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Bee positive: tasting the honey in Harpurhey

You may have heard about Harpurhey but for all the wrong reasons. Last year, BBC3 made a documentary, People Like Us, about (some of) the people who live there. It caused outrage because of the negative image it gave of the area. Residents packed meetings to sound off about the programme, while the local MP and councillors denounced the way in which the documentary portrayed the local community.

Harpurhey is three miles from Manchester city centre; you get there by taking the Rochdale Road north out of the city. The statistics for this area are shocking. In 2013, Greater Manchester Poverty Commission showed that Harpurhey was in the UK’s top 60 for high levels of deprivation, including very low income, unemployment, poor job or education prospects and high crime levels.

Behind these statistics, and beyond the main drag of Rochdale Road, a little green paradise has been created by the residents of Cypress Road. In 2011, they watched television programmes that alerted them, and many other people, to the threatened destruction of bees. As Richard Searle, one of residents, says: “I thought I had better do something for the bees. I thought it was important to look at the world through the eyes of the bees.”

In 2011 the residents decided to set up the Baytrees Bee Project, which is not just about setting up a beehive but is also involves providing an environment that will help the bees thrive. Six people are directly involved in looking after the bees while many local people have taken part in activities to support the development and growth of the bees. As the project develops there are day-to-day problems; for example, on the day I visited a tree had fallen on the hives. Searle filmed co-worker Kay Phillips sorting it out and then loaded the footage immediately on YouTube.

Phillips says: “I felt it was important to challenge the idea that it is a middle class pursuit. What? Honey from Harpurhey?”

It’s not just in Harpurhey that people have reacted to the decline by a third since 2007 of the British bee population; there has been an amazing response up and down the country with some people setting up hives in their back gardens while others have decided to grow the kinds of flowers and plants that will best help the bee population to thrive.

Manchester is an important place for a revival in bee keeping. The first industrial city in the world, it took the worker bee as its mascot and you can find it emblazoned on the town hall and many other buildings and parks. Searle sees it as important to link the symbol of the worker bee and Manchester’s ambition to be the first pollinator-friendly city. “It would give hope to new industrial cities of China when they look out on their smog each day.”

Manchester City Council has supported bee projects such as BBP by providing funding for training new bee keepers, but it is the project’s aim is to be self-sustaining through its sales of honey.

Phillips explains; “In the first year we only produced enough honey to put into tiny little pots which we gave away to the people who helped us.” This year they have sold the honey in the local markets as well as in Manchester City Art Gallery. The proceeds go back into resources for the local people, including a community lawnmower.

Honey produced in local hives is superior to that bought in supermarkets or shops because of the very high quality of the product; it is not blended with different honeys, as many commercially bought honey products are.

One of the many staggering statistics about bees is that in order to create 60lbs of honey the bees have travelled three million miles around Harpurhey, which works out at 50,000 miles a pound.

That is why environment is so important. It is not just about the bees but also about providing an environment in which they will prosper. Harpurhey, it turns out, has a rich habitat, even in the Irk, the local river that Engels described in 1845 in The Condition of the Working Class in England“ as “a narrow, coal-black, foul-smelling stream, full of debris and refuse, which it deposits on the shallower right bank”. Nowadays you can find carp ponds in the Irk, which probably reflects the lack of industry and population and the continued regeneration of the area.

Local people have become inspired by the bees project and even if they, like me, are wary of becoming directly involved, they have been putting questions to the BBP about what plants they can grow in their gardens to feed the bees. Around the streets there are many pretty hanging baskets and the intention is to plant flowers outside the borders of the gardens and on every spare bit of ground.

Richard believes that the bees project and the allotment offer something almost spiritual to the local community. “It feeds the inner peasant, feeding your soul, and bees can get you to see the world differently and that is important in everyone’s life.”

Across Manchester city centre there are now beehives on some of the tallest buildings, including the Printworks, Manchester Cathedral and the Manchester Museum. The aim is to create a pollinated city where bees can stop for a snack in the bee alternative of Greggs or Caffè Nero. Already church grounds are being turned into wild-flower meadows and the aim is to get people in the city who have balconies to grow plants that are bee-friendly.

Since its beginning, the BBP has used social media to show people how they started and maintain their bees and it has been a popular and accessible way for viewers to become educated about the bee project. The next step is to make a film tracing the story of bees in Manchester and Salford. The film is being made with no money, just their equipment and their enthusiasm for the project.

Kay explains: “Our aim is to explore the symbol of the bees, using the idea of the worker bee as the symbol of Manchester and Salford, and reinterpreting it in 2014 as bees representing the ecological vitality of the cities.” Their film will start in Kersal Vale in Salford, which has its own bee project, and then travel down the Irwell into Manchester to map the growth of bees in the city.

It is just one aspect of their bee propaganda to educate and inspire people to take up the cause of saving the bees and creating a better environment for them and the people of the city. Nationally the British Beekeepers Association has reported that their winter survival survey shows that the honey bee colony survival rate has improved greatly: “Despite the colony losses reported since 2007 and 2008, there has been an upward trend in the total number of honey bee colonies being managed by members of the BBKA. BBKA membership has more than doubled since 2007, when there were around 11,000 members, to around 24,000 today and consequently the number of colonies is increasing.”

Richard believes: “Our aim is to create a pollinated city, to improve the quality of life of all people in the city. It is a plan for a better future and it is really important for the bees but, most of all, for the people.” You can watch the progress of the BBP at Baytrees Bee Project.

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