Peter Buckoke: beekeeper

Estimated reading time:9 minutes, 12 seconds

Everyone has a story. Peter Buckoke is a musician, music teacher and Alexander Technique expert but his passion is for beekeeping – he even has hives on his roof. Here he explains some of the joys of hobby beekeeping in Finsbury Park – plus the challenges of driving a car full of bees. Interview by Nicola Baird.

Peter Buckoke, musician and beekeeper: “Beekeeping helps me tune to the rhythm of nature. It’s more than the bees, it’s the plants, the weather and the temperature.”

Peter Buckoke, musician and beekeeper: “Beekeeping helps me tune to the rhythm of nature. It’s more than the bees, it’s the plants, the weather and the temperature.”

Peter Buckoke, 62, has just climbed out of the 2nd floor window of his home, squeezed past the greenhouse and is now sorting out the smoke machine so he can inspect the three hives on his bathroom roof. He’s in full beekeeper’s kit – a tough yellow suit and veil – and with the evening sun behind him seems to be glowing. Puffs from the beekeeper’s friend, a small smoker which helps to keep the bees calm, adds to the etheral effect.

“It was my birthday recently and my wife Judith phoned and said ‘the bees are swarming’. I was at college so I cancelled my last lesson and was home in an hour and a quarter to find the bees were still in the tree in our garden. I climbed 10 foot up the ladder and put a box over the swarm. You have to get the queen in, but it’s not easy to see a queen when you have 20,000 bees,” explains Peter when he comes in from the roof, pleased with the way his recently swarmed hive has settled down to honey making.

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Beekeeping is an ancient art. Done well beekeepers end up with a surfeit of honey and candles, home-brewed mead and curious tales of bees lost to the deadly varroa mite or found to be thriving since the EU banned neonicotinoids, an insecticide, known to be harmful to all sorts of bees in April 2013 for two years.

Peter Buckoke: "I go on to the roof and listen to the bees."

Peter Buckoke: “I go on to the roof and listen to the bees.”

Travels with my bees
Listening to Peter it seems that beekeeping in Islington involves a good head for heights, possession of a long ladder, husbandry kit and skills plus the ability to cope with the unexpected.

“I didn’t plan to become a beekeeper,” he says, “but Judith’s mum had a cousin who died of cancer. He was a beekeeper and his wife couldn’t look after the bees. She asked everyone in the family if they were prepared to take them over. Nobody said yes. So we asked how much work it would involve and were told ‘it’s very little unless you want to get a lot of honey. You put them in the garden and they get on with it’.”

After discussion Peter, his wife and two sons agreed to give beekeeping a go.

“I drove the hive to Wales,” he says remembering a traumatic motorway journey moving a hive. “Someone who was ‘supposed to know about bees’ told me to cover them in a sheet, but that didn’t keep the bees in. How could it? I ended up driving in a car full of bees. Every time I braked 300 bees hit the windscreen. There were so many I had to drive in a beekeeping veil. The bees didn’t seem interested in stinging me, they were just flying around. I worked out that if I put the fan on the bees were blown to the back of the car. At least there weren’t many casualties.”

That first hive was left at a family cottage in Monmouthshire while Peter started reading up. “It was Ted Hooper’s Bees and Honey that got me hooked,” he admits. “I defy anyone not to become interested.”

Pink and white horsechestnut candles (blossom) by Highbury Barn.

Pink and white horsechestnut candles (blossom) by Highbury Barn.

Why Islington is good for bees

  • The parks with mature trees are great for bees. The big crops come from horse chestnut and lime trees because they have loads of flowers.
  •  Not all trees have suitable blossom but in Islington there are lots of horse chestnut (conker trees), lime, cherry and apple.
  •  Early in the year comfrey, catmint and mahonia (Oregon grape) are good for bees. But I don’t grow special plants – I’m not expecting our bees to be in our garden. Bees always go to the best nectar.
  •  Loads of people have great gardens in Islington. Apple, pear and cherry trees (which grow cherries) are all great for bees.
  •  In late spring/early summer Islington has wonderful blossom. You can see the bees are so happy. They really go for it in April, May and June.
  •  Some people I meet absolutely love beekeepers, some are more anxious and assume that bees are going to sting them. But bees are very unlikely to sting you unless you go near their hive. Bees are not aggressive. I feel very negative about wasps though – when their nests break up in August their final fling is to eat sugar. So they go to pubs, they eat people’s sweet drinks and they try to break into hives. If wasps can get in they’ll remove the crop of honey.
Peter Buckoke: musician, Alexander technique specialist and hobby beekeeper.

