Letters to a Beekeeper

Letters to a Beekeeper

As I've mentioned in my bee article I have accidentally ended up with a hive of bees. This is all fine and well but clearly I need to learn a lot more about them to become a successful (and expert) beekeeper. It was good timing therefore when I asked Alys Fowler about pickles because she was able to tell me about her newest project.

It's a book not just about bees but about what gardens bees and other pollinating insects like. It's a collaboration between Alys and Steve Benbow (The London Honey Co.) and it's not written yet.

That's where you come in. The book will (hopefully) be funded through 'Unbound' which is a sort of crowd funding publishing website. You pledge an amount of money that suits you from simply buying the book to a garden visit and course by Alys and Steve depending on how deep your pockets are. If the funding reaches its target the book gets published, if not you get your money back. It's as simple as that. This is a fantastic way to get books which don't need to pander to large publishing houses but can 'go off on one' as Alys explains:

"OK, so it’s not the obvious publishing route, we could have gone the traditional way, but it would have meant writing a book about garden craft, or a book about bees, but not midges, or a book about rules but as neither of us are particularly good at sticking to those, that didn’t seem like a good idea either. It all felt like a bit of a compromise and some ideas just don’t want to be boxed up like that. This is one of them."

Here, have a look:

You can see more details on this project by visiting the 'Letters to a Beekeeper' on the Unbound.co.uk website.

Here's an excerpt from the book:

Alys Fowler

"Dear Reader, It is hard to imagine that a poppy flower just recently unfurled with its delicate wrinkled petals swaying in the sun is not there to please us, nor that a rose so heady in scent has not opened just to entice us, but someone much, much smaller. Any flower that takes your breath away with beauty and complexity has done so to entice an insect, not you to take a closer look. The floral structures, those pretty petals in pleasing colours, the lures of sweet scent, are an evolutionary response to attract a pollinator to cross-fertilise and set seed.

Plants have evolved to lure and attract anyone and everyone who could do this job for them, so some flowers choose hummingbirds, a few choose rats or mice but most have done a deal with insects, preferably flying ones, who can take pollen from one plant and deposit it on another miles away if necessary. To lure in these pollinators they have created ever more complex and extraordinary floral architecture: flowers with flags, triggers and tubes to attract specific pollinators, with lures such as heady perfume (some males bees use this to create their own unique aftershave) or certain enticing colours and patterns. And finally, to keep the pollinator coming back again and again, a reward: delicate nectars rich in complex sugars or protein-fuelled pollen.

A wildflower meadow is no longer a pretty picture but a market full of stallholders shouting their wares, ‘come here, try this’. The pollinator drops in, drinks up the nectar, steals some pollen and then is off onto the next stall. The plant has done its job satisfactorily only if the pollinator visits another of its kin and directly transfers the pollen. If this happens then the plant has out-crossed increasing its genetic pool and ensuring its future. Or put another way, only if another party is involved can they get it on. Otherwise they are left self-pollinating, which has its place, but sure isn’t as much fun as sharing. As plants are by their very nature rooted to the ground, if they want to ensure long-term survival, they need to grow in more than one place. If you can’t run away when a boulder falls on your home or a river runs away with your soil, or someone eats you to death, your gene pool is rather limited. If however you have folk around the bend, then all is not lost. Thanks to pollinators, the wind and animals dispersing seed, plants can conquer new ground, which in turn safeguards their offspring.

Bee pollinating flower

There are 250,000 species of flowering plants in the world and 80 percent of them need insects to survive. This relationship is known as mutualism, a 'you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours' kind of affair—all parties derive a benefit from the association. The plant gets its pollen transferred and in return the pollinator gets a reward, be it more pollen, sweet nectar, a heady scent to attract mates or a bed for the night between the petals. We also need these relationships to survive. One in every three mouthfuls of food we eat happens because of pollinators. But like all relationships it is more complex that that. The renowned entomologist Edward O Wilson predicted we have roughly a month before we’d become extinct without insects. The truth is our world is inextricably bound to the rest. Lose our pollinators and we lose our world. We have seen unprecedented losses in biodiversity over the last 100 years; you cannot open a paper and not read of this loss, somewhere. Often they are so rare, so far flung, that is hard to decide how we feel about losing a goose barnacle or flightless parrot from New Zealand and because of this, we do little to change our habits. Gardening, however, is a friendly solution, the simple act of going out of your back door and enjoying your slice of nature can be wholly positive on everyone involved.

