Tag Archives: London wildlife

Bees in the City

Have you noticed there are more bees in London? Me neither, apart from 10,000 that swarmed on a pyracantha bush at the bottom of my garden last May [see picture below].

Now I realise that we should see more bees after reading Steve Benbow’s The Urban Beekeeper, for its author is on a mission with all the zeal of an evangelist to turn the capital into an apiarist’s paradise, bringing local honey to its residents.

[H]is paternal grandparents tended bees on their smallholding in Shropshire giving Steve a taste for honey and working with the little critters. He spent years learning his craft from the master beekeepers and rural locations but felt that London could benefit from their introduction.

Removing bees Years of intensive farming had denuded the supply of nectar and pollen, and more importantly reduced the diversity of plants attracting the bees. Steve had aspirations to bring bees into London. After talking to other beekeepers from Paris, Rio and New York he moved to Bermondsey 17 years ago and set up hives behind the lift shaft on the roof of his flat.

The sky was the limit, well at least some of London’s tallest buildings. He persuaded Fortnum & Mason’s to give up roof space for the bee hives, painted in Fortnum’s trade mark duck-egg blue. For the famous grocer it seemed as if they had turned full circle.

In 1707 Hugh Mason had a small shop in St. James’s Market and a spare room in his house, which was taken by William Fortnum, a footman in Queen Anne’s household. The Royal Family’s insistence on having new candles every night left the budding entrepreneur enough wax for a sideline that gave him enough money to start what was to become the famous Piccadilly store.

Now Steve maintains hives on some of London’s greatest landmarks, Tate Modern, Tate Britain, the National Portrait Gallery selling local honey. Apparently London’s plant diversity makes for really good honey that varies enormously from borough to borough and Steve hopes to eventually have hives in all of London’s 32 boroughs; Dark and aromatic from Bermondsey, citrusy Westminster or the slightly bitter tones of Harrow.

The only problem with the apiarist’s success is the gruelling work load. Reading his book you realise that there is a lot more to beekeeping than jus extracting honey. To maintain hives across the capital involves heaving lifting, often at great heights, working nights, apparently it’s the best time to transport them and tending his bees throughout the year.

The chapters of his book are sub-divided into the calendar year giving an insight into his often nomadic life and the work that goes into giving us the true amber nectar.

Steve Benbow in a London roof: ©Julian Winslow

Jungle pigeons

It is a common misconception that cabbies always have their meal breaks in the green huts scattered around London. For those wishing to discuss England’s sporting woes or the decline of the cab trade these refuges offer a haven for refreshment and conversation. Once in a while I prefer my own company, and one of my chosen spots for quiet reflection is perversely opposite the entrance to London Zoo.

[T]here one can listen to the exotic sounds of the jungle while eating a cheese sandwich. Recently one animal cry has drowned all others – green parakeets. This little invader – psittacula krameri to give them their correct Latin name – which once confined itself to the City’s suburbs has now colonised parts of Regent’s Park.

The numbers of these colourful if noisy birds has risen dramatically in recent years, adapting themselves to London’s less than tropical climate. Inevitably scientists point out that this is another consequence of climate change. Presumably if mankind doesn’t change his ways the capital will become an Equatorial jungle, the parakeets being just the tip of the melting iceberg.

Their numbers might be increasing in line with the temperature, but how did a non-migratory species get to our island in the first place?

Firstly there is a record of a breeding pair in Norfolk around 1855 at a time when the keeping of exotic birds was fashionable. The reasons postulated for their recent appearance in London are as diverse as their colonies.

The earliest for the modern infestation is that the parakeets were escapees from the set of the Humphrey Bogart classic The African Queen (1951) that was supposedly shot at Shepperton Studios in Surrey. From there it is suggested they have bred and spread across the region. Yet, according to film studio historian Ed Harris: “It’s a myth that these noisy creatures had anything to do with the filming of The African Queen”, he explains. “Not only was it filmed at Isleworth but there is not a shred of evidence to suggest they were required as ‘extras’ during filming, so you can discount that legend absolutely.”

Rock stars have been blamed. In one Jimi Hendrix was strolling down Carnaby Street one day when he released a pair of green ’jungle pigeons’ to give the City some psychedelic colour; or another interpretation ’as a symbol of freedom’; or as some claim were Jimi’s pets accidentally released after his death – take your pick.

Not to be outdone David Bowie fans claim the advent of flocks of these colourful creatures are a result from his wedding, when parakeets were released to mark the great man’s nuptials. Another explanation is that maybe they fled from exiled King Manuel II of Portugal’s Fulwell aviary in the 1920s.

A more prosaic explanation is that the Great Storm of 1987 damaged aviaries. The deliciously named Project Parakeet claims that feral parakeets increased significantly in the early 1990s. Simon Levey their Research Officer estimates numbers have risen from 1,500 in 1996 to over 30,000 now and to be found as far west as Wales as as far north as Glasgow.

