Harvesting honey from London's rooftops: meet Bermondsey's bee master - Steve Benbow

London's visionary bee master is the custodian of 30 beehive sites on landmark rooftops right across London, from Tates Moderna nd Britain to the V&A and the National Portrait Gallery.
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Honey bees are the pin-ups of the pollinating world, proclaims Steve Benbow, London’s visionary bee master — but then, he’s clearly biased. Benbow spends seven days a week caretaking 30 beehive sites across the city. One is on a barge moored by Tower Bridge, another is in a patch of woodland in Harrow, others are on landmark rooftops, including Tates Modern and Britain, the V&A, the National Portrait Gallery and Fortnum & Mason, where the beehives, of course, are painted an exquisite duck-egg blue.

Small beginnings
Fascinated by bees since childhood — his paternal grandparents tended bees on their smallholding in Shropshire —  Benbow thought he’d bring a touch of the country to his Bermondsey flat 17 years ago and installed a hive full of Gloucestershire bees behind the lift shaft on his roof. To his delight, the bees thrived, producing dark, thick honey in their first year. After researching urban beekeeping in Paris, Rio and New York, Benbow jacked in his career as a travel photographer to fully indulge his passion.


Bee kit to hand, Benbow heads for the duck-egg blue hives at Fortnum & Mason (right). (Image of Benbow by Eric Tourneret)

Now, Benbow’s London Honey Company, based in a Bermondsey warehouse, supplies the tearooms at The Savoy and Harvey Nichols, delis and farmers’ markets across the city, and his bees busily forage in parks, cemeteries, gardens and the capital’s other green spaces, flying up to three miles from their base camp. “In London, the diversity of plants makes for really good honey that varies enormously from borough to borough,” says Benbow. “Bermondsey tends to be dark and aromatic, while Westminster is more citrussy. Harrow has lots of chestnut avenues, so its honey has that distinctive rich, slightly bitter note.

“Mature city trees are big nectar and pollen providers. With the right conditions, bees produce a dark honey from hawthorns, and later blackthorns, as well as chestnuts and sycamores. Tree of heaven produces a lovely honey.” 

More specifically, the acacias at Tate Britain give the honey a caramel tang and butterscotch colour, whereas Tate Modern has a lively, elderflower-type note due to the sticky honeydew that drips from the prevalent lime trees. And the bees at Fortnum’s, because of the hives’ proximity to the Royal Parks, produce honey with a complex, full flavour, reflecting the parks’ diverse and pollen-rich planting.


Local London honey makes an ususual and charming gift. Image: Steve Benbow

What you will need
If you fancy installing a hive in your back garden or allotment, read Benbow’s lively bible, The Urban Beekeeper, and never mind the commitment, the equipment alone could put you off: aside from the hive, that includes a bee smoker with leather bellows, a goose wing to brush the bees off the honeycombs, a honey extractor, pollen traps and miles of gaffer tape.

You will need to wear, of course, full battledress — overalls, gauntlets, veil, hood — so the bees can’t find a  teeny entry point to sting you, which they will do at some point, warns  Benbow.

“It’s a big commitment. You have to be dedicated and follow protocol on hygiene because the bees’ health is paramount,” says Benbow, whose chosen lifestyle is solitary, nomadic and, he adds ruefully, necessitates a good osteopath.

“You need a gentle hand, patience, and to understand that you are just a custodian of these wonderful creatures. If you’re serious, join an association, have some training or find a good mentor.” What can we do for London honey bees and other pollinators? “Provide pit stops. Lobby your council to leave areas of parkland ungroomed, especially on the fringes, to provide more habitat. Become a guerrilla gardener and sow wild flowers on roundabouts or any patches of wasteland.”

Bee bombs — “hand grenades” of seeds in soil — are the latest offerings from Benbow’s honey HQ. “Gardeners play a massive role,” he says. “Sixty-six per cent of London is open space and 24 per cent of that is private gardens. Instead of a boundary fence, consider a native hedge that could include hawthorn, blackthorn, snowberry, willow, hazel. Grow a wide range of plants because bees need eight different types of pollen, not just one. 

“Early flowers are as important as summer ones. Crocuses, snowdrops and daffodils do a great job of providing early pollen and kick-starting the season. Lavender, buddleia and  ivy, later in the season, are awesome for honey bees and all pollinators.” 

If you only have a window box, you can still do your bit for London bees. “Stuff it with early bulbs and herbs like lavender, borage, rosemary and thyme. Source plants well. Don’t buy garden-centre mutants that have no pollen.”
The Urban Beekeeper: A Year of Bees in the City (Square Peg) costs £16, but Homes & Property readers can buy it for £13 incl p&p by calling 01206 255 800 and quoting the reference “Homes & Property”. Offer ends May 19.

Get the flavour
You can buy 10 kinds of honey, including London, Shropshire heather and Kent wood sage, and book your place on the next beekeeping course, online at thelondonhoneycompany.co.uk.

View Steve Benbow’s honey-based recipes:

"My favourite cake of them all is my big sister's honey cake. We both learnt to bake from a very early age. Jayne always comes up with some fab cake ideas. Her honey cake is rather special, so it seems only fair to share it," says The Urban Beekeeper

* 6oz margarine
* 6oz caster sugar
* 3 eggs
* 9oz self-raising flour
* 1 tsp baking powder
* 1 tsp cinnamon (sieved with flour and baking powder)
* 2 tbsp honey (nearly half a jar)

1. You'll need an 8-inch greased tin and baking parchment base. Set oven at 180C (350degF).

2. Mix all ingredients with an electric mixer for a few minutes, until well combined. 

3. Put in tin and bake in centre of oven for one and a quarter hours.


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