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  • harrystigner

Hive Castle for 55-Pages

Updated: Jan 9, 2021

A collage inspired by our rooftop hives

I wrote a piece for 55 Pages, the Social Reform Issue, about how society could learn a thing or two from the bees.

Please find the transcript below this PDF.

Our Hive is Our Castle

We can learn a lot from the bees. Fortunately the indispensable pollinators have been getting a consistently good press lately, but putting their fundamental role in our survival aside, the humble honeybee can teach us a thing or two about how to improve the way society functions too.

When I first became an urban beekeeper I thought of an apiary as a way of getting a slice of ‘The Good Life’. There’s something uniquely relaxing about watching hundreds and thousands of bees quietly doing their thing, oblivious to London, the traffic and you. Then it dawned on me that each hive is a densely populated, thriving metropolis that has more in common with fast paced city life than a country idyll.

No bee is an island. Even the queen is incapable of surviving as an individual, dependent on her workers to groom and feed her. Every bee has a role, from security bees defending the hive, to gathering forage, feeding young, cleaning, building, central heating, air conditioning, grooming and preparing honey.

When you consider that a single bee will travel a three-mile radius to gather nectar and pollen, the scaled up equivalent of you walking from London to Loch Ness to purchase your finest groceries and then sharing them with your neighbours, it becomes clear that the success of these captivating, productive creatures is dependent on community. I have a theory that by helping the bees we could learn to live more collaboratively too.

After a period of austerity when local authorities have been stretched beyond recovery, in a nation that’s growing ever more disenchanted with the way governance is structured, it seems that having a grass roots, community focused approach to the way that we live is not only ideal but imperative.

Of course I’m not suggesting that we use hives as an out-and-out blue print for restructuring society, there’s a lot that wouldn’t work – the incapacity for individual expression, sex killing men, rival queens having to fight to the death (though a Gladiator style Question Time would surely get higher ratings). The bees have mastered something that we’re still struggling with in London – how hundreds and thousands of beings can cohabit harmoniously in a small space.

The housing crisis is an issue at the forefront of most Londoners’ minds – pub chat constantly revolves around the ever-elusive housing ladder. Rents continue to sour as gentrification chases the few areas where bargains (by London standards) can be found, clashing against the migrant communities that established there back when Forrest Hill was a suburb and Islington had a bad reputation.

The benefits of living in a secular society and the pride we take in London’s multiculturalism reaches a crisis point in these newly gentrified areas, where there is rarely a sense of integrated community. Church congregations used to provide a hub where people of all ages and walks of life would meet, but religion would only widen the chasms that exist between us now, and most Londoners don’t want it. There’s an indisputable need for common ground and shared interest in the city, somewhere cooperative that isn’t serving the capitalist raison d’être of doing nothing unless there’s a profit to be made.

I’d argue that one of the most immediately accessible and productive things we can do for the bees, and for our communities, is to garden.

The number of people dependent on food banks has risen from 41,000 five years ago to 913,000 last year. By injecting more greenery into the city we could reduce air pollution, feed the bees, meet our neighbours and feed ourselves more affordably.

If this sounds far-fetched and idealistic, it’s been tried and tested with great success in cities like Berlin. Inspired by the ‘agricultural urbana’ in Havana where city dwellers are transforming rooftops into farmland, Marco Clausen and Robert Shaw turned a wasteland into a portable garden in Kreuzberg. Using crates and shipping containers as raised beds, their community garden can be moved to a new development site whenever building commences on their existing space. Every few weeks the gardeners turn their five hundred crops into soups, pizzas and salads, and dinner is served for one hundred locals.

‘It’s not long before any shared garden, however modest, becomes a community hub where people meet to talk about more than food and flowers,’ says Alex Mitchell in his book Rurbanite. Volunteers at the Edible Bus Stop in Brixton have followed his lead – ‘I’ve lived here for twenty years, and I’d never spoken to anyone till I got involved with this garden,’ a volunteer told Mitchell.

The waiting lists for allotments in London are long and the impermanence brought on by rising rents makes managing a garden as an individual a daunting prospect. But if you think guerrilla, having a garden in the city becomes much more achievable. London’s famous Guerrilla Gardener, Richard Reynolds, lives in a tower block in Elephant and Castle. He’s proven that the best way to make something beautiful happen in the city is not to ask for permission. As Richard Tyrie, founder of the social enterprise Good People, told The Big Issue: ‘The London Riot clean-up saw some five hundred people turn up on the back of a Twitter hashtag to help the community. No managers, no forms to fill in, no CRB check, no health and safety… just people turning up because they could.’

If catastrophes like 9/11, the earthquake in Christchurch and the tsunami in the Philippines teach us anything it’s to jolt us out of the ‘every man for himself’ mode that capitalism supports and to think more like a worker bee. Politics can be baffling but human beings are pack animals and somewhere buried in our psyche is the indisputable knowledge that what’s good for society is good for the individual.

Listening to a TED Talk from South Central LA’s guerrilla gardener, Ron Finley, was like hearing my own gardening dreams articulated. ‘Growing your own food is like printing your own money,’ says Finley. ‘Gardening is my graffiti; I grow my art… You’ll be surprised what the soil can do if you let it be your canvas. You’d be amazed what a sunflower can do and how it affects people. I have witnessed my garden become a tool for the education and transformation of my neighbourhood.’

Even if you haven’t experienced the thrill of watching something you’ve planted grow, we all benefit from those that have. From the wildflower meadows of London Fields to the Edible Bus Stop in Brixton, these spaces add air cleansing insect forage to our urban lives, enriching the city dweller’s experience. The potential to add fresh products to emergency food banks is an indisputable incentive too. ‘To change a community you have to change the composition of the soil. We are the soil,’ says Finley. ‘Gardening is the most therapeutic and defiant act you can do, especially in the inner city.’

Of course getting a community garden started requires effort and time, but if we think of the many flat shares in London as an allegory for the city, then it’s really a question of what kind of housemate you want to be. The current structure of society encourages us to live in a pretty joyless way, to be the sort who stingily marks our milk levels, labels cupboards and only washes up our own plates. Right-wing voters are characterised for saying they’ll look out for themselves and not be a drain on society, but in a flat share the failings in this approach are inevitable – it’s not easy to segregate the crumbs that gather, the milk goes sour and eventually, someone has to take the rubbish out. We don’t want to be the parasitic kind either, eating someone else’s biscuits and refusing to buy toilet paper. The happiest homes adopt an outlook where chores, fridges and bills are a communal responsibility. We know that, like bees, we can’t function in isolation, and would we really want to? Surely the human condition is lonely enough as it is.

The times demand that we provide our own solutions for government’s failings. We can help the bees and ourselves by living more like them and planting public gardens. Don’t ask for permission to start digging for a better future, in the words of Ron Finley – ‘Get gangster with your shovel.’

Here’s a few of the many tweets we received recently from happy commuters –

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