Steve Watkins meets the man behind a thriving local food business
It is high summer and a stone’s throw from the rush hour traffic in Leyton live a colony of half-a-million honeybees.
Successive generations of these winged insects have made this their home for more than a quarter of a century and their presence goes largely unnoticed aside from the faint buzz of industry.
At first glance, London seems an unlikely habitat, but the London Beekeepers Association says it is home to around 5,000 managed and wild beehives. They can be found in gardens, on allotments, by the side of reservoirs and areas like Epping Forest, only on the proviso that the bees’ immediate flight path in and out of a hive doesn’t face any nearby homes.
Former investment banker Curtis Thompson is one of more than 1,000 registered beekeepers in the capital and life is sweet for the ‘honeyman’ since he traded bonds for bees.
“I realised there was more to life than staring at numbers on a screen,” the 31-year-old said. His company, Local Honey Man Ltd, is based at Forest Trading Estate in Blackhorse Lane. It is now the largest producer of raw honey in London and manages more than 250 hives across the capital and home counties, producing up to five tonnes a year. The company employs eight people – aside from its 20 million other workers – and is ethically run, reflecting Curtis’s belief that a healthy hive is a happy one.
His career change was met by surprise by friends and family, but not his uncle Henry who introduced him to beekeeping as a teenager in East London. Curtis said: “My job was to hold the smoker that makes the bees drowsy and try to avoid getting stung. People still think it’s a bit odd but I love it.”
The capital’s gardens, open spaces and parkland provide a profusion of flowering plants and trees for honeybees to feed on, including borage, blackberry bushes and lime trees. They produce distinctive flavours and the company produce four types of honey; golden, rapeseed, borage and floral fusion.
The bees’ presence goes largely unnoticed unless they swarm and leave a hive en masse to find a new home. The majority of us would pale at the thought of being faced with a bee swarm – let alone manhandling it – but it gives Curtis the chance to impress people. “I guess it’s the closest we get to being a bit rock-and-roll when we are called out to deal with a swarm. It always draws a bit of an audience.”
The company operates a hotline during the summer months and are called out to contain and move swarms with nothing more technical than a small box and a steady pair of hands.
Curtis carries out regular hive inspections for signs of damage and disease as well as collecting honey throughout the summer months. A smoker keeps the bees relatively docile but the further you go into the hive, the unhappier the bees.
So, how does it feel being outnumbered 50,000-to-one with only a protective hat and pair of gloves to protect you? “Getting stung is an occupational hazard. It doesn’t bother me now although I got caught under the arm-pit recently, which made my eyes water.”
What plans does Curtis have for the future? “I’m happy if my bees are happy. We’ve grown year-on-year since the business started and I’m so glad that I chased the dream rather than the money. Things have worked out pretty well and I want to see how far we can take it in terms of being an ethical producer.”