The bees that thrive in Highgate Cemetery

Maurice Melzak

Maurice Melzak - Credit: Archant

Nature documentary maker Maurice Melzac volunteers as a conservationist and keeps bees in this 15 acre slice of north London where around 170,000 people are buried

People come from all over the world to visit the grave of Karl Marx and the scores of famous people who have been laid to rest in Highgate Cemetery. The 170,000 buried here include Douglas Adams, Lucian Freud, Michael Faraday and Christina Rosetti.

The graves, monuments and mausoleums are spectacular, but for me it is the nature and wildlife, particularly on the Western side, which makes the cemetery so special. Because the high walls and locked gates have limited human disturbance, it has become a unique nature reserve in the heart of London.

A few years ago I successfully applied for a grant to buy 100 nesting boxes for the Cemetery, which provide homes for some of the wide range of birds who live in and around it from wrens and nuthatches to tawny owls and sparrow hawks.

Apart from the ubiquitous foxes and grey squirrels, mammals don’t do so well in the burial ground. Hedgehog numbers have declined in recent years and as with the house sparrow, experts can’t agree on why their population has decreased so dramatically. But one exception is the bats, of which quite a few species thrive here.

Bat boxes, offering safe homes for bats, have been attached to trees all over the Cemetery where bat walks, using electronic detectors to pick up their high frequency calls, are one of the most popular events.

A couple of years ago there was a lot of excitement when a species of extremely large cave spider, Meta bourneti, was found in the vaults of the Egyptian Avenue.

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It is extremely unusual to find this spider in London. Because it lives in total darkness, the sealed vaults, which are rarely opened, proved to be ideal places for them to live.

Although the adult spiders shun the light, baby spiders, have adapted to seek it out so that they can emerge from their dark birthplace and find new dark places to colonise. Over 100 spiders were found in the Cemetery where they feed on woodlice and other small invertebrates that might crawl into their lair.

I am extremely fortunate in that I am able to keep a few bee-hives in a quiet corner of the cemetery.

Honey bees have been much in the news recently because of a worrying reduction in their numbers. Sometimes the entire population of a hive mysteriously disappears in an event called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

People have put CCD down to a variety of possible causes. One is Varroa, a blood-sucking mite present in virtually all hives, or the viral diseases, many of which are spread by the varroa. Pesticides and herbicides have also been blamed, as has the loss of bee friendly habitats with many flowers, monocultures of plants like oilseed rape, and finally, climate change.

Many of these factors are more likely to affect rural than urban bees and people are often surprised that honeybees do quite well in towns and cities. Buckingham Palace, Fortnum and Mason, The Natural History Museum and The Stock Exchange all have rooftop hives.

City bees will have varroa mites, but are less likely to encounter the different chemicals used by farmers, nor the monocultures of oilseed rape. Rather they will encounter an abundance and diversity of plants. Can you imagine a better location than central Highgate with parks, gardens, Hampstead Heath and the Cemetery itself, all supporting a vast array of trees, shrubs and flowers, producing pollen and nectar? This variety is not only good for the bees, helping their immune system, it is also known to produce a better quality of honey.

This year was a good one for our honey bees and with fellow beekeeper, Ian Creer, we were delighted to supply over 100 jars of honey to the Cemetery shop. 2016 started off with a very cold spring that made it very difficult for the bees to build up their numbers. I was very disappointed to lose a swarm early on and when I saw one of my hives was not producing a replacement queen, I decided to buy one. She came from a specialist supplier and arrived in the post, in a jiffy bag, buzzing and peeping. The postman looked quite bemused as he handed over the envelope.

Introducing the queen to an established colony is not straightforward. I placed her in the hive in a small plastic cage. The bees may try to attack her at first, but also still feed her, and in a few days when she has taken on the smell of the colony, she can be safely released into the hive to begin laying eggs. Once she gets going the queen bee lays over 2000 eggs a day, more than her own body weight and she may live for up to five years.

The worker bees are the queen bees’ daughters and they have many different jobs to do during the course of their lives. Soon after they are born they begin housekeeping, cleaning up the cells. They then graduate to feeding the larvae and produce wax, building the comb and guarding the hive entrance. It is only when they are about three weeks old that they begin visiting flowers to gather nectar, pollen and water.

Albert Einstein is said to have commented: “If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.”

He probably didn’t actually say that, but it’s true that the honey bee is responsible for the pollination of a vast number of fruit and vegetable crops worldwide. Apples, broccoli, cucumbers, nuts and strawberries to name just a few.

Besides the threats from disease and parasites a new hazard has appeared - the Asian Hornet which feeds on honey bees. Beekeepers are hoping this creature does not establish itself the UK, though some have already been spotted, and thankfully eradicated.

Having a few hives in the Cemetery is a great privilege and few hobbies bring you closer to the wonders of the natural world.