“I do feel a bit like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. There’s a whole other world on the roof tops that people are completely unaware of.”
In the 15 years he’s been a professional beekeeper, Luke Dixon has become pretty familiar with London’s rooftops. If he’s not installing and managing hives for his corporate clients, he’s wrangling rogue swarms that have ventured off in search of a new place to set up home.
Dixon, who has built a successful business setting up hives for corporate clients and running bee clubs for their staff, gets to see a side of London that most of us human worker bees and even residents have little access to. Traditionally, the optimum place for a swarm to build a hive naturally is high up, in a dark place with an entrance they can defend. In London, bee hives are growing in numbers on rooftops. One such place is Regis House on the north side of London Bridge. Dixon explains, “It was originally a 1930’s building and we’ve got a whole orchard up there now. We’ve got six apple trees and just you’d never know. It’s nine stories up in the air, right next to Monument overlooking the river and it’s just completely brilliant.”
Bee wrangling is one aspect of Dixon’s job that provides stories he can dine out on. In spring, the hive expands to the point where the queen will leave with half the colony, leaving behind new queens ready to hatch. The departing queen and her swarm start their search for a new home. When a swarm takes off, it can literally head anywhere. Last season saw Dixon and a colleague scrambling across rooftops in the heart of the jewellery district to wrangle a swarm. “We went through this fantastic old Victorian building filled with studios where there were all these people cutting diamonds with their big glasses on. We went up onto the roof and there was a huge six foot wide Victorian chimney. The bees were just down inside it on a lump of Buddleia. I held onto a colleague’s legs while she hung over and got them into a cardboard box. We taped the box, put it on the back of my Vespa and drove it off to find a home. It’s not untypical.”
Riding around London on his Vespa looking for a home for his client’s rogue swarms wasn’t what he envisaged when he started out as a beekeeper. Dixon’s interest in beekeeping manifested as an antidote to a long, successful career as a theatre director. “I’d spent my life working in the theatre and I just started doing it as a hobby. I wanted to do something that didn’t involve being stuck in a room with egos and human beings and just something that was in the open air, that was completely different from everything else I was doing and solitary and so that’s how it started.”
He got into it for the opportunity for quiet contemplation it offered. Dixon kept his first hives at The Natural History Museum. After taking a series of night classes, he began to look around for somewhere to practice what he had been learning. The Natural History Museum in South Kensington had been looking to keep bees and Dixon appeared at the right time. He reflects on this time before his business took off, “The magic of looking inside the hive, the wonder of what it is that bees do and just being able to sit in front of a bee hive which is what I did for years at the Natural History Museum. I just sat on the grass and just looked at the bees coming in and out, what they were doing and their communication and bringing different coloured pollen into the hive. Those were the pleasures of it for me.”
While looking after his hives at the Natural History Museum, he was approached by the Lancaster Hotel, on the other side of Hyde Park from the museum. They were looking for hives for their roof. Dixon took on the project and it turned out to be his first professional gig. The hives are still thriving.
Word of mouth spread and soon he found himself running a full time business. “I got a call from Kensington Palace saying the Duke of Gloucester wants to keep bees, will you have a talk with the Duke of Gloucester? So I went and put hives in for him and then over two or 3 years it just got bigger and bigger.”
Instrumental to the growth of his business is the change in planning law which requires developers to include an environmental plan before planning permission is granted for a new building. “Everyone has to have an eco plan with a new build, so a lot of people are putting green roofs on. I don’t think it’s done cynically but an awareness of the environment is much more inclusive in new building and planning regulations and developments that are happening.”
Dixon was involved in the development of the extension of the British Museum and the new Stratford site for the London College of Fashion. For the LCF, bee hives were part of a bigger project which included creating a garden to grow plants to make natural dyes. Bees were needed to pollinate the plants. His current client list includes Ted Baker, Kensington Palace, the London School of Economics, Conway Hall, Olswang law firm and Coram’s Fields.
Dixon manages three hives in Coram’s Fields, a seven acre park in Bloomsbury, just south of Kings Cross. Just inside the boundary railings, behind the Georgian colonnades, a little cluster of three hives sit in a little nook under a mature plane tree. From the street, you would have no idea they were there. Dixon has come to feed one of the colonies. Lifting the lid off the hive, he pulls out a plastic feeding tray and carefully cleans it before filling it with a sugar solution. After extracting honey for the season, he needs to make sure that they are producing again in order to survive winter.
The cycle of the seasons is something you become very attuned to as a bee keeper. It’s a connection to nature that anyone who lives in a bustling city environment can struggle to maintain. “In January and February, nothing happens. By March you begin to think when’s the bee season going to start and then suddenly it will kick in. Then it gets really mad with the swarming season – May and June – that’s the crazy time and it all settles down when swarming finishes and now in August / September I will harvest and wind everything up at the end of September. You are at the mercy of the elements.”
For Dixon it’s one of the pleasures of being a beekeeper. “Having been a theatre director all my life and worked in a very controlled environment to be in a completely uncontrollable environment and at the mercy of the weather and the seasons I find really refreshing. You’re entirely dependent on the weather and the seasons and it’s always unpredictable.”
