The claustrophobia hits me in seconds. I can’t scratch my face or push a stray hair away from my nose because my head is encased in a hood with a heavy mesh front. My hands are protected by thick leather gauntlets and my feet boiling in heavy wellies. I feel like astronaut Neil Armstrong galumphing around on the moon for the first time.
No, this isn’t some avant-garde new fashion, though some of the chicest women in the world have also worn a version of it. It’s a beekeeping suit, and marks my entry to the newly fashionable world of all things apicultural, alongside the likes of Beyonce, Scarlett Johansson and the Duchess of Cambridge.
Just like female worker bees, women beekeepers around the world are mobilising.
The British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) has reported a rise in membership in recent years: from 18,475 in 2010, to 28,486 in 2020 — and numbers continue to swell according to the Trend Hunter forecast, which named it one of its top lifestyle trends.
Angelina Jolie (pictured) appeared on the cover of National Geographic to celebrate World Bee Day earlier this summer
Beekeeping ticks all the current zeitgeist boxes: nature, foraged food and sustainable living. The ultimate eco status symbol, it’s about conservation and the environment (bees, as pollinators, are vital to plant reproduction, so without them, many plants, including crops, can’t survive).
Plus it can provide a moment of calm, financial independence and purpose.
The current Queen Bee is none other than Angelina Jolie, who appeared on the cover of National Geographic in a striking pose, with her bare face and neck crawling with bees, to celebrate World Bee Day earlier this summer.
Last week, the actress donned her beekeeping outfit to highlight Women For Bees, a joint conservation programme between UNESCO and French cosmetics giant Guerlain (which has used honey in its skincare formulas for years). Guerlain has raised $2 million this year to train and support 50 women beekeeper entrepreneurs around the world, who will build 2,500 beehives by 2025.
As part of the scheme, Angelina says she is going to train to be a beekeeper herself. ‘I have a lot of wildflowers and my bees are very, very happy. We’re trying to work out where we would put the hives. I think I have to do them on the roof,’ she’s said.
And the Duchess of Cambridge is also creating a buzz around bees. A few weeks ago, she revealed that she keeps them at the family’s Norfolk home, Anmer Hall (where they spent much of the pandemic).
Kate produced a jar of her own homemade honey for children to try at The Urban Nature Project — an initiative by London’s Natural History Museum to help people reconnect with the natural world.
The Duchess of Cornwall is another avid beekeeper, with nine hives at her Wiltshire home. Her honey (£20, fortnumandmason.com) is harvested annually and sold for the charity Bees for Development, which aims to improve people’s lives through beekeeping.
Geri Horner (pictured) recently released on her YouTube channel a video about beekeeping
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the pandemic saw a huge spike in the popularity of beekeeping. Last summer, the Beckhams took it up as a lockdown hobby — with Victoria posting a video on Instagram of David constructing their first hive.
Geri Horner recently released on her YouTube channel a video about beekeeping. And in an interview with Vogue, Beyonce, too, revealed that she started beekeeping during lockdown (as the healing properties of honey help with her children’s allergies).
Now she has 80,000 bees in two hives at her LA home, which make hundreds of jars of honey a year.
Scarlett Johansson, meanwhile, has owned a hive since 2009 — a wedding gift from Samuel L. Jackson. And Jennifer Garner has had seven hives at her home in LA since 2017, which she tends with her three children.
Jennifer has shared several photographs of herself on Instagram proudly flourishing a wedge of golden honeycomb, while adorned in head-to-toe protection, and making her own honey.
So I wondered if I could join the buzzing band? Keeping bees seems appealing from a distance — and that is exactly where I have been observing it from, until now.
My husband has kept four hives in our garden for more than ten years, since we left London for the Hampshire countryside with our two children, then aged seven and five. Over the years, the three of them have been involved with hive inspections, honey extraction and even wax production, and I’ve always left it to them.
Beyonce (pictured left) started beekeeping during lockdown, while Jennifer Garner (pictured right) has had seven hives at her home in LA since 2017
But not today. I don the spare bee suit and head out with the family expert, aka my husband. Maybe I can start doing it myself?
As we approach the hives, the hum gets louder. My husband wafts bee-calming fumes from the huge, teapot-like ‘smoker’. The heady aroma overwhelms any scent of garden roses. The bees, apparently, are reasonably calm. They look pretty busy and industrious to me.
I realise, finally, that this is no cottagecore Instagram fantasy or nostalgic Winnie-the-Pooh honey forage. It’s serious and unnerving. You actually have to know stuff.
Bees may be small but they’re wild animals, and, collectively, they are mighty. Their stings are usually painful but not life-threatening; yet for those people who are allergic, they can be fatal.
