On a warm summer’s day there are few places on Earth I’d rather be than tending my bees.
Take the sound from my own colonies during the blazing sunshine we’ve enjoyed over the past week. The hum and murmur of worker bees inside the hives, mixed with the incessant buzz of activity in the wildflower meadow close by, is breathtaking — a connection with nature that’s balm for the soul.
I’ve been a passionate advocate of these ingenious, industrious little creatures since I became a beekeeper myself nearly a decade ago, having fallen for them as a child.
I now have almost half a million bees in eight hives in a meadow at our family home, Bucklebury Manor in Berkshire. And I’ve whiled away many happy hours with them during lockdown.
I’m in awe of these incredible insects.
They perform a little waggle dance, an insect version of sat-nav, to signal to each other where the best flowers are.
Busy bees: James and fiancee Alizee Thevenet at Bucklebury Manor in Berkshire
They fly up to five miles a day to seek them out. And the sheer, painstaking effort of their daily task is boggling: in a worker bee’s five or six-week lifespan, she will produce just one tenth of a teaspoon of honey. That’s ten bees’ lifetimes to fill a single spoonful. Imagine how much effort goes into a jar!
Honey is one of the few foods that never spoils — some samples date back thousands of years. It is nature’s finest medicine: it aids digestion, helps alleviate cold symptoms and hay fever; provides a slow-release form of natural sugar and is even said to promote restful sleep.
A book I’m reading even has a chapter dedicated to the role of honey in alleviating depression.
And, of course, it tastes delicious. But more than that, bees — some species of which are endangered — pollinate food crops and are vital to the delicate balance of the Earth’s ecosystem. Insect pollination is worth £690 million to UK crops alone, each year.
There are so many reasons, aside from the quiet, immersive pleasure of looking after bees, to keep them.
Which is why I was delighted to learn David Beckham has been building a hive at his Cotswolds home during lockdown.
‘You’ll be very happy when we’ve got our own honey,’ he told his wife Victoria when she asked him if it was his ‘new project’.
Other celebrity beekeepers such as actors Leonardo DiCaprio, Morgan Freeman and Scarlett Johansson have also helped to raise the profile of beekeeping.
While I’ve been intrigued by the natural world for as long as I can remember — as a child I used to have an ant colony and worm farms — I suppose my fascination with bees dates back to reading about Winnie-The-Pooh and his honey jar.
I’d always harboured a longing to keep bees, but it wasn’t until I turned 24 in 2011 that the wish became reality.
Then, my family —mum, dad and my sisters Catherine and Pippa — clubbed together to buy what for me was the most fantastic birthday gift imaginable.
A delivery van arrived with a large buzzing box with the cautionary label: ‘Live Bees’. Inside was the nucleus — the start — of my colony: 1,000 Buckfast bees.
Other celebrity beekeepers have also helped to raise the profile of beekeeping. Pictured: David Beckham and family took up beekeeping during lockdown
The driver was terrified of picking it up, so I had to collect it from the van. Before the bees’ arrival came a cedarwood hive, in kit form — all I had to do was glue and nail together the components — and the beekeepers’ uniform of white, hooded overalls, veil, gloves, and the essential tools of hook, scraper and smoker. I was delighted!
Hives are highly organised communities presided over by a queen bee. Each hive has female worker, or honey, bees, and a single queen who mates once with a number of male drones — the poor guys then die — and then her eggs will be fertilised for life (she can live for two to three years). At the peak of her laying season she lays her own body weight in eggs and in her lifetime can mother more than a million offspring.
She secretes pheromones, the scent of which spreads throughout the other bees in the hive so they can smell at once if an impostor tries to intrude. As male drones’ sole purpose is to mate with queen bees, some consider them layabouts, but prior to mating, the drones help to keep the hive cool by flapping their wings.
I sit and watch enthralled as the worker bees — the bees who make the honey — fly in, their bright orange pollen sacks laden with their precious cargo.
We’ve planted a wildflower meadow close to the hives with cowslip, field scabious, knapweed, buttercups, oxeye daisy, wild hyacinth and lots of clover. The bees love the flowers, especially the clover, and have a banquet of pollen and nectar on their doorstep from early spring right through to autumn.