Dixon came to beekeeping at a time when it wasn’t fashionable and very few people were practicing it. Although he reflects, “There have been beekeepers in London all the way back to the Doomsday book. In Holborn, there was a very famous bee keeper in the 18th century who sold bees and invented a particular type of bee hive.” Inadvertently, he has become part of a movement that has re-imagined beekeeping and made it accessible. Since he started out, beekeeping has seen a phenomenal rise in interest amongst the general public to the point that it is a fashionable hobby.
According to the London Beekeepers Association, in 2014, there were 4218 registered hives belonging to around 1400 beekeepers in London. While honeybee numbers have been dwindling in the countryside due to the use of neonicotinoid pesticides on farms, in cities, and in particular, London, bees are thriving. You can find a jar of honey produced in London at any number of weekend farmers markets. The quality of a London honey lies in the source of the wide variety of flowers and plants. “Most country honey is from a single floral source or a very limited selection. London has got the widest selection of plants for bees to feed on anywhere in the country and it has a longer season so as soon as flowers appear even in winter, bees can find flowers to feed on so London honey is much more complex.”
Dixon produces and sells his own honey in small quantities and is mindful not to over extract honey from his hives. “I try and extract what I think is excess honey in exchange for looking after them and keeping them healthy. I’m wary of taking off too much. I’m not in it as a honey producer, more of a bee supporter.” As someone who appreciates the produce his bees create, for him the best way to eat it is simply on toast. Alternatively, mix it with a good gin and a couple of cubes of ice.
Along with the well documented demise of the honey bee, Dixon believes that programmes like BBC’s Springwatch and Countryfile have captured the public’s imagination. An increasing interest in the natural world and the emergence of the genre of nature writing with books like H is for Hawk are contributing to a new mood, both of which has translated into an interest in bees and beekeeping. It has also crossed over into the art world in Wolfgang Buttress’ The Hive which captures the story of the honey bee in an award winning immersive installation that has been drawing crowds in thousands over the summer at Kew Gardens.
Dixon has a feeling for being at the right place at the right time. While he was a theatre director, he lectured at Middlesex University and was invited to South Africa to develop a theatre degree programme at the then University of Port Elizabeth. It was at the end of apartheid and universities had begun to take in their first cohorts of black students. Alongside developing the degree programme for the university, he also worked in the townships. “It was a fantastic time to be there. I fell in love with the country, made lot of friends and I was working with some schools in a township called New Brighton. Some of the kids I worked with then I still work with now 15 years later.” During this time he was spending half the year in South Africa and half in London and his interest in beekeeping in London started to overlap with his visits to South Africa. He began to explore the traditions of African beekeeping and believes there is a lot we can learn about their approach.
“You’ve got two things in Africa,” he says, “honey collectors which go to wild colonies and just cut the comb off and then you’ve also got African hives which are just like troughs. Instead of having frames for the bees to build comb on you give them wooden bars and they will build their comb on that. So you just lift out the bars. It’s much more fragile but the bees prefer it because there’s no wire and it’s a much more natural shape and so they build beautiful combs down in great big loops in contrast to western hives where you are forcing them to building little rectangles.”
He believes it’s important to keep the wellbeing of the bee in mind; the less intervention, the happier the bees. He explains, “Every time you open the hive you’re breaking their work, disturbing them and they have a lot of repair work to do. There is a lot of stress involved and a lot of reason why bees have struggled is the stress. There’s a movement now called natural bee keeping and I think people are a lot more conscious of different ways of looking after bees and much more aware of the needs of the bees now than they used to be.”
He has captured the African traditions in the latest of three books he has published on beekeeping. “There’s a long African tradition of both beekeeping and collecting going right back to the Bushmen thousands of years ago. You can still see remnants of the ladders that Bushmen built up cliffs and things and having spent a lot of time in South Africa I got completely fascinated by it.” His book, A Time There Was, is an account of a beekeeper and his sister, a rock artist. It started as a documentary account, but in order to really get into the minds of the people collecting honey, he turned to fiction to provide a better vehicle for the story.
His next mission is to transfer some of the African approach to beekeeping to the UK. “I think there’s a lot that western and European bee keepers can learn from a much more natural way in which people keep bees in Africa. So my next mission is to try and import some of that knowledge from Africa to the west in a change from us trying to tell them how to do things.”
He has set up a charity, the Bee Friendly Trust, which aims to work with bee keepers in Africa to promote skills exchanges and support beekeepers there to find routes to market for their honey. In the UK, he has been establishing bee friendly planting in areas of the city where there aren’t many flowers and trees. The current focus is on planting in railway stations and creating pollinated corridors along the railway lines so that bees can fly from one place to another without having to go across motorways or go down high streets. He has also just bought a vintage mobile home to convert into a mobile classroom which will travel to schools and festivals across the country.
His life now as a professional beekeeper is quite different from what started out as a hobby to carve out some solitary time for himself. “I do get bit caught up in the day to day running of the business but I think that’s inherent in it. I meet a lot of gardeners and I think they have the same problem that they’re just so busy doing the gardening that the pleasure that kicked them off can disappear a bit.” He gets around this by managing his own hives purely for the pleasure of it, making time to retain that solitary experience. “Personally, I’m endlessly fascinated by it. The longer you do it the more you realise the less you know. They’re one of the most studied creatures on the planet and they are still a mystery really.”