London’s rooftop beekeeper

Bushwood Bees has more than 60 hives across the capital. We met its founder Salma Attan, collecting honey on top of East London Mosque. Photographed for Hyphen by Hanna-Katrina Jedrosz

honey bees east london mosque
Salma Attan wears a protective suit on the rooftop of East London Mosque. What began as a single bee colony in her garden has grown to more than 60 hives across London. The honey and beeswax from them are used to make a range of products, including organic soaps, lip balms and candles. Photographed for Hyphen by Hanna-Katrina Jedrosz

Overlooking the busy streets of Whitechapel and the UK capital’s financial district, the rooftop of East London Mosque might seem like an incongruous place to find thousands of bees, but the site has been home to a collection of hives for more than a decade. 

The colony was brought to the mosque by Salma Attan, founder of Bushwood Bees. Along with her husband, she has turned beekeeping into a full-time business, selling specialty honey and a range of lifestyle products on the company’s website and other locations, including farmers markets.

Bees are of particular significance in Islam; the Qur’an dedicates an entire chapter to them. In An-Naḥl (The Bee), two verses refer to the role of honeybees in nature and the bounty they produce: “Then eat from every kind of fruit and follow meekly the ways of your Lord. There issues from its belly a juice of diverse hues, in which there is a cure for the people.”

We visited Attan at work to talk about her passion for these magical creatures and how they have enriched her life.

honey bees east london mosque
Attan readies a smoker, used to calm the bees. After enrolling in beekeeping courses, she and her husband Khalil inquired about establishing some hives at East London Mosque in 2011. Before that, the couple became apiarists as a hobby. Honey is a natural food and a good source of antioxidants.
honey bees east london mosque
The honey produced at East London Mosque is not for sale but is given to VIPs, royalty and important donors. According to Attan, King Charles, Princess Anne and the Prince and Princess of Wales have all received honey from the mosque.
honey bees east london mosque
Bees play an important role in maintaining the planet, pollinating plants we rely on for food and helping to keep our ecosystems in balance. “Honeybees are excellent pollinators,” said Attan, pointing to the large green spaces near the mosque, including Victoria Park. She added, however, that the scorching temperatures experienced this summer showed how vulnerable bee populations are to climate change. The heatwave caused the flowers to dry out. This meant there was little nectar for the bees to forage on, causing the colonies to start using up stores of honey that were collected earlier in the year.”
honey bees east london mosque
Bushwood Bees offers experience days and practical beekeeping courses. The courses are held on the rooftop of the mosque and conducted over four sessions with a tutor. Participants in the experience days receive a three-hour session, including the chance to get up close and personal with the bees.
honey bees east london mosque
Beekeeping is a huge part of Attan’s life, but she admits that it’s not a hobby for everyone. “They are stinging insects after all, but I do believe everyone should do their best to help all pollinators, either by planting pollinator-friendly plants and trees or by preserving the wildlife habitats we already have.” When asked what drives her interest in beekeeping, she said: “I enjoy it. It is relaxing once the beehives are open and it is fascinating to watch honeybees at work.”
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