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Beekeeping and Volunteering at Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

Since lockdown we have caught up with staff from across the University to hear more about their different volunteering efforts over the last six months. Martin Donkin, Immigration and Compliance Officer at Queen Mary, has been volunteering at Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, where he also helps out as a beekeeper and has explained to us how it’s changed throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. 

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Martin Donkin
Martin Donkin

How did you get into beekeeping and how long have you been doing this?  

I had been occasionally volunteering in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park for some time. I was watching a TV show called the Little Paris Kitchen and they had a segment on urban beekeeping. I guess this was in the summer of 2012. Inspired by the programme, I messaged Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park on Twitter (@FoTHCP) and asked if they’d thought about keeping bees in the Cemetery. The response came back asking if I would be interested in becoming a beekeeper. The park had just come into some funding from the Co-op to train new beekeepers. At the time, the Co-op was the largest farmer in the UK and they were becoming increasingly concerned about the reduction in pollinating insects, which are vital for their crops. The Co-op paid for the setup of an apiary in the Cemetery and for about 10 of us volunteers to be taught how to keep the bees.  

What does this involve and do you make honey from the bees? 

From early spring to late autumn, we check in on the bees every Sunday morning to make sure that they are healthy, have enough food and space and aren’t going to swarm. During the winter, we check on the hives less often, but we do check that they’ve got enough food. In the winter, as there is less to do in the apiary, we take the opportunity to build frames for the spring. We typically harvest honey in early autumn and, if we get enough to make it viable, we will sell this in the Cemetery. We’re usually sold out in an afternoon! We don’t take all the honey from our bees as we prefer to leave them a reasonable amount to get them through the winter. Honey bees don’t hibernate and need the honey to give them enough energy to keep warm and active. Because they don’t hibernate, they are among the first pollinating insects in the spring. 

How did lockdown affect this and the Cemetery more generally?  

As bees are considered livestock, we were sent letters by DEFRA giving us permission to look after the bees throughout the lockdown, so there has not been a massive impact on our activities. 

On the other hand, the Cemetery has been significantly affected. At the beginning of lockdown, usage of the Cemetery increased massively as people visited parks to get some space and exercise. The parks were very important for people living in Mile End, many of whom do not have their own outside space. Tower Hamlets staff and volunteers patrolled the parks to make sure that people were using the parks responsibly and within the regulations – without these patrols the parks would have had to close. The Cemetery has recently started COVID safe nature conservation volunteering and you can book onto this (as well as many other events) on the Cemetery’s Eventbrite page. 

What do you think the park’s role is in the community in Tower Hamlets? 

Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park has a very special place in the local community. It’s probably the least well know of London’s “Magnificent Seven” cemeteries, which were built in the 19th century to relieve dangerous overcrowding in parish churchyards. While Highgate Cemetery has many names you’ll recognise, the celebrities buried in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park are local heroes, such as Charlie Brown and Will Crooks. In the late 1960s/early 1970s there was an attempt to clear the graves for housing and public space. The local community were outraged by this and fought to save the Cemetery and later formed The Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, which is now responsible for the Cemetery’s management. The Friends have transformed the Cemetery into London’s most urban woodland nature reserve. 

Have more people become volunteers in lockdown? 

Due to COVID, far fewer people have been able to volunteer in the park – really only those who have been working with the park for a long time and are able to work on their own safely. We’re hoping that the COVID safe nature conservation volunteering is popular. 

How can someone become a volunteer there/become a friend of the park? 

If you aren’t able to volunteer, you can still help by donating to the Cemetery’s survival appeal or, if you want to show your long-term support, you can become a friend. 

You can find more information about the Cemetery on the Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park website. 

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