Steve wouldn’t be seen dead with a squeezy bottle of supermarket honey. A Vespa-riding beekeeper with a ‘nomadic lifestyle’, he splits his time between the city and his native Shropshire, camps out with his bees in summer, and is an artisan producer for some of London’s most iconic stores.
A photograph of his grandmother on the wall of his studio is a nod to the woman who introduced him to bees as a child. The 42-year-old former photojournalist decided that he wanted to keep bees in the capital 15 years ago, but there was a problem: he lived on the sixth floor of an ex-council block near Tower Bridge, with no garden. The only outside space was a flat roof, accessed through a fire escape.
But this didn’t put him off. Steve took the radical move to keep bees in the heart of the city, with just one hive – that’s 50,000 bees – on his Tooley Street roof. Five years later, he gave up his day job and set up The London Honey Company.
“As a photojournalist I travelled the world,” he says. “I went to visit beekeepers in New York, Rio and Tokyo to see how they went about it and realised there was no reason it couldn’t work here. So I gave up my job to become a commercial bee farmer.”
When he first started, he recounts, no one really got what he was trying to do and it was difficult to get spaces and homes for bees. “Now there are a lot of people trying to emulate what I am doing and it’s lovely that people are keeping bees in London.”
It turns out that, contrary to popular opinion, bees can thrive in cities, far from the treatments used by commercial farmers and with plenty of green space to forage. And to prove it, honey, honeycomb, lip balm and candles are just some of The London Honey Company range, which is sold at the likes of upmarket retailer Harvey Nichols, and at farmers’ markets in Pimlico and Blackheath.
Benbow’s rooftop skills are also behind the beekeeping at some of London’s biggest names. He is beemaster for Fortnum & Mason, which has its own roof-top hives producing honey for the iconic store. The Tate Modern and Tate Britain have also signed up, with the honey sold in their gift shops. And the National Portrait Gallery will have its own roof-top hives serviced by Benbow from June.
The capital produces a number of distinctive honey types that depend on the individual areas in which the bees forage. Honeys from the roofs of the Tate Modern and Tate Britain, for example, are quite different.
The current beekeeping renaissance can’t come too soon, with bee numbers in decline. But the picture is more complicated than is often portrayed says Steve. “They are under threat from pesticides and insecticides, but,” says Benbow, “the popularity of bees has surged and lots of bee breeders and manufacturers have been inundated. Those problems don’t really affect my bees in London because there are no major crops nearby.”
So what advice does Steve have for anyone looking to keep bees in the capital? “Just because you live in a flat it doesn’t mean you can’t have bees,” says Steve. “A flat roof, an allotment, a shared space, a community garden, are all options nowadays. But join your local beekeeping association and work with a mentor, because you have to learn about it correctly.”
Steve’s book, The Urban Beekeeper - a hands-on guide to city beekeeping - will be published by Random House next spring. www.thelondonhoneycompany.co.uk
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