Urban Growing

Bristol Community Food Gardens: Bristol Beekeepers

By Weien Soh

Weien Soh

Weien Soh writes the latest Bristol Good Food 2030 story about Bristol Beekeepers. We hear from Jim Daniels, Chair of Bristol Beekeepers, about how both bees and beekeepers are gearing up for a busy summer ahead, finding wonder at the bees’ contribution to our food system.

With the seemingly endless sunshine and lighter days, late spring transitions into summer as we celebrate the season of wildflowers, berries and bees. Walking around Bristol and its surrounding countryside, it’s wonderful to witness bees and other pollinators dancing with flowers in bloom. Wild pollinators are likely responsible for pollinating 85-95% of insect-pollinated crops, according to Wildlife Trusts, which means around 5-15% of insect-pollinated crops rely on honeybees (mostly kept in managed hives). While there are many urban beekeepers thriving in Bristol, serving as matchmakers initiating honeybees into the city’s array of community and private gardens, concentrated chemical farming and urban development have resulted in habitat loss and subsequent decline in the diversity of food sources for honeybees and other pollinators.

To cultivate an interest in bees is to deepen one’s understanding of how bees, like human beings, play a pivotal role in sustaining a complex web of life. As bees are the fundamental pollinators for so many plants, especially fruiting crops and trees, they are the perfect companions for edible growers as the busy work they do stimulates not only higher yields, but tastier fruits too. From honeybees to mycorrhizal fungi, the tightly woven symbiosis between multiple species point to a peaceful and mutually beneficial co-existence, thus highlighting that nature’s most intimate partnerships are dictated by a larger biological intelligence that permeates and balances all life on earth.

Last year in my front garden, I sowed the whole plot with wildflower seeds, which are now blossoming with brightly coloured cornflowers, foxglove and poppies, among a multitude of other wildflowers. As the sun rises at the front of the house, the flowers greet me in their full glory for our ritual morning meeting as I leave the house each day, stirring in me the utmost delight and unfailingly bringing a smile to my face. With an increasing number of people liberating their lawns and gardens to welcome wildflowers, these small changes can make a big difference to the availability of nectar for pollinating bees and insects.

Welcome to Honeycomb Farm sign

For this year’s Get Growing Trail on 3 and 4 June, the city’s vibrant productive fruit and vegetable gardens are inviting people to explore their green growing spaces to celebrate local food and urban growing. Having visited some of these community growing groups, my series of articles profile their diverse projects, managed by local people across the city, which seek to build a better food system that’s healthier for the city, its residents and nature. Last month I covered Sustainable Westbury-on-Trym to profile their tomato plug plant enterprise and community gardens. For this month’s article, I stray (a little) from food growing to feature beekeeping as I visit Bristol Beekeepers to highlight the important work they do and how you can get involved.

Bristol Beekeepers

As I strolled down a long path into the enclosed orchard where Bristol Beekeepers (BB) keep their apiary, I marvel at the serenity of this secret garden, so close to the hubbub of Cribbs Causeway and its hum of traffic. Originally a tithe field belonging to the community parish, the land with its historic orchard was left to BB in the late ‘80s where it has since served as the site for teaching apiary. As a branch of Avon Beekeepers Association, BB collaborate with a network of local beekeeping branches to educate people about the life of bees and promote the craft of beekeeping.

In the early twentieth-century, BB was formed by beekeepers to endorse the benefits of beekeeping to local people. Now nearly a century later, BB maintains its heritage of honey-beekeeping, along with a stimulating line-up of educational and social events to encourage more people to learn the craft, while also selling surplus honey harvested from BB’s hives at local shows. To find out more about the training apiary, I met with Jim Daniels, Chair of Bristol Beekeepers, who offered deeper insights into the importance of bees and BB’s mission in promoting them, alongside the organisation’s role in breeding and preserving honeybees.

Our meeting was several months ago, and it was a fresh winter morning, so Jim let me know that the bees were hibernating. As the temperature was below 15 degrees, it was too cold for them to come out. Pointing around the site, Jim tells me that BB is in the process of restoring the historic orchard with the help of volunteers, along with funding and grants from local organisations. Working in partnership with The Conservation Trust, volunteers helped BB to maintain the site by tackling the bramble, and clearing space to plant new trees. A grant from Wessex Water secured heritage apple trees, alongside quince, oak and hazel trees as BB has plans to regenerate the orchard to create more food sources for the bees, Jim tells me, while highlighting that orchards are natural places to keep bees as most nectar comes from trees.

