Steve Benbow, Beekeeper at Tate Modern
This is my pal Steve Benbow, the enterprising urban beekeeper, tending his newly installed hives upon the roof of Tate Modern. You may recall last year Steve was appealing for homes for bees through Spitalfields Life. One enterprising reader forwarded the story to the trustees of the gallery and, as consequence, Steve now has bees on the roof of Tate Modern, with hives shortly to be installed upon the roof of Tate Britain too. At present, there are just six hives, but if all goes well the number will grow and you will be able to buy jars of honey from the gallery shop.
Ten years ago, Steve who runs the London Honey Company, had a regular stall in the Spitalfields Market selling the honey he produces in the city. In those days, the notion of urban honey was a curiousity but events have caught up with Steve. Today, with the crisis in the bee population, Steve’s mission to install beehives in the city has acquired a pertinence that everyone recognises. Bees need all the help they can get, and Steve has become the visionary beekeeper who saw the possibility for bees in the city before anyone else did.
I joined Steve on his weekly trip to service the bees on the roof of Tate Modern, last week. As we cleared security and made our way up to the roof in the elevator, Steve was eager to discover if any of his bees had absconded. On his previous visit, he had seen tell-tale signs in one hive, the formation of queen cells in a queenless hive and no eggs. If unchecked, these indicators could lead to the swarming and departure of the bees. So, producing a small transparent box from his pocket, Steve showed me the new queen he had brought from Wales to introduce to the hive in question and restore harmony – much to the fascination of the members of the Tate Gallery staff who were sharing the elevator with us.
Once we were out of the elevator, carrying our beekeeping paraphernalia, we walked along a white corridor up in the roof, entered a door and passed through a plant room to come out into an even narrower space at the rear of the building, high above the turbine hall. A line of glowing translucent windows stretching into the distance emitting warmth absorbed from the sunlight outside, and we followed them until we came to a room where Steve keeps his locker of beekeeper’s garb. You might think that Steve, the Professor Branestawm of beekeepers, might feel at odds in such a vast sterile environment, but with raffish charisma, he delights in the anachronistic irony of pursuing his chosen profession in the modern city.
Suited up like astronauts, we opened one of the translucent panels with an ominous caution sign warning of bee stings and walked onto the roof. Looking through the gauze of my hat, I craned my head to find the chimney to orientate myself, before Steve led me over to the South East corner of the roof, where in a sheltered well sat the first six hives. This was high-rise living for bees, and down below I could see the gardens and trees of Bankside, that would sustain them. With his hive tool, Steve prized the crown off the first hive, injecting smoke to subdue the bees and instructing me to stand on one side while taking photographs, to avoid blocking the flight path of the bees entering the hive and drawing their wrath. It was good advice, because the unseasonal cold temperature and high winds made the bees grumpy. They circled petulantly around Steve as he disassembled the hive.
A hive comprises a stack of boxes, each of which serves a different function. Under the crown sits the feeder box filled with straw, then the crucial honeybox with a mesh at the base, which serves as an excluder to keep the queen in the brood chamber below. The hives had only been on the roof a few weeks, so Steve pulled out the racks in the honeyboxes to check progress. None of the bees had absconded. Satisfied with the evidence, he shuffled some of the racks between the hives to encourage the bees and discovered the formation of the very first Tate Gallery honey.
I have never been in such close proximity to bees and it was a curious novelty to stand among a cloud of them. A novelty that disintegrated entirely when a grumpy bee got inside my hat. Returning from extricating the bee, I found Steve with his gloves off, introducing the new queen into the queenless hive with his bare hands. At first horrified, I recalled I had once been told that bees do not sting the keeper, but Steve dismissed this myth, “I get stung loads,” he admitted philosophically. Carefully placing the queen among the nurses, Steve ensured she would be cared for and not exposed to the other bees immediately. More than proprietorial, Steve is tender and respectful with his bees, though he was also capable of being unsentimental too, when it became unavoidable to kill those we found harboured in our protective suits later.
For the rest of the Summer, Steve will visit his hives weekly, buzzing around London in an endless circular journey that mimics the path of his bees. Almost always cheerily on the run between one place and another, he follows his relentless occupation that offers no rest for the indefatigable worker bee.
Steve is still looking for new sites in the East End for his bees, large gardens, yards or rooftops, secure locations where owners will permit him to install hives and have regular access to service the hives – with rent paid in jars of honey. If you can help provide homes for Steve’s bees please email firstname.lastname@example.org