‘We’ve got a football league table for stings,” announces Roger Morgan-Grenville, proudly. “Every year, we see who can get stung the least. I had 14 in one day last year.” “They stung you on the face but that never made you any prettier, did it Rog?” retorts Duncan Allison.
The pair love to joke; barely a moment passes without some gentle teasing. It has seen them through the trials and tribulations of beekeeping, after joining forces in a quest to make their own honey.
They couldn’t be more different. Morgan-Grenville, 60, is a veteran of the Troubles, director at housewares supplier Dexam, played a role in starting Help for Heroes, and has written books on cricket and golf. Allison, a greengrocer, is 23 years his junior.
The two met by chance in the village pub after Allison moved to Petworth, West Sussex, with his family. Cricket brought them together, but honeybees ignited the unlikely friendship. “I wanted to do something new,” says Morgan-Grenville. “I get bored quite easily. A mate had a hive he didn’t want, so I had this wreckage of a hive in the garden.” Allison had always wanted to do something with bees, but only after they met did things begin to take shape.
“Our partnership shouldn’t work,” says Allison. “We’re completely different ends of the spectrum.” Morgan-Grenville responds: “I think we’re both a bit subversive. The older you get, people tell you that you should be a certain way when you’re 37, or 60, and it’s rubbish. You should be who you need to be. That sounds deep, but you need an adventure. [Bees] were my thing. Duncan and I got on, and I thought this’d be a fun thing to do.”
So, in his mid-50s, Morgan-Grenville became a beekeeper. Starting with a battered old hive a few years back, the two poured efforts and finances into the new hobby (“The Greek government couldn’t have lost more money than we did on this,” laughs Morgan-Grenville) and, today, produce their own honey from Morgan-Grenville’s back garden.
The intervening period is documented in Morgan-Grenville’s fourth book, Liquid Gold: Bees and the Pursuit of Midlife Honey, a light-hearted account of midlife, a yearning for adventure, the plight of bees, the quest for “liquid gold” and, above all, friendship.
There’s a buzz about bees right now, and they receive almost as much coverage as the Sussexes. There are two main reasons: numbers are in decline, and we’re increasingly aware how crucial these insects are to a stable environment and economy. The UK’s 270 bee species (250 of which are lesser-known solitary bees) are struggling, due to climate change, habitat loss, pesticide, pollution, disease and invasive species. Research by the University of Sussex, published in February, suggested stronger winds led to a decrease in nectar taken on by a bee; wind speeds are predicted to rise.
A 2019 World Wide Fund for Nature report on the East of England found that 11 per cent of species were threatened, 7 per cent regionally extinct, and 14 per cent were of conservation concern. Another study from 2019 declared “Every square kilometre in the UK has lost an average of 11 species of bee and hoverfly, between 1980 and 2013.” Bumblebees now face “mass extinction”, according to research published in the journal Science last month.
The importance of bees rests primarily on their role as pollinators. Around a third of the food we eat is contingent on pollination, the transfer of pollen that allows plants to fertilise. Honey is an obvious example, but there’s also tomatoes, strawberries, potatoes, onions, rapeseed, cucumbers. All these and more, not to mention many trees and flowers, rely on the tiny buzzing insects.
This is not lost on Morgan-Grenville, who says keeping bees has taught him much about how nature functions. “You’ll sit out here in June, you’ll see a dandelion, and it’s got a honeybee on it. That honeybee is going to make 12-13 flights that day, visiting maybe 50 plants each flight. It can do 500 flowers in a day, and is one of 30-40,000 honeybees [in the colony], they’re going to do 1.5 million plants. And that is one of 250,000 hives in the UK.”
Factor in the 1,500 species of pollinating insect in the UK, and you get “countless trillions of little interconnections,” says Morgan-Grenville. “The honeybee is not under great threat at the moment, because there’s so many people like us doing it. But solitary bees and bumblebees are in disarray.”
In fact, many experts argue that honeybees threaten other species. In Morgan-Grenville’s own words, the honeybee is “a lousy pollinator,” and it competes with scarcer bees for nectar and pollen. Not necessarily a problem when flowers are plentiful, but when they’re hard to come by, wild bees can struggle. One article has said beekeeping is “the equivalent of farming chickens to save wild birds.”
Morgan-Grenville admits that honeybees are in ruder health, but senses a “snobbery” among entomologists. Nevertheless, he plans to raise money for bumblebee conservation.
Keeping the bees happy is arguably the hardest part of the job. “Beekeeping is basically about queen management,” Morgan-Grenville explains. How does one keep them content? “She needs space,” says Allison. “She needs the right magazine”. “Class A drugs,” jokes Morgan-Grenville.
In earnest, they put it down to luck, though keeping the queen well fed (with syrup when flowering plants are scarce) and disease-free (a clean hive helps) is essential. “You’ve got one queen, she lives maybe three years. If she’s happy and her colony’s happy, it’ll be fine,” says Morgan-Grenville. “If something happens to her or she starts to fail, they will simply make another queen.”
This is known as a swarm, with half the colony breaking away in search of a new location. It happened to the duo’s bees, on the same day Britain voted for Brexit. They found the swarm, ushered it to an empty hive, and called that hive Brexit; the nearby original was monikered Remain. Brexit was lined with the Daily Mail, Remain with The Guardian. Visiting friends pledge allegiance to whichever aligned with their political views, though the bees haven’t reflected real life, with Remain prevailing.
Theirs is still an amateur operation. There have been troubles: the swarm, a starved colony, bad weather, a sheep that “reversed its backside into the hive and knocked it over.” The stings, surprisingly uncommon, they have grown accustomed to.
All the effort has been worth it for that first taste of honey. “It was amazing,” says Allison. “We got quite emotional,” Morgan-Grenville responds. “We’ve had better honey since,” Allison admits. “I don’t think we’ll both sit here and say it’s the best honey we’ve ever had in our lives.” The quality gradually improved, however, with a peak after the long, dry summer of 2018.
The honey I’m given is delicious: herbaceous, slightly bitter, crystalline and almost citrusy, but when they entered a local competition, it didn’t earn a prize. “Not necessarily put to shame” was the verdict, Morgan-Grenville laughs.
One senses their journey hasn’t been about creating the world’s best honey. Far more importantly, the two found friendship and laughter, over beers and a bit of elbow-grease in the garden; not having to buy honey again has been a welcome subplot.
Six ways you can help bees (of all sorts) without keeping them
- Teach children to respect, not swat them. Bees only sting when threatened or if their honey stores are under attack.
- Don't use pesticides, and don't obsess over weeding.
- Avoid mowing your lawn in May or June – it prevents wildflowers from growing.
- Buy local honey: it may be more expensive, but you're more likely to be supporting an environmentally friendly producer.
- Leave water out in the summer: bees get thirsty, too, and often a bumblebee struggling on the grass will be dehydrated. Fresh water will provide a lifeline.
- Grow plants: “Those with small flowers are usually best, as the honeybee has a short tongue that is unable to reach nectaries in the bigger flowers,” says Morgan-Grenville. He recommends columbine, larkspur, heather, thyme and bramble. Put in a fruit tree or two if you can.