Over the last decade urban beekeeper Camilla Goddard has turned her passion into her profession.
Concealed in a maze of concrete corridors in the heart of London, St Ermin's Hotel is a luxury establishment whose clandestine nook alludes to its own history. Within the redbrick walls, where American tourists now loiter around the lobby in an array of beige garb and sports trainers, it is hard to imagine that decades before this building played host to the headquarters for special operations during WWII. Winston Churchill used it for secret meetings and the double-agent spies of the Cambridge Five carried out their traitorous acts here, meaning the cavities of these premises are privy to discussions of war, covert missions and some of the country's pivotal political decisions.
From across the hotel lobby a figure approaches. Moving in strides, so as not to trip up on her rolled-down-to-the-waist beekeeping suit, the swishing of trouser legs rub together creating a rhythmic sound, which amplifies her presence; an undeniably bewildering sight in an arcane get-up. This is Camilla and, rustling aside, her approach is friendly, and her mellow voice invites me up to the rooftop; home to one of the two beekeeping sites within the hotel. We make our way to the elevator, which despite its mirrored interior, could ignite claustrophobia within even the coolest persona.
“They are going for exotic plants not just British plants, seeking the greatest sugar and nectar content, and that could be anything; it could be palm trees! They are adapting. We see it as an urban landscape whereas they see it simply as a landscape, to use and understand.”
A 30-something beekeeper, Camilla tells me she tends to many sites within the city. Having grown up on a farm in Worcestershire before graduating from the University of Cambridge, she has since moved to London where it wasn't long before she began to turn a passion for beekeeping into her profession.
"It was at a time when people weren't overly worried about bees", she explains, "but I had heard that bees were on the decline so I began collecting hives and colonies and keeping them. Back then it was difficult to find places to keep bees in London. People were reluctant to help but over time it has changed. At first I had to pay for sites, then I could use spaces for free and now people pay me to keep bees for them! That's been over a ten year period, and I have reached the point where I am being asked to teach and lead activities which is great. Plus, I get to see a hidden part of London as often the sites are tucked away places or have limited access. I had heard a story about a French man who planted an acorn every day until he died. Soon people began to notice a woodland appear - he had planted a huge area and over the years all the trees he had planted took on a life of their own; a life beyond his. This story inspired me to find the green areas around where I lived in London and start adding hives to them, one at a time…"
As we exit many floors above, Camilla tucks her short blonde hair behind her ears and hastily (or seemingly so from the shuffle of her suit) proceeds to guide me through a network of identical rooms. We stop in front of an unassuming door that I would have otherwise passed with all but a fleeting acknowledgement. After fumbling around a large bunch of keys - perhaps a trophy of each site she tends - the door is opened. A dark dusty staircase is revealed; narrow and only a couple of metres tall, making it a complete contrast to the lavish hotel we are leaving behind us. At the top Camilla pushes another door and as it swings open we cross the threshold, eyes squinting and blinking rapidly to become accustomed to the bright sunlight. The rooftop itself shows evidence of the building's past with a montage of brickwork, stone, tile and masonry. The skyline displays classic London iconography, fit for a postcard that would be the envy of the many tourists flocking down below.
After ensuring that her veil is fastened, Camilla is now head-to-toe in her protective attire as she approaches the purple hives. Far from timid in her actions, she begins to dissemble a hive and a small flurry of bees is unleashed, launching into an unregimented tornado-like dance; whipping about hypnotically. The smoker is ignited, a small handheld canister that outputs smoke from burning wool-sack and newspaper. The smoke visibly calms the bees, masking alarm pheromones and enticing them to eat honey; both making them less inclined to fight.
The smoothness of Camilla's co-ordinated movements is to minimise distress or harm to the bees, and her attentive care suggests an affectionate almost maternal bond as she begins to remove the honey-saturated frames. The kinship that has been forged between her and the colony appears to surpass that of keeper and kept, and amongst her fluent routine of tending to the apiaries she intermittently shares snippets of her bountiful knowledge, as if they are personal anecdotes. Her impressive repertoire has clearly been built up through her experience and tenure in the company of these hard-working creatures.
"When things are going well they do this dance: a joy dance. They have begun to do it again which is really great for me to see after trying to get them through the winter. Last winter was so long that a third of all UK colonies died out - that's huge! Colonies that have pulled through are doing really well now; they have been given the chance they need which is fantastic to see." Smiling, she points out a bee dancing; explaining its little vibrating body and positioning indicates that this is a scout bee that has located a nectar source, and with her body language she is communicating to the colony of its location.
"What I am really interested in is getting their honey analysed," Camilla reveals, "because that way I can find out where the bees are going. I really like discovering more about what they are doing; for example, they are going for blackberries, fire weed, water lilies which indicates that they are going to St. James's Park. Here, there are 50 types of different flowers - a lot of which are wild flowers. They are going for exotic plants not just British plants, seeking the greatest sugar and nectar content, and that could be anything; it could be palm trees! They are adapting. We see it as an urban landscape whereas they see it simply as a landscape, to use and understand."
Although modern environments do pose new challenges for bees, with plenty of green areas within cityscapes (ranging from extensive parkland to people's back gardens) colonies are able to thrive within urban sites thanks to a resurgence in beekeeping. London's rooftops, churchyards, parks and abandoned spaces are becoming home to a growing number of colonies, creating a fruitful and habitable environment for them. City councils are even planting specifically to cater for bees, in contrast to rural areas where nectar sources are actually depleting. Camilla continues, "In rural areas they are getting rid of a lot of natural forage; there are all these green fields but they have lost a lot of their wild flowers by having this monoculture. Huge amounts of foraging sources for bees are being wiped out. London has enormously varied planting, so from a bee's point of view that is fantastic."
She explains that having such varied nectar sources has had a monumental impact on the honey; the flavour is dependent on where the bees have foraged and Camilla describes the city honey as cocktail of tastes. And with that she carefully dislodges a piece of beeswax and indicates to the plethora of hexagonal wax cells holding a diverse range of honey, from cherry red to brilliant amber; bright yellow to a more subdued yellow-green. "What's good now is that I keep bees right across North, East, South and West London so I am getting a regional perspective on how things are going each year. Therefore I can tell, for example, that Notting Hill is doing really well this year for honey levels. Some parts have different types of honey and different flavours; each area tastes different. It varies throughout the year too and I love that uniqueness. What I like about beekeeping is that you never know quite what is going to happen next."
“I know what I like doing and I think if you’ve got energy in something it just works, because that is where you are motivated. And if you align yourself with your motivations you then have a natural energy and a natural enthusiasm.”
Camilla's passion is evident. She speaks with pride about her role as a beekeeper, her journey to this point and the city in which she lives and works. There is huge complexity in identifying the problems that bee populations have been facing in recent years, but despite some colony loss Camilla continues with a determined heart to press forward, furthering her knowledge on the species and expanding her professional practice so to give the bees the best quality of life she can. Her efforts represent an important step in how our busiest built-up ecosystems can better interact with natural processes; essential if we want them to continue to flourish.
"I'm just going with it", she confesses modestly. "I know what I like doing and I think if you've got energy in something it just works, because that is where you are motivated. And if you align yourself with your motivations you then have a natural energy and a natural enthusiasm. It's infectious: I always found that it was best to follow what I really wanted to do. All my life people would say you can't do this and you can't do that and you won't make any money doing that and it's all rubbish; you just have to get on with what you enjoy doing." •
Simply A Landscape is a feature from Volume One. If you enjoyed this story then you may like The Night Garden – click here to continue to this story.