We crack open the first hive to inspect the colony. Thousands of focused female worker-bees are busying themselves in a calm, methodical way. In the centre is the largest female of all: the majestic queen, surging through her subjects.
The apparent calm could vanish at any moment. If I start to panic, the bees will smell it. I pretend I am in a yoga class and breathe slowly.
The more I learn about the process, the more I start to realise why so many alpha females like Angelina are attracted to keeping.
Sarah (pictured) said she pretended to be at a yoga class while beekeeping, because the bees would smell if she panicked
The bee ‘feminine society’ is ruthless. Female bees run their bee universe and no one gets an easy ride.
The male bees, known as ‘drones’, simply eat and have sex, which might initially seem a jackpot lifestyle. Prior to mating (and only with the Queen), they hang about in groups, hoping for action.
But their end is horrific. Once a drone mates, he becomes paralysed and falls to the ground.
Although the female worker-bees are the ones who feed larvae, toil in the colony and forage for nectar and pollen, they ultimately control their own world.
Queens can reign for up to five years in the wild. Young queens will fight each other or kill other emerging queens in the hive before they have a chance to threaten them.
So, in the hive, the queen bees run the show — but this hasn’t always been the case outside the hive.
North Yorkshire-based artist Susan Wilmot, 54, explains: ‘When I first started beekeeping, at 30, I was definitely in the minority — first of all for being female and secondly for being young.’ Now membership for Susan’s own local Beekeepers Association (bbka.org.uk) is more 50/50.
‘But it’s still a welcoming and supportive network,’ she says. ‘The BBKA offers serious guidance and mentoring, and you do need it.’
British female beekeeper Dr Samantha Corsellis, 50, said bees give her a moment of peace as a mother who is pulled in all directions (file image)
Beekeeping is not for the fainthearted. Susan’s no slacker when it comes to her bee husbandry. She spends an hour a week in summer tending to the hives, and every other month in winter, checking they have enough to eat.
Beekeeping takes up a degree of headspace and if you are considering it you have to bear that in mind, she says.
‘Each hive will be different and you need to make notes as you go along. There are good days and bad days,’ she adds.
‘You fall in and out of love with beekeeping, and it can be demoralising if things don’t go as expected. But on a good day, when I see the queen and developing larvae, knowing they’ll be going to pollinate our surrounding plants and trees, it’s truly satisfying.’
Another British female beekeeper is Dr Samantha Corsellis, 50, a primatologist and conservationist who has taken her dedication to beekeeping to another level.
She began 14 years ago and has now rewilded her 36-acre Oxfordshire fields primarily for their needs. ‘I’ve deliberately planted to suit my bees,’ she says. ‘Honey production is low on my priorities now, but when my children were young we had a cottage industry. We had so much honey that we exchanged it for eggs with one friend, and for babysitting with another.’
Dr Corsellis isn’t simply making a local effort, she’s also hoping, as a trustee of Wild Survivors — a charity that combines beekeeping and biofuel initiatives with elephant conservation and women’s empowerment in Tanzania — to influence a bigger picture.
Sarah (pictured) said a primal sense of self-preservation kicks in while beekeeping, as it makes you do everything in your power to appear calm
But what does beekeeping offer women besides the obvious benefits of enjoyment and possibly selling their honey, and the satisfaction of knowing that you have contributed to bee health and environmental support?
‘Bees are my moment of peace,’ says Dr Corsellis. ‘As a mother, you are pulled in all directions, but when you are in the garden with the bees, your time is consumed for maybe a couple of hours; no-one can disturb you.’
Angelina Jolie echoes this sentiment, explaining that being in the presence of bees has a particular effect — especially when they are crawling all over your bare skin (they had been calmed using a pheromone for her photoshoot). She told National Geographic: ‘It felt lovely to be connected to these beautiful creatures. Like some strange meditation, you have to be really still in your body.’
I know exactly what Angelina means. Back to our patch in England, there is no doubt that when up close with bees, a primal sense of self-preservation kicks in and you do everything in your power to appear calm.
It’s worth noting that bad queens make aggressive worker-bees. There is no obvious reason for it, but we experienced it first-hand a couple of years ago.
Inexplicably, a previously friendly queen changed and her colony became diabolical. Friends were dive-bombed and stung. It went on for weeks. The queen had to go, and once dispatched the hive recovered, fed a new queen with royal jelly and peace reigned once more.
Today’s inspection is over. I emerge steaming from my bee suit. I think perhaps I will stick to planting bee-friendly flowers and using Guerlain Black Bee Honey Balm on my face.