Beekeeping is methodical, patient toil. I’ve been stung hundreds of times — actually the reaction tends to get worse over time — but I’m not put off and I never blame the bees.
It’s always my fault: I haven’t been careful enough; I’ve been lazy about wearing the protective equipment; I’ve caught them on a day when they’re feeling grumpy or out of sorts.
I always approach the hives with a mix of nervous anticipation and excitement — much like the feeling of a first date — wondering: ‘What will they be like today? Calm or skittish? Irritable or biddable?’
Before you open a hive you always blow a little smoke into it — it’s a courtesy and a safety measure because it calms the swarm by masking the guard bees’ alarm pheromones.
I love spending time with my bees, checking, monitoring, treating them and collecting their honey: it is soothing toil; a balm for troubled minds.
I’ve written in this paper about the clinical depression that first hit me in 2016, and one of my strategies for coping with it is beekeeping. I see it as an active form of meditation, a chance to escape from mental tumult. When I’m with my bees it’s as if someone’s pressed the mute button on everything that’s worrying me.
I follow the processes, step-by-step; look for the queen bee, check she’s laying. The calmer I am, the calmer the bees are. You have to respect them.
And when you’re suited up and immersed in the task, the cares of the world recede completely.
You cannot neglect your hives or the swarm will leave them. There is pest control to carry out: if a hornet or wasp gets wind of a haul of honey they’ll tell their friends and try to destroy the hive, and woodpeckers are avian vandals who can drill holes in hives.
I’ve been a passionate advocate of these ingenious, industrious little creatures since I became a beekeeper myself nearly a decade ago, having fallen for them as a child
I’m fortunate that my hives have not been affected by pests such as mites and beetles.
But there’s plenty to do and in the summer I might while away four hours a week with my bees. I’m glad, too, that my fiancée, Alizee, is a convert. Early in our relationship I bought her a beekeeping suit and when she’s helping me with the hives, as she has been during the weeks of lockdown we’ve spent at Bucklebury, she couldn’t be happier.
My bees are not a business. I give away most of the 50 to 100 jars of honey I make each year as presents to friends — that’s if my family haven’t already taken them. As I write this, I’m wrapping jars ready to send to those who have run out! What could be nicer than a jar of liquid gold that carries with it the flavour of the flowers that have helped make it? The taste of raw honey is unparalleled. I have a rule too, that I give back as much to the bees as I keep for myself because they need it, of course, for food for themselves.
It would be cruel to ransack too much of the honey they have so lovingly produced.
While I’m delighted there are famous beekeepers raising the profile of the hobby, the fact remains: beekeepers are typically over 60, and I’d love it if more schoolchildren were inspired to take it up so a younger generation of enthusiasts comes to the fore.
I’m planning to buy an observation hive I can take into classrooms to show children how busy bees work. I’m sure they’ll be hooked, just as I was.
There are multitudes of ways to learn about beekeeping.
I read books, but you can join a club, go on a course; take part in a communal project with other enthusiasts or shadow an experienced beekeeper. It can be quite expensive to set up an apiary — which is why my family all chipped in for my birthday present all those years ago.
But although a new hive can cost as much as £500 there are kit versions and cheaper ones on internet auction sites.
A basic bee suit can cost as little as £20 and a starter colony of bees costs around £200, although you might get a swarm free from a benevolent beekeeper if you’re lucky.
Set against this, though, is the perpetual wonder of beekeeping. Today, too, the humble honey bee desperately needs nurturing. Woodland, hedgerows, meadows and wild-flower verges — their sources of food — are disappearing at an alarming rate. So bees need your help. There are more than 800 wild bee species in Europe, seven of which are critically endangered, a further 46 are endangered, 24 are vulnerable and 101 are near to being threatened.
The threat this poses for us all cannot be underestimated. ‘If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would only have four years left to live,’ Albert Einstein is reputed to have said.
‘No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.’
So I’m writing this love letter to them in the hope it will touch you all; my hymn to the honey bee, the solitary bee, the bumble bee.
If you don’t want to or can’t keep them yourself then at least plant some flowers. You don’t need a swathe of open green space. A simple window box will do. Choose plants with open flowers and easy access to pollen and nectar.
That way, passing bees will have a feast — and we will all benefit immeasurably.