We all know that bees make honey! But the truth is that their life style and product remain a mystery to most who live in SE16. That is until you meet Sharon Bassey who looks after the hives at Southwark Park, Stave Hill Ecological Park and Galleywall Nature Reserve. Sharon was voted London Beekeeper of the Year last year and its time her story was told.

bee w pollen - thumbSharon was once an innocent allotment holder. She got involved in some plans to install a hive of honeybees on the allotments and ended up in charge of them. As she got to know more about how bees make honey, swarm and sting (or more often don’t), she discovered a passion that’s never left. “It’s amazing,” says Sharon “you can be around honey bees for years and still have so much to learn.” Now Sharon has become the apiarist (bee-keeper to you and me) for SE16!

Honeybees (Apis mellifera) are important pollinators. We rely on them for much of the fruit and veg we eat. The Bee hive - thumbbees collect pollen on their body from the flower’s anther whilst investigating it for nectar on which they survive. When they move to another flower of a different plant of the same variety, the pollen rubs off onto the stigma of second plant. The pollen enables fertilization of the flower and this in turn allows seed to be set. Without pollination, many plants would be unable to reproduce.

Bees love [flowers] as we do and great swaths of lavender or a window box of herbs will help bees collect the nectar they need.

When bees visit flowers, their main aim is to collect nectar and pollen. They store the nectar in their honey stomach so they can transfer it back to the hive. There they add enzymes and put it in a wax cell. The liquid honey has to be reduced by evaporating the excess water. The bees fan the honey with their wings to bring it down to below 18% water. Once this consistency has been reached, the bees seal the honey with a wax lid. The honey comb is famed as a distinctive regular pattern of six sided cells locked together in a matrix.

Beekeepers in a meadow - thumbSharon manages apiaries (sets of hives) in several locations around SE16. The annual cycle of honeybees dominates her schedule each year. With only one fertile queen in each hive, the lifecycle of each bee is quite short. Worker bees who are all female spend their first three weeks inside the hive tending to the needs of the colony and once mature, another three weeks on the wing. After such a short time, their wings wear out and they die. The male drones never make honey or work in the hive. Their sole purpose is to mate with the queen when flying 50 feet in the air and then their lives are over, killed by the workers before winter sets in.

193px-Bienenwabe_mit_Eiern_und_Brut_5Honeybees live through the winter in their hives clustered closely around the queen and any eggs. The workers maintain a constant temperature of 35-37 degrees by flexing their muscles and move back and forth from the centre to the edge where they can eat. This is where the all-important store of honey comes to the fore, enabling the workers to survive through the winter. This is always the most uncertain time of the year for Sharon. Will the hives get through the cold? Do they need more food to make it? Are they under stress and unable to keep up the temperature?

We rely on [bees] for much of the fruit and veg we eat.

Sharon has become a source of advice to many others setting out on the role of beekeeper. She handles emergency calls from frightened householders who have found a swarm of bees on their premises. “Normally I just ask them if the bees are round and fluffy or sleek and smooth,’ says Sharon. “Honeybees are sleek and smooth whilst the furry ones are bumble bees. In either case, it’s a simple matter to get the swarm calm and take it away.” Bee stings are barbed so when they enter the skin, they don’t come out again; instead when the bee flies away they leave it behind. As a result, bees only sting people who threaten their hives intentionally or otherwise.

Swarm in tree - thumbHelping bees is a matter of three things. First you can make sure you plant flowers wherever you can. Bees love them as we do and great swaths of lavender or a window box of herbs will help bees collect the nectar they need. Second remember all sorts of bees in the winter. Many bumblebees hibernate nestled in log piles or quiet spots between wood chippings. Leave some places for resting bees and next year they will be ready to make your garden buzz with life once more. Thirdly, buy your honey locally from people who care about their bees and help to pollinate the flowers around us. Keep the ecology of SE16 healthy by first feeding the folk who tend our bees!

Sharon Bassey is available to answer your bee-related questions and deal with bee issues in the area on either of these numbers: 07432 117379 or 07922 147379

You can adopt one of Sharon’s beehives through the British Beekeeping Association (BBKA) for just £30 (+postage and packing). You get an update every three months from Sharon and the BBKA’s newsletter Hive Talk plus a bag of goodies. Find out more on Facebook or direct from BBKA

Local SE16 honey is on sale in 4oz jars at the Southwark Park cafe near Gomm Road or Sharon will be selling her honey in 8oz jars at both the Bermondsey Carnival (4 July 2015) and the Rotherhithe Festival (11 July 2015). You can find them at the Friends of Southwark Park stall.

You can visit Sharon’s bee observatory at the Stave Hill Ecological Park behind Bacon’s College Timber Pond Road. It’s a lovely experience to get close and intimate with a hive without being too close to the individual stings! Sharon tells me that its best to wait until June or July when the hive is in full swing as in April it’s a bit quieter.

Sharon is running an introduction to the apiary in Southwark Park on 15 August this year 12:00-14:00. Look out for more information but book the date now!