On a hot, sunny July morning in Grove Park, I had the pleasure of meeting Grant Smith, Mentor for London at the National Allotment Society, and his young daughter Sasha, in one of Grant’s project allotments for a chat about pollinators and sustainable food production.
Grant’s interest in growing his own food comes from his days of gardening with his grandfather in Oklahoma. Upon moving to London, he faced an issue common to most city dwellers – being left without a garden. He rediscovered allotment growing when his first child was born, wanting his children to be involved in growing food for their family home. These days, as well as keeping bees, he is involved in a number of sustainable food projects throughout London. He is also active on the London Pollinators Forum, Chaired by Paul De Zylva, FoE, a fellow member of the Bee Coalition.
Upon meeting Grant and Sasha, I am handed a beekeeping suit to put on before approaching the bees, as they are slightly agitated from it being inspection time! I then witness a stunning scene – as Grant slowly removes a screen from the hive, more than 5000 bees can be seen eagerly tending the cells in preparation for new hatchlings and fresh deliveries of nectar from worker bees. As we draw closer to examine the spectacle, Grant explains how to inspect the slide for infection and points out features such as larvae, larger drone cells and honey stores.
Allotment growing has led Grant to appreciate the importance of pollinators and the valuable ecosystem services they supply, which inspired him to embark on a beekeeping course. At the same time, he believes that allotment food production is of great benefit to bees. Along with other members of the National Allotment Society, Grant stresses an important connection between allotment growing and providing ecologically valuable spaces for wildlife, engaging conservation groups such as Frog Life to examine the positive effects of allotment creation and amphibian life.
“Studies have been done which show allotment spaces to be biodiversity hotspots for a range of wildlife,” says Grant. “I believe that a lot of people who own or maintain an allotment do it for ecological purposes and I see allotment growing as having holistic benefits for both ourselves and the environment.”
In the Grove Park allotment, Grant keeps bees for educational (and of course pollination) services – which are visited each Tuesday morning by the Southwark Asylum Seeker Day Centre for opportunities to get close to nature and tend their community allotment patch. Grant’s second hive is in Lewisham, and is mainly used for educating children using hands on beekeeping experience.
In addition to being good for pollinators, urban food growing and the wider sustainable food movement could also have the capacity to transform our urban environment. Such ‘green zones’ within cities, says Grant, present opportunities for learning and self-education, which are likely to influence how people perceive and use the environment. However, Grant also says that it is important that allotment projects are resilient and self-sustaining.
“The National Allotment Society believes that allotments represent a tried and tested model for food growing in the city. In addition to plots for households, allotments provide a secure framework for community growing projects, such as the one with Southwark Day Centre for Asylum Seekers (SDCAS), who in turn bring their own skills and energy. The collaboration with SDCAS has been very successful all round. In addition to creating a dedicated community growing space, it permitted a successful joint funding application to repair buildings and paths and make them wheelchair accessible, and improve the site's fencing and set up the apiary.”
Back at Grove Park, the hive is carefully reassembled. The community group leaves to harvest their allotment produce and Grant and I discuss the conservation of UK’s pollinators and the main threats they currently face. Sadly, bees are not a fundamental priority – but as Grant says, a decline in the bee population severely damages our environment and economy.
“I believe that the neonicotinoid ban was a great first step, however in order to move forward we must work as a human and non human collective with the bees, giving bees a voice where they are not otherwise heard, for example, in debate and activism. By forming cross species coalitions we can work together to promote the importance of a wide range of species and protect and preserve their habitats and livelihoods.”
I asked Grant about his thoughts on the National Pollinator Strategy that is set for release later this year. Does he have any suggestions about what should be included?
“I attended a presentation on the NPS and I was given a lot of information. I feel, however, that these issues ultimately need to be presented and resolved by civil society. The government can do nothing except facilitate change, and it is up to civil actors to initiate it…civil action can create roots for activism, and helps to deliver knowledge in ways far more powerful than governmental incentives.”
As Grant says, civil action is very important – but it can often be difficult to engage the public on such issues. Grant believes that bumblebees are a great way of engaging people with a pollinator cause, as often people don’t realise that bee species extend beyond the “fuzzy black stripy ones.” Through learning about one type of bee, people might start to notice the wide variety of pollinators in our environment. Crucially, you do not need to be an expert in order to understand how important bees are to us and work to help save these pollinators.
Sasha agrees. “I think that adults need to stop being afraid of bees! I have seen adults in a park shouting ‘get away from me’ to bees and I don’t think that’s right.”
Grant’s thoughts about the power of civil society provide a refreshing view of what it means to govern our environment. If harnessed correctly, this could be extremely beneficial – perhaps even revolutionary. It is clear that Grant is sincere in what he does, and how he advocates sustainable food growth is both inspiring and exciting. Through community projects, Grant is sharing his knowledge and passion amongst others who may not otherwise have opportunities to grow their own food or visit beehives in real life, providing a powerful example of how an environmental movement can morph into a community movement with incredibly far-reaching benefits.
“Bees happen to be one of the most interesting species, and should be viewed as companions,” says Grant. “People must realise that we must work with the bees to create something bigger.”