Why I get a buzz out of beekeeping
BBC breakfast presenter Bill Turnbull, who will host the CIPR Press and Broadcast Awards in Belfast this Friday, tells Marie Foy why beekeeping is the perfect antidote to his high pressure life
BBC Breakfast presenter Bill Turnbull is a man with a smoking gun. And he uses it to great effect when he wants to extract honey from his hives.
“You puff the smoke in and the bees think there's a fire and leave. Then they realise there's no fire and they come back,” he explains.
“Taking honey — the bees don't like it so you have to do it by stealth. It isn't difficult, you just have to time it.
“After all, you're ripping their roof off and stealing stuff. When you do it wrong, you have to suffer the consequences.”
Whether you trust his advice is another thing. Remember, he has just launched his first book The Bad Beekeepers Club (another BBC publication). But then, he is also president of the Institute of Northern Ireland Beekeepers, and he did appear on Mastermind with beekeeping as his specialist subject, so maybe he does know what he's talking about.
As he admits himself: “You can know a fair amount, but it doesn't necessarily mean you can do it quite as well. I can be quite cack-handed when I want to be.”
As well as an awful lot of bees, Bill lives in Buckinghamshire with wife Sarah, children Henry (21), Will (20) and Flora (18), two black Labradors and several chickens. He has been a familiar face on television for many years, reporting on major news stories from over 30 countries, including the OJ Simpson murder trial and the Monica Lewinsky scandal that rocked Bill Clinton's presidency. He became a presenter on BBC Breakfast in 2001 and next thing he was kicking up his heels on Strictly Come Dancing with Karen Hardy.
Bill became president of the Northern Ireland beekeepers after meeting the man who runs the group, Michael Young, at a convention some years ago.
“That partly inspired my book,” he reveals. “I thought I'd better tell everyone what sort of beekeeper I am, so they knew what they were letting themselves in for. I listed a lot of my crimes. I think they couldn't have believed that someone could be that bad and still talk about it in public. The shaking, banging, brushing method of collecting honey isn't in the book.
“One of the worst things you can do is kill someone else's Queen. I had to add that to my catalogue of mistakes. I squashed her by accident. The club was very forgiving.”
Bill describes his book as a humorous look at beekeeping and an attempt to demystify the subject. “I thought I'd put it down some of the howlers I have committed and outlining the virtues it teaches you such as fortitude and endurance, hopefully making me a better person,” he says.
In full flow, Bill continues: “My interest was first sparked when a swarm landed in my garden. I had to get a beekeeper in to take them away. He was very calm and nonchalant. I thought it was a challenging thing to take up.
“Years later I took one of our chickens, Tabasco, to the vets and my daughter noticed a sign about beekeeping. I thought it was meant to be and went on a course. This is my 10th season (year).”
Bill's first adventure as a trainee beekeeper wasn't particularly encouraging. “Before I ever got into the apiary I was stung twice on the head. The worst thing was being defenceless with my anatomy. But when I've been stung it's been my own fault.
“I haven't been stung this year yet, but you will get stung. That's what happens. If you didn't it would be like keeping flies. There's a sense of adventure, an element of risk,” he warns with a chuckle.
Is it a de-stressing hobby? “Absolutely. It's a world away from the TV studio which can be high pressure and intense, and gets you into the countryside and sunshine and fresh air.
“It clears your mind. All you can think about is what the bees are going to do next. And the honey you make yourself is more delicious than anyone else's.”
Bill has been a frequent visitor here. “I have been coming over, on and off, for 20 years and of course there have been troubled times.
“I remember staying in the Europa when it had no windows, chipboard instead of glass. It is a particular joy to be able to come now and see the progress it is making.
“It lifts the heart. I love it. It's especially nice to spend the day with a lot of other beekeepers, swapping tips on how to become better. The next convention is in Lisburn on November 6.”
He'll also spend time with the Larne branch of Marie Curie Cancer Care, a charity he praises highly for its wonderful work. So when he's sitting on the sofa on morning TV, does he miss hard news?
“There is a good mix of news on the show. And they still let me out of the studio from time to time to keep my hand in.
“I was out during the General Election, including a trip to Belfast, and last year I did the Obama election which was fantastic. It gave you goose bumps, it was such an historic moment.”
On the lighter side, one of Bill's favourite interviews was with movie star Will Smith. “Not only was he engaging, funny and interesting on TV, he stopped to speak to everyone he saw in the studio and gave the cleaning ladies a hug. He was an absolute star.”
At the age of 54, Bill's still as keen as mustard about his work. The sting is he has to get up at 3.45am in the morning.
“If it wasn't for the time of day it would be the best job in broadcasting,” he says.
The upside is that he finishes early. “I have a lie down about noon and then have the afternoon to catch up on other things.” Like beekeeping. Naturally.
The Bad Beekeepers Club, Sphere, £12.99. Bill Turnbull is MC at this year's annual gala Coca-Cola CIPR Press and Broadcast Awards which will be held at the Europa Hotel, Belfast this Friday evening. Dinner tickets to the black-tie event are £95 plus VAT and can be purchased from MCI tel: 028 90456451