Beekeepers On The Isle Of Dogs
What was once the caretaker’s yard at George Green’s School on the Isle of Dogs is now a beautiful and thriving community garden, abundant in plants and flowers, as well as fruit and vegetables. It is fringed on all sides by tall trees and even taller high-rise blocks that overlook it. Beside one of the far walls of the garden, I meet three figures, dressed in white. Their heads are covered in white helmets with protective meshing over their faces. Resembling astronauts from a sixties science-fiction film, they hunch over four wooden structures – inspecting, examining and searching. These are the beekeepers, checking one of their hives for an elusive queen bee.
Thirty-year-old Lee Diep Chu is a newly qualified teacher and one of the volunteers in charge of the bee colonies here. Lee is a native of the Island and a former student at George Green’s School. Growing up in the eighties, she says that much of the area was derelict with not much going on. The British National Party were very active then and, coming from one of the small pockets of Vietnamese and Chinese communities, Lee says many people lived in fear. But slowly, from the mid-nineties onwards, it began to get better. There was more funding for local-government initiatives focusing on the Island and a lot more being done for young people at the School too. Beekeeping emerged out of this particular history of deprivation and development on the Isle of Dogs.
The excitement in Lee’s voice as she explains the world of the honey bees is obvious and infectious and, soon enough, it is easy see why. “If we can’t see the queen, then we look for signs of her eggs and larvae which is what we have been doing,” she explains, “The colony itself knows very quickly if it is queen-less. They can smell that she is no longer there. This means that they go into emergency mode and will quickly rear another queen to replace the missing one.
At first, I thought ‘Ooooo, bees. A bit dangerous, aren’t they?’ It is obviously a common fear. But now I am fascinated by them. I feel very attached and protective over the four colonies that we have set up. I come here after work and on Sundays, smoke the bees or simply watch them. None of us volunteers are experts by any means, we just like doing it. It’s a group effort and really therapeutic.
The colony is like one, large animal and can be seen as a single entity. When a new queen is required, she is chosen from amongst all of the other bees. The colony will feed the chosen one royal jelly for sixteen days until she hatches and continue to do so throughout her adult life. This enables her to grow larger and fatter than the others. Afterwards, flies into the air and mates with around ten male drones. From that one session, she is fertile for up to five years allowing her to lay between fifteen hundred to two thousand eggs a day, which she drops into cells.
The worker bees usually begin their lives as house-keeping bees, keeping the hive clean. Some will nurse the new born, their sisters, and produce wax in order to build new combs. Others will guard the hive from intruders such as wasps or hornets, but also larger creatures. Towards the final stages of their lives, the workers forage for pollen and nectar. Whilst the queen can expect to live between two to five years, the life span of the worker bee on the other hand is around six weeks. They eventually die of exhaustion. Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t much fun being a queen bee. She is a slave to the colony. Her job is to just lay eggs. If the queen doesn’t do what is expected of her, the other bees will simply kill her off.
The colonies are made up of female bees. The male drones are expected to mate with queens from different hives – they don’t do much else and are pretty useless. In the winter, the females will kill the males off, or at least keep them away from the hive. Then, there will only be a few thousand or so of them left, keeping the hive warm and the queen alive. As beekeepers there is little else we can do to help them then. We try and keep viruses down, such as the varroa virus which is deadly and we give them sugar solution and fondant, but other than that, we just hope and pray that they make it through in to spring. This will be the start of the mating season, when the cycle begins all over again.”
The decline in the bee population have been a cause for concern for a while. Across Europe, estimates suggest that bee numbers have more than halved in recent years, with some species of bees already extinct in the United Kingdom. This is particularly troubling as bees are not just required to produce honey and wax, but crucially to pollinate a third of the food we eat – including many varieties of fruit, vegetables, plants and crops.
Lee explains that “Colony Collapse Disorder” is connected to the overuse of pesticides and new agricultural techniques which are fatal for bee species. However, bee populations in London are thriving. “We don’t know precisely why this is, but it may be because the bees are not exposed to insecticide in the way that they are in the countryside.”
“What about the pollution in London?” I ask, “Why it is that insecticide affects them but pollution doesn’t?” “We don’t know the answer to this,” Lee replies, “yet it could become an issue further down the line.”
Honey has many medicinal benefits, but using locally-produced honey is even better for allergies and especially Hay Fever – since it is local pollen that causes the irritation. Lee uses the honey they get from their bees to treat her own Hay Fever. At the moment, like the rest of the produce grown in the garden, the honey produced by the Isle of Dogs’ bees is used in the George Green’s School café. The local pub and some restaurants also sell the honey, and Lee hopes to sell it more widely.
Manda Helal – Beekeeping volunteer
I am a gardener and I wanted to learn more about bees. I heard there will be a problem with our food if we don’t have enough bees. I like the slowness of it all. Watching the bees, being busy, busy, busy. But the honey itself weighs a tonne – it takes strength. They all look so happy. You don’t see them as individuals, but as a collective. It’s all of them working together that makes it work. If they were to break off from the rest, it wouldn’t work. It’s fascinating.
Jules Robertson - Beekeeping volunteer
Jules is another volunteer who looks after the bees. I used to live in one of the tower blocks that overlooks the garden. I heard about the real crisis that bees are in and that urban beekeeping was the way forward for their survival. There is something about the biodiversity of London that means they can thrive here. So I went looking all over the place for somewhere to do beekeeping. It came as a shock that I didn’t have to go far at all and it was just on my doorstep.
Lee Diep Chu has just written to me to say that one of their hives has reared a new queen which has begun laying eggs, something they are all very excited about.
Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien
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