FT Foodies: Steve Benbow

Beekeeper Steve Benbow is founder of The London Honey Company. He manages beehives on-site for Fortnum & Mason, the Tate Galleries and the National Portrait Gallery. He also has beehives around the UK producing speciality honey flavours from wood sage and sea lavender to heather.

How do you manage all your beehives?

I lead a very nomadic life, constantly on the road. I work virtually seven days a week. The season starts to slow down now, so I’m bedding the bees down for the winter. The beehive entrance must be draught-free, then I cover the hive and put a brick on top – a symbol to signify the end of the season.

How did you become a beekeeper?

My grandmother got me interested in bees and honey. I used to be a travel photographer, but I kept a beehive on my roof in Bermondsey. You’re dealing with 50,000 bees in one hive, and I worried about how they were going to survive, but it worked incredibly well. I started to look at more commercial sites, and went to New York, Paris and Rio to see how other beekeepers managed their bees in cities. Then I set up the London Honey Company, and sold all my cameras on eBay about 10 years ago.

What are the risks in urban beekeeping?

My primary concern is the bees – I constantly worry about their welfare and security. They need to be well away from people. Fortnum & Mason designed elaborate hives for them, which was nice.

How far do the bees travel?

Up to three miles. London is 65 per cent green space, so there’s a colossal amount of forage for bees. Having said that, London is not insecticide- or pesticide-free like Paris, so we need to campaign for that – and for parks to plant a lot more for bees and other pollinators.

What characterises your London honeys?

They’re all very different – the Tate Britain Honey is often butterscotch and deep in colour, while Tate Modern is very citrusy and floral – the nectar sources for Tate Britain are mature acacias, whereas in Tate Modern you get a lot more honeydew from sticky lime trees. Fortnum’s honey this year is also quite citrusy.

Would you encourage anybody to set up a hive?

No – it’s not something you can do without extensive training. I’d encourage people to do a lot more planting, or guerrilla gardening with seed bombs, in places like roundabouts that need a lot more wild planting. Government departments are seriously underfunded for disease recognition, too; some bumblebee species are really suffering.

What’s your favourite honey?

Greek thyme honey – it’s lovely and thick, like molasses.

The honey from Fortnum & Mason’s rooftop hives is harvested each autumn. www.fortnumandmason.com; www.thelondonhoneycompany.co.uk

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