Art of beekeeping will keep gallery in the honey

IT’S bound to create a buzz in the arts world. An ambitious plan to keep bees and produce honey on the roof of the Scottish National Gallery is taking flight.

Victor Contini says the National Gallery roof would be an ideal site for hives. Picture: Neil Hanna

Restaurateur Victor Contini is in talks to place two beehives on the top of the landmark building on The Mound in Edinburgh, and says they could produce around 100 jars of honey per year.

The initiative follows the lead of art galleries in London, including Tate Modern and the National Portrait Gallery, which have hives on their roofs. It is hoped honey produced at the National Gallery could be sold in its gift shop.

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Contini, a beekeeping enthusiast who owns The Scottish Café situated within the National Gallery, said: “We have been in discussions with the Galleries about positioning a couple of hives somewhere on the National Galleries site. They are very interested in doing something with us.

“Urban beekeeping is becoming very popular, especially in London, and Edinburgh in particular would provide fantastic food sources for bees as it’s such a green city.”

Bees housed on The Mound site would be able to forage in the extensive flower beds of Princes Street Gardens, which would give the honey a unique “Edinburgh” flavour. Contini says he hopes to get the plan off the ground later this year.

Contini, who plans to care for and maintain the National Gallery hives himself, has been keeping bees at his own property in Midlothian for a year.

“I’ve always enjoyed honey as a cooking ingredient but never dreamt I’d be keeping bees myself, but it’s relatively easy and incredibly enjoyable,” said Contini, who also owns the Centotre restaurant on Edinburgh’s George Street. “The key now is to find a suitable site in the galleries away from the public, possibly on the roof, so the bees are away from visitors to the gallery itself.”

Phil McAnespie, president of the Scottish Beekeepers Association, said he thought the scheme was a good idea: “Urban beekeeping has really been on the rise for the past two to three years and it’s very good to see. There are far more flowers and plants for bees to forage in the city than there are in the countryside, where there tends to be a lot of farming and more pesticides.

“On the roof of the National Gallery you’re going to get the sun, you may even get a sheltered spot – it would be an extremely good situation for bees and they should be able to get a decent amount of honey from them. It’s great to see the National Galleries and other museums becoming aware of the issue of beekeeping and being able to help,” he said.

The bee population is expected to decline this year because of the long winter, and the association is keen to encourage more amateur beekeepers to have a go at urban beekeeping in an attempt to keep the population up.

“We expect to hear reports of tremendous losses as the year goes on,” said McAnespie. “So it’s good to see more people getting involved. The only concern I would have is that people involved in beekeeping must be well trained, and know what they’re doing, so there is as little risk to the public as possible.”

A number of cities worldwide have embraced urban keeping on the roofs of landmark buildings: in New York there are hives on the top of the Waldorf Astoria hotel, and in Paris on the roof of the Opéra Garnier. In London there are around 30 commercial sites that keep beehives on their roofs, including Fortnum & Mason and Harrods, as well as the art galleries.

Fortnum & Mason, in Piccadilly, claims to be the first city centre store to produce honey on site.

Steve Benbow, who maintains the hives, says they have proved hugely successful. “Fortnum & Mason were the first to explore whether beekeeping was viable on the roof,” he said.

“Rooftops work incredibly well because they’re out of sight and bees can drop down to forage. The key is not to have them too high so bees don’t have to use all their energy to get up there.”

Fortnum & Mason and Harrods both sell the honey produced on site, as do the Tate museums.

“There is a big difference in taste between the two Tate honeys,” said Benbow. “The Tate Britain honey has a light, delicate citrusy taste, while the Tate Modern honey has more of a toffee flavour.”

A spokesperson for the National Galleries of Scotland, which runs the National Gallery, said: “This is an interesting idea but further research would have to take place ­before it became a reality.”