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Suburban Beekeeping at the University of London

19th February 2021
bee keepers at UOLV

The promotion of sustainability is something to which the University of London has been long-committed. It’s our belief that only through a multi-pronged approach to sustainability covering our entire footprint, will we make a crucial difference. Food, travel, waste, supply chain, events and halls of residence energy consumption are amongst the key areas of our sustainability policy. Since 2013 we’ve added a fascinating string to our sustainable bow aimed at promoting species population, food security and sustainable profit - Bee keeping!

Bee keeping is very misunderstood by a lot of people who may be confused about how the process works. With 48 beekeepers and four hives, situated on the IALS building rooftop, we thought it would be the perfect opportunity to share an insight into a typical day in the life of one of our staff volunteer beekeepers!    


What are the benefits of beekeeping and why do we do it? 

Before we look at the day-to-day tasks of a beekeeper, we must understand it from a sustainability standpoint.  Beekeeping has a long list of positive benefits on the natural environment and our existence as crop consuming humans. 

It helps prevent honey bee population decline 

Over the past 15 years populations of the honey bee have declined at an alarming rate. A phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder has seen able adult worker bees abandon their queen and other less developed hive mates. With the hive unprotected, scores of non-worker bees are left defenceless against predators and mites. Our beehives are controlled and maintained as to promote a natural habitat for bee populations to thrive in.  

Assures food security by fighting the decline in pollinators 

Aside from preserving the bee from ecological threats and CCD, promoting strong bee populations is in our interest since we rely on bees to pollinate the majority of edible crops. Bee pollination is also responsible for pollinating foraging crops which are used as a food source by livestock. Without bees doing the pollination work for us, we would have to rely on artificial pollination which would take time and leave a sizable carbon footprint. By letting our four colonies thrive, we can do our bit to fight the current decline in pollinators and promote food security.  

It produces sustainable honey 

Last but not least, beekeeping comes with the reward of producing locally sourced sustainable honey. We are currently selling this honey to staff, students and visitors. Yet, aside from the honey itself, we feel that there is great symbolism in producing a great natural product at no cost to the environment or the wellbeing of a species. The honey we produce is unique in taste and is made from a mix of local pollen sources: 

  • Sweet chestnut 28%
  • Tree of heaven 15%
  • Blackberry 10%
  • Cytisus and genista shrubs 8%
  • Maple 7%
  • Cherry 5%
  • Butterfly bush 5%
  • Hawthorn 3%
  • Oak privet 2% 
  • Rock rose 2%
  • Buckthorn 1%
  • Eucalyptus 1%


What do beekeepers do on a typical day?

All of our 48 beekeepers are university staff who have volunteered for beekeeping duties under Camila Goddard who heads up the beekeeping program and University of London. The specific activities of our beekeepers are totally dependent on the time of the year, and since bee keeping is a seasonal job this tends to change. In a broad sense, the duty of a beekeeper is to

  • Maintaining hive health
  • Protecting the colony
  • Feed the colony
  • Harvest honey

The beekeeping season starts early in the year around January time and accelerates in the summer months when pollen production is at its peak. Harvesting takes place in August after which the cycle activity dies down and the bees retire for the winter. Since the hives require the most attention in summer, the typical day for one of our beekeepers is very busy!  

Hive swarm management 

During the winter months our colony sizes are drastically reduced with many of the worker bees from the previous season disappearing around late summer. When spring sets in, the hive activity really starts to increase and the colony can become crowded. Swarming is when the queen bee decides to leave the hive and take half the colony with her in search of a new hive space. 

During the months of May to July, much of our beekeepers time will be dedicated to checking in on the hives to monitor capacity and likelihood of swarming. Many commercial beekeepers will actually try to prevent swarming since it has a negative impact on the honey harvest. However this practice involves removing potential queen larvae from the brooding section so that the present queen has no successor if she decides to leave. 

Since our beekeeping program is focused on the promotion of bees as a species, our beekeepers will tend to manage swarming by luring breakaway swarms into new hives. This is how we’ve increased the number of hives over the last eight years from two to four!   

Adding honey supers

Monitoring and managing honey production is one of the most common tasks our staff beekeepers carry out during the height of summer. With flowers in bloom and nectar production in full swing, our hives are incredibly busy producing lots of honey. Supers are framed structures that fit into the hive boxes in order to contain the honey produced. If the hive box has insufficient supers in place, comb buildup can occur and cause overcrowding. It can also mean honeycomb buildup around the brood area where the queen bee lays her eggs. Both of these things happening can inevitably lead to swarming so a typical day will see our beekeepers checking for signs of excessive comb buildup and adding supers in as necessary.     

Maintaining bee health 

Another constant throughout the beekeeping season is checking in on and protecting colony health. There are plenty of diseases and natural threats to bees so monitoring the hives each day is usually the first port of call for our beekeepers. 

Checking for varroa Mites 

An example of this is checking for Varroa mites which are parasitic creatures capable of destroying entire colonies by feeding on the fat reserves of worker bees, larvae and can even cause the queen to stop producing eggs. Sized no bigger than pinheads, they are very hard to spot and are able to reproduce quickly making them a significant threat.

Our beekeepers  are constantly looking out for symptoms of varroa mites such as deformities, short lifespan and stunted energy among the bees. If mites are found, the bees will be given a combination of thymol whilst miticides are administered to remove mites in the brood.  If mites are found we will either use an antibiotic medication in the hive’s food or physically trap the mites using the sugar in a jar technique.  

Checking for European foulbrood

Our beekeepers will also be looking out for a number of different bacterial infections such as Foulbrood. Beekeepers will carry out constant checks for Foulbrood bacteria which affects young larvae bees still incubating in honeycomb cells. Tell-tale signs of Foulbrood include sunken cell cappings with a dark greasy green appearance. Foulbreed is very contagious and incredibly difficult to get rid of. 

The disease can be spread if our bees “steal” honey from another infected hive, or if infection is introduced through beekeeping tools or equipment. Stopping the disease is critical for bee preservation as a whole so our beekeepers will always be testing and monitoring larvae cells. 

Monitoring Nosema in bees

Nosema is also another major fungal disease our beekeepers are always looking to prevent. The condition is spread through spores, slowing down a bee’s gut health and ability to digest vital nutrients. This in turn leads to a much shorter life, lover productivity and an increased intake of food since bad gut health inhibits the bees ability to absorb enough energy. The disease can also render the queen infertile making colony collapse very possible. 

A preventative approach is the best course of action when it comes to Nosema which thrives under dirty fermentative environments. Infected bees defecating in the hive are the main sources of transmission so our beekeepers will be regularly changing the comb, cleaning the hive and supplementing the bee feed with additives that promote good digestive health. 


Sustainability at the University of London 

We are very proud of our beekeeping program and the positive impact it’s had on the species and natural environment over the last eight years. Our in house catering team also use the honey in their menus for green events. We’re particularly proud of the fact that all of our beekeepers are volunteer staff who have chosen to dedicate their time to learning about this wonderful insect and allowed the University to contribute to the environment. Employing a multi-faceted approach to sustainability goals, we will achieve the targets set out by the HEFCE’s 2050 carbon emissions reduction plan. 


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