Martha Kearney, best known for Radio 4’s The World At One, reveals all to TV & Satellite Week about her love of beekeeping in her new four-part documentary The Wonder of Bees, which premieres on BBC4 tonight (Monday, April 14)…
You have been beekeeping for over a decade, what first attracted you?
“Apart from enjoying eating honey I had no interest in bees until I was given a hive as a wedding present. Initially I just painted it and had it as a garden ornament until a local beekeeper taught me what to do. Now I have about 360,000 bees in six hives. I’ve been a political journalist for a long time, but now what most people want to talk to me about, even in Westminster, is my bees!”
What was you thinking behind the show?
“I am still an amateurish beekeeper so this was my journey through the beekeeping season to becoming better. It also follows me as I try to produce wildflower honey which has a delicious but delicate flavour.”
What were your biggest challenges?
“It was a very difficult winter last year so I had to battle with the bees in the snow so we see the bees trying to cope with the weather and then gradually building back to strength but there was a real risk of starvation for them.”
Do you get attached to them and feel a responsibility towards them?
“It seems really strange, but you definitely do. I remember one year when I opened up the hive after the winter and it was just full of dead bees. I was really upset and my husband was teasing me and saying that I was ‘bee-reaved’, but I did feel responsible because I think they died out because I hadn’t given them enough food in the autumn so now I am much more careful.”
Is your husband more interested in bees now?
“No! He’s in the programme, but he demanded that he was called a reluctant beekeeper because he has been stung a lot and that has put him off. I think he does enjoy the extraction part when we get the honey, because it’s the boy’s bit with the machine that he loves to use.”
Have you learned more from the show?
“Well I feel more confident about things like spotting the queen bee. I also met a natural beekeeper who thinks that you shouldn’t take too much honey from the bees and she showed me bizarre hives like the sun hive that is high up with the frames hanging down. Then I met the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace where there are hives and he told me that his grandmother kept bees so he has a soft spot for them and we discussed the role of beeswax in religion because beeswax candles are important for services.”
What makes bees so special?
“I just think they are incredible creatures, the more you learn about them the more amazing they are. They operate as their own community and every bee has a different role. Humans have often looked to the hive as a model of social activity because it is so harmonious. Their honeycombs are such a clever piece of engineering too and they do amazing things like the waggle dance to communicate to the bees back at the hive where the best flowers are. It is incredibly sophisticated form of communication.”
Do bees get a bad press then?
“There is no denying that getting stung by a bee is pretty unpleasant and some people are allergic, but they do so much to pollinate our crops, they are absolutely vital and they contribute millions of pounds to British agriculture so I think we really should appreciate them more.”
Were you sad that your BBC4 arts programme The Review Show has come to an end?
“Yes of course. It was a lovely programme to do and a very nice team but I suppose nothing can last forever. But I will be doing a number of other shows for BBC Arts during the course of the year.”