My interest in bees is the result of an eccentric wedding present that a group of friends clubbed together to buy my husband and me in 2001: a hive. They didn’t stop there, as the gift also included a bee veil, smoker (to make them docile) and subscription to a magazine called BeeCraft. I wondered if I was joining a small cult, and in some ways I was. Beeswax candles might have been safer from a physical and psychological point of view, as my new hobby has been rewarding and frustrating in equal measure.
At first I just painted the hive white and put it in a corner of our Somerset garden as a kind of ornament. Then I met a local beekeeper who offered to teach me beekeeping, in return for housing her hive in our garden. Collecting our colony of bees from an apiary around 30 miles away was a nerve-racking experience. “Don’t worry,” said the breeder, “just open the windows and any bees that escape will be blown back. Anyway, they can only sting you once.” We drove back to our cottage very gingerly indeed.
That first summer there was honey galore. Our dining room was transformed into the stickiest, most delicious room ever as we extracted honey from the combs. But the bees didn’t survive the winter. It is very distressing to open up your hive in the spring and find hundreds of little corpses. Not that my husband is sympathetic. “Bee-reaved again,” he chuckles.
Over the years my beekeeping skills have improved and my jars of honey are in demand from family and friends. But I have lost colonies to wasps and also to swarms, which is the bees’ natural form of reproduction. I have also been getting more allergic to their stings. One autumn I left the zip of my veil open and bees invaded. I ran through the garden like a madwoman and was lucky only to be stung twice. My face swelled greatly overnight and when I arrived to present Radio 4’s The World at One, there were plenty of jokes about the Elephant Woman.
Those travails apart, beekeeping is a fascinating, increasingly vital pursuit. As a hobby it provides delicious honey, insights into a fascinating insect and a means of saving the planet. What’s not to like?
Hive Alive is on tonight at 8:00pm on BBC2.