It represents a shift in how Grosvenor is going to be managing its private squares and gardens in future with pollinators and biodiversity more in mind.  Nick says he has wanted to introduce more flowering, pollinator-friendly plants into the gardens since he  became the Grosvenor beekeeper. The company received hives as part of the Victoria Business Improvement District (BID) beekeeping initiative  and Urban Bees trained Nick and others in the company.

“Horticultural college doesn’t really teach you about bees, but being there physically with the honeybees I thought I should help them and the wild bees out by providing better food for them and habitat for the solitary bees and the bumblebees.  I’ve got the whole gardening team involved and the local residents’ garden committees. First and foremost, the gardens have to look good but there is a lot of interest.”

The bees will be very happy with all the Ceanothus , digitalis, mahonias and aliums that are currently being planted. And let’s hope the solitary bees soon take up residence at their exclusive new home.

According to Nick this is just the beginning of an exciting journey Grosvenor is taking to enrich the biodiversity of London.

Gardening for butterflies and bees

Really enjoying Jan Miller-Klein’s book, Gardening for Butterflies, Bees and other beneficial insects.  It’s got loads of fantastic colour photos of plants and the pollinators they attract and the large format makes it so easy to use.  It shows you what flowers to plant for spring, summer and autumn pollen and nectar and includes a combination of British wild flowers, garden plants and shrubs.  Now I know which hebes to plant - “midsumer beauty” and “great orme” were found to be the most attractive to butterflies.  So as you can see, it’s not just honeybees I am planting food for in my garden.

Honeybees have opened up a whole new world of wildlife. In addition to the bumblebees ( I must plant Vipers bugloss for them) and solitary bees (knapweeds and stachys for some of them) , this spring and summer I’m going to try to make the garden more butterfly-friendly as well.  They loved the verbena bonariensis and the Erysium Bowles Mauve wall flower I planted last year.

I didn’t know that the larvae of many butterflies only feed on one specific plant so for example the larvae of the Common blue butterfly needs Birds-foot Trefoil, the wild, yellow pea flower that’s in bloom in June/July. It also provides food for adults and what’s more it has a higher pollen content than many other flowers so it’s also important for bumblebees. And the same goes for Red clover – it’s pollen has a high protein content.

Jan gave a talk a few weeks ago at a local gardening club I’ve joined. I bought some wild flower seeds from her – Red campion, Ragged robin, Feverfew, Wild garlic mustard, Evening primrose (good for moths) and Eupatorium (from her national collection featured on Gardeners World last year).

I plan to start sowing them all in trays this weekend while the sun shines.


Buzzing bees – out already

Have spotted bees out enjoying the mild winter in  London.

At the weekend, two large and very loud bumblebees were on a mahonia bush in my neighbour’s garden in Hackney collecting pollen from the yellow flowers. I’ve yet to master the art of bumblebee identification, but from their white bottoms, I’d guess they were either white-tailed queens, buff-tailed or garden queen bumblebees. As my BBC Wildlife pocket guide chart helpfully informs me that the white-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lucorum) are one of the earliest species, flying in February, I will plump for them. The other early species I could see in the garden at this time of year, according to my guide,  is the aptly named Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum), but as that clearly has an orange backside, it wasn’t her.

I’m afraid I’ve also yet to master how to take good photos of bees on my mobile phone! But you get the idea…




Today, I had the pleasure of spying honeybees out on a white-flowered shrub in south London. If anyone knows the name of this early flowering shrub please let me know. Again, it’s not easy to see the bee in my photo, but there were a number of them buzzing around, collecting pollen.




 I have had an answer from the Guardian’s gardening editor @janeperrone. She has tweeted me @alisonurbanbees to say it looks like Lonicera purpusii, winter honeysuckle. “The bees love it! Nice scent too.”

I think she’s spot on. Here’s what the RHS has to say about it.

