We spend an afternoon following urban beekeepers Chris and Paul from Barnes & Webb carrying out bee hive inspections in East London. We find out more about the inspiration behind their bee hive rental and honey brand startup, discuss whether the increase in urban bee hives is sustainable and ask if eating their post code honey can help alleviate symptoms of hay fever…

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What made you guys get into Urban Bee Keeping?

It was a combination of factors really – wanting to connect with nature in the city, a concern over the declining populations of honey bees. It all started when we took a friend on a beekeeping course as a birthday present about 5 years ago. Barnes & Webb as a company became a reality when I (Chris) told Paul about my beekeeping job in New Zealand and we thought renting beehives could work in London.

We love your branding and the concept of post code honey jar packaging. Tell us what inspired you and how design has helped shape the personality of Barnes and Webb?

Thanks. It’s been suggested that eating local honey can help reduce the symptoms of hay fever as it contains traces of the pollen sufferers get exposed to, thus building up a tolerance. So the more local the honey the more effective it could potentially be – that’s where the idea stemmed from. There also seems to be more and more people craving locally produced & sourced goods. Our postcode honey fits that mould perfectly.

As far as the design goes, we’re both designers by trade so creating our brand happened quite organically especially since the company is named after us. Barnes & Webb has very traditional and established feel to it which fits well with age-old trade such as beekeeping but we’re also trying to do more modern, progressive things with our beekeeping which we hope our brand reflects.

You hear a lot in the press about the burgeoning Start Up scene & Tech City, we understand you are working on a BeeBox Application for your hives - can you tell us a bit more about how this will work?

The BeeBox is a essentially a Raspberry Pi computer that we want to put in all of our hives to allow us and our customers to check what’s happening in the hive at any time without having to disturb the bees.

Using Arduino sensors it will monitor specific factors that will help us keep an eye on the colonies health, it’s likelihood of swarming and when to harvest the honey. It will also send alerts when a hive needs to be inspected. We and other beekeepers believe that the less you interfere with a hive the happier and more productive the bees can be. The BeeBox is our digital beekeeper doing the hive inspections with less disruption. The more hives we have recording this kind of data the more useful it will be in correlating colony health with environmental factors and hopefully assist the ongoing investigations into colony collapse disorder.

The BeeBox is currently only at the prototype stage but we’re currently considering various funding options that will enable us develop it further.

There's been lots in the press about the rise in the number of Urban Bee Hives and how this could be detrimental to Bee populations, what are your thoughts?

If you mean detrimental because of overpopulation then it’s possible but the big losses over winter 2012/13 suggests it’s not currently a problem. Beekeeping inexperience can lead to a spread of disease and contribute to the death of colonies but that’s not specific to urban settings. We do however need more pollinator friendly plants particularly in urban environments that are popular with hobbyists beekeepers. Ideally we’d like to team up with a campaign partner to ensure that as we increase our hive numbers we also contribute towards the forage available.

You currently have Hives in 4 postcodes of London, can we expect to see more post codes next year?

For sure. We definitely want more postcodes around east London and then down to link up with our single customer in Nunhead. We’ve already got a waiting list for some of these areas and we’d like to have hives in every central London postcode within the next few years.

Having tried your E8 honey, we're curious to know if each post code has its own distinct flavour and what are the main influences of taste?

It’s quite subtle but they are all different. It’s difficult to be precise, but this should give you an indication of the differences:

E5 –  A dark, malty honey with a hint of plum (wild flowers, sycamore and horse chestnut trees).

EC2 –  A fruity honey with subtle toffee notes (wild flowers, lime, and sweet chestnut trees).

E8 –  A light, floral honey with a slight hint of citrus (wild flowers, Lime, Crabapple and possibly Rowan trees).

SE14 – A rich malty honey with a floral flourish (wild flowers, Willow and Sycamore).

Any new products on the horizon for next year?

Yes, we’re currently experimenting with mead recipes which we hope to have bottled and branded in the near future. We’re also looking into creating a range of grooming products for men.

How do you eat your honey and do you have any favourite recipes that contain honey?

I like to keep it simple. If I drink coffee at home I’ll use honey as my sweetener or I sometimes have it with my yoghurt and berries for breakfast. I was under the weather recently, so put a good dollop of our E5 honey in a rum toddy and it was amazing. For me though it’s probably nicest eaten on it’s own straight from the jar.

What advice would you give people wanting to get into Bee Keeping?

Probably to join a local group and see if you can follow an experienced beekeeper on their rounds. Take a course or two to give yourself an idea of what’s involved – it can be quite a responsibility looking after 50,000+ bees. During the swarming season it can involve weekly sweaty work that’s hard on the back. The cost of setting up is not insignificant either. You could of course alway rent some bees from Barnes & Webb and take it from there. Some of our customers watch us during the inspections so they can learn more about what’s involved.