Peter Buckoke: musician, Alexander technique specialist and hobby beekeeper.

Bee empire
Peter may call himself a hobby beekeeper, but he now has three hives at his Plimsoll Road home; two at the Quill Street allotments, two in a friend’s garden near Clissold Park, five at his brother-in-law’s home in Oxfordshire and one in Wales. And he’s really good at getting honey. “Honey crops fluctuate massively; some colonies are productive this year, and others are for next year” he says. “You’re considered a really good beekeeper if you get 50lbs per hive (or 30lbs in Wales), but a few years back I got a bonanza crop: 500-600lbs. I had to get friends to help! I found they really loved helping, you extract the honey in a nice warm room and soon the honey vapour becomes intoxicating.

Luckily Peter and family are exceedingly fond of honey. “

I love it, and eat it every day,” he says serving me delicious rooibos tea with a spoonful of his own, gently melted London honey. Turns out that gently melted honey is quite an art, necessary if the honey crystalises in the comb as it can only be released if warmed to 62 degrees to allow the wax to melt. “I like to sweeten my coffee with it,” he explains. Another unusual product is cappings’ honey which includes a mix of pollen which is good as a treatment for hayfever.

Peter Buckoke labels his bees' Finsbury Park honey with the Ambler Road elephant hedge design.

Peter Buckoke labels his bees’ Finsbury Park honey with the Ambler Road elephant hedge design.

Sweet gifts
Honey and mead are the most lovely presents,” says Peter as this interview concludes, generously giving me a pot of his Finsbury Park honey which is decorated with a picture of the hedge cut into an elephant herd on the corner of Romilly and Ambler Roads.

That night my family toast the health of the local bees over cups of honey-sweetened camomile tea.

We aren’t the only local fans of Peter’s bees of course. There’s a woman in Clissold Park who puts honey in all her potions to help people with skin and breathing issues. And his mead, designed for celebrating, is a medal winner at the North London Beekeepers autumn shows. “It’s an excuse to get together and talk about bees, then drink the mead entered in the competition,” says Peter laughing in a dangerously competitive manner – “there are all sorts of prizes for the best candles, light honey, dark honey, crystallised honey. But the mead competition is not a tough fight: I’m aiming to win a cup for my honey this year.”

Like any absorbing hobby, beekeeping has started to take over Peter Buckoke's home. Even his sitting room is full of frames, equipment and honey jars.

Like any absorbing hobby, beekeeping has started to take over Peter Buckoke’s home. Even his sitting room is full of frames, equipment and honey jars.

In beekeeping nothing is a sure bet: Peter’s success will depend as much on how his bees perform as the weather. And then he’s got to create demijohns of the perfect brew, as well as the painstaking process of extracting honey. It may even depend on whether the EU ban on neonicotinoids is repealed – last time there was a vote, the Conservatives were not big fans.

“The last two years have been really good for bees, it’s interesting to see what will happen,” says Peter with a beekeeper’s generosity.

Right now, he’s just absorbed with the making: his family’s sitting room is filled with boxes of replacement frames, jars of honey and frames that need attention – which are releasing a delicious scent of honey. While Peter ponders the next labour of love his two dogs relax on the sofa, sleepily guarding the family’s honey store.

  • Bumblebee Natural Foods, 33 Brecknock Road, Holloway, N7 stocks Peter Buckoke’s Finsbury Park honey (1lb costs £9.95). “They are always asking for my local honey. If you have hayfever eating honey made by bees foraging on the pollen where you live helps reduce symptoms.”
  • More about North London Beekeepers meets at Kenwood House, Hampstead. More info here
  • Read the interview with Peter Buckoke’s wife, Judith Kleinman on Islington Faces here. The pair wrote a book, The Alexander Technique for Musicians (2013) which is available on amazon, see link here
  • Another way to try out beekeeping is to check out the urban hive services offered by Barnes & Webb who install hives, sell honey and beekeeping equipment. See their website here.
  • Or support bees and beekeeping by backing the Cooperative Plan Bee campaign, and/or Friends of the Earth’s Bee Cause.
  • Bees are vital pollinators, see what is happening as a result of humans failing to notice the health of the planet in this report about world extinctions. (june 2015)

Over to you
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This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

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