2013 – review of the year

Our successful four year partnership with the Co-op Group’s Plan Bee came to an end this year when we completed a year-long teaching course for the final cohort of 20 new beekeepers at the Camley Street apiary in King’s Cross. We also used Plan Bee funds to set up a new community apiary at Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park and taught 20 aspiring local apiarists, some of whom have formed the THCPbees group.

We continued work with the Honey Club in King’s Cross, teaching young people and business people about bees at new hives in the Skip Garden and taking part in many bee-related events.

A bee-themed pub quiz was one of the highlights of the year at Victoria Business Improvement District where we continue to help to make their environment more bee-friendly. We are also talking to a number of businesses across London about improving habitats and forage for bees and other pollinators.

We took part in the London pollinators’ forum which is feeding into the government’s national pollinator strategy to be announced in 2014.

We think trees have a huge role to play in making towns and cities more bee-friendly, so we have produced the Urban Bees’ Tree for Bees guide

We hosted visitors from around the world including architects in Toronto who are looking to London for inspiration to create bee caring communities, and Urban Bees’ work with Sir John Cass School in the City was featured in a photographic exhibition at the United Nations in Geneva.

Our taster days at Camley Street proved as popular as ever, as more and more people want to learn about bees. Training and education about honey bees and other pollinators will remain core to our work as we engage with more companies and organisations in the exciting year ahead.  We will continue to work closely in 2014 with the London Wildlife Trust, who host our Camley Street training apiary, we will be teaming up with River of Flowers  to try to create sustainable wild flower forage throughout the capital, and we will support the Bee Collective in its efforts to create a Bee Line through the capital.

EU pesticide ban comes in

The two year suspension on thee neonicitinoid pesticides came into force yesterday across the European Union.

The commission proposed the suspension after the European Food Safety Agency concluded in January that thiamethoxam, clothianidin and imidacloprid posed an unnacceptable risk to bees. The three will be banned from use on flowering crops including oilseed rape, linseed, maize and sunflowers, upon which bees feed.

What is vitally important is that over the next 24 months scientists are able to conduct and collate overwhelming evidence that demonstrates these chemicals – should be banned long-term for the health of our bees. It’s going to be a hard call given all the other assailants weakening our bees from parasites, to poor nutrition and poor weather,  and given the persistence of neonics in the environment. But with the farming and pesticide industry continuing to lobby hard against the ban (legal action by Bayer and Syngenta is pending), the scientists have to get their skates on, or this window of opportunity will be firmly closed.

Bumblebees in late November

“Just heard buzzing from Strawberry tree (arbutus unedo) in back garden. It turned out to be two very active bumblebees moving quite quickly around the bush between blossoms.
We live in Surrey 500 ft ASL on North Downs – outside temp 6 C.”

Thanks to Tim Everitt for sharing this with us.  If you see bees out late in the year, please  let us know which plant or tree they are foraging on.  It can help us to make our gardens and green spaces more bee-friendly.




honey survey 2013

No surprise that honey production was up this year after that very wet summer in 2012. But the yield of only 24.7lbs per hive in 2013, compared to 8.lbs last year,  is as you’d expect after such a late spring well down on the long-term average of more like 40lbs a hive.

What’s of more interest from the survey of British Beekeeping Association members, is the regional variations. In Scotland beekeepers are getting close on 35lbs from one hive (the highest across the UK), while in London, where 10% of respondents kept their hives on rooftops, they could muster just 18.7lbs of honey per hive (the lowest yield in the UK).

A south-east honey survey for 2013, by the regional bee inspector, Alan Byham, seem to corroborate the figures in the BBKA survey. Each year, Alan asks beekeepers on his mailing list for information on honey yields and prices in the region. This year he had 414 replies. The average was 21 lbs (slightly up from 19lbs last year). But again it’s London where beekeepers are getting lower than average yields of just 19lb in 2013, compared to east sussex where the average crop per hive was 27lbs – the highest in the region.

