Not every Tuesday lunchtime sees me clambering up a metal ladder to climb onto the roof of a medieval church in the centre of Newcastle. But this is not an average Tuesday, and beekeeper (and member of the church choir) Sheila Turnbull is showing me her bees.
There are now three hives on the roof at the Church of St John the Baptist, which stands proudly on the corner of Grainger Street, a clear landmark for many people as they head from Central Station up into the city. Two hives were installed last year, and as the bees reach the end of their second summer on top of the church Sheila says their numbers have grown dramatically. ‘There are sixty to eighty thousand bees in each of the larger hives,’ she tells me. This seems incredible given their size (they’re no bigger than a post box), but I can’t help being slightly distracted by the countless bees swirling in the air around us. From the ground there’s hardly a sign that they’re even here (hence why I refused Sheila’s kind offer of a bee suit, and climbed up in my heeled boots, clutching my handbag) but the roof is clearly the bees’ domain. They are everywhere – but seem supremely unconcerned by our presence, even when Sheila stamps quickly on a wasp which is crawling along the roof (wasps are no friend to bees, as they like to steal their honey). From the roof, surrounded by bees, we can see the bustling city streets and shops below.
Later on I speak to the Reverend Doctor Nicholas Buxton, Priest-in-Charge of the Parish of St John the Baptist. Father Nicholas tells me that when he arrived at St John’s two years ago he immediately saw the potential of the churchyard which surrounds the building. ‘It’s really the only bit of recreational public space in that part of the city,’ he says. There had been problems with antisocial behaviour in the churchyard and the bees were part of a larger plan to tackle this, and make up for the neglect the churchyard had suffered. ‘Because we’ve got bees we’ve got to do some planting in the garden, and it’s a nice way to get the community onside,’ says Father Nicholas, ‘And it’s worked, it’s been brilliant.’
It was a member of the church who first put the idea of bees into Father Nicholas’ head, when they mentioned that Fenwick had bees on their roof on Northumberland Street, and suggested it might be an interesting idea for the church. ‘I said, “Yes, we want bees! I want bees on my roof – if they’ve got it we want it!”’ laughs Father Nicholas. It was when he announced this idea to the congregation that Sheila got involved. Her neighbours kept bees, and with their help she and two others from the church went on a course to become qualified beekeepers. ‘We established that we had a suitable location on the roof, and last June we got our first colony of bees,’ says Father Nicholas. Sheila, Sarah and Tony now go up on the roof after the service each Sunday, ‘To do a kind of routine bee maintenance,’ laughs Father Nicholas, ‘I don’t know what they do, but I sometimes pop out and say, “What’s going on? Where’s the honey?”’
There’s a long history of vicars being beekeepers, if you think of your stereotypical country vicar,’ he continues. ‘I know colleagues that keep bees, but they’re all in rural or at least suburban locations,’ he explains. ‘I don’t know of any other city centre churches with bees.’ Father Nicholas says that wherever he goes in the area people ask him about the bees, and they haven’t had any complaints. ‘The bees just mind their own business really,’ he laughs. ‘They go off and do their thing and come back. There may be 200,000 of the things, but you wouldn’t think it.’
As for where the bees go to ‘do their thing’ (i.e. collect pollen) Father Nicholas says nobody really knows. The church have planted their own herb garden in the churchyard, which the bees certainly enjoy, but they also go further afield. ‘They can do a three mile round trip, so that takes in quite an area,’ he says. This includes Leazes Park, down by the river bank and along the railway line. ‘There are quite a lot of little forgotten spaces in any city, Newcastle’s no different.’
Wherever they get the pollen, Father Nicholas is certainly proud of the quality of the honey the bees are producing, likening it to the difference between a malt whisky and a blend. ‘This honey is like a single malt because it’s come from one hive, whereas commercial honey will just be a blend of millions and millions of hives,’ he muses. ‘Our honey is very special.’ They only got their first batch of honey this year, and with hives costing around £250 each, Father Nicholas is hoping that selling it will allow them to cover their costs. ‘It’s not a money spinner!’ he laughs. ‘It’s about the bees, and the environment, and our involvement in the community.’
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