Meet The Queen Bees

When actress Jane Horrocks was asked for ideas for a podcast, she looked no further than one of her oldest friends, lively fellow actress Esther Coles and her hives of honeybees. Three series on, their podcast - warm, funny and informative - is a major hit. 

If your tastes in entertainment toward the dramatic – perhaps soap operas that feature female assassins, sex and drunkenness, mingled with some celebrity appearances - look no further for your next fix than a podcast by AbFab’s Jane Horrocks and her actress friend Esther Coles.

It’s funny, fascinating and a wee bit fruity. And it’s all about…beekeeping. The two women met as RADA students, sharing a mansion flat. “Jane was very mean with her Lancashire hot pot,” says Esther. “But I gave her a shower cap and that cemented our friendship,” says Jane, to mock-serious nods from Esther. Later, they both starred in Martin Clunes’ film Hunting Venus and became the firm friends you hear in the podcast, joshing and teasing each other
in their broad accents.

Outgoing, larger-than-life Esther has kept bees on her north London allotment for 12 years. Calm, funny Jane – loved for playing Bubbles in AbFab, lauded for her much-awarded film Little Voice and most recently seen in the Sky series, Bloods – knows nothing about them. But both women share a deep love of nature and an interest in the spiritual side of life: the unusual podcast really works. It turns out too that Jane is a great interrogator, asking all the right questions in her familiar Lancashire tones. And both are as expert as the other in the well-timed outrageous comment - especially around Esther’s history of unfortunately placed bee stings, a gag that runs throughout the first three series of the podcast.

“It’s a bit of chat, a bit of fun and bit of filth,” laughs Esther. If you’re troubled by the mental picture of Esther having to drop her undies in the allotment to retrieve a feisty bee, better stick with Radio 3. It was the series’ producer, Claire, who suggested that Jane did a podcast and Jane in turn suggested Esther and her bees. The timing coincided, fortunately or unfortunately, with the advent of Covid-19.

On one hand, the two women had to record remotely for months. But on the other, the podcast became a hit as Esther’s reports from the hives, supported by some great Instagram photography, turned into a lifeline for people desperate for a slice of outdoors and a feeling of being part of a friendship. There’s a roster of lively guests, from Vic Reeves, Jools Holland, Paul Whitehouse and Alan
Titchmarsh to bee experts, designers and nature lovers (Debbie Harry and Brad Pitt – both bee fans – are on their wish-list). All bring something great to the party, from philosophical discussions to comedy gold, fuelled by Jane’s ability to build conversations. “I hate interviewers who endlessly interrupt; it’s great to have guests and just let them talk. That way I get to sit and listen, too’ she says, modestly.

Where did Esther’s beekeeping journey begin? “As a child my grandparents had an allotment and I discovered there that I could get bumblebees to sit on my hand and they didn’t sting. I loved them. Then years later a swarm of honeybees came into my garden – a big black cloud. I thought ‘bloomin’ eck, that’s interesting’” says Esther, her Nottinghamshire vowels somehow adding extra drama. “I started finding out about honeybees and ended up really wanting to be a beekeeper. I went on an amazing free course run by Urban Bees that the Co-Op was funding – free training for a year and free bees and hives at the end if you passed. That was 12 years ago and really, I have never stopped learning.”

Expert or not, though, the series begins in the Spring of 2020 with drama and

despair. One of Esther’s two hives had not thrived over the winter, despite her care. She called in the DEFRA Bee Inspector for help and it quickly transpired that they had contracted a fatal virus, FoulBrood - or EFB. “We had to destroy the bees to protect others in north London. It was very upsetting,” (she gives way to tears). “My cleanliness has always been good. But there was a lot of the disease about. The irony was that it seemed to echo what we were living through as humans, with Covid-19.”

Her almost personal relationship with the bees - “my girls” - is evident in her upset. And there was a practical problem too: she needed bees for the podcast. So she went down an unusual route. “My father died the previous October, and I have heard his voice clearly on occasions since. So I decided to ask him. And only days afterwards a neighbour reported a swarm of bees. My husband Tom and I went to collect it – thousands of bees all hanging on to each other – and put them in a hive. We had bees!” She also bought and installed an Italian bee ‘nuc’ – or nucleus, a partially-developed colony - which were calm and well-behaved and later added a hive of Buckfast bees too.

But soon, more podcast drama. The Italian bees decide to kill their queen and create a new one; another queen disappears; the swarm-hive bees turn out to be quite defensive - “aggy” as they term it - and the Buckfast Bees, normally laid-back, arrive in a very bad mood. “It’s like the Scottish play. Or a Tarantino movie!” decides Jane. As befits two actresses, it doesn’t take long for them to create colourful characterisations around the bees’ lives. There’s the Little Killer Queen, the Orphan Annie Queen and the Dud Queen, who fails to lay eggs properly. They decide the grumpy Buckfast Bees, with their historic links to the mead-making monks of Buckfast Abbey, just needed a drink. “While we’re asleep they’ll be sitting tonight on little benches with their miniature tankards, singing a bee song,” says Esther.