However, it appears that in the south east,  Kent beekeepers fare even worse than the capital’s. Kent’s hives yielded just 16lbs of honey this year. Moreover, while London apiarists can charge a premium for any of the scarce honey that they sell, this doesn’t seem to be the case in Kent.

(In the BBKA survey, Kent is included in the south east area of the UK along with surrey, west sussex and east sussex, which taken together had the third highest yield in the UK with 27.lbs per hive).

So what conclusions, if any, can be drawn from the figures ?

There are a lot more beekeepers and bees per hectre in London than the rest of the country, or there’s not enough forage for the bees in the capital? Or could it be a combination of the two? Or could it be that London beekeepers in the main are leaving their bees with more honey than other areas of the country? Alan says a number of beekeepers indicated that the colony made honey but they left it for them. He’s only included honey that was taken for sale or personal consumption.

As for Kent, could it that the bees weren’t out in time for the apple blossom this year in the Garden of England’s orchards because of the exceptionally cold spring?



Orange pollen, white flowers

Bees out on a warm October day on this white flower. Lovely orange pollen on her back legs.

The shrub, in case you were wondering, is a Choisya Ternata or Mexican Orange Blossom, which flowers in spring and again in late autumn and even into winter if it’s mild, which is good news for honeybees as there isn’t much around to forage on now, except for a few cosmos, penstemons and Michaelmas daisies.

The last supper

The bees are busy foraging for the last pollen and nectar of the season before the winter arrives. There is a surprising amount of colour still in the garden from the never-ending cosmos, geranium rozanne and verbena bonariensis, plus the later flowering rudbekia, penstamens and echinacea and the newly acquired bushy blue caryopteris and magenta, daisy-like osteopermum trescos. While these flowers are still attracting the odd bumblebee and hoverflies, the honeybees are elsewhere. They are on walls, railway sidings, any forgotten nook and cranny that is covered in ivy, because at this time of year, mature ivy is in bloom, producing tiny white flowers that produce a rich source of food for a honeybee colony in search of its last supper.

Honey harvest

After a slow start to the summer, our bees at Camley Street did make enough honey during June and July for us to sell. It is light, delicate and delicious King’s Cross honey 2013 and is now available to buy at A Gold in Spitafields, Brushfield Street E1.

For those of you who can’t get down to the East End, we will soon be selling Urban Bees 2013 honey online.

Bees planting in Blackburn

Residents of Blackburn in Lancashire will be out today planting 16,000 bee-friendly plants at 28 sites across the town. Anyone who turns up at the town hall between 11-3pm will be given a trowel and assigned a ‘queen bee’ organiser and a site to get planting. Hives are also being installed on the roof of the town hall.

The initiate to replace traditional bedding plants that bees don’t like with more bee-friendly varieties across the town was the idea of charity Groundwork Pennine Lancashire which has been running an amazing three year ‘save the bee’ project in the region, called bees in the borough. The project  includes breeding more indigenous apis millifera millifera (the black honeybee) .

As well as helping improve bee forage in Blackburn, the bee planting today is intended to bring the community together, instil pride in the town – volunteers will receive an ‘I love Blackburn t-shirt’ – and to rejuvenate the failing town centre. Giant bee sculptures are being designed and placed in strategic locations across the town. Designer, Wayne Hemmingway, who comes from the area, is creating a vintage bee sculpture. The idea is for each sculpture to be sponsored and that money will go towards maintaining the bee-friendly plants.

The event has got the backing of Blackburn Town Centre Partnership Board, Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council – which has three bees in its crest  which represent skill, perseverance and industry – the town centre BID (business improvement district) , The Mall shopping centre and the local Groundwork trust. Flyers and postcards have gone out all over town, in schools, businesses, community centres.

It is yet another great example of how bees are being used as a catalyst to bring communities together and do positive things in their local area.  Newcastle, Stroud and Gloucester are some of the other cities that have gone bee-friendly . And hopefully this initiative will help all types of bees in Blackburn.

