By Caroline Davies
The humble native honeybee has been dying out in recent years due to disease, but it may have found an unlikely ally in a creature which shares a reputation for busyness: the urban dweller.
Apiarist courses in many places are over-subscribed and membership of beekeeping associations has shot up with the increased awareness of the plight of the productive pollinator. Those without gardens are increasingly using rooftops for their hives.
Now Johannes Paul's company Omlet is helping to transform the traditionally rural art of beekeeping for the city dweller.
Under a leaden sky in the allotment at St James's Park in London yesterday, Paul and his three co-founders unveiled the futuristic Beehaus, a plastic horizontal hive which at first glance resembles a giant coolbox on legs.
"We're aiming for the hobby beekeeper, those who want to live their self-sufficiency dreams a little," said Paul.
With promises of 50 jars of homemade honey a year they hope to tempt the busy townie who dreams of the good life. And with the support of Natural England, the agency responsible for safeguarding England's natural environment, its green credentials seem intact.
Certainly, there is a market. "There has been a definite shift in the demographics of people coming into beekeeping," said Tim Lovett, chairman of the British Beekeepers' Association, which has seen membership increase by 3,000 to 14,500 in the last 18 months.
"Many of our new members are in urban settings, the worried wealthy, so to speak. They are environmentally aware people, who would like to do a lot more than they are able because of their busy lives.
"They are the concerned working families, the professionals under pressure from their kids who are getting the story at school. And now they are getting the message. Beekeeping is not incompatible with busy family and working life."
But with urban beekeeping comes responsibility. There are fears would-be beekeepers, seduced by the apparent simplicity of the new hive, could order on a whim with no thought for the practicalities. This could lead to the spread of diseases, the death of their bees or huge swarms in their neighbours' gardens.
"These are legitimate concerns," said Dr Tom Tew, chief scientist for Natural England, "and the first thing we would stress is that anyone thinking of keeping bees should speak to their local beekeeper association.
"But," he said of the Beehaus, "we support anything that helps promote the honeybee."
Last year more than 30% of honeybees died from disease, mainly varroa mite. This year the percentage looks still to be in the high teens or lower 20s, which is not sustainable. It is estimated the honeybee, through pollination and honey, contributes £150m annually to the economy.
Omlet, whose plastic chicken coop, Eglu, sparked a wave of urban chicken keeping, said it would offer Beehaus parties and local beekeeping courses. It will supply everything – including full bee suit – in the £495 price. Bees cost extra, however, at £80 to £150 a colony.
"Obviously, they have had great success with the Eglu," said Lovett. "But going down to the local broiler house, rescuing some redundant chickens and putting them at the end of your garden, is not terribly difficult. You feed them, water them, take the eggs out now and again, and if they do escape the local urban fox will get them. But with bees, you need to know what you are doing.
"It's very difficult to get on a course. Ours are full to the gunnels," he said. "And they are going to have difficulty in supplying bees. Maintaining supplies is a real problem.
"However, we do welcome this new hive. It will be a way in to beekeeping for a group of people. But there will be limitations. We haven't discovered the holy grail. But it is a modest, useful step.
"What people must remember is that one hive quickly become two, two become four and four become eight."
Check out these related stories in the Worldchanging archive:
This piece originally appeared in The Guardian.
Tender thanks you for details. It helped me in my responsibility