The only way is ethics: the importance of bees

Categories: Behind the stalls

In a new series, we go behind the stalls to discover the positive environmental and social practices that underpin many of Borough’s traders. This month, Curtis Thompson of Local Honey Man talks about his mission to reverse the decline in honey bee population by producing high quality raw honey

Curtis Thompson was just 15 years old when he put his hands in a hive and felt, with a thrill of terror, the furry warmth of 10,000 bees buzzing. “It was very scary and—different,” he says. “I was brought up in inner London, and I simply did not appreciate the link between honey and bees.” Drawing him gently toward the hive, the apiarist—Curtis’s uncle—beckoned him to reach down and pick out a cone. “I had to summon all my strength. My uncle never wears protective gear or equipment, so as his nephew I didn’t either. No veil or gloves or anything.” Yet what for many would prove a traumatic childhood experience, for Curtis proved a defining moment—and a crash course in the art of working in harmony with honey bees.

It’s a lesson he has carried with him to this day and, more importantly, has informed his own beekeeping business, Local Honey Man. “It was never about making a profit, with my uncle. Obviously you need to make money to pay people, but his philosophy was about being at one with the bees—behaving morally.” Look after your bees, his uncle told him, and they will look after you. It’s to this end that Curtis has set out to create some of the most ethically-sound honeys you could hope to find this side of the 20th century and the industrialisation of bee farming.

Reverse the decline
“We pride ourselves on being ethical bee farmers. We are on a mission to reverse the decline of the honey bee. In doing so, we breed and raise honey bees, sell honey to the public, and teach them about what bees can do.” As a company, Local Honey Man invests thousands each year in establishing new hives and growing the population. They even ask their customers to plant bee-friendly flowers for pollinators. But it’s their day-to-day treatment of each hive—each bee, even—he looks after that really distinguishes Curtis from his fellow bee-keeping colleagues.

“We don’t clip the wings of the queens. It’s common practice now, to stop them swarming, but we find if we treat them well and give them enough space, they don’t want to swarm,” says Curtis simply. “If they do swarm, the young virgin queen they leave behind is more productive in the long run anyway”—but it’s a rarity. For the main part, Curtis’s bees know they’re onto a good thing.

Instead of stripping every last drop of honey from the hive and replacing it with sugar syrup, as per industrial practices, Local Honey Man leaves enough honey for the bees to winter with. “Honey is known for its medicinal and health properties,” says Curtis. “Sugar has none whatsoever.” The theory is that leaving the bees to feed off their own food supply will result in better-performing populations—and if it sounds like a no-brainer, it’s because it is.

Morally devastating
“It was Albert Einstein who predicted that if bees become extinct, man will have four years,” says Curtis. To watch any species become extinct at the hands of man is morally devastating, of course—but the rub with bees is that, once they’re gone, we’re goners too. “Bees pollinate a significant percentage of our food supply. They are vitally important.”

That’s why Curtis is so committed; why even when it comes to replacing the lid on a hive after inspecting it or extracting honey, he does so meticulously, ensuring no bees are on the rim of the hive. “Some people just plonk it back on, but there’s no point saying, ‘we’re trying to save the bees’ and then crushing 10 or 12 each time you close the lid.”

He’s making a living. He’s making raw, untreated honey, rich in the nutritional properties for which honey is rightly lauded—and he is helping sustain a vital, imperilled ecosystem. And all this, in the words of a certain, silly old bear, “comes from liking honey so much”.