London: City of Urban Honey and Green Ideas

London’s a city of very old things. Like many places throughout Europe, it’s not uncommon to find a building that’s been around since the 18th century. The Royal Academy of Arts, for one, is celebrating its 245th anniversary this year.

If you look closely, there are also many new things happening in the capital of the British Empire—ways to provide more efficient transportation, ideas to use water more effectively and strategies to tackle urban pollution. In that sense London isn’t much different from the innovative capitals around the world. And during our visit to see both London’s old and new sides, we wanted to see ways the city is changing and planning for the future.

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If you treat them gently, they usually won’t hurt you, urban beekeeper Brian McCallum told us. Just to be safe, he wore protective gear over his face.

As farmers worldwide are seeing the effects of declining bee populations, we visited a place with some good news for bees, and for urban agriculture. The Bee Collective, a group of bee experts and honey enthusiasts, has turned London’s rooftops into a network of bee hives that  can be harnessed for honey. There are 3,000 managed hives around urban London. That can translate to roughly 100,000 pounds (45,000 kilos) of honey every summer,  according to Caroline Birchall, the collective’s founder. Birchall’s group collects the honey from the private buildings and businesses with the hives, then helps them sell it.

She put me to work, uncapping the wax from the honeycombs to allow the honey to flow. Then a machine called an extractor spun to dislodge every drop of the honey. We left with some souvenirs—jars of urban honey we can trace back to the very London zip code it came from. “As we see problems with bees around the world, the immediate reaction many people have here in the UK is that the best thing to do is start keeping bees,” Birchall said. Certainly not all bee species produce honey, but the ones that do are being put to work to produce something sweet.

With skies overcast, it wasn’t a great day to see bees flying around. So looking to capture some footage of a living bee hive, we met up with Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum, two bee enthusiasts who run a educational nonprofit called Urban Bees. They’ve also written several books about the insects, most recently Bees in the City, a fantastic collection of stories about urban beekeeping. In protective gear, Brian pulled out a frame of bees for our cameras.

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Small jars of honey come with a zip code, identifying the location of the beehive that made the honey.

Next up we wanted to see one of the city’s public efforts to make its city cleaner. Since 2011, Transport for London, the city’s public utility in charge of managing the city’s entire public transportation system, has been testing “green walls,” or vertical gardens, at some of London’s busiest subway stops (the  system here is known as the underground, or informally, the tube).

The number of cars on London’s roads has come close to doubling over the past 30 years, which has effectively pumped twice as much bad stuff into the air, including nitrogen dioxide that can make it harder to breathe, and particulate matter, a form of pollution measured by the size of tiny particles floating around. On the busy Edgware Road tube station, city researchers installed a vertical garden with 15 different plants, species like lavender, sedge and wallflower that grow year round. A perennial known as lamb’s ears has thick velvety leaves, ideal for trapping removing particulates from the air.

Aside from being visually stunning, the wall has shown some positive results. Over three months last spring, an analysis of the plants showed they captured 500 grams of particulate matter. That is certainly a tiny fraction of  what is floating around London, but it’s still a model to rationalize the installation of more green walls around the city.

Green walls aren’t simple: Getting plants to grow sideways and evenly requires some gardening expertise. The walls also tend to demand more water than horizontal plantings, and water can be hard to come by in some cities. But as we watched the way people reacted and interacted to a few walls around town, it seems the walls’ best rationale might be in the ways they change the thinking of a community. Nicola Cheetham, head of Transport for London’s environment program, has thought about this. “One of the great successes,” she told us, “is that it’s increased people’s awareness of air quality, which is something we haven’t seen very much before.” In a historic city with longstanding priorities, changing minds might be the biggest hurdle.

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Behind the scenes: the Change Reaction team at work, filming bees at work.