TENS of thousands of commuters swarm into Newcastle City Centre every day, like bees returning to the hive.
This transient workforce’s numbers have been boosted by a staggering 50,000 in the past few weeks, however. And soon they will be joined by another 200,000 bodies.
While job losses nationally are rocketing as the recession bites, the centre of Newcastle is a hive of activity.
But these extra workers’ arrival on Tyneside has gone almost unnoticed by the masses.
For they take the highway in the sky to their “office” 100 feet above street level on the roof of the North East’s premium department store Fenwick.
The workers are bees, and since the end of April they have been in residence in what can lay claim to be Newcastle’s busiest workplace, high above Northumberland Street.
In what is believed to be a first for the region, Fenwick and a local beekeeper have joined forces in a venture that promises to bring sweet rewards for all involved.
The single hive of rare near native – or black – bees, is already proving to be owner Ian Wallace’s best performing, with honey beginning to flow just a month after the occupants were moved to their urban high rise with its panoramic views of Tyneside.
Now Fenwick plans to sell the rich, golden honey made from nectar collected so industriously from Newcastle’s gardens and green spaces.
It is hoped the first jars will go on sale in its food hall within days.
If the bees keep up their good work, the colony could produce 100lbs of honey this season. But with Ian planning to move another two hives to the rooftop, it is hoped production will treble.
It was Ian’s idea to turn some of his bees into city slickers. London’s famous food emporium Fortnum & Mason hit the headlines last year when it moved up to 200,000 Italian carnaroli bees on to the roof of the store in Piccadilly and appointed its own urban apiarist.
“I thought, ‘If it’s good enough for Fortnum’s, it’s good enough for Fenwick,’” the 57-year-old says. “So I rang to see if they were interested.”
The woman who took the call was catering manager Audrey McLuckie. She admits to being nonplussed initially. “The switchboard got through to me and said, ‘We’ve got this chap on the line …”
Ian smiles ruefully. “I’d have loved to have heard what the switchboard’s comments were. Probably, ‘We’ve got this nutter on the phone’!”
Audrey turned out to be a receptive audience, however; she is passionate about honey and quality food. “Here at Fenwick we are committed to local food, local suppliers and were worried about food miles before people really started talking about them. And what could be more local, more natural and more environmentally aware than honey produced right here on the Fenwick roof? It will go straight from the hive, into the jar and onto the shop floor.
“Honey also ticks every box on the wellbeing front. I love it. It’s full of goodness, it is all natural and isn’t processed in any way. You can have it on its own, put it into a cake or bread or add it to your yoghurt. The possibilities are endless.”
Within days of that phone call, Ian had moved his hive into place and become the official Fenwick beekeeper. Early tastings suggest the Fenwick honey will be especially sweet. “I know it sounds ridiculous to describe honey as sweet, but different varieties do vary,” Ian explains. “It’s a nice, thick runny honey, light and golden in colour. It has a taste that lingers long after you have eaten it. It doesn’t just disappear. It’s also very floral.”
Whether honey is set or runny depends on the source of the nectar. “It’s to do with the sugar in the honey, and that is dependent on the nectar,” Ian says. “The higher the amount of glucose, the more likely the honey is to granulate.
“Oilseed rape and brassica produce a fair amount of glucose, therefore those honeys tend to granulate faster and set. Flower honeys tend to be runny.
“When I was on the roof on Sunday the bees were coming in from Leazes Park way past St James’s Park. The previous week they had been coming in from Leazes Park and Exhibition Park. Going on that, I would expect the honey to be runny as they will have been collecting the nectar mainly from flowers.”
It perhaps shouldn’t be surprising the bees are favouring the St James’s Park-Leazes Park route. While we are used to seeing bees with black and yellow stripes, Ian’s native variety break the mould. They have black and white stripes.
The native British bee population was devastated in 1914 when Isle of Wight disease swept through the country. They were replaced with Italian bees and it was thought the British variety had died out.
But years later a few wild colonies were discovered in Scotland and in the remote hills of Northumberland.
“They are very close to the traditional native bee,” Ian says. “There are only six to eight beekeepers in the North East that keep these black bees. They are ideal for the North East as they have evolved for this region.
“They start work earlier, they work longer hours and they work later in the year and are always very calm. A bit like North East people really. And fittingly they have black and white rather than black and yellow stripes.”
Ian, the former director of operational risk for Northern Rock, has been interested in bees for 30 years but only began keeping them 12 years ago. “Who manages who is the big question,” he says with a laugh. “You can’t get bees to do anything they don’t want to.”
He knows the Fenwick bees are happy in their new abode by the amount of honey being produced. They gather nectar from a three-mile radius, which takes in Jesmond Dene and Newcastle’s botanical garden.
It isn’t until you venture up on to the Fenwick roof that you appreciate how much greenery there is in the centre of the city.
The bees will cross the River Tyne to Gateshead, but like the commuters pouring into Newcastle, they use the bridges. Bees don’t like flying over water. The only difference is, they don’t get caught in traffic jams. While the Fenwick hive is currently home to 50,000 bees, at the height of the season this number will grow to 60,000 to 80,000, of which 99.8% will be female.
Ian is stunned by how well the hive is doing. “I’m tremendously pleased. When you think of the problems we had last year with the wet weather and lack of oilseed rape, which slashed honey production, this is my best performing hive.
“Urban beekeeping has a lot of benefits over the countryside, where there is a blossom gap. You don’t tend to get that in an urban area.”
Urban beekeeping is becoming more popular: in parks, along railway lines, on allotments and in back yards and gardens. Ian used to keep his bees in the garden of the home in Whitley Bay, North Tyneside, he shares with wife Judith, 52, and their three children, Mark, 25, Tim, 21, and Jane, 18. Now most of the hives are at a secret location in Northumberland. “The children’s eyes roll at the very mention of bees,” Ian admits. “But they love honey and they are following the bees’ progress at Fenwick with interest.”
City centre beekeeping has certainly boomed in London in recent years with hives not just atop Fortnum & Mason’s, but the Royal Festival Hall and even balconies in tower blocks.
Ian and Audrey believe the Fenwick hive can claim to be the most central city location in the North East, though. Contrary to what people might think, urban honey can be purer than that gathered in the country, where genetically modified crops, pesticides and fertilisers abound.
Traffic pollution, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to affect bees, and pesticide use in towns and cities is usually low.
City bees – as Ian’s workers are proving – can also be more productive. Ample food coupled with warmer temperatures mean they can yield more honey than their country cousins.
And as the 360-degree view from Fenwick rooftop, encompassing Gateshead, the coast and up towards Northumberland reveals, there is no shortage of flowers, trees and parks.
Just as the countryside needs bees to aid pollination and so keep food production in full swing, so do the flora and fauna found in cities.
Ian says he can’t stress enough how receptive and helpful Fenwick has been. “I know they are committed to local food. They led the way with stocking local cheeses and other local products. Now they are set to lead the way with urban honey.”
Meet the workers
YOU can meet the Fenwick beekeeper and his black bees at Northumberland County Show on May 25.
Ian Wallace will be at The Journal’s Taste of the County food and drink festival.
He will .join staff from Fenwick food hall who will be among stallholders at Monday’s Taste of the County event.
Visitors will be able safely to see the bees at work and find out why they are essential to food production.
Nearly 60 of the region’s finest food and drink producers and suppliers will be at Taste of the County in association with Tesco. It is the first time The Journal has joined with Northumberland County Show in this way.
Seven of the region’s top chefs will give be giving cookery demonstrations in our kitchen.