The Queen’s beekeeper, John Chapple from Acton, hands over to the new King’s beekeeper

Image above: John Chapple at Buckingham Palace; photograph Richard Rickitt

John Chapple hands over the role after 15 years of delivering honey for the Queen’s breakfast

As Charles III is crowned King next weekend, taking over the position of head of state from his mother Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey, so another solemn role is being handed over in the gardens of Buckingham Palace – the keeper of the monarch’s bees.

John Chapple has been the Queen’s beekeeper for the past 15 years. He hit the headlines shortly after she died, when it was reported that he had followed the tradition of beekeepers and let her bees know she had died, wrapping the hives in black ribbon. Now 80, the coronation seemed a fitting point for him to hand over the bees to someone else’s keeping.

John spoke to The Chiswick Calendar about the hobby which has taken over his life, opening doors and giving him the opportunity to travel the world.

Image above: John at Green Days on Acton Green Common

The 80 hive ‘hobby’ with bees all over London

John and his bees are always a great attraction at Green Days, the opening weekend of the Bedford Park Festival in June. There is always a queue of interested children and their parents peering at the glass-sided hive he has on display and a brisk trade in his jars of honey.

Beekeeping started as a hobby for John some 35 years ago, when he was working as an engineer on simulators for BA.

“When I started there were very few urban beekeepers. My wife and I have always given each other the most wonderful joke Christmas presents. I give her things like a cement mixer or an angle grinder and she gives me an electric kettle or a hairdryer.

“She likes honey so one year I gave her a book about keeping bees in the back garden and she said “lovely – but over to you”.”

John found a man who kept bees on land backing on to Gunnersbury Park, John Wilson, who allowed him to put one of his hives in his back garden in Acton, and John effectively became his apprentice.

The ‘hobby’ really took off once John retired and at his busiest, when he was chairman of London beekeepers, he had about 80 hives all over London.

“If you’re successful you keep increasing the number of hives” he explained. As the nucleus of bees around a queen grows to an unmanageable size, they split. The queen bee goes off and leaves a queen cell behind. In theory the number of bees could double every year, but in practice bad weather and disease means they are not quite that prolific.

Image above: John Chapple at Buckingham Palace; photograph Richard Rickitt

It all began with a swarm

John’s connection with the royal family started with a swarm of bees in Hyde Park.

“They asked if I could come and collect it. I asked if I could keep some bees there and the park manager welcomed me with open arms.”

Gardeners like bees, as they pollinate the flowers. From Hyde Park he started keeping bees for the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace, whose head gardener talked to the head gardener at the royal palaces, and so it came about that he began to keep bees in the gardens of Buckingham Palace.

The Queen loved bees and showed a great interest in them, but he is not allowed by the royal household to talk about his exchanges with her, even though the monarch’s beekeeper is not a paid position, and they are his bees.

John showed me one of his most prized possessions – a big pine cone which Prince George, aged four, picked up in the garden and gave to him as a “present”. John keeps it in a glass dome.

There were four hives initially. Now there are six and he also keeps two hives at Clarence House. The honey crop goes entirely to the royal household.

Richard Rickitt, co-editor of Bee-craft magazine, told us:

“John has been well-known and much-admired within the London and wider UK beekeeping community for many years. He is an expert beekeeper of many years standing yet has never lost his wonder and enthusiasm for bees and their wondrous lifestyle, communicating that excitement to the public and generations of new beekeepers in is own genial and modest way.

“No-one meeting John or listening to his engaging discussions of bees would ever guess that this is a man who for many years supplied the honey for Her Majesty the late Queen’s breakfast – or indeed for world figures including Barack Obama and the Pope.”

Images above: Children learning about urban beekeeping at Hen Corner in Brentford

“If you want to help the bees, plant herbs”

John told us being the royal beekeeper has opened doors for him.

“It has taken me to places I would never have been otherwise. I have seen most of the world, every continent except Latin America.”

The Apis Mellifer species he keeps, ‘London mongrels’, need about 40lb of honey to see them through the winter.

“The skill of the beekeeper is in knowing how much they can take off”.

Interestingly the honey yields in London are going down because so many people are keeping bees and there is now a surplus of bees in London. When he started beekeeping there were about 30 beekeepers in Middlesex that he knew of. Now there are 600.

“If you want to help bees, plant herbs. You get the benefit of the herbs, and they get the nectar. Rosemary is good for them, crocuses, snowdrops and Lavender especially.”

John will be at Green Days on 10 and 11 June and will be handing over care of the King’s bees to John House. Whereas John has been his assistant, he will now be John’s, so he will not be losing touch with the royal household entirely.