Tea With Fortnum’s Beemaster Steve Benbow

Over the past few days I’ve had the opportunity to chat with some of the best beekeepers in the UK about their craft.  Now I face the daunting task of writing about them.

Last Friday after my tour of Fortnum’s hives I was thrilled to be taken to tea by Steve Benbow, urban beekeeper, successful entrepreneur, and Fortnum’s Beemaster, to discuss urban beekeeping.

Steve has a long history of urban beekeeping. Fifteen years ago he decided he wanted to keep bees in Central London. There was only one problem: he lived on the sixth story of an ex-council block near Tower Bridge with no garden. The only outside space was the building’s flat roof, accessible via a fire escape. Having located his first hive behind the lift shaft, the bees prospered and produced award-winning honey.

Inspired by other urban beekeepers in Paris, Tokyo, Rio and New York, Steve founded the London Honey Company, a business that has grown rapidly and now produces honey for Harrods, Harvey Nichols and The Savoy, as well as several small delicatessens across London. He also services hives for the National Portrait Gallery, Tate Modern and Tate Britain, as well as a variety of commercial clients, many of whom sell their honey within their stores.

Hives At The Tate Modern

Steve was very forthcoming about his experiences with Fortnum’s bees.  He keeps two varieties, Carniolan bees, which are a little more feisty, and Welsh Black bees, which are quite gentle.  He  likes to keep two different varieties which he believes complement each other.

Fortnum’s was the first London commercial establishment to consider keeping bees in the City.  Steve was contacted by Jonathan Miller, Fortnum’s visionary new products buyer, back in 2004 about the project.

Mr. Miller himself designed the ornate WBC hives.  Installed in 2008, the final design is very much in keeping with the spirit of the facade of the store, with a different theme for each hive, – Roman, Mughal, Chinese and Gothic.

Each six-foot structure has  its own triumphal arch entrance, gold finial beehive pinnacle and is dressed in Fortnum’s signature blue-green eau de nil and gold livery. The roofs are pagoda in style and, when observed as a group, resemble the waves of the ocean.

The unique hives were hand crafted by Welsh carpenter, Kim Farley-Harper, who will be happy to make a bespoke hive for customers.  The only drawback may be the price.  It is reported that Fortnum’s hives cost 1500 £ a piece.

The biggest difficulty Steve first encountered was the public perception that the bees might be a public hazard.  That is no longer the case, and Fortnum’s considers its rooftop beehives to be a success. It is considering keeping other hives elsewhere.

Other challenges Steve has faced have been swarm control and Varroa mites.  Steve treats his hives for Varroa with Oxalic acid, and uses splits to control swarms.  He happily reports that Fortnum’s bees have never swarmed.

Benbow uses a Queen excluder and mouse guards in the winter. He feeds his bees sugar syrup in periods of dearth. He uses some insulation in his hives, but reports that the heat of Fortnum’s buildings prevents the hives from getting too cold in winter.

I asked Steve to comment upon the June 15 London Evening Standard article in which Angela Woods, secretary of the London Bee Keepers Association, was quoted as saying London’s bees are under threat of starvation and disease because of a boom in the number of urban beekeepers.  She stated that there isn’t enough forage in central London, and that bees shouldn’t be kept above two stories high.

Steve’s reaction to the article was a pithy “Bollocks!”

He pointed out that bees have been living in tall trees and other high places for many thousands of years, and that while London could always use more trees and flowers, the primary challenge to urban bees this year has been the inclement weather, not a lack of forage.

It was a fascinating interview, and Mr. Benbow could not have been more cooperative and charming. He even complimented my American-made honey. But I think he was just being nice.  🙂

Steve has a new book out, The Urban Beekeeper, which I’ve read and found delightful.  I urge you all to pick up a copy and find out even more about his busy life and career.

18 thoughts on “Tea With Fortnum’s Beemaster Steve Benbow

  1. Emily Heath says:

    I’d like to read Steve’s book, thanks for mentioning that.

    Agree that bees have always chosen high up locations, but in the wild colonies space themselves out much more, which helps avoid forage competition and risk of spreading disease.

    Fascinating to find out more about the hives’ design, they do look gorgeous. Mr Farley-Harper has done well for himself!

  2. oceannah says:

    I’ll have to put that on the “to read” list! Thanks for sharing all the good information you’ve been hard at work on 🙂

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this adventure and for being, yourself, an ambassador of good beekeeping will.

