When I recently downloaded the AirBNB app from the Google Store these strange ‘experiences’ popped up on my screen. Totally baffled and probably busy battling children, I ignored them… until they again popped up on my screen the next day.
At £50 per person it isn’t the cheapest experience but given the kid’s enthusiastic rapture for bees and my need to keep them entertained for a few hours, it suited us perfectly.
The German Gymnasium
Kings Cross is one of those areas that I’ve rarely visited with real intention. It’s one of those ‘pas-through’ locations that feature as a transport intersection and nothing else. The last time I visited was back in 1999 after I’d been to an all-nighter in Vauxhall and we needed somewhere else to hang out, so imagine my surprise when I discover that it’s been totally rejuvenated and that many of the town planners have been collaborating with Urban Bees to develop bee friendly areas!!
It is here that we discover the bird cage swing and the swanky cafe ‘The German Gymnasium’. If you haven’t been I wouldn’t advise you take your children! It is one of those places that we walked in and promptly out of within thirty seconds rapidly trying to hide the kids behind me. It’s a bit nice. Instead we hung out by the bird cage, knowing our place, waiting for Alison to collect us.
Camley Street Natural Park
It is bitterly cold and we hadn’t prepared well enough for this. I had forgotten how quickly London weather can change and despite leaving Hammersmith in blazing sunshine, the wind whips our faces as we saunter up to Camley Street Natural Park.
We meet up with our other tour members who are a fascinating mix of people from all over the world. There’s eight of us in total including two men from the Midlands who started bee keeping last year! It is brilliant to hear their stories and to be able to pick their brains.
Camley Street Park is owned by London Wildlife Trust and I am astounded that this haven can exist in such close proximity to the world’s largest construction site! I learn that this reserve was created from wasteland (once used as a coal station) and is now a haven for wildlife, including a heron which we stop and watch in the reeds. Of course I kick myself for not bringing my long lens but I had no idea we’d find this.
We are whisked quickly through the wetland habitats to the apiary section and I promise the kids that we will definitely return for them to pond dip and watch dragonflies. I cannot believe this oasis exists so close to central London!
If you’re interested in supporting London Wildlife Trust, you can become a MEMBER.
An apiary is a place where beehives of honey bees are kept. Beekeepers (also known as apiarists) have been previously trained by Urban Bees and can come here to practice and have hives and collect honey if they choose to. Not all bee keepers take the honey.
Alison has a treat in-store for the kids and lets them dress up in bee suits. They LOVE this. They’re now so desperate for us to own a hive and to care for and see the bees. The boy says to me
I never want this tour to end, it’s so good
The temperature is too cold for us to open up a working hive – Hives must be kept at 32 degrees and it’s a barmy 8 which will quite possibly kill them off. Not really what we had in mind so instead we open up a virtual hive and learn all about the world of bees.
Alison has slides prepared for us so we can see and learn all about the bees and how they live.
Alison takes apart the virtual hive and we’re able to see old combs that bees previously laid. The kids are fascinated with its stickiness and can’t stop touching it. I am doing nothing to quench their thirst for bees and they look at me with big eyes and cheeky grins asking if we can come back later in the summer to see a working hive.
I think you can guess by now that Alison was a big hit with the kids!
Learning about the Queen Bee
In a nutshell, I’ll try to keep it brief lol, each hive can have only one queen bee. The queen bee is a slave; her sole purpose is to lay eggs. She doesn’t leave the hive or collect pollen/nectar, she has no pollen baskets, no proboscis (tongue) and doesn’t feed herself.
A queen bee can lay up to two thousand eggs in one day and more than a million eggs in a lifetime. She is able to control the sex of the eggs she lays. The queen lays a fertilized (female) or unfertilized (male) egg according to the width of the cell.
Each egg hatches into a larva in three days and is fed with special milk called Royal Jelly by the nurse bees. The larva then turns into pupa and finally develops into adult bees.
When a hive gets too crowded, the queen bee lays eggs that will hatch into new queen bees. The queen then sends out bees to scout for a new home. This is called swarming and it’s critical to healthy bee colonies. When a place is found, she leaves the old hive and is followed by a swarm of worker bees.
Searching for bees
It’s a bit cold and windy for bees but we do spot a few out and about.
Pollen vs Nectar
Do honey bees eat pollen? Not exactly and I’ll explain why.
Nectar is a sweet substance produced by certain plants to attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. These creatures are called pollinators. Bees collect nectar and turn it into honey however whilst they’re collecting the nectar, they accidentally transfer pollen (from male flowers) from their legs to the female flowers.
Bees have incredibly long and pointy proboscis (tongues) which work like straws. The bee unrolls her tongue which is nearly 3cm long, dipping it into a flower and sucks up the nectar. Bees don’t have lips or teeth instead they have mandibles; a set of hinged gates that open and close at the middle. These are used for chewing beeswax when making the honeycombs.
Pollen is a fine powder of microscopic particles that is produced from the male flower that can fertilise the female flower to produce seed. Pollen is produced by anthers, the male reproductive organs found in most flowering plants.
The bees only intentionally collect the pollen in tiny sacks on their legs called scopas which they feed to the larvae. It’s packed full of protein and helps them grow. It’s also a great view for apiarists because it signifies that the Queen is laying eggs.
“I don’t even like honey! What do we need bees for anyway?”
Without bees humanity may cease to exist – certainly without the infiltration of shoulder shuddering companies like Monsanto and Bayer anyway! Bees are our saviours and much of our food couldn’t be produced without them.
