FERMENTATION BLOG

SUSTAINABLE LOOK: Oliver Maxwell

Director of Bybi - urban beekeeping social enterprise

Fermentation has many faces. But one thing that should always be remembered is that it is strictly related with the sustainable approach towards our food and food systems. Following is an interview with the founder of Bybi – social enterprise focusing on creating a community around bees in Copenhagen. Did you know that honey can also be fermented? Read up this fascinating talk with Oliver Maxwell!

Q: What’s your background and how did your relationship with honey start?
A: I’m an anthropologist, originally. So I’m interested in the relationships between people and the environment. I worked for social enterprises here and in the UK for 10-15 years before I started Bybi. My interest has always been on that interface between culture, human society, and nature, driven by the curiosity of what we can learn from nature as well. After the climate conference in 2009, when a lot of questions about how to live sustainably in the future were being discussed, I got interested in bees and urban beekeeping and then built Bybi up from that. I started the organization by myself. But we’ve worked together with a whole lot of different organizations from the start bringing in different people.

Q: What’s Bybi’s philosophy?

A: We’re a non-profit organization. When we first started learning about regenerative approaches, which basically means giving more back to the environment than we take out,  we asked ourselves the question: <> With honey there’s a really elegant relationship between the bees, flowers, and the people. It is similar in some ways to how bacteria and fungi and other organisms in the soil work together to support each other. And it’s one of the areas that people have an intuitive understanding of. We are symbiotic with the bees because it’s us who plant the flowers and bees who make honey. So our question, looking at this is: <> Rather than saying that we are honey producers, we say that we’re trying to help the community of bees, flowers and people thrive. And that means that we have to listen to what the bees and other members of this community need. We have to see the honey not as a product, but as an invitation to contribute to this community. And we have to allow all the different kinds of interests, possibilities, and desires from all those elements to express themselves. That’s why we never mix our honey. So every street, park, and town has its own flavor and color, telling the story of the bees, flowers and people in each area. We try to make sure that flower bulbs or seeds follow the honey, so people concretely become co-produces of next year’s harvest.

Q: You’re putting beehives everywhere in the city while being a nonprofit organization. That means that someone has to help you financially or in collaborative work. Who are your partners? 

A: We get very little external funding, actually. We’re a social enterprise, which means we are non-profit, but also have business activities. We collaborate with businesses, other social projects, schools, cultural organizations and the municipality. We get some money for the projects that we run. But otherwise, businesses pay us to put the bees up, and then they buy the honey back afterward.

Q: Who works with the bees?
A: We have a full-time beekeeper responsible for looking after the bees. And then we have volunteers that help with the processing and production.

Q: How does Bybi integrate with the community in terms of social activities?
A: We work with social projects, businesses, schools, artists, performers, researchers. We’re trying to build a community around the bees, flowers, and honey quite differently from most other organizations. The more interesting challenge for us is to find out how to understanding this community from the point of view of bees, or of flowers, or of different social communities. A big question for us is: <<What’s it like to be a bee?>>. Once we shifted to this approach, it became important for people to be able to help the bees on their own terms. So for that reason, people need to be able to imagine what it’s like to be a bee. When we work with kids, they climb in the trees, play on the grass, and touch the flowers, trying to put themselves in the position of the bee. And they get it really quickly. If you ask a kid, how to speak to a bee, they answer: <<Plant a flower>>. That’s basically the best answer to give. Kids understand it very naturally. It takes a bit longer for the adults but they get there as well.

Q: Do you collaborate with other beekeepers? 
A: They are mostly separate entities. We only work with a few friends. There’s a handful of larger producers that have 50 or more beehives. A few others have maybe two-three thousand of them. And these ones are mostly working together with agriculture in the countryside. So they’re putting their hives out for the pollinators. They’re basically a part of the industrial agricultural system.

We are taking care of about 100 beehives in the region. It’s about as much as one person can manage by themselves. We’re not in this to produce more and more. We don’t work with large agricultural organizations. We’re trying to produce honey differently, to see what happens if we make a different way of production. We work only in urban areas, only in the city. We try and make sure that each colony of bees has a connection to the local community. In that way, we try to create space for other species at the same time.

Q: Should these cultivation practices be involved in the urban development planning of the cities to ensure a healthy natural balance?
A: The reason we’re in deep trouble at the moment with the climate biodiversity issue is that we’ve separated ourselves from nature. We think of humans and human society as being outside of our relationship to nature. In our way of producing we touch other species all the time. We need to find ways of doing that, that restore and rebuild the healthy living systems that we’ve destroyed over the years. We need to find a kind of every day technology that does that. We have to insist that humans have as much potential to do good for the living world as we have to do it ill. It’s not a question of looking after bees to save ourselves. We need to see ourselves as a part of a community linked by pleasure, curiosity, and care for each other.

