Leeds shopping centre keeps bees on its roof

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Thousands of shoppers pass through the doors of the white rose shopping centre every week but few realise there’s a new thriving rooftop business. Neil Hudson went to investigate

There’s a real buzz about the White Rose Shopping Centre but it’s not what you think. The out-of-town mall might be on the brink of an ambitious expansion with plans for a new 13-screen cinema and new shopping arcade complete with restaurants and boutiques but the real news is happening up on the roof.

Since April this year, the White Rose Shopping Centre has been home to around 250,000 honeybees.

So, while you may have been sauntering along the polished precincts perusing the latest fashions or lounging with a latte in one of the coffee shops, there was a hive (hives to be precise) of activity right above you.

In fact, four bee hives were installed in a secluded spot on the roof back in spring and now the seasons have changed and bees are getting ready to overwinter, they have produced around 60kg of honey, some 40 of which has been harvested and put into jars.

James Bailey, centre director at White Rose Centre, said he was keen to advocate the rooftop bee hive project.

“It was talked about and I’d seen a couple of other centres do it, it seemed to be something we could do, given how much safe and secure roof space we have. You do need people to be interested to make it work. It needs regular and attentive care and you have to make sure you have the right resource to manage it.

“We have to keep bees alive. You are always looking for reasons to start a conversation with customers.

“Getting their view on the centre and what we’re doing is part of that.

“There’s a real opportunity for us to make people more aware and even get local schools involved. I think this can really help us to link in with people and groups.

“We sponsored Middleton fireworks programme for example, so we’re always keen to find new ways of being involved with local groups and this gives us another chance to do that.

“It has been massively valuable in terms of doing something different, the staff have jumped at the chance to work with the bees.

“There’s about three or four people now, including one from cleaning, another from security.

“We basically said who is interested, it’s an opportunity for you.”

Bees on the roof however is not the only wildlife initiative being undertaken at the centre - in case you didn’t know there is already a mile-long woodland walk skirting the edge of the site and there are plans to upgrade this to include picnic areas and maybe even exercise equipment.

“Within 2015 we will make the woodland walk more accessible. It’s something we’re keen to do. People are more health conscious now, they are looking for more things to do and if we can combine having a shopping centre with some kind of outdoors nature walk for families or people who want to keep fit, that would be good.

“The idea is we can create a real family orientated area. There are also kingfishers living on the beck, so the idea is that at different times of the year, there will always be something going on with the local wildlife.

“The concept of having 200,000 bees on the roof - you would think the place would be covered - but there’s no noticeable difference.”

One of the reasons (possibly the main reason) for that is the bees are lovingly attended to by professional beekeeper Keith Dobson.

The 69-year-old has kept bees for more than 40 years and has dozens of hives across West Yorkshire.

He said: “Every week I go to see them until they have passed the swarming urge. All bees main aim in life is to reproduce.

“They swarm if they get too crowded, or the bees decide to replace the queen.

“We have two types of bee up on the roof of the White Rose Centre, one is called buckfast and they are very gentle and easy to handle, the other is a darker local bee which is a bit more feisty. I wanted to show the people here the difference in handling them.”

And it’s not just Keith who gets up close and personal with the rooftop residents - several members of staff from the centre are also now taking an active part in looking after the bees.

Keith went on: “It can be scary, I make sure all the people who work up there have been stung. If you are working with this number of bees, its inevitable.

“They have a three mile radius so they will go out to find a source of nectar, then come back to the hive and communicate it to the hive using something called a waggle dance.

“They stop bringing in food at this time of the year, though and when it gets cold they start to go into a ball and stay in that ball; the colder it gets, the tighter it gets, the ones on the inside move to the outside and they vibrate their wings to keep warm.

“Bees have been in decline for a few years, so projects like this are fantastic.

“However, I think there could be some heavy losses this winter because there are a lot of new beekeepers out there who don’t necessarily know what to do in winter.

“For example, the bees need about 20 kilos of food [honey] to keep them going and sadly some beekeepers take all the honey and leave them with nothing.

“This year we have had a great harvest and it has surprised me actually, given we only put them up there in April. We have about 60 kilos of honey. From that, we took 40 kilos. The flavour is beautiful.”

James added: “I don’t think this will become a commercial operation for us. Rather we would like to give it away to community groups and suchlike. We recently held our community awards and all the recipients received a jar of the honey. It’s a conversation starter and I think that’s great.”

So taken with the project is James that he’s even considering getting his own bee hive.

“I’m in the process of moving house and Keith has convinced me that it’s a good idea to get a hive.

“It’s something I’ve thought about before and I think it would be great to get my kids involved with something like that.”

So, have they come up with a name for the honey made on their roof?

“We thought about White Rose Honey,” said James but then added with a smile: “There was also a suggestion we call it Bee-ston Honey.”

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