About Pure Food
Pure Food produces Regents Park Honey, the finest London honey, in Regent's Park London
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Toby Mason has been keeping bees in Regent’s Park London for 5 years, selling his honey under the Regents Park Honey Pure Food label. We asked him about bees, beekeeping and London honey.
Why do bees make honey?
Honey is stored food for the bees. Bees collect nectar from flowers, turn it into honey and store it in the honeycomb so they will have plenty of food to get them through the winter. Unlike other insects bees don't hibernate but cluster together and stay active to keep parts of the hive at over 33c even in winter, which requires a lot of energy. In good years, bees can produce a lot more honey than they need to survive, which is why beekeepers can take off some of their honey, replacing it with sugar syrup at the end of the season for the bees to eat in the winter.
During spring and summer, worker bees fly out to collect nectar from flowers, up to a few miles around the hive although the food sources in the park are so good they are unlikely to venture beyond the outer circle. During this process they carry pollen on their legs from one flower to the next, thus cross-pollinating the plants. About 50% of all flowering plants are pollinated by bees, which is why bees are so important in our ecosystem. The forager bees carry the nectar back to the hive where it is handed over. The hive workers store it in hexagonal wax cells, the honeycomb. They seal the cells once the liquid nectar has evaporated to honey consistency, about 17-18% water. In the wild, bees would keep the honey stores until the winter.
Why do you keep bees in Regent’s Park?
Regent’s Park London is the best place to keep bees as there is always something delicious in flower for the bees to feed on. The amazing variety of flowers and trees gives the bees a wonderful menu to choose from. A stroll around the park will show you how amazing it is and the bees certainly think it is a fine home. In return the bees benefit the park by pollinating the flowers and trees as well as providing a tasty crunchy treat for the birds.
Why is London honey so special?
London has an amazing diversity of flowers and plants, and Regent’s Park London has a particularly great range of flower species. This makes the honey much more interesting than country honey: its taste, colour and texture change with the flowers that the bees get the nectar from throughout the season. My Spring/early summer honey is light and very liquid. This year's June batch tasted of elderflowers and limes. A couple of years ago I had honey that really tasted of roses in the middle of summer. As we go into autumn the honey becomes darker and stronger with a spicier flavour.
Another advantage of London honey is that urban flowers are not sprayed with vast quantities of chemicals like those in the countryside, so the honey does not contain remnants of pesticides.
How did you get into beekeeping, and why do you do it?
I started with a course run by the North London Beekeepers Association. After my course I adopted a hive as part of their adopt-a-hive scheme to learn the ropes from an experienced beekeeper before getting my own apiary in Regent’s Park London. I eventually set up my own business and made it my full-time job.
I love beekeeping because it's very hands on and a calm contrast to hectic life in London. I love working outside after years of being stuck inside an office. I also find bees and their society fascinating, their organisational structure is unique - for instance the way tasks are shared out in the hive, and the fact that a hive with thousands of bees acts as one organism, a superorganism. The queen looks to be in control, but actually it's the workers who decide when they want a new queen, so they have the real power. I also love honey!
What does a day in the life of a beekeeper look like?
No day is the same, what I do changes with the seasons. Early in the season when the colonies are growing in size I check through each hive once a week, making sure the bees look healthy and are not about to swarm. A hive can only have one queen at a time, so if the bees are rearing queen cells that's a sign they are getting itchy feet. If they do swarm I get a phone call from the park officers that I have to collect a bunch of bees, usually from a high tree! I also get calls from people outside the park who have a swarm in their garden.
As the season progresses and the hives fill up with honey, I take the frames full of honeycomb off the hive for extraction. My honey extractor looks a bit like a giant washing machine drum on its side, the frames are spun round in a large stainless steel cylinder and the honey collected on the bottom. I filter the honey twice through organic muslin cloth before bottling it into glass jars. The honey is not heated or altered in any other way as it reduces the complexity of the flavour.
During the winter the bees stay in the hive and they would die if I opened it on a cold day, so I've got November to February off to look after my 1 year old son.
Do you get stung?
I wear a veil and full body suit and welly boots, so my body is well-protected. But I wear thin disposable gloves for hygiene reasons, so I get stung in the hands a lot when I work on a hive. This does not mean that you have to be worried about bee stings in Regent's Park London. Generally bees are very unlikely to sting you, they only do it in self-defence (such as when a bee-keeper rifles through their home). The bees I use are extra gentle to minimise risk to the public in the park.
Would you recognise your bees if you see them in the park?
Yes I do, and I always look out for them! Bees have different colours and stripes. I use New Zealand queens who are golden with black stripes. They look quite like a wasp but much more beautiful and refined. The worker bees all take after the queen, so I can be pretty sure that any bees in the park that are golden with black stripes are mine.
How do you get new bees?
I order my queen bees from New Zealand since they have a reputation for being extra-gentle. They arrive by air mail in a small packet with holes in. The queen is looked after by 5 or 6 attendants who feed and clean her on the long flight. The postman is now quite happy to hand over the strangely buzzing parcel but was very concerned the first time.
I heard all the bees are dying. Why is this, and should we care?
Bees are dying off around the world and in the UK for different reasons, but the important thing is they are definitely on the decline. It is said that wild bees cannot survive in England for more than a year because of the varroa mite. The varroa mite breeds inside the cell the bee is growing in and causes physical deformities and weakening of the bee. On top of this is transmits viruses so the poor bees get a double hit. Varroa is now endemic in the UK and is resistant to previously successful chemical treatments. New beekeeping techniques are being tried each year to fend off varroa. Even in the relatively short time I have been a beekeeper it has become much more complicated and technical.