James’s hobby was sparked by a gift from his sister, the Duchess of Cambridge, and their family
During lockdown, many found themselves acquiring a new appreciation for nature. For those of us spending more time at home, hearing birds outside our windows or trying our hand at growing vegetables in our gardens or on balconies, we’ve been able to pay closer attention to the natural world. But there are some for whom communion with wildlife has long been a passion – such as James Middleton, who opened up about his love of beekeeping over the weekend.
Writing in the Daily Mail, James spoke about his experiences as a beekeeper and his affection for the important pollinators. Painting a picture of rural idyl at his family home, the rambling, romantic Bucklebury Manor in Berkshire, he relates: ‘On a warm summer’s day there are few places on Earth I’d rather be than tending my bees.’ He dubs the ‘hum and murmur of worker bees inside the hives, mixed with the incessant buzz of activity in the wildflower meadow close by’ as ‘breathtaking’, providing him with ‘a connection with nature that’s balm for the soul.’
A keen animal lover, James recently launched a happiness and wellbeing company for dogs, Ella & Co, starting with nutritionally-rich, ethical raw dog food. But his concern for the animal kingdom doesn’t end with man’s best friend. He explains of bees: ‘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.’
He now keeps his ‘almost half a million bees in eight hives in a meadow at our family home, Bucklebury Manor in Berkshire,’ where he’s ‘whiled away many happy hours with them during lockdown.’ Deeming them ‘incredible insects,’ James praised the ingenuity of their ‘little waggle dance, an insect version of sat-nav,’ used ‘to signal to each other where the best flowers are.’ He is awed by ‘the sheer, painstaking effort of their daily task,’ noting that ‘in a worker bee’s five or six-week lifespan, she will produce just one tenth of a teaspoon of honey,’ which constitutes ‘ten bees’ lifetimes to fill a single spoonful. Imagine how much effort goes into a jar!’
Clearly something of a science buff, James relates that honey ‘is one of the few foods that never spoils,’ with ‘some samples dat[ing] back thousands of years.’ He also praises its medicinal properties, noting that honey ‘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,’ while there are even theories about ‘the role of honey in alleviating depression.’ And not forgetting that ‘of course, it tastes delicious.’
This much-loved food is, however, under threat. James notes that ‘some species’ of bees – who ‘pollinate food crops and are vital to the delicate balance of the Earth’s ecosystem’ – ‘are endangered.’ And there’s an economic fallout too, as insect ‘pollination is worth £690 million to UK crops alone, each year.’ Thus there ‘are so many reasons, aside from the quiet, immersive pleasure of looking after bees, to keep them.’
Fortunately, James isn’t the only one leading the bee brigade. It turns out that beekeeping has become quite the A-list hobby. James reports that ‘David Beckham has been building a hive at his Cotswolds home during lockdown,’ while ‘celebrity beekeepers’ include ‘actors Leonardo DiCaprio, Morgan Freeman and Scarlett Johansson’.
Tracing back his own history with the hobby, James states that his ‘fascination with bees dates back to reading about Winnie-The-Pooh and his honey jar.’ But it wasn’t until he ‘turned 24 in 2011 that the wish became reality’ when his family – ‘mum, dad and my sisters Catherine and Pippa – clubbed together’ to present him with ‘the most fantastic birthday gift imaginable’; ‘a large buzzing box’ which contained ‘1,000 Buckfast bees.’ Also part of his present was ‘a cedarwood hive, in kit form… and the beekeepers’ uniform of white, hooded overalls, veil, gloves, and the essential tools of hook, scraper and smoker.’ James recalls that he was ‘delighted’ with the unconventional gift.
He goes on to praise the intricate system that governs the hives, which are ‘highly organised communities presided over by a queen bee.’ He explains that each ‘hive has female worker, or honey, bees, and a single queen who mates once with a number of male drones’. The queen ‘can live for two to three years’ and 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.’ The insects can communicate via ‘pheromones’ secreted by the queen, ‘the scent of which spreads throughout the other bees in the hive so they can smell at once if an impostor tries to intrude.’ And while male drones may be deemed ‘layabouts’ considering that their ‘sole purpose is to mate with queen bees,’ James defends them on the grounds that they ‘help to keep the hive cool by flapping their wings.’
No doubt James’s bees are delighted to find themselves at Bucklebury Manor, thanks to the ‘wildflower meadow’ the family have planted ‘close to the hives with cowslip, field scabious, knapweed, buttercups, oxeye daisy, wild hyacinth and lots of clover.’ He relates that 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.’
As to the pitfalls of the hobby, James admits that he’s been ‘stung hundreds of times’, adding: ‘but I’m not put off and I never blame the bees,’ explaining that it’s his own fault for not having ‘been careful enough’. If anything the risk seems to add to James’s enjoyment; he notes that he approaches ‘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?”.’
And stings or not, James adds: ‘I love spending time with my bees, checking, monitoring, treating them and collecting their honey: it is soothing toil; a balm for troubled minds.’ Having spoken candidly about his struggles with mental health, James relates that having been hit with ‘clinical depression’ in 2016, one of his ‘strategies for coping with it is beekeeping,’ stating: ‘When I’m with my bees it’s as if someone’s pressed the mute button on everything that’s worrying me… when you’re suited up and immersed in the task, the cares of the world recede completely.’
Read also: ‘Bee Careful’: David Beckham Told his Kids
So fanatical is James about the hobby that he has managed to win over his fiancée, Alizee Thevenet, whom he describes as a ‘convert.’ He recalls: ‘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.’
On his hopes of converting others to the cause, James notes that while he’s ‘delighted there are famous beekeepers raising the profile of the hobby… beekeepers are typically over 60,’ and he’d ‘love it if more schoolchildren were inspired to take it up so a younger generation of enthusiasts comes to the fore.’ Indeed he’s even ‘planning to buy an observation hive’ to ‘take into classrooms to show children how busy bees work.’
He admits that ‘it can be quite expensive to set up an apiary’ as ‘a new hive can cost as much as £500,’ but adds that there are also ‘kit versions and cheaper ones on internet auction sites’ – meaning it shouldn’t only be the preserve of A-listers and wealthy retirees. And for James at least, the cost is well worth it when weighed against ‘the perpetual wonder of beekeeping.’
He finishes with an impassioned plea, stating that ‘the humble honey bee desperately needs nurturing’ as ‘Woodland, hedgerows, meadows and wild-flower verges — their sources of food — are disappearing at an alarming rate.’ Of the ‘more than 800 wild bee species in Europe, seven… are critically endangered, a further 46 are endangered, 24 are vulnerable and 101 are near to being threatened.’
James relates that Albert Einstein reputedly stated: ‘If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would only have four years left to live… No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.’ Thus James is ‘writing this love letter to them in the hope it will touch you all.’ He adds that if ‘you don’t want to or can’t keep them yourself then at least plant some flowers,’ concluding: ‘That way, passing bees will have a feast — and we will all benefit immeasurably.’