I am standing on the roof of the Manchester Art Gallery, about 40 feet up from the noise and stress of the streets below. It's a sunny day, and I'm admiring the view out over the city. I am also covered in bees.
"Can you hear that change in sound? That means they're getting angry."
That's John Mouncey, Visitor Services Manager at the art gallery and now, thanks to an idea he had four years ago, the man in charge of the gallery's beehives.
The angry bees don't seem to trouble Mouncey too much—after all, he is wearing a protective bee-keeping suit and does this kind of thing everyday. I, on the other hand, am terrified. I try to appear nonchalant, but that's difficult when you've got fifty pissed-off bees crawling across your face trying desperately to penetrate your beekeeping suit.
The reason we're up here is because of a lazy Sunday when Mouncey was slacking off.
"I was up in my office reading The Sunday Times (I should have been working) and there was an article on a guy called Steve Benbow," he explains.
Benbow, it turns out, is the godfather of the current urban beekeeping craze, a man who started with one beehive on the roof of his tower block in London and is now responsible for hives all over London, including the Tate Modern and one on a barge moored by Tower Bridge.
"It was when I was reading about the Tate that I started thinking: the bee is the symbol of Manchester so why can't we do something like that here?" says Mouncey. "We could keep the hives on the roof and sell the honey in the gallery shop."
Despite knowing nothing about beekeeping, Mouncey managed to convince the art gallery that having a beehive was a brilliant idea. Following an intensive training period at the British Beekeepers Association (yes, such a thing exists), Mouncey and his fellow volunteers soon had a beehive up on the roof, turning honey into money.
I was surprised to find that urban honey is actually tastier than honey from the countryside. It's because while rural areas are often single-crop monocultures, in the city, bees can feast (or "forage," to use beekeeping parlance) on a diet of trees, wildflowers, and all the weird stuff people plant in their gardens.
Back up on the roof, Mouncey has managed to extract one of the cells from inside the beehive and scraped away the waxy coating that holds the honey.
"Take off your glove and try some," he urges. "They probably won't sting you."
With this reassurance ringing in my ears, I dip my finger into the honey. It's warm—really warm—and tastes incredibly sweet. But then something else hits my palette; at first the freshness of lavender, and then a sort of herbal warmth like you might get after eating a well-seasoned, Italian meal.
That, Mouncey says, is something new in this year's honey.
"Bees really like lavender and you can probably taste chives, another favourite of theirs," he explains. "We planted a herb garden as forage for them and so that is adding to the complexity of the taste."
This complexity is certainly proving popular, with the gallery selling honey faster than they can replace it. But planting herbs is not only about improving flavour, it also ensures there is enough forage to feed all the bees.
"It is like if you were going to bring a herd of sheep in the city centre," says Mouncey. "You wouldn't do it unless there was enough grazing."
To combat this, Mouncey and his team are distributing bespoke wildflower seed packets to local schools in the area.
"It isn't just about the honey," he says. "It is about the pollination of crops and promoting all kinds of wildlife in the city centre."
This work seems to be paying off, with last year producing a bumper bee crop and allowing the gallery to sell over 450 jars of honey.
Mouncey isn't going to retire to the Bahamas on the profits of his beekeeping venture but the project is now self-sustaining, and this year the gallery should get even more honey with the addition of an extra hive.
"We also use the honey to bring people into the gallery with honey cocktail nights and honey baking events," Mouncey continues. "It has raised so much awareness around sustainability and urban farming."
While John has clearly been bitten (or stung) by the bee bug, beekeeping isn't all honey and cocktails. For a start, there is the expense: hives cost upwards of £300 and buying a colony of bees isn't cheap either. You've also got to be careful where you get them from.
"Most beekeepers prefer local bees. Our first hive was from Lincolnshire but they were really angry little bastards, we got stung all the time," explains Mouncey. "The second lot we got from Bolton were placid and easy, so we learned our lesson there."
Then you've got to think about location. Bees like it hot—but not too hot—and like most city dwellers, they pretty much hate people, so need to be kept away from loud noises. If—for whatever reason—they don't like their hives, they can swarm. This is exactly what the art gallery's bees did within days of arriving in Manchester.
"The fire alarm went off, which meant that the extractor fans on the roof shut down with a massive bang. The bees flew and congregated on a lamppost down by the tram tracks," recalls Mouncey. "People were a bit worried but bees are actually very docile when they swarm. Anyway, we managed to brush them into a box and get them back into the hive."
Despite blood, sweat, and bee-stings, Mouncey hopes to extend project to other art galleries in the city.
"The next goal is to get one on the [nearby] Whitworth Art Gallery so we can connect the two," he says. "Then we can make even more honey and raise even more awareness."
Mouncey pauses and thinks for a second. "It's funny really, it started off with me reading the paper and now we've got six beekeepers, three hives and hundreds of jars of honey."
Essentially, slacking off at work can have unexpected benefits for you and your employer, and the local wildlife.
This post originally appeared on MUNCHIES in April 2015.