You can follow today’s event on Twitter @BigPlantingBee #BBBigBee. And there is a Facebook page blackburnsbigplantingbee

I’m looking forward to seeing the photos.

Let’s hope they get a good turn out . It looks like it will be dry until 1pm!

Deadly spring

As the European Commission votes to implement a two year ban on three pesticides linked to bee deaths around the world, UK beekeepers and their bees are still struggling with the vagaries of the British spring.

Following the coldest March in 50 years, when we had to postpone practical beekeeping class after beekeeping class because you can’t open a hive in sub zero temperatures, the start of April proved little better. Late springs are not unusual, but 2013 has been exceptional because of the unremitting cold.

We have been anxiously feeding our bees fondant in the hope that the nectar substitute would see them through the prolonged chilly spell until warmer weather arrived. Bees can deal with the cold by staying toasty in the hive, but the problem is they can’t get out to collect pollen from the hazel and alder trees whose catkins can provide a rich source of protein at the beginning of spring for the bee larvae.

If there’s no baby food coming in, there’s no point the queen laying eggs because when the eggs hatch into larvae they will go hungry. So, all of our bee colonies are subsequently small and not building up well.

Now nearing May, with the cherry blossom out, forget me nots running a blue riot across the garden and dandelions dotting the lawn yellow, the bees would be having a feast if only that Arctic wind would drop and they could fly more.

Anecdotally, beekeepers are reporting losses of up to 30 percent because of the very late, cold spring. The only silver lining is that smaller bee colonies with less bee larvae means less varroa – the parasite which feeds on the larvae, weakens it and spreads lethal viruses around the hive.

What bees and flowers really need now is a warm May so the bees can leave the hive and pollinate the flowers and in the process collect the pollen they need to feed the babies, and the nectar that they turn into honey.

Matthew Oates a naturalist at the National Trust is optimistic. He says “There is a long record of good summers following late springs. I love a late spring. It’s all the sweeter after a long wait.”

Bees and snow

It may be -2 and white outside the hive, but inside the bees will be huddling together in a cluster and vibrating their wings to create warmth. A layer of snow on the roof of the hive may even help to insulate it further against the cold. In fact the hive may be so toasty it could attract mice looking for a cosy spot to bed down, so you’ll need to guard against such intruders by fastening with nails a galvanised strip of metal called a mouse guard over the hive’s entrance.
The main worry at this time of year is whether the bees have enough honey to see them through the cold spell when the temperature is too low for them to leave the hive and forage is scare.
You can get an indication of the amount of honey they have by ‘hefting’ the hive. You do this by lifting the hive with one hand at the back of the hive just slightly off its stand. If you heft your hives at intervals during the winter you’ll get a better idea of how it compares to the autumn when you left them 30lbs of stores. Given the mild winter we were experiencing until a week OK, the bees should be fine and the hive should be hard to lift.
Once the cold spell is over, your bees will want to get out of the hive to defecate. You may have to help them exit by clearing the entrance which may be clogged by bees that have died naturally during the winter. Don’t panic if you see lots of dead bees around the hive during the winter. Remember their life span is short.
If they come out on a sunny day while snow is still on the ground, clear the snow around the hive to prevent your bees getting confused about which way up to fly. Apparently that can happen because of the way snow reflects the sky.
Now’s a good time to do a stock check and list what new equipment you’ll need for the spring. If you are coming into your second year a new brood box with frames and foundation is a must for when you give your hive a spring clean.

King’s Cross honey

Have just made a delivery of honey to A Gold in Spitalfields E1. Despite the scarcity of honey this year due to the wet summer, we are delighted to be able to supply this delightful deli with a few jars of honey from our King’s Cross hives. They have stocked our Battersea honey for a number of years, and have sang its praises, but now that Urban Bees has moved east we no longer have hives in that part of London. Hope they like King’s Cross honey just as much.