Q: The collaborations between different organizations are sort of a growing movement. How do you see it as a part of the food system? 
A: I think it’s always been there. But it’s going to be more important now. In the field that I work in, there is this growing perception of everything being connected. In the past, we’ve tended to break those connections and try to consolidate into bigger and bigger and more specialized, industrialized production. I think there’s a kind of counter-movement to that. Looking at smaller producers that want to act in more localized ways, they need to collaborate. I think we need to develop new production and distribution systems. Some of them are beginning to emerge, but nothing is happening fast enough. It might all be kind of utopian to imagine. But I think it’s an important perspective to pursue. We must insist on it.

Q: How come that honey from different neighborhoods varies in colors and flavors?
A: It depends on three things. First, it’s the flowers that are there, planted by people. The second thing is the bees and what they are interested in. They’ll be interested in something one week that they might not be there the week after. The whole colony will go off to linden trees when they’re flowering, but they might equally be interested in something else that’s in the same area. They’ll choose what they’re attracted to. The third factor is the weather. Honey is always made with the same enzymes so it’s not the bees that change it, but the flowers. In that sense, honey varies from place to place, time of the year, and even from one year to another.

We have been collecting honey every year, going back 10 years. Different colors, then represent the people and the flowers, and the weather and the beekeepers that were involved at that particular time in that particular place. There are 50 or 60 different species of flowers involved in each batch. You can analyze it by looking at the pollen grains and you can identify the plants from that. But it’s not something you can do without particular equipment, knowledge, and skills.

Q: What about the air pollution in the city? 
A: It doesn’t affect honey. It is a water-based product. Heavy metals dissolve in fats so there is no issue with that.

Q: Can you walk me through the process of making honey?
A: Sure. First, we receive the frames from beehives. There are three kilos of honey in each one of these. The process is very simple. We use a fork to remove the surface. We put it in the machine that spins really fast and the honey comes out of the bottom. That’s pretty much it. The remaining gets melted down and turned into the wax and the frames are then recycled.

It is a completely cold process. Nothing is heated along the way to make honey. Then we write the dates and the batch numbers. We measure the water content – if it’s under 20%, it’s alright. If it approaches 20% or is over 20% then it will begin to ferment.

Q: How do you control the process of fermentation?
A: Fermenting honey is something that we haven’t controlled outside of how it’s going to be, it has just emerged. Normally, honey doesn’t ferment, but every now and again, you’ll get a batch where you harvest it a bit too early or the humidity has been too high. And if the water content is over 20% then it will ferment by itself. It’s a bit of an unpredictable process. For that reason, we’ve been able to accumulate this small collection of fermented honey that has this absolutely amazing flavor. It’s awesome. And it’s like this great secret, no one knows about.

We’ve got lots of different versions. There’s more water in it, it’s runnier and there’s a slightly alcoholic taste there. It’s really special, like nothing else. I think this stuff is just brilliant.

We have about 600 kilos of honey that are heading in that direction. And some of them are a bit older, even from 2016. We supplied Noma with these products in the past. We work with a few cocktails as well.

Q: Speaking of fermentation, how much do you think we should rely on it in our daily lives?
A: I think it’s fantastic. One thing is that it’s important and healthy, but it’s also a really good metaphor for how we need to be working together with our food. And the food is something that we take from nature and consume and that’s a terribly destructive thing in a way. Fermentation is great because it’s this kind of partnership, where you have to have a much more dynamic relationship with what you’re eating. We then allow this food to “brew” to give us what we need, but which also lives its own life. So I think there’s a reason why fermentation has suddenly become so popular and why everyone’s talking about it. And they’re doing it as a kind of starting point for overcoming a bigger problem that we have in our relationship with our food and nature. I think that’s also why fermenting has taken off recently. People are becoming more tuned into the relationship between yeasts and products, and how together they create something completely different from the ingredients that go in.

Q: Are there other people, like chefs or food producers, who want to develop new products based on honey?
A: One of the issues that we have is that people just don’t realize how good honey is. Despite its strong food culture, Denmark struggles a bit when it comes to quality products. But I think that many Danes can appreciate what something so flavorful like honey can do. We work with a few chefs and organizations who make it into ice cream, mead, or other food products. All these small producers struggle a little bit to break into the market. I would love to work with more chefs that can actually see the potential in it and would like to run with it in different ways.

Q: Is there some message you, as the founder of Bybi, would like to communicate to the people?
A: There’s not as much a message but the question that anyone alive today should be asking themselves: <a technology that activates the potential in each other that does good for the living world?>>. Everything alive wants and needs to grow and develop. Everything wants to be curious and touch each other in different kinds of ways. And I think honey can help with that. It has huge energy and potential within it. Fermentation is also an example of that potential and how it manifests itself in the living world around us.

Q: Thank you for your time and this useful lesson.
A: Thank you and good luck.

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