BBC Host Becomes A 'Bad Beekeeper'

One day, a swarm of bees descended on Bill Turnbull's house outside of London. While the British talk show host huddled inside, a man came with an empty shoebox, enticed the bees inside, topped the lid on the box and strolled off. Bill Turnbull was enthralled and hooked. Host Scott Simon talks with Turnbull about his new book, Confessions of a Bad Beekeeper: What Not to Do When Keeping Bees.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Scott Simon.

Heres a conversation opener: You ever thought about keeping a swarm of bees in your backyard? Bill Turnbull hadnt. Hes a well-known presence in Britain, where he hosts a morning TV talk show, "BBC Breakfast," and interviews cabinet ministers, authors, footballers, Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson.

But one day, a swarm of bees descended on his house outside of London. While he huddled inside, a man came with just an empty shoebox, enticed the bees inside, topped the lid on the box and strolled off. Bill Turnbull was enthralled and hooked. He became a devoted beekeeper. Now hes written a book about the hobby that's become a real passion for him, "Confessions of a Bad Beekeeper: What Not to Do When Keeping Bees (With Apologies to My Own)."

Bill Turnbull joins us now from BBC in London. Bill, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. BILL TURNBULL (Author, "Confessions of a Bad Beekeeper: What Not to Do When Keeping Bees (With Apologies to My Own)"): Well, it's my pleasure. Thank you.

SIMON: You say that you tell your wife: I could be off playing golf, you know. So why are you beekeeping and not playing golf?

Mr. TURNBULL: Well, beekeeping is a bit cheaper than belonging to a golf club, for starters. I'm not very good at golf. In fact, I don't really like golf at all. And I find beekeeping a much more satisfying, if slightly more painful pastime, in that respect. But I get an enormous amount out of it. It's a terrific antidote for me to - through all the television and broadcast, the pressures, the lights and the studio, and people gabbing in your ear all the time - and I come away from that pressure cooker atmosphere and go on and open up a beehive. And my mind is completely wiped clear by the concentration that I have to put into looking into this city of bees.

SIMON: Well, let me put it this way: How many times have you been stung?

Mr. TURNBULL: When I started off, I was getting this stung may be six to eight times a season. This year though, so far, fingers crossed, I have barely been stung at all apart from one very, very sensitive place, which probably doesn't bear talking about on NPR.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TURNBULL: But the job was, when I started, and you're a bit clumsy anyways as a new beekeeper. I used to swell up very badly. And gradually, my system has become used to it so it's not nearly so bad. And the great thing is when the pain wears off, it's really, really quite pleasurable. Because it's such an intense feeling of pain, you know, you get stung and sometimes you can feel it's going to happen cause the bees sort of buzzes slightly. And you go, ooh-ah, ooh-ah, ooh-ah, ooh-ooh. And, you know, you just get used to it after while.

If you didn't get stung by bees, it'd be like keeping flies. And what would be the point in that?

SIMON: Like when you see a swarm of these days, it's not sinister to you?

Mr. TURNBULL: No. But when I see a swarm - swarms of not my own bees - but they're my own bees, I go, oh dear, they're taking off again. But if I see someone else's swarm, I go, hooray. It's like getting an early Christmas present, because you're getting a whole colony of bees which you can then take home and develop, and you'll have more honey at the end of it.

I also find it fascinating. It's a lovely natural sight, is the way the bees reproduce and propagate their species because it's how they create more bees. The old queen takes off with her nest and then they create new queen in the hive. And you can stand in the middle of a swirling cloud of tens of thousands of bees swaying rather drunkenly, and they are completely unaggressive because they have no colony to defend.

You might get stung if they smack into you accidentally. But, by and large, you'd be pretty safe.

SIMON: Do you even like honey that much?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TURNBULL: You'd think not with all the escapades I've had. The first honey you produce is absolutely delicious because it is such a miracle. I still think it's a miracle, the bees flying out onto flowers and they get tiny, tiny, little amounts of nectar and then bring then back. And they pass it on from one to another, and then somehow generate this liquid gold in vast amounts sometimes. It's quite extraordinary. So the first jar is fantastic.

When you get to your 400th jar over the season and you find that they produce ivy honey, which taste so bitter - that Im afraid only the French really like it - then it's not so great.

But, yeah. No, I enjoy it.

SIMON: Is it harder to keep bees these days?

Mr. TURNBULL: It's a lot harder than it was, say, 20 or 30 years ago. I mean certainly in Britain in the old days, you could literally just leave a hive at the bottom of the garden and collect the honey at the end of the season, and hope that they didn't swarm and that would be okay.

But because of the dastardly Varroa mite, which is becoming a global concern, is spread everywhere. And it carries diseases which do for those bees in a number of different ways. And we've all got it and it's become resistant to some of the medicines that we treat them with, it's become a much more complicated business keeping that under control. And the consequences for beekeepers on an industrial scale have been, as you know - in the United States - disastrous.

SIMON: Bill, in the end, what's satisfying about beekeeping?

Mr. TURNBULL: It's a couple of things really. It's you're doing something positive. One, it gets you out into the fresh air away from the golf course, for instance, and away from the TV. And I have most of my hives on a farm and I get to pretend to be a farmer for an afternoon. And I go down to the orchard and the sun is shining when you do that. And you're helping the bees pollinate other things and create honey, and give you this lovely liquid gold harvest at the end of the summer.

And it is actually giving something back to the environment. And so much of what we do takes away, it's nice to be able to do just a little thing to redress the balance.

SIMON: Why do you call yourself a bad beekeeper? I mean I off-hand you strike me as extremely conscientious.

Mr. TURNBULL: Well, I try to be, but beekeeping is something which requires devotion and dedication and concentration and time, and these are all things which in my case can be in slightly short supplied. Youre supposed to take notes, for instance, every time you go into the colonies and check on their progress and I don't do that. And you're supposed to be neat and tidy, and I don't do that. And you're not supposed to give them extra space within the hive that they can fill up with pollen and wax and honey, and I don't do that. So I end up with the most almighty mess of bees and wax and just general glue, which takes an awful lot of tidying up. So if you see what I mean, I'm not exactly the world's tidy person, and that doesn't help you be a good beekeeper.

SIMON: Bill, good luck to you and your hive.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: I dont think I've ever said that to another guest.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Bill Turnbull, who hosts BBC Breakfast and BBC TV. His new book Confessions of a Bad Beekeeper: What Not to Do When Keeping Bees (With Apologies to My Own).

Bill, thanks so much

Mr. TURNBULL: You're most welcome.

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