Bee hives

Giving me some insights into honeybees, Jim starts with the breeding process, explaining that the queen bee will fly out to mate with 20-plus drones in a wide area to harvest their sperm, which she then uses to fertilise her eggs. Showing me the structure of the beehives, Jim explains that, after this mating ritual, the fertilised eggs are stored in the hive to grow into larvae, which are fed by adult worker bees. The worker bees forage for nectar and pollen from various plants, generally around 1-3km radius from their hive, in order to extract enough food source to not only feed the larvae, but to store honey to feed the hive over winter too. For bees to survive and thrive, they need to find abundant food sources, like wildflower meadows, throughout the active season.

While the Bristol apiary has not seen a drop off in its bee population, Jim notes that bees are at risk due to the use of neonicotinoids, a systemic insecticide used in farming, which is causing a decline in bee populations. It is also important to pay attention to the types of plants preferred by bees, he tells me, as many urban hives are overpopulated so you should let your lawn grow wilder to benefit the bees and other pollinators. As beekeepers, he notes, we must take an interest in habitats favoured by bees as they are so inextricably connected to the environment. In return, Jim cheerfully tells me, the bees’ pollinating work produces noticeable increases in yields for most growers.

The colour of the honey varies according to the nectar consumed by the bees, Jim continues, which is why local honeys have their own distinct colour and flavour that is unique to the resident plant life. As a beekeeper passionate about bee preservation, he explains the vast distinction between commercial and local beekeeping as the corporate beekeeping industry is largely driven by profit from selling honey, not bee conservation. Due to honey being such a prized food, it is common to find highly processed (pasteurised/super filtered) or adulterated honey (mixed with corn syrups) on supermarket shelves. BB’s practices, on the other hand, ensure that honey is harvested sustainably to ensure that enough is left for the bees to feed on over winter. While the extracted honey is filtered as it is necessary to strain out the wax and honeycomb pieces, Jim tells me that BB’s honey is ‘raw’ as it hasn’t been heavily processed nor heated. For Jim, buying local honey means supporting your local beekeeper and food movement as the bees are not only pollinating local edible plants, but are helping to increase crop yields too.

With the emphasis on BB being a training apiary, Jim tells me that members learning the craft are supported by experienced beekeepers through the entire cycle of beekeeping, from breeding to harvesting the honey. Whether an experienced or beginner beekeeper, he encourages everyone to check out BB’s educational and events calendar as the organisation hosts beekeeping courses, events and demonstrations throughout the year, alongside providing relevant resources. Showing me around BB’s training building and equipment, Jim acknowledges that beekeeping may seem like a niche hobby, but he tells me that BB has endeavoured to make it accessible to anyone interested in learning about the life of bees. Their membership prices are banded (starting at just £29 per annum) with a discount offered for early renewal, alongside protective suits and equipment which are provided for members. On Saturday, 29 July BB is holding a Beekeeper Taster Day held at the apiary, where you can trial a day of beekeeping, from donning a bee suit to extracting honey. To sign up, send an email to secretary@bristolbeekeepers.org.uk.

As the bees gear up for a busy summer ahead, so do the beekeepers, Jim tells me, they must visit the apiary each week, between March and August, to check in and manage any swarming. Around August time, up to 30-40lb of honey can be extracted from the hives, but Jim emphasises that you must leave enough for the bees’ winter store. While the extraction process is lots of work, the resulting harvest is well worth the effort as the golden nectar is sealed up in jars to be sold at local fairs, like the Bristol Honey Show. For those who may not have time for beekeeping, there are many ways to support the work that BB is doing, like buying honey from your local beekeeper and letting your garden flower freely over summer. As Jim talks about the many ways that people, like beekeepers, can become natural partners for bees and other pollinators as he encourages people to not be afraid of bees, instead be curious about their lives and find wonder at the bees’ momentous contribution to the food system that sustains our lives.

Together we can transform the future of food. If you want to be part of the urban growing revolution, check out this year’s Get Growing Trail to connect and grow with your local community group.

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So, what change do you want to see happen that will transform food in Bristol by 2030? Do you already have an idea for how Bristol can make this happen? Join the conversation now.

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