Broadcaster Bill Turnbull on honey, hives and the Canaries

Millions know him as the friendly face of Breakfast television and he won more fans on Strictly Come Dancing. But who knew Bill Turnbull was one of the UK's leading bee ambassadors? DAISY WALLAGE speaks to the 'bad beekeeper' about honey, hives and the Canaries.

Bill Turnbull is a bad beekeeper. From trapping aggrieved bees inside his own beekeeping suit to accidentally killing off a queen, the BBC broadcaster has made some major apricultural faux pas.

Now he's sharing his passion – and ineptitude – with readers in his first book, The Bad Beekeepers Club, which highlights the very real threat to our bee population.

The BBC Breakfast presenter will be reading extracts and answering questions in Thetford on Friday, November 25 as part of the continuing Breckland Book Festival.


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'Getting into beekeeping was quite a slow and relatively long process,' Bill said. 'My interest was peaked when a swarm turned up in my garden about 18 years ago. I thought it was amazing when a beekeeper came and took them away and I wondered if I would be able to do it.

'There was something rather Zen-like about his ability to tame a large cluster of potentially ferocious flying insects and coax them into captivity. There had been no excitement, no fuss, just a sense of being at one with nature. In that moment, a flame was lit for me.'

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Nearly a decade passed and it was to be a sick chicken named Tabasco which inspired Bill to take the next step.

He spotted a notice advertising beekeeping classes as he waited to see the vet and he finally bit the bullet. 'It takes time and effort and application,' he said. 'It's something you really have to want to do if it's going to happen.

'I don't really do it for the honey – I do it more to commune with the bees and get closer to nature. The bees have raised thousands of pounds for charity over the years. I host an annual ball for African Revival and there's always a little competition to see who will spend the most money on a jar of my honey!'

The 55-year-old journalist started out on his student newspaper in Edinburgh, but fell in love with broadcasting and began his career in radio. He first joined the BBC with the Today programme in 1986 and has been there ever since, working on Breakfast Time, BBC News and BBC Breakfast.

In 2005, he was a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing, attracting a cult fan base called the Billettes.

'People kept telling me I should write a book about something, but I didn't know what,' he said. 'I was on a ferry from Guernsey to Sark when my agent suggested I write a book about beekeeping. It flowed quite easily – as a journalist, a deadline is always a huge inspiration! Every waking minute I was thinking about the book.

'I've been in broadcasting for 30 years and had never written more than 1,500 words in my life. I did enjoy the process, but I can't say I was enjoying it hugely at the time. Getting a good passage done did give me a great sense of achievement, though.'

The finished book has been received well and Bill has travelled the country to promote it, fitting the work around his BBC commitments and life in Buckinghamshire, where he lives with his wife, three children, two black labradors, several chickens and eight bee hives.

It was recently released in America as Confessions of a Bad Beekeeper and he has just completed a tour of the north-east, including New York and Philadelphia.

'I found myself talking to 250 people at a beekeepers' convention,' he said. 'It was thoroughly undeserved and I don't know what they made of it.'

Bill, who supports Wycombe Wanderers, is looking forward to his trip to Norfolk and said the Canaries held a special place in his heart.

'If I had to support a Premier League team it would be Norwich City. Paul Lambert used to manage Wycombe Wanderers and we used to have a few laughs. He has a thick Glaswegian accent and I used to kid him that no-one understood what he was saying!'

It's six years now since the keen runner braved the dance floor on Strictly Come Dancing – and it's not an experience he'll be allowed to forget any time soon.

'The scars are still healing!' he said. 'I sort of put it to one side but people ask me about it every year, particularly at this time of the year.

'I've been watching the highlights this year and I'm very pleased to see the ruffles are still in there! I'm plugging for Russell Grant – he keeps the hopes high for everyone who is not necessarily slim and has a natural sense of rhythm.'

Despite a painful ankle injury, Bill stayed in the competition for seven weeks and eventually came a respectable sixth out of 12 contestants.

'I lost about nine pounds doing Strictly. I had already run a marathon that year and I still had to work very hard in the beginning. I was exhausted, but I've never been fitter,' he said.

So how did his children – all teenagers at the time – cope with seeing their dad dancing on national television? 'They bore it with dignity!' he laughed.

'My family all encouraged me. I don't think they realised what a roller coaster ride it would be, but we all have fantastic memories of that time.'

The talk will be held at the Carnegie Rooms in Thetford from 7.30pm on Friday, November 25. Tickets cost �5, with �2 redeemable against the book. Call 01842 751975.

Breckland Book Festival is continuing through November and December. Full details about events are available from libraries in the district and from the website www.brecklandbookfestival.com

daisy.wallage@archant.co.uk

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