The Beautiful Burial Ground


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    Bees at Highgate Cemetery

    by Maurice Melzak

    I was delighted when an opportunity arose to keep my bees in Highgate Cemetery about five years ago. Living close by, I had long realised it was an ideal site for a small apiary - secure and not too close to any people. The bees are on the Western side, on the terrace adjacent to St Michael’s church. With two beekeeping friends, Ian and Dee, there are eight hives.

    It is a surprise to many people that there are beekeepers in London but in fact urban bees tend to do quite well.  Unlike in the countryside, which may have vast monocultures of oilseed rape, towns and cities contain parks and gardens with an abundance of flowers and trees that blossom from early spring to late autumn. Most of these plants are not covered in pesticides and other agricultural chemicals, and this can only help too.

    Honeybees have been in the news a great deal recently, sadly for all the wrong reasons.  All over the UK (and in Europe and the US) honeybees are dying and colonies are being lost at an alarming rate. This is a huge concern as the pollination of crops by honeybees is worth millions to the British economy. They pollinate apples, pears, runner beans and soft fruits like strawberries and raspberries.

    Though pollution and climate change have been implicated, the main reason for the losses seems to be Varroa, a parasitic mite that sucks the blood of the bees and can introduce viral infections at the same time. All hives are affected to some extent and the result can be much less honey produced or, even worse, a colony to weak to sustain itself. Varroa has now wiped-out virtually all wild colonies of bees, so beekeepers are the only way honey bees are maintained in London, or anywhere else.

    So beekeepers are doing their best to keep their colonies going in the hope that there will be proper funding for research that might offer some solution to this and the many other threats honey bees are facing.

    Bees are such remarkable insects in the way the colony is organised. The single queen lays hundreds of eggs each day and the worker bees are her daughters. The workers are able to understand another worker’s 'bee dance', which pinpoints the exact location of a promising source of pollen and nectar, up to three miles from the hive.

    The cemetery bees could not be in a more beautiful location, surrounded by acres of flowers and trees. Let's hope they can thrive and continue to produce the most delicious honey.

    Maurice Melzak

    Photo of Maurice Melzak in action!  

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