BBC presenter Bill Turnbull’s been a busy bee

BBC Breakfast presenter Bill Turnbull is fascinated by bees and was delighted to be chosen to front an Horizon special on why their numbers are in decline, he tells Keeley Bolger
Bill Turnbull as a beekeeper in Horizon: Whats Killing Our Bees?Bill Turnbull as a beekeeper in Horizon: Whats Killing Our Bees?
Bill Turnbull as a beekeeper in Horizon: Whats Killing Our Bees?

Buzzing around the BBC Breakfast studio first thing in the morning, presenter Bill Turnbull has one worry on his mind.

It’s not the 3am start, the pre-interview nerves or the fear of fluffing his lines.

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“The difficulty now is that I’ve interviewed so many people that I can’t remember if I have or haven’t met them before,” says Turnbull, who films the flagship morning programme from a studio in Salford.

“Sometimes it’s a bit embarrassing because they come on and I’ve met them but I don’t remember,” he adds, laughing.

Nattering to guests on live TV is a thrill for 57-year-old Turnbull, but away from the cameras he enjoys making a beeline for his hives.

“We had a swarm of bees in our garden and didn’t know what to do about them,” he explains. “So we got a trained beekeeper around and I was so fascinated by how he very calmly put them in a cardboard box and put them away.

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“I wondered whether I was mad enough to do it myself - 12 years later, I’m still doing it!”

Bees might not seem like the most peaceful of guests but, for Turnbull, keeping them takes the sting out of his busy work life.

“Beekeeping brings me so much pleasure. There’s a zen-like calm that you get when you go to a colony, open up a hive and the sun is shining. It puts you in a good mood and takes you out of yourself,” he says. “By the time you’ve gone through the hives and asked a few questions - is there a queen, is she laying? and all that - you’ve been so focused that your mind has been swept clear and I find it very relaxing.

“You get something back in the form of honey, but I just enjoy propagating the species really.”

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Turnbull, who shares his honey with friends, colleagues and charity auctions, was chosen to present BBC Two’s Horizon special What’s Killing Our Bees?

It’s a topic he’s eager to explore. “There’s been a lot of high emotion and passionate debates, but the programme takes a dispassionate, objective look at the evidence, what we know and what we don’t know,” he says.

“Being an amateur beekeeper myself, I’m aware of all of the difficulties there have been and I’ve always wanted to know a bit more.”

The programme will feature two scientific experiments seeking answers as to why exactly the bee population is in decline. Both tests will use cutting-edge tracking equipment to show what happens to bees once they leave the hive, and how their behaviour is affected by two of the possible culprits - pesticides and the varroa mite, which carries a virus that’s lethal for bees.

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Though Turnbull, who once ran the London Marathon in a beekeeper suit for Bees For Development, says his bees are in great health, he doesn’t see as much of them as he’d like nowadays.

While he, his wife, three children and two black Labradors have moved to the Peak District as part of the BBC’s drive to film more programmes outside London, his six bee colonies have remained in Buckinghamshire, where the family used to live.

“The difficulty in bringing the bees up here is that we live on the edge of the Peak District, a thousand feet up,” he says. “It’s a delightful spot but terribly windy. I’m not sure if there’s enough forage for them - it’s all sheep.

“I looked at my bees and thought, if they swarm they’re on a farm in Buckinghamshire so they’re not going to hurt anybody. They’re happy so let’s leave them where they are.”

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Turnbull, a loyal supporter of Wycombe Wanderers Football Club, is bullish about the BBC’s move north.

“For Breakfast it’s been a success. People were expecting it to fail but it hasn’t,” he says. “If you watch the show you wouldn’t know it was coming from somewhere different. The audience has held steady and improved on occasions and we have a happy team. And the building we work in is the best I’ve had in 35 years.”

Horizon: What’s Killing Our Bees? is on BBC Two on Friday, August 2