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The Secret of Honey - Urban beekeeping

We had the chance to ask a few question to Nicholas Bishop who works at The London Honey Company. He is sharing with us some information about honey production.

1/ Could you introduce yourself, the London Honey Company and how it started? I joined the London Honey Company back in 2014. There were 3-4 of us and I was mainly beekeeping at the time. I was just back in London for my MA in business and international trade after having worked in London and Beijing with a range of Italian small and medium enterprise - Completely disillusioned by the whole corporate career, I really wanted to get my teeth into working within a SME rather that acting as mere support from the outside. I grew up in Tuscany , Italy so the countryside is what I live for really, meeting Steve and suddenly travelling to some of the most amazing natural spots around England and spending my days outdoors were like a dream come true.  Fast forward 6 years, the business has hugely changed. We have a bigger team, bigger warehouse and many more beehives to manage! Over the years I have covered more or a less every role you can imagine within the business - the official title today is commercial director and unfortunately for the sake of the business I spend most of my time in the office where I can be of a lot more use than out in the field. 2/ Can you tell us about urban beekeeping - what makes it different from regular countryside honey production?  The London Honey Company was founded by Steve Benbow back in 1999. The business was the first commercial enterprise in the world to approach the urban environment as potential production site for some of the most highly prised honeys available to this day around the UK. Farming is huge outside of London and with it come all the implication of modern day practises and the use of pesticides - all issues that are irrelevant in London. Bees are free to forage everywhere there is a tree or wildflower in blossom from Buckingham palace to the East end. 

Today London is only one of our sites. The largest part of the operation is out in the home counties in natural reserves or desolated areas trying to hide away from the large patches of cultivate land. For example we have some hives in Kent on and RSBP site, an another in Oxfordshire on an organic dairy farm, or yet again up high on the Shropshire Hills . We do what we can to keep our bees healthy and as far as possible to any human created danger. 

3/ Does the city pollution impact the production of honey and bees in the urban areas?  Bees fly high above the traffic and hives are hidden in green pockets around town so pollution has never been an issue. Batches are tested routinely, but honey never really carries pollutants with it. We do tend not to have hives in areas where there are less green spaces so this might be part of the answer to your question.

4/ What is the process to produce honey? Is it different from industrial honey? Our honeys are all unpasteurised - we are not allowed to call them raw as there is no such thing as a cooked honey :) - minimally filtered and never blended. All of our products are single variety, which means from one apiary offering the real signature flavour of that landscape at that time of the year. 

We pride ourselves in having control over the whole supply chain from field to jar - we produce most of our honeys , we taste and select them and pack them in our Georgian railway arch in Bermondsey. From here our products travel all over the world.  Over the years we have done so much work to identify each specific floral source and identify geographic locations which would be amazing at production honeys during the seasons.

We move our beehives around the UK following the best nectar sources and offer these honey exactly as the bees produce them. Nothing added and nothing taken away. If you want the full experience we offer virgin honeycombs which are literally stored in beehives throughout the year and cut to order.  In the last three years I've been training with the Italian government - the only country in the world that offers a honey sensory analysis course - and I am to this date the only registered honey sommelier in the UK.  Industrial honeys is a completely different story - unfortunately the Uk is a world renown hot spot for these with most of the supermarket honeys being imported from far far away mainly because of the cost implications - it’s a race to the bottom! The honey is cheap and the emphasis is solely focused on price and the legality of the product.   There are quite a few methods to adulterate honey - the three main practises are : mixing honey with sugar/corn syrups - selling a cheaper honey as a more expensive variety (Manuka is the classic example here) and the third which is actually the most problematic one as it can just about never be detected - is by cropping honey from the beehives too early when it’s still fresh nectar. This nectar is then taken to industrial plants where the humidity is artificially balanced to be around 17-18%, pollen grains added in order to pass laboratory tests as well as creating the right colour profile for the substance - all this with the use of industrial resin which leave very little or no trace !  The system in Europe is completely antiquated if you ask me and the government should really start categorising between the different qualities of honeys especially when it comes to imported produce, but there is a huge demand for cheap honey from those customers which for one reason or the other are just not prepared to spend the money needed to buy real honey so the story continues.  This is where our skill set and emphasis on tasting and categorising each batch is hugely helpful in identifying premium honeys, not just from the UK, but from all over the world - you wouldn’t believe it! This is what I think and I know for a fact that many honey expert out there will agree with me - the only way to really know if a honey is pure and real is by matching what it is claimed to be on the label, to an pollen count and - most critically -  SENSORY ANALYSIS ! Flavour is very very difficult to create artificially without leaving obvious traces. Of course the strategy that is always 100% effective is buying honey directly from your local beekeeper :) 

5/ What is the difference between honey and wild bees? How important are they for our ecosystem? Honeybees are what we look after. They are the most efficient pollinators and that is why often they go hand in hand with many agricultural crops.  Unfortunately the number of wild honeybee colonies is very very low with most wild colonies in this country originating from farmed hives. Very few are able to build up resistance to varroa mites or nosema, all modern day issues , but there are some resistant strains that flourished unchecked in nature. Swarming is a huge part of this as it’s the colonies way of reproducing. Wild bees are the issue - these are the one that live in ground and will succumb at each spray and are really in danger of disappearing if the world does not change it’s current practises. Part of the importance of urban beekeeping is that it is integral to making urban environments more resilient - but keeping bees is not enough! You need to add flowers and food sources for the bees too.  Currently London - within the M25 - has more than 5000 hives which is a lot more than the national average so it’s crucial that people plant trees and bee friendly plants wherever possible ! 

Thank you Nicholas!

Discover their honey on our eshop and the full range directly on their website.

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