The view from Regent Street’s Heddon House is, to say the least, extraordinary. When standing on its rooftop you enjoy a 360° view of central London in all its might: the City skyline to the east and, in the far distance, the seemingly never-ending fields of Hyde Park. It’s rare to get such an exclusive glimpse of the city, but, if you are up here as a guest of The Crown Estate Bee Keeper Dale McCann, you’ll get to see something that, arguably, beats the view. Housed in two hives, there are up to 100,000 honeybees living here and you get to see them in action, up and close
Dale started out working for The Crown Estate as a pest controller and when he heard about the bees, he was as startled as you and me: “It was quite surprising to find out there were bees here, I was a little bit shocked myself,” he says while getting dressed in his protective body suit. “We were one of the first to put hives on buildings in London, and I was looking around me thinking – is this actually going to work? But it did work, as the bees will travel up to three miles for food and we’re surrounded by small and big parks.”
Bees, generally speaking, are rare in urban locations, and especially high above a West End street such as Regent Street. The landmark street is known as the home of fashion brands flagships and sensational restaurants, not colonies of Anthophila. So, when you leave the shopping behind and climb the stairs to the roof, you enter a new world, that of two Queen Bees and their loyal followings. Dale is the brave man in charge of their upkeep. For eight years he’s been maintaining this parallel society running alongside the human one on street level. “For me, they’re just so calming and relaxing to watch – sometimes I’ll bring my lunch up and just sit here observing them!”
The ‘urban bee’ awareness is spreading, partly due to Dale and his work. “Twice a week we take groups of people up on the roof. We educate them about bees and encourage people to actually set up their own hives.” For some visitors it also has a healing effect. “Yes, people who are scared of bees walk away having lost their fear because they realise the bees are so docile and, more often than not, inoffensive.”
Dale calls them “inoffensive”, and though anyone who’s got stung by a bee might beg to differ, there’s no doubt they’re crucial to the cycle of life on earth: Dale affirms “We need bees because, all vegetables on our plates are pollinated by bees. If the bees go away we’re going to have a lot less food to choose between,” Dale explains. “For example, every vegetable you eat has got to be pollinated. We have other insects out there that pollinate, but not in the mass numbers that bees do. Take away the bees and we are in trouble!”
For Dale, the beekeeping is more than just a part of his job (he spends one out of five working days attending to the bees). Once you get into it – like Dale, his junior colleagues Lewis and Jake, and Julie Hogarth who initially organised the beehives and brought Dale on-board – it’s an entire world, if not a universe, to immerse yourself in. And when he starts talking about the intricate hierarchy, all run by each hive’s Queen bee, it’s like you’ve discovered a long-lost episode of David Attenborough’s Planet Earth.
“The Queen bee has one specific role in the hive: to lay eggs. She doesn’t even feed herself; other bees do that. Younger bees tend to be foragers that go out looking for food. But it's like a car engine, the more you drive it, the quicker it runs out. If you imagine a bee is doing thousands and thousands of journeys in its lifetime it will probably last anything from four to six weeks.” But whereas a ‘normal’ bee might only live for a month or two, the Queen can stay alive for up to three years. Life’s tough at the bottom of the ladder.
And, for anyone still not convinced about how “docile” bees are, there’s another reason bees are quite careful not to sting and only attack as a last resort: “When a honeybee dies after having stung a human, they only do that when they have to sacrifice themselves to protect the hive and the Queen”. It appears bees are not only harmless unless threatened, but also hopeless romantics.