It was a Thursday night in Soho, and a hip little townhouse on Greek Street was buzzing—literally. Just inside the door, approximately 20,000 bees (I tried to count but kept losing track at 19,933…ish) were flitting about inside a slab of glassed-in honeycomb. It looked like Bee-TV, or maybe one of those gumball machines where you put in a coin, and out pops some small sweet—although in this case, it would have been more of a trick than a treat.
Welcome to The Joy of Bees, billed as “a gastronomic tasting and art installation exhibition” helping to raise awareness of the beleaguered pollinators that are dying by the millions across the globe.
Curated by Bompas & Parr and backed by the prestigious Relais & Chateaux brand of luxury hotels, this pop-up event was one of the most unique experiences I’ve ever had in London…and that’s saying something in this city.
One floor featured incredible bee wax art, including a vase sculpture by Slovakian artist Tomas Gabuzdil Libertiny, who has somehow trained the little buggers to create prescribed shapes. Truthfully, I thought it was amazing–not that I’d say otherwise. After all, criticism really stings.
The next level showcased an indoor garden dubbed “Pollenesia,” overseen by a suitably regal Queen Bee (or Beatrice, perhaps), while further up the winding staircase, visitors could engage in cooking demonstrations and honey tastings of nearly 30 varieties of golden nectar produced at Relais & Chateux’ luxury hotels and resorts around the world.
If you missed your chance to visit, have no fear. Let me tell you what I’ve discovered about the secret life of bees, from the factors that influence the flavour of their honey right down to their utterly horrifying sex lives.
Read on for a slew of surprising facts, as revealed by the event’s guest experts, Dale Gibson and Sarah Wyndham Lewis, the husband-and-wife team behind Bermondsey Street Bees’ award-winning English honey.
“Most people think of bees as individual, furry little bundles of joy.” At least, so says Dale, who began keeping bees on the rooftop of his Bermondsey home ten years ago.
“Really?” I reply skeptically. “Because I think of them as mean, stinging little bastards.”
“Oh no,” he admonishes me. “You must be thinking of wasps.”
Like dogs, bee colonies are actually bred to have a certain temperament, one which they collectively share.
“They don’t have individual personalities,” Dale says. “They don’t have Twitter accounts, and they don’t have fashion sense.” (Well, obviously. Everyone knows that horizontal stripes make your bum look big).
Their “hive mind,” Sarah explains, is derived from the attitude of the Queen Bee.
“Her pheromones are what guides everything that happens in the hive. One year we had an aggressive hive, and so Dale re-Queened it with a new Queen, and within two days they were calm.”
“We have to have calm, lovely bees,” she insists, “because we share our sitting-out space with them…and also, our neighbors like to sunbathe with no clothes on. So we can’t have them swarming.” No, I should think not.
“Like a fine wine, we never know what our production will be from year to year,” says Dale, although his eight hives generally produce about 750 jars for public consumption per annum. If you’re lucky, you might be able to snag one at Fortnum & Mason before they all fly off the shelves…or you can taste it in Hiver Beer, which uses Bermondsey Street Bees’ golden goo in their brews.
Also, just as grapes derive certain characteristics from the earth, honey has its own specific terroir, too, which is influenced by what the bees eat.
As Sarah explains, “You’ll have a vintage in honey just as you do in wine. It varies so hugely every year!”
What is really remarkable, however, is that the taste—according to Sarah—is even affected by the bees’ “mood.”
She says she has sampled honey made by “very naughty” African bees, which are notorious for their aggression, “and you can actually taste the anger.”
Fortunately, none of the sugary delights I test in “The Joy of Bees” Salon of Honey tastes “angry,” but I definitely notice the differences in the jars. My favourite is a distinctly floral variety produced at Chewton Glen, a five-star Relais & Chateau property in Hampshire.
I promised you a terrifying tale of pollination fornication, and here it is. For starters, Dale explains that all the “worker bees” we hear about are female. “Male bees are only there to reproduce—but they’re very energetic about trying to reproduce,” he adds mischievously.
Typical males. Letting women do all the work while they spend their days trying to hit the sweet spot, as it were. But, oh boy, are they in for a nasty surprise.
“When they do reproduce, they die,” Dale says. “So if you ever see a live male bee, you’ll know he’s…failed.”
And how exactly do they die? “The Queen rips out their lower abdomen.” Yes, that’s right. Every Queen bee in the world is pretty much the insect version of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct.
“She goes on one mating flight on a nice warm day, and she finds where the drones congregate,” Dale explains. (Probably down the pub, cadging sips of beer, I bet). “Then she’ll fly through that area, and between 15 and 20 drones will mate with her. She stores up all the sperm she’ll need in her whole life on one big night out.”
Kind of like a really wild hen party in Soho, I reflect…silently.
Despite the fact that bees have been having a hard time of it around the world—possibly due, in part, to pesticides and fungicides that make them more susceptible to a parasite called Nosema ceranae—Dale believes their future is not all gloom and doom.
“Bees have survived all sorts of strange events,” he says. “They survived when the dinosaurs died. They survived Ice Ages. They have always bounced back. What we have in the UK, at least, is a management problem, not a biblical plague.”
But planting good “forage” for bees is key to helping them on the road to recovery. This is particularly important in London, he says, where green space is limited. If you want to help, you’ll find more information on planting for bees on Bermondsey Street Bees’ website.
Last, but not least, consider this the next time you’re spooning gobs of honey on your toast.
So savour it, my friends, and give these furry wing-flappers the care and respect they deserve.
They work hard for their honey, so you better treat them right.