Our gardens have become an important refuge for wildlife torn from their natural habitats. The patchwork quilt of back gardens, courtyards, forgotten park corners, allotments, balconies and even window boxes create a corridor for wildlife to pass though, dine upon and rest in as needed. This is the reason I garden, because it is home, for me and for others. Last August I met a beekeeper. Now I like honey and I like the bees to keep me in seeds, but mostly up to this point, pollinators were just another part of my ecosystem. One I liked, but no more than worms or beetles. But this beekeeper was quite sure that I needed to become hooked and much like a pretty flower with its showy floral parts and complex lures he made sure I couldn’t quite miss his offer.

Honey Bees

His lure came in a deli takeaway tray, wrapped in a fine film of tissue paper. I had hourly updates about the contents as British airways tried and failed to swipe them away. Steve when it comes to honey, can charm anyone and so at the Edinburgh Book Festival, just before we were both to go and talk about nature in cities, he dropped a glistening chunk of honeycomb in my hands, harvested from the downlands of Salisbury Plains. The chalk soils on which I had grown up on—a lure and reward in one. If his passionate plea for the honeybee at our talk woke me up, his honey made me hungry. I began to count bees in my garden, I started to note the different bumbles, I sat and listened to their different hums and buzz, the high notes of the bumbles compared to the low drone of the honeybees. I watched their flight paths, the speed at which they alighted and landed amongst my flowers. I pulled out an old copy identification guide started to learn the names of my different visitors, I became intrigued by wasps and even learnt to love midges (they pollinate 3% of the world flowers, mostly by accident). I no longer looked at the insects in my garden as either predators or prey or merely pollinators, but as players in an ecosystem and it became clear the more I tumbled into this world that they all need help and they need it now. The decline in our insect world is drastic and dire, the consequences are terrifying but we can make a change and possibly the best place to start this is in our gardens.


HI, My name is Steve Benbow, the beekeeper; I’m the son of a mechanic. I come from a small village in Shropshire, near the Welsh Border and just adore being outdoors.

I don’t own a house, haven’t a pension plan, nor exist on a voting register. The treasures I do have are somewhat different to others. I tend my gentle bees on London rooftops. Whilst others scurry around below, I catch glimpses of migrating birds that pass high through the capital. My days are governed by the seasons, our somewhat bizarre weather systems and my devotion to our gloriously hairy British honeybees Without this love affair, my life would be very different. Without these enriching qualities, I know now I could not stand city living and this was why I decided to bring a small amount of the countryside with me when I arrived in the Capital twenty-four years ago.

Today the majority of the world lives like me, in cities. And this is changing our countryside. Habitats are battled over and lost and for all our critters, not just our honeybees, this is a travesty. I travel with my bees all over this country and what I see is more intensive farming, more new housing and more tarmac. I see more people and less pollinators. These hidden heroes of our food system need a better deal. We need to protect and preserve what we already have, to consider gentler methods of management, not to mow our municipal spaces more heavily or spray verges and roadsides. We need to starting a natural revolution within our cities and spread it out to our wider world. And I need help to do this.

It’s true, I once won best in show at Bermondsey Hall for my allotment onions but my gardening and planting knowledge is, at best, limited. I needed a gardener. And as luck would have it, I found one, leaning against the granite stone of the Freemasons Hall in Edinburgh last September. She wore a battered old tweed jacket that had flecks of auburn, which matched her wild tumbling locks. But it was her fingers I remembered most about our first encounter, not what we ate for lunch, a preamble to our pairing at the literary festival. Mud (or was it peat free compost?) was under her nails. I found it instantly appealing – here was someone like me at the pit face not desk bound. All I had to do now was get her hooked on honey and tell her my plan . . ..


The beekeeper won, I was hooked. He needed my flowers and I needed his bees. Thus, we have set about a plan to write this book. A book about how you can help the bees, the butterflies, the rove beetles, the rat’s tailed maggots (I bet you didn’t think you need them) and all the other marvellous, sometimes revolting, often hilarious insects that make up our world."