She bursts into song herself: “The Buckfast Bees, The Buckfast Bees /They like to dance and shake their knees.” “Thom Yorke is already calling,’ remarks Jane, drily. Traditional beekeeping, this is not. Along with the banter, the listener absorbs a wealth of fascinating information. Esther really knows her stuff - suckers for fascinating facts are well catered-for.

Bees hum in the key of C (co-incidentally the key of the Beatles’ Let it Be/e) for instance. A queen can lay 2,000 eggs a day. A thriving hive can hold 50,000 bees. The Romans used single-flower honey to treat different conditions. Bees don’t like you eating bananas as it’s the scent of a dying bee. The whole hive can assemble to kill a marauding hornet by slow-cooking it. It’s all amazing stuff. The series evolves into serious areas too.

Alan Titchmarsh’s episode reveals him to be deeply concerned about the state of the environment and the need for sustainable, chemical-free gardening – a subject close to both Esther and Jane’s hearts. “I believe so passionately in the responsibility to a piece of earth. If you can leave yours, no matter how tiny, in better heart, growing more things and supporting more wildlife than when you arrived, then you’ve done your bit. You’ve paid your rent for being on Earth,” says Alan. Could the lockdowns be the salvation of nature? “I do hope so,” says Alan, “it’s easy to overlook what’s on your doorstep. And easy to overlook the difference we can make as individuals. It could be a legacy we’ll want to continue.”

Other debates touch on another hot issue: are there too many people keeping

bees, especially in London? The problem is that there may not be enough

‘forage’ – the nectar-rich flowers and trees on which pollinators feed – to go round in high density areas. Research is still ongoing over whether wild pollinators are being pushed out by honeybees. Says Esther: “When I did my course 12 years ago there were hardly any beekeepers in my area. But it became quite fashionable and quite a lot of people took it up during lockdown. Now, really there are too many colonies. If there isn’t enough forage, bees can start robbing other hives for honey and that’s what can spread disease. And wild bees will struggle if honeybees take too much. It’s all about balance. “

A lot of people have taken up beekeeping as a hobby but it’s really important to get proper training to make sure you’re not adding to the problem. Bad beekeepers can make honeybees’ lives a nightmare. “If you want to help bees, by far the best thing you can do is to make your garden a haven for all pollinators by planting the right flowers, shrubs and wild plants that they need.” One podcast guest in particular further altered the way Esther now views beekeeping. Paula Carnell is a naturopathic beekeeper and sees bees’ relationship with humans on a more spiritual level, one in which everything is connected and shares a consciousness.

She keeps bees in the countryside in a natural, bee-centred way, in harmony with both nature and herself - right up to communicating with them. She tells a story about asking her bees if she could take some honey. The next day she returned to find the bees calm and a few honey-filled frames almost totally free of bees waiting ready for her to take. However, her partner persuaded her to take a couple more.

Against her better judgement, she took another two frames. This time, hundreds of bees followed her and banged angrily against her window – as if to say “that’s NOT what we negotiated.” It’s something that Esther feels too. “I’ve had bees fly at the window, and they have been trying to tell me something – that the hive needs attention or has been knocked or something. “It’s an ancient thing for beekeepers to talk to their bees.

You can tell them your problems and they’ll work them out for you. It’s bee magic: somehow the answer transfers itself to your brain. When you’re beekeeping you are really ‘in the moment’ and maybe that’s a healing thing – just to get away from life for a while.” Jane agrees: “Bring in a place of ‘allowing’ is a really good place to be. Just let the universe, or God, or the bees, sort it out for you and everything will fall into place like it’s meant to be.”

Esther has been heavily influenced by Paula Carnell. “This year I’ve been more hands-off and stepped back a bit, I’ve even stopped smoking the bees, even though that did end up with them chasing me off the allotment! But it’s so important to remember that you’re caring for something so fragile – and yourself, and the world, at the same time. “The inter-relationships between things – soil, plants, insects – that’s what’s going to save us. Bees have so much to teach us and they need a voice. So I hope we’re giving them one.”

The friends couldn’t leave it there, though. Esther: “I’m going to be a naked beekeeper from now on. Just a little hat and no clothes and leave it to the bees.” Jane: Maybe some lipstick though. And what about your ‘downstairs area’, Esther, which has always been so vulnerable? Esther: Ooh, I’ll cover that in wax and honey and hope for the best.