East London couple, Salma and Khalil Attan, never expected to become beekeepers. So when Khalil came home from work one evening over ten years ago and suggested that the two of them join a beginners’ beekeeping course, they had no idea that this would be the start of a decade-long love-affair with bees, culminating this January in the establishment of their own honey business, Bushwood Bees.
Shortly after opening for business, though, Salma and Khalil had to make some very rapid changes to their plans for the year due to the national lock-down which was imposed in March due to the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic. “We’ve had to cancel a lot of things, or change the way we’ve had to do things, so it’s been a sudden learning experience,” she said.
But the lock-down hasn’t been all bad—in fact, the Attans, who are featured on ‘Who Feeds Us?’, Farmerama’s new six-part series, have seen a lot of goodness emerging from the chaos. For starters, the slowing down and even cessation of many routine spring and summer activities, like pruning and mowing, during the lock-down and subsequent months has been hugely beneficial for the bees.
“If you look at it from the bees’ point of view… [b]ecause a lot of people—unfortunately I suppose—haven’t been able to get out and do the work that they need to, one positive part of that is a lot of the trees haven’t been cut down, a lot of the grassland has been allowed to grow wild, and nature has flourished,” Khalil said.
“I think we’ve had some far larger numbers of weeds out there, which pollinators love,” added Salma. “I’ve certainly noticed more butterflies, far more different types of pollinators out there—just sort of observation—that you wouldn’t normally see in your average summer.”
While there are other reasons for the bees having such a good year—the weather has been favourable, for example—Khalil was sure that the lock-down was an important factor. “Because people haven’t been out so much, and they haven’t been tearing down and making everything so nice and neat out there, it’s actually been really good for the environment,” he said.
People sometimes worry when they speak with Salma and Khalil that the city is not a healthy place for bees to live, but the Attans say there are actually multiple benefits for urban bees. For example, Khalil explained that the urban heat island effect makes the city warmer than the surrounding countryside, meaning bees are more likely to find flowers in bloom nearly all year round.
“We’ve got quite a lot of parks in London—it’s a city, but it’s a fairly green city,” Salma said. “We’ve got some really good major parks around where we keep our beehives, and the vast majority of parks try to plant pollinator-friendly greenery.”
In contrast, rural areas can actually be rather inhospitable landscapes for pollinators, especially where industrial farming practices are prevalent.
“[W]hat you tend to find is they’ll grow one kind of crop for a certain amount of time, and then they’ll need to rotate it and they’ll grow another kind of crop, so you have those …certain times when the bees can collect a huge amount of nectar from that one plant, but then that plant will die and they’ll have absolutely nothing, or very limited amount from the hedgerows that they can collect,” Khalil said. “And that’s not necessarily good from the bees’ point of view, because like us, they need a variety of food.”
Of course, in a more regenerative agricultural system, many of these problems would fade away. On a farm where a diversity of crops are planted at once, where field margins are planted with pollinator-friendly plants, where pesticides are eliminated, and there is always some sort of plant in the ground, rural bees would lead a much happier life.
Today, Salma and Khalil manage nearly 60 beehives scattered across different locations around London, but back in 2011 they were operating on a much smaller scale, and looking for new sites to place colonies. One of the sites they reached out to was the East London Mosque and London Muslim Centre, near Whitechapel. The Mosque agreed, and the Attans installed their first hive on the roof of the Muslim Centre. Today, there are seven hives up on the roof, and four more in a purpose-built observation area.
“One of the other reasons we wanted to keep bees at the Mosque was to get people to start thinking again about nature,” Khalil said. “If you go through London… you see all these big high-rise towers, some people don’t even look up at the sky all day.”
“It kind of signals to everybody …that we all have to think about the environment, we all have nature around us and it’s a common thread between humanity whether you’re …a Muslim or not Muslim or a Christian, or whatever religion you might be, nature is around all of us and we’ve all got to take some sort of responsibility for our environment,” Salma added. “It gets the conversation going sometimes, and it helps to, I think, sometimes build bridges between communities that might not otherwise have had that conversation.”
Speaking of building bridges, another positive that Salma and Khalil have noticed arising from the lockdown is a real increase in support for local communities.
“Where we live, we have a lot of small local independent shops and, you know, people started shopping at those shops rather than going to the big supermarkets,” Khalil said.
“I think for the customers, the idea that they are buying directly from the beekeeper, you know, it just adds a little bit to the quality of the product,” Salma said. “I think you have to have that understanding of the restrictions that honeybees have, and that there may be times when our colonies might not produce honey and that’s fine…. And I think our customers sort of understand that as well—a lot of them do ask questions about how the honey is produced and how much we take off them… and I think people are sort of have this greater respect when they understand there’s a lot more behind that jar of honey than….first meets the eye. I think there is a greater respect towards locally produced food for sure.”
Looking towards the future, Salma and Khalil have a lot of hope that some of the new habits people have picked up during the lockdown, and the new relationships they’ve forged with their local community producers will last.
“[E]ven though people can go back to the supermarkets, we do tend to find that…people are going out and helping their local community, and buying local food as well,” Khalil said. “We just have to hope that once everything goes back to normal, people still remember these things and continue to support and don’t go back to you know old habits.”
“Yeah, keep the lawnmower put away,” Salma said.
I wrote this article as part of a series for Who Feeds Us?—the new podcast series from Farmerama Radio which I have been working on all summer. Who Feeds Us? is a chorus from the people who have fed us throughout the Covid crisis: people from all over the UK, of many different ages and beliefs, from different backgrounds, regions and classes; farmers, growers, community leaders, healers, chefs, beekeepers, and fishers.
Who Feeds Us? is an important series about the relevance of food sovereignty to everyone in society. This means putting our food back in the hands of the people, and prioritising nature and nourishment. Tune into Who Feeds Us? by Farmerama Radio via all major podcast platforms or visit https://farmerama.co/listen/