Muslim Beekeeping Project
Brownbook finds out what’s buzzing on the roofs of London’s mosques
Khalil Attan leads the way up the stairs of the East London Mosque. He opens the double doors onto the flat roof – slippery and wet from recent rain – where, for the past four years, he’s been keeping bees.
An amateur beekeeper, Khalil is a member of the Muslim Beekeeping Project – a scheme seeking to both revive the UK’s dwindling bee population and engage the wider community in the medicinal properties of honey.
Up on the roof, the fast food shops and striding pedestrians of Whitechapel Road – a busy artery that leads out, eventually, to Essex – feel a long way off. ‘That’s what I like. It takes you away from the hustle and bustle of the city. It takes you back to nature, which I think we’re missing,’ he says.
There’s markedly more sky up here than in many other spots of London; in every direction, cranes lurch like mechanical dinosaurs over the skyline. It’s getting on for dusk and it’s cold. The couple of bees buzzing nearby are probably on their way home for the night, Khalil muses.
We have it in our tea, we have it on our toast, my kids pour it on their cereal. We go through so much honey
Bees are a miracle
Khalil grew up in East London. Always interested in nature (his father used to bring home books about the mysteries of the universe), it was his seasonal sneezing that brought him to beekeeping. ‘I was told that local honey is good for hay fever, but it was quite hard to find.’
‘You know what,’ he said, ‘this would be nice for us to do as a family.’ So, he and his wife now beekeep together along with their children.
Before setting up on the roof of the East London Mosque, Khalil had checked for nearby foraging and was encouraged by the proximity of Weavers Fields and Victoria Park. He approached the mosque’s committee. ‘I think it was something that they’d never thought about.’ But, he says, ‘they were actually very much up for it.’
Khalil started with one hive. ‘We thought we’d see how it goes. Because it was so high up, we weren’t sure how we would get on.’ But Khalil needn’t have worried – the roof is now home to five hives, with another two lower down in a viewing vestibule.
The calm exteriors of the hives give little away of the 15,000-odd bees that currently inhabit each colony, 90 percent of which, Khalil says, are female. ‘In the winter the females hardly keep any males because they’re not breeding. In the autumn, they actually pull the males by the wings and the legs and chuck them out. They just die.’
Short and squat, there’s not much to tell the hives apart visually, but Khalil explains that each has its own temperament, matched by a different smell. ‘This one’s very gentle,’ he says, pointing to the hive closest to him. Pointing to another hive, ‘this one’s not too bad as well and this one’s always been good – this one’s always given us the most honey.’ Next to it, ‘I think that one has the best temperament – very, very gentle that one. When I open the hive up they just sit there.’ What about this one? ‘That hive seems a bit grumpy actually. We need to keep an eye on that one this year.’
The hives produce an average of 30 to 40 pounds of honey per year, much of which is donated to visitors to the mosque. Some jars are taken home
for Khalil’s honey-loving family (they have two hives in their garden). ‘We have it every day. We have it in our tea, we have it on our toast, my kids pour it on their cereal. We go through so much honey.’ This year Khalil will give his 14-year old son the responsibility of one hive, having ‘shown him the ropes.’ But, for now, the bees are in a wintery lull and the business of honey making must wait until summer.
Over in south London, Aseem Sheikh and Munir Ravalia have been friends since school. About a year after Khalil set up his hives, they founded the Muslim Beekeeping Project.
Their pilot saw two hives erected on the roof of Kingston Mosque. Aseem is an architect who came to beekeeping via an interest in community and urban integration. Munir is a dentist with a passion for natural remedies, including cupping, or hijama in Arabic. His interest in beekeeping arose from researching the healing properties of honey.
Aseem ‘had a vision of taking the English countryside and placing it on a mosque roof, to help marry the two places of natural retreat’. For him, mosque buildings are often ‘oppressive’ and don’t blend into the architectural fabric of London. ‘A lot of people are holding onto the symbolic language of a mosque and it doesn’t play any actual role,’ he explains.
The courtyards and minarets might work ‘well in the Middle East and wherever else, where the climate’s right,’ he says, but ‘we live in London where it rains most of the year. They need to blend in with their urban landscape, and suit the context of the people.’ Encouraging mosques to follow a more ‘community-based agenda’ is where, for Aseem, the bees came in.
The pairing felt right. ‘Bees are very important in Islam,’ says Aseem. Their behaviour is to be venerated. ‘In terms of the way a colony works, it drives the community. The bees are totally selfless in their acts.’ Honey’s medicinal properties are mentioned, too, explains Munir, in ‘multiple
sayings of the Prophet Muhammad [PBUH] and Qur’anic passages,’ specifically in Surah Al Nahl. For Aseem, the bees also give ‘people within the mosque’ a topic of conversation through which they can engage with anyone, ‘rather than just saying “he goes to the mosque,” people say “he’s got hives, my grandad’s got hives.” And there’s that sort of immediate link.’
For example, he says, ‘I could have a conversation with a 65-year-old lady from the Cotswolds – who wouldn’t have a clue about Islam – because of the fact she’s got an apiary.’
‘Bees are a miracle,’ says Aseem, explaining how the tap dance of one bee lets thousands of others in a hive know where there’s a lavender plant that’s worth flying to.
‘The complex world of the bees,’ to Munir’s mind, ‘shows us a humanity. The bees work in close cooperation for their survival – we should follow their example, regardless of faith or creed.’