The business secretary and Liberal Democrat politician doesn’t keep bees, but is a keen promoter of the need to save the world’s honeybees, supporting projects to install beehives in urban areas. He is certainly more sympathetic than former US vice-president Dan Quayle, who once condemned his nation’s beekeepers, saying: “Beekeeping is a sweet subsidy that has been ripping off taxpayers for years.” Perhaps he should have listened to Benjamin Franklin, who was the patron of an early beekeeping guide, Thomas Wildman’s Treatise on the Management of Bees, published in 1768.
The Greek philosopher and scientist studied honeybees, which he kept in primitive hives. Although many of his observations were sound, he also reinforced existing myths about honeybees, which were then passed down to later generations, acquiring the status of authority. Some of his howlers were that bees do not give birth, but find their young in flowers; that what we now know as the queen bee is in fact a “king”; and that honey is not made by bees at all, but is distilled from dew or falls magically from the air. He also believed that bees live for seven years (the average is closer to seven weeks).
The legendary detective eventually retired, spending the rest of his life looking after bees. In Laurie King’s 1994 novel The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, the California-based author turns the tables on Holmes, making him apprentice to a woman, Mary Russell. Other famous fictional bee enthusiasts include Winnie the Pooh, who can’t be bothered to keep bees himself, but instead tries to raid their wild nest by disguising himself as a little black cloud and floating upwards on a balloon. He even turns his experience into a song: “Isn’t it funny, how a bear likes hunny”.
The younger sister of Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, was a keen beekeeper, producing prizewinning honey while helping her brother organise the early Girl Guide movement. However, she may not have agreed with all his pronouncements on the subject. In his famous bestseller Scouting for Boys, Baden-Powell wrote of his admiration for bees, saying: “They are quite a model community, for they respect their Queen and kill their unemployed.” In later editions, this politically incorrect comment was changed to “…those who won’t work”.
Sir Edmund Hillary
On 29 May 1953, New Zealander Edmund Hillary and his guide, Tenzing Norgay, became the first people to stand on the summit of Mount Everest. But Hillary was only on the expedition at all because of his interest in beekeeping. Before the second world war, in which he served as a navigator in the Royal New Zealand Air Force, Hillary and his brother, Rex, joined their father’s beekeeping business, a seasonal occupation that enabled Hillary to fund his climbing ambitions during the northern hemisphere’s summer. Together, they eventually had 1,200 hives.
American poet Sylvia Plath took up beekeeping in the summer of 1962, partly inspired by her father, Otto, who was a world authority on bumblebees. However, her life in rural Devon was beginning to unravel because of her husband Ted Hughes’s affair. This inspired her to write an extraordinary series of poems about bees, in which she used bee behaviour to mirror her own problems. Less than a year later, she killed herself. Other literary beekeepers include Leo Tolstoy, for whom, according to his wife, Sonya, beekeeping became “the centre of the world”, and American travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux, who keeps bees at his home in Hawaii.
The Hollywood A-list actress took up beekeeping when fellow actor Samuel L Jackson gave her a beehive full of bees as a wedding present. She is in good company as an actor-beekeeper: Henry Fonda kept bees on his Bel Air estate, where they fed on lemon and orange trees, and would hand out jars of “Henry’s Honey” to his co-stars. His son, Peter, was named beekeeper of the year for his role in the 1997 film Ulee’s Gold, in which he played a beekeeper who is caught up in a family row between his son and a criminal gang.
Maria von Trapp
The head of the Trapp Family Singers, on whose extraordinary real-life story the film and musical The Sound of Music was based, was a keen beekeeper for much of her life. After fleeing German-annexed Austria on the eve of the second world war, she and her family settled in the United States on a farm in Vermont, which, since 1868, has long been the leading New England state for honey production. She was encouraged to take up beekeeping by her husband, Georg, played by Christopher Plummer in the 1965 film. Julie Andrews, whose performance immortalised the von Trapp story, once sang the 1901 ragtime song The Honeysuckle and the Bee.
The lead singer of Madness took up beekeeping but gave up the hobby when all his bees died. However, he continues to support the rapidly growing urban beekeeping movement in his native London. Another single-monikered beekeeping rock star is Bez of Happy Mondays, who finds it “a great soothing, calming, restful thing to do”. Sadly, former Police lead singer Sting is not a beekeeper. He is, however, patron of the Bees for Development Trust, which helps to promote and establish sustainable beekeeping around the world.
The presenter of Radio 4’s The World at One and BBC2’s Newsnight is a keen amateur beekeeper at her home in rural Suffolk. She has showcased her love of bees in several TV series. Other TV presenters-turned-beekeepers include Kearney’s fellow journalist Bill Turnbull and former Springwatch presenter Kate Humble. Kearney’s fascination with bees began when she was given a hive as a wedding present; her husband, Chris, refers to himself as “the reluctant beekeeper”.