John Bailey: university beekeeper

Estimated reading time:6 minutes, 13 seconds

Everyone has a story. Head of Sustainability at the University of London, John Bailey, talks about ways to capture the public’s imagination via bees and the joys of cycling through Islington on the way to Russell Square. Interview by Nicola Baird

John Bailey (in his beekeeper suit): “The bees on the roof raise the profile of sustainability at the University of London. We ended up on the BBC, ITV, the Guardian, the Telegraph and now Islington Faces. Bees help people make connections to broader resource and environmental issues in the world.” In the background is Senate House library. John’s looking over the rooftops at Russell  Square towards Islington. (c) islington faces

“Bees are fun and engaging and can help people have a broader discussion about the environment,” says John Bailey, who reckons his bees are the perfect honey trap to get staff and students caring more about resources, energy and waste.

“Talking about turning off the lights or insulating the loft is not very compelling,” admits John, “but bees make people aware of the challenges. People know they are pollinators and at risk of dying out, so feel more interested.”

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John Bailey: “Bee PR is incredibly useful to engage people on the topic of sustainability, but it’s not the main driver of my role – that’s to save the University of London energy reduce carbon emissions and ensure we are legally compliant (eg, dealing with waste).” (c) islington faces

John, 32, who sports a most excellent moustache (which he styles with his own brand beeswax), became interested in bees “when working at Greenwich University which had loads of green space. We offered hive space to local bee keepers, and then when their bees swarmed I was given a suit and helped to collect the swarm. “I was hooked. And I found that when we spoke about bees we got such a big response. It was a light bulb moment for me about how to engage people with sustainability, so when I came to the University of London in 2013 putting two hives on the fifth floor of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies was almost the first thing I did.”

As the weather warms around Easter John has to check his hives and the legal bees every week (during the winter it’s a quick peek every two weeks). By mid summer there should be 50,000 bees at work. Each year he trains 10 staff in basic beekeeping – this year he’ll graduate his 40th bee-buddy and distribute another 200 mini pots of delicious University of London honey.


Will BHC in Amwell Street (right of this pic) inspire John Bailey to make a honey- or bees wax-based beard balm?       (c) islington faces


What does beekeeper cyclist John Bailey like about Islington?

Posters created by John Bailey’s team at the University of London to encourage staff to buy a bike to get to work. (c) islington faces

John Bailey cycles through the borough most days on his commute from Hackney Wick to Bloomsbury.

  • Islington is a fantastic place to eat and drink.
  • The cycle route is fantastic from London Fields into town, and very pleasant. I go through De Beauvoir, Georgian Squares, Prebend Street, past Camden Passage and the former Mayor Boris Johnson’s house then over the main road into Myddleton Square and on to Amwell Street.
  • I’ve been talking to BHC, the hairdressers at Old Lloyd’s Dairy, 42 Amwell Street – opposite the Boris bike stand – about stocking my moustache wax (John Bailey’s moustache wax), but more of their customers have beards than moustaches. They want beard balm.
  • I like going hunting for mushrooms but once when I was out jogging I found a chicken of the woods growing on a cherry tree in the middle of Islington! That weekend I’d gone to Epping Forest mushroom hunting and found nothing. You can use it in any dish to replace chicken – I turned it into a risotto.
  • The Georgian landscape reminds me of Bath where I grew up, but I like the buzz of still being in London.


John introducing staff member Ali Chapman to the legal bees. (c) islington faces

Bee aware
“Bees can travel up to three miles so there’s a good chance that if you live in Islington and have an apple tree you might be receiving fruit as a result of one of our bees pollinating the blossom,” explains John. “Pollinators in general are a really important part of human life – it’s argued about, but about one third of produce in supermarkets is only there because of pollinators. But there is pressure on bees in rural areas because of monoculture business – the countryside can be a green desert at some times and then a green glut. But in the city most planting is decorative so bees can find food all through the year, and ours mostly use plants found in the park at Russell Square including ivy, lime, lavender and tree of heaven.”

At work John, who came into sustainability management via a Geography BA, has to pay close attention to the University of London’s utilities’ usage and spending. It might seem strange that someone so passionate about the outdoors should be working in the heart of Bloomsbury, but John explains that London has terrific advantages. “I never thought I would have children in London. But now we live in Hackney Wick and have a two-year-old son I’ve realised that there is so much more for a parent to do with a young child in London than anywhere else in the country – and it’s close enough for us to explore countryside and Epping Forest.” In fact it’s clear he thinks he has lucked out with this job, adding: “I’m able to keep bees at work, cycle and have just started growing vines to hopefully make a couple of bottles of fizzy white wine in a community park near where I live.”

It’s always a pleasure to meet people who’ve found a way to make the work-life balance the absolute best it can be. For John, even with his energetic cycle across Islington, it’s clearly important not to be desk bound – so it’s good that bees have given him an extra special reason to roam the University of London campus.

  • Find out more about keeping bees in London via the website of the London Beekeepers’ Association  (also on Facebook and twitter).
  • Enjoy the University of London’s 2017 Being Human Festival celebrating humanities from 17-25 November. This year’s theme is lost and found.
  • There are 170,000+ students at the University of London. Maybe a course at one of the 18 colleges or nine research institutes will suit you?

Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives, works or passes through Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via at

If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z  index, or search by interviewee’s roles or Meet Islingtonians to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola


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