Apparently there now are more parakeets to be found in London than nightingales, but to be honest I’ve never seen (or heard) a nightingale in Berkeley Square.

Did they arrive courtesy of Bogie, Bowie or Hendrix or the result of melting icebergs? We shall never know.

What we do know are they are very adaptable in what they eat – dining out on fruit trees, orchards and bird tables – and they aren’t vulnerable to many diseases. Plus, there’s the lack of predation in the London, the only exception being sparrow hawks, which generally prefer to feast on other small prey.

In future years at London Zoo visitors will experience exotic birds in and out of cages.

Image: Garden Bird Watching (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0).

Bee-ing aware

Bee suitYou know the amazing thing about London is that any hobby that takes your fancy can be found if you dig deep enough, somewhere in the Capital there will be an enthusiastic group of like minded individuals.

Now take apiarists (bee keepers to you and me), you would have thought they would be pretty thin on the ground in London, not so as I found out last weekend. You see I’ve been interested in bees since I were a lad and apart from extolling a bee’s beneficial work pollinating over 70 per cent of our crops, I’ve been droning on to my children about the bees decline (over 16 per cent last year) and the calamitous harvests coming our way if this trend isn’t stemmed.

Well in an attempt to shut me up once and for all my family sent me off on a bee aware experience.

There I discovered that amazingly there are over 1,500 registered hives in London, Fortnum and Mason even have a webcam of the hives on their roof.

The Lancaster Hotel has over half a million bees on its roof and last year hosted the first London Honey Show and was named by the AA Eco Hotel of the Year.

For me my bee day started with the obligatory talk about the benefit of our little friends followed by having to construct a hive super. These are the vertical trays where the bee constructs its honeycomb, then a discussion on the correct apparel to wear. They will even make to measure your protective outfit.

Bee dinnerOur bee themed lunch was followed by a walk around the West Lodge Park Hotel arboretum. This was followed by the highlight of the day. Dressed as if we were off to Chernobyl two hives were opened. There were thousands of bees flying around us. We even managed to see the queen taking a break from laying the hundreds of eggs she lays every day. You know the strange thing was that under the supervision of our tutors having thousands of bees flying around your head, when dress correctly, it’s rather therapeutic.

Will get my own hive, Err No. Lots of commitment and experience are needed before I fly at that hobby.

Fat Flying Friends?

Using my ATM has of late been a hazardous experience, not from any street crime, but a far more dangerous assailant coming from the sky. Our local bank has erected a rather splendid sign above its frontage which has proved a perfect perch for pigeons, dozens of them. While ex-mayor Ken Livingstone most positive contribution to London has been to reduce the pigeons of Trafalgar Square from 4,000 to a mere 120, they have like other vagrants just moved elsewhere.

[M]ayor Ken first banned the sale of pigeon feed in 2001 resulting in a family business that had traded for decades having to shut shop. Next at a cost of £60,000 a year he introduced a pair of Harris hawks, with their handler, the expense has almost certainly been covered by the reduction in the cost of cleaning up pigeon droppings from the surrounding areas. Unfortunately the rest of London is still plagued by these feral creatures that carry (sorry about this!) histoplasmosis, cryptococosis and psittacosis, so it would seem the pigeons above my ATM could previously have been a tourist “attraction” from Trafalgar Square.

On my garden on the bird table are regularly two ring necked doves, slim beautiful creatures, even if they are a little stupid and the contrast between our doves and London feral pigeons could be not starker.

Now with our fast-food litter lout culture it has given us pigeons so fat that they can hardly fly out of the way of my cab, with many of them having trouble taking off as they are missing a toe or foot after standing in the piles of their own corrosive droppings. These urban birds are even more stupid than their rural cousins, after centuries of evolution, not one of them have realised that by placing their foot even if it is now a stub, on a piece of bread, they wouldn’t have to throw it over their heads, tearing a piece off in the process.

The numbers of our wild friends, along with foxed and rats needs to be reduced, reports recently have included, dive bombing seagulls, foxes biting children in their beds and if it is to be believed rats 30 inches long.

Sparrow hawks regularly kill pigeons in my garden while the other birds are clever enough to get out of the hawks way it’s only the pigeons that get caught, they could be used to keep the numbers in London down, feeding them something to reduce their sex drive might deprive Londoner’s the opportunity of the amusing spectacle of the males courting rituals, but could have the desired effect.

Writing in the Evening Standard Sebastian Shakespeare suggests a course of action which might prove rather startling to tourists, as the bird’s fall of their perch (or their hands) and I quote:

A more pragmatic way might be to hand out poisoned bird feed to tourists and actively encourage them to feed the pigeons. This would kill two birds with one stone, so to speak: the tourists would still get their photo opportunities and it would be a very cost-effective way of keeping the pigeon population down.

If you still have the need for more about pigeons, I would direct you to Pigeon Blog probably the largest site you find on everything that’s amusing about our fat flying friends.