    • You are so very welcome!! 🙂
      I am so grateful to have had the experience! I am constantly amazed by the kindness and generosity of people the world over, including but not limited to beekeepers, gardeners and cooks!!

  4. bigsmileu1 says:

    Fascinating report about your trip. Steve Benbow sounds very down to earth and knows what he wants. I commend him for his bee work. Love the hives made by Kim Farley-Harper. It is easy to see why he can charge high prices for his craftmenship. I am so impressed with your visit. What a great adventure you have experienced. Thank you so much for sharing. 🙂

  5. […] Tea With Fortnum’s Beemaster Steve Benbow (romancingthebee.com) Share this:FacebookTwitterEmailPrintStumbleUponDiggRedditLinkedInTumblrPinterestLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in Bee, Bee stings, Beekeeper, beekeepers, beekeeping, Bees, Honey, London, Trip to London, Urban Beekeeping and tagged Andy Pedley, Bee, Beehive, Beekeeper, Beekeepers, Beekeeping, Bees, Buckingham Palace, Clarence House, Ealing, Ealing apiary, Honey, Honey bee, John Chapple, London, Perivale.Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment […]

    • Angela Woods says:

      This is an interesting perspective on the current thinking of experts such as the LBKA, University of Sussex research fellows and the Friends of the Earth who are behind the Bee Cause campaign. Data suggests that 1 sq km of forage can sustain about 5 colonies. Consider that only 25% of that space in London is green and then how much within that is planted in a way that is beneficial to bees. Within a 10 sq km area of my apiary in NW5 which is fifteen minutes from Oxford Circus the NBU has 466 apiaries listed. There will be at least two or three hives at each so that totals a possible 1398 colonies. Only 75% of people register their hives so you can increase this figure by 25% = 1747 hives which equals 174 hives per sq km which is way, way higher than the 5 we think can be sustained. Steve Bebow is right that the weather has played its part this year but the underlying trend, regardless of weather, is that honey yields are decreasing below the level that bees need to get themselves through the winter … an all time low in 2010 of 31lbs per hive across the SE and bees need 35 lbs just to survive the cold months. NBU Bee Inspector’s have been saying for some years now that they think there are too many bees in London. Steve’s reaction is emotional rather than factual and very common amongst bee keepers who make a living from keeping bees for corporates. “Saving bees” does not necessarily mean keeping bees and those that choose to do so will get the support of the LBKA since we have a strong ethos of responsible bee keeping. The LBKA has a message of education, encouraging more forage and not keeping bees on rooftops higher than a tree. They have not evolved to live at heights unnatural to them. The tide may be turning though as corporates beging to understand that piling more bees into Central London may be contributing to the demise of the bee and other pollinating insects who suffer in the competition for nectar and pollen.

      London Tonight reported on this back in April which you can view here

      Angela Woods
      LBKA Secretary

      • Thanks for your valuable input on this important issue! I will post your response as a separate post as well.
        Thanks again for taking the time to respond!!

      • Angela, your point is well taken, but I know just from clever plantings in my own urban backyard that we can expand forage opportunities for all pollinators, and expand them *exponentially*! We have a local program called “Feed the Bees” here in Delta, BC, based on the idea that one garden can plant to attract pollinators, but many gardens planted can sustain and buoy entire pollinator populations. Municipal plantings designed for season long pollinator/honeybee forage can make a banquet out of the most urban of settings.

  6. […] Tea With Fortnum’s Beemaster Steve Benbow (romancingthebee.com) […]

  7. […] Tea With Fortnum’s Beemaster Steve Benbow (romancingthebee.com) […]

  8. […] DeLong at Romancing the Bee has a fab blog post on her tour of Fortnum’s hives this year, ‘Tea With Fortnum’s Beemaster Steve Benbow‘. Check out the comments too for an interesting response by Angela Woods, secretary of the […]

  9. Jackie Farley-Harper says:

    The price for the Fortnums bee-hives is totally wrong ,they actually cost around 1,500 pounds not as quoted 15,000 pounds!!!!

  10. […] this question before! (To find out which one word, see Deborah de Long’s infamous blog post, Tea With Fortnum’s Beemaster Steve Benbow). He took a more cautious approach to his answer this time but did say that he finds London to be a […]

    • This is a brilliant post, Emily!

      And yes, in the spirit of Oscar Wilde, I guess I’m happy to have become “infamous” in the UK.

      I’ve managed to irritate both Karin and Steve with my blog coverage of this issue. What can I say?? I’m an American! 🙂

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