Aged 36, with classic good looks, he came over to England 18 years ago as a drama student with a bee in his bonnet. Although he takes on the odd role, they are fitted around his full-time job - passion would be more accurate - as beekeeper and manager of Hive, a little shop hidden away in the Battersea/ Wandsworth hinterland. It is a honey paradise; an orderly clutter from floor to ceiling with honeys such as Cherry, Lime, Borage, Heather or Apple, freshly cut honeycombs and delectable concoctions that he and his wife prepare: white chocolate honey fudge, a wicked honey fudge sauce, honey mustards, and a special recipe tomato relish with honey. There are honey cosmetics, soaps, bath essentials, shampoos, conditioners, moisturisers and beeswax lip balms. He also stocks royal jelly, acknowledged for its life-promoting and restorative powers, and there are also tinctures and ointments of propolis, used as one of the most effective natural antibiotics known to man. It alleviates a vast spectrum of ills from stomach ulcers to acne.
The shop stocks gifts as well: Pooh stationery, Buzz Bee wrapping papers, cards, candles (in beeswax) and honeypots galore. It is probably the only shop in the country dedicated solely to bees and their products. Behind the counter, the wall is covered with Hamill's awards from agricultural shows such as the Natural Honey Show and the Royal Show. However, the most striking thing is a glass-walled hive containing up to 30,000 live bees, which Hamill constructed himself.
A third-generation beekeeper from Orange County, California, Hamill developed his passion for bees from childhood, learning the husbandry of these tiny industrialists from his grandfather. Stage and screen interrupted an otherwise continuous passion, which reemerged 10 years ago when he and his wife put a couple of hives in their garden. About six years ago, he went to study beekeeping at Hadlow Agricultural College in Kent and three years later, he opened The Hive. He now has around 100 hives in orchards, fields, an allotment in Tooting, the back garden, the shop. The neighbours don't mind? On the contrary, one of them wants to take up beekeeping.
Hamill is researching breeding (he breeds Queen bees for other beekeepers) and the various diseases that can affect bees, including the deadly parasite varroa. Fortunately, the honey is not affected. A Queen Elizabeth Scholarship has allowed him to visit four of the largest honey-producing countries in the world: America, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. He has discovered that the international beekeeping community is one of great fellowship and hospitality. On a recent trip to Turkish Cyprus, he was changing his money at the bank and asked if there were any beekeepers in the town . The woman at the till overcame the language barrier and rang up the local pharmacist who was a beekeeper. He promptly locked up his shop in the middle of the day to take Hamill on a tour of his beehives, followed by a celebration banquet with the whole family. Inspired by this fraternity, Hamill plans to trek with the wild honey-hunters in Nepal, crossing social barriers in a common search of sweetness.
Bees have a model of social structure that we should perhaps all be following: women in control. The Queen and her workers are exclusively female, the male drones having a short, rather sad role as impregnators, thereafter being generally ignored and left to die. All in pursuit of a sticky honey, the staple diet of the Owl and the Pussy Cat, the poetic food of Rupert Brooke's nostalgia ("Stands the Church clock at ten to three? And is there honey still for tea?") and Jonathan Swift's moral musings: "We have rather chosen to fill our hives with honey and wax; thus furnishing mankind with the two noblest of things, which are sweetness and light". James Hamill has seen the light. He will also pass it on. From 19 March, he runs his next course in beekeeping. Four three-hour sessions held at the shop on Tuesday evenings, with a final session out on site, will cost pounds 75. He covers the natural history of bees; beekeeping; hive activity, equipment and manipulation; harvesting and extracting the honey; and finally closing down the hives for the winter.
Contact James Hamill, The Hive, 53 Webb's Road, Battersea London SW11 6RX. Tel 0171-924 6233Reuse content