The planet's coolest jobs: urban beekeeper

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Barnaby spends his days attending to various hives dotted around London's rooftops, green spaces and even car parks!

In the planet's coolest jobs this month, we talk to urban beekeeper Barnaby Shaw. Barnaby spends his time looking after bees, right in the heart of London – caring for their hives, harvesting their honey and teaching others about their welfare, often in the most unexpected of locations. From rooftops to car parks, these urban hives are home to swarms of city-dwelling bees, busily working away to build the structures they feed, grow and reproduce in. Want to find out how they do it? Let's peek inside the hive...

Tell us a little bit about your typical day

I run a beekeeping organisation, which is also an environmental project, so my days are very varied. I spend a lot of time moving between the beehives – we check all of our hives once a month in the winter and once a week in the spring and summer. We check mainly to make sure they have enough food stores in their hives, and also to see if they need any parasite treatment. In the spring and summer we also check the general health of the colony, in what we call the ‘brood area’, where the queen bee is. Harvesting honey happens in July and August, so those are very busy months for us! On top of all of that, we also work a lot with young people on various environmental projects around the city.

What’s the coolest thing about your job?

My job is really unusual. The work I do is very varied – we have a few different apiaries (sites where we keep bees) in London, in lots of different locations. For example, we look after the bees they have at the National Theatre, and their hive is on the rooftop! Not many people have access to the roof of the National Theatre. Another awesome thing about my job is being able to capture the amazing sight of a ‘swarm’, which is when the bees move together to find a new hive. It looks completely synchronised – just like in cartoons – and is fantastic to witness!

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Honey is harvested from the hives in the summer.

What are the benefits of beekeeping in the city?

There is a great urban beekeeping community, certainly in London. I think people are less fearful of bees now, so it’s becoming more and more popular. The city is warmer than the countryside, meaning less chance of us having to face harsh winters and frosts, which aren’t good for the bees. There’s also a wider range of forage (food sources) for the bees in city, probably due to a wider variety of bulbs being planted in urban parks, which results in lots of different pollen for the bees.

Where are your hives? Where would bees live in the wild?

We have a few hives on rooftops, one of which is the National Theatre, so that’s pretty cool. We have some in urban parks and one on a council estate – a real mixture! In the wild, bees will be drawn to any large, dark crevice. Cliff faces with overhangs or hollows of trees are common places, and the bees will build inside these structures. This is where they will build their waxcomb, those amazing hexagonal structures that they’re famous for.

How do bees build the waxcomb?

In a hive there will be a main cluster of bees – this is where you’ll find the brood (the young bees developing), and on the fringes their food stores of honey and pollen. Bees collect pollen and nectar to produce honey, which is what they use to feed the hive. They produce the wax themselves, through the energy they get from the sugar in the honey. They excrete the honey through their abdominal glands, and then chew it using their mandibles – this is the substance they’ll use to make the wax. The bees will huddle together, interlocking their legs while they do this, which is what gives the comb its uniformity. If you imagine stacking up cylinders or bottles on their sides, you’ll get an idea of how the form takes shape.

Most of the bees in a hive are called ‘workers’ and they are all female. The bigger bees are called ‘drones’, and are male – they don’t do any of the work, they are just there to mate with the queen! The comb is formed around the size of a worker bee, but can be scaled up to the size of the drone bees.

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Bees work together in a tight-knit team to build the waxcomb in which they live.

How did you get into urban beekeeping?

My father used to keep bees when I was younger. Back then I was pretty scared of them, but I was interested in the honey! When I got older I volunteered at a local urban farm, and they had a apiary so I started helping out there and really got the bug! I wanted to improve on how the bees were kept, and slowly I got offered other apiary spaces around the city.

Do you make different flavours of honey from the bees you manage?

Not deliberately – we don’t have a large enough crop to produce different flavours. However, the flavours of the honeys do change depending on what forage the bees eat. We taste all of our honey to see if it has a particular flavour. For example, there are a lot of lime trees around the area we have most of the hives, so that taste usually comes through. I think the huge range of flowers available to our bees gives the honey an unusual flavour for sure. It can be quite sought after!

What advice would you give someone who wanted to get into beekeeping?

Look up the beekeeping associations and local organisations where you can go and experience beekeeping for yourself to see how it works. A lot of these organisations offer mentorship, where you can shadow a beekeeper. If you want to get into beekeeping properly, be prepared to work hard, especially through the summer! There are lots of little things you can do to help bees near you too, like planting flowers in your garden – a variety of flowers that are in bloom during the summer is perfect for bees to forage from!

Keen to find out more about the amazing architects of the animal kingdom? Check out our new book How Animals Build!

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