Cross-pollination helps at least 30 percent of the world’s crops and 90 percent of our wild plants to thrive. Without bees to spread seeds, many plants—including food crops—would die off.
If you care about the future of humanity and our food sources, you’d be wise to take an interest in these creatures now before they’re wiped out. They need all the help they can get.
Wing clipping and bee sick!
Wing clipping is a growing common practice amongst apiarists but not something that Alison does. PHEW! My personal opinion is that it’s cruel as it prevents the queen bee from naturally swarming. The queen bee will still try to leave the hive but will either die because she can’t fly or die because the bees will kill her off (she’s no longer useful so they kill her).
Honey is not bee sick. Bees have two stomachs. One stomach is similar to ours and receives and processes food however their second stomach, called a honey sac, works as a storage unit for nectar collected from flowers. The honey sac holds almost 70 mg of nectar.
The Dancing Bees
Bees are incredibly intelligent animals and have their own unique communication skills. In 1973, Karl Ritter von Frisch won a Nobel prize for cracking the honeybees’ communication code. Honeybees waggle and dance to tell other bees in the hives the location of flower nectar sources, the flying time to the sources and even the wind speed. The Awesome Honeybee Dance is a video that will show you how.
Some bee facts you may not know
- A bee flaps its wings at an amazing 230 times a second.
- Weather affects bees’ flight. Bees can detect changes in air pressure. If it’s going to rain and air pressure drops, they stay in their hives.
- They consume the honey that they make for food during the cold months when nectar is scarce.
- A honeybee has five eyes. Three eyes are located on the top of the bee’s head in the form of a triangle. These eyes are very small. The two larger eyes are located on each side of the head. These are “compound” eyes, being made up of thousands of tiny lenses.
- To make one pound of honey, bees need to visit nearly three million flowers and travel fifty thousand miles (eighty thousand km). This is more than twice the distance around the earth!
The Grain Store & The Bee App
After we’ve finished spotting bees and the kids have reluctantly removed their apiarist outfits, we head into the heart of Kings Cross. Here we learn about the downloadable BEE APP, a Kings Cross Bee Trail where (during summer months of June-September) you can partake in an interactive 60 minute trail following, learning about and watching bees in Kings Cross.
These new areas in Kings Cross have been working with naturists and apiarists to provide bees with areas they can still forage – despite the urbanity.
As a bonus for partaking in the Bee App, you can receive discounts to eat at places like the Grain Store where the menu looks delicious.
Walking to the Skip Garden
By this stage we’re freezing but we’re led away by Alison on the promise of hot coffee at the Skip Garden. A restaurant-cafe-garden-allotment that describes itself as a sustainable urban garden with a twist. I am intrigued but mostly I’m just looking forward to hot coffee lol.
Almost hidden amongst the cranes and new high rise developments of swanky apartments (‘cos that’s just what London needs more of. /sarcasm) is this collection of wooden and glass huts surrounded by deck chairs and flowers. Surreal is one word to describe it but after finding the cafe we are blown away by its charm.
Finding soya or rice milk in London cafes is not as easy as I thought it would be. Certainly no where as easy as Australia or even Sardinia so upon discovering that Skip Cafe has BOTH, we order huge hot chocolates and tenderly warm our bitterly cold hands whilst Alison tries to herd us into a smaller shed for our tasting session.
I am famished, foolishly having had no breakfast before we left, so I promise the kids we’ll go back in after we’ve finished. They are selling cauliflower and cumin soup that smells divine.
(Sadly upon our return they’d sold out of soup so we didn’t get to taste it although I have re-promised the kids when we’re next in London we’ll go!)
To bee or not to bee
Should I eat honey? Of all the questions we have asked ourselves in the last three years since becoming plant based, this is the one we deflect back to the most. Should we or should we not bee (deliberate sic) eating honey?
What is our decision? Well… we have decided that we will only eat honey IF we know the apiarist and we have a full understanding of how s/he operates. For example we need to know that the apiarist does NOT cut the queen bee’s wings, we want to know that the apiarist leaves the hive with enough honey to survive the winter months and that the apiarist does NOT feed the colony sugar.
The kids decide that they will try all of the local honeys but I only try Urban Bees Honey as I know how Alison practises.
Making wild flower seed bombs
The Skip Garden sell these wild flower seed bombs for 50p. They’re made of clay and contain a number of wild flower seeds such as corn flower. We get busy and messy rolling a few up for the Skip Garden to sell.
We leave Alison and our team of eight others with our little brown, paper bag that ALison has made us. We discover inside two honeys and some leaflets and then we make our way to the train station. The kids are sad that it’s over. They have learnt so much it has surprised me and they’re still so enthusiastic to become apiarists. They make me promise we’ll come back in the summer to see Alison again (whether she likes it or not lol) and that we’ll bring Dad with us. How can I say no?!
Fast forward a week
A week later and we’re now in Sardinia. The internet dies for three days and as the majority of our studies are done online I start to wish we’d brought the kids workbooks with us (they weigh a lot). I suddenly remember our lovely brown paper bags, crammed full of leaflets and learning material. We set our selves up on the table outside and spend a few hours learning about the garden and what plants we can grow to help bees.
With a lack of internet we decide to do some cooking and develop these vegan pancakes (only the pancake is vegan). The kids chop their bananas and use their pots of honey to caramelise them. They love cooking and this keeps them occupied for an hour!