Rebecca Tyrrel: 'It has been the way of celebrities – from Sherlock to Suggs – to keep bees'

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Who knew that, when Scarlett Johansson married the actor Ryan Reynolds in 2008, Samuel L Jackson gave the happy couple a large number of bees?

"We had a colony of 10,000 delivered to our doorstep," recalled a mystified Reynolds. "We definitely had a conversation about bees. Just idle chit-chat. Somewhere in the back of Sam's mind, he must have thought, 'The best gift I can give them is a swarm of bees'."

Samuel L's present may be less eccentric (though not much) than it appears. It has been the way of celebrities, real and fictional, to keep the honey producers for almost 3,000 years.

Alexander the Great was an early beekeeper, presumably influenced by his boyhood tutor Aristotle, whose analysis of bees' habits was amazingly accurate, even if he did refer to the queen as the king (probably because he was sexist).

Sherlock Holmes took up the hobby when he retired to the West Downs of Sussex (though Conan Doyle does not record whether, in answer to a question about what he wanted pollinated, he replied "a lemon tree, my dear Watson"). Henry Ford and Sir Edmund Hillary were also fans, while current hive-owners include Suggs from Madness (author of the hit single "It Must Bee Love"), jailbird domestic deity Martha Stewart, former US vice-presidential Spelling Bee champion Dan 'Potatoe' Quayle, and our own people's poet Pam Ayres, the third generation of her family to keep them. "It is an old-fashioned thing," says Ayres, "but I am a beekeeper, my dad was a beekeeper and my granny was a beekeeper. My youngest is good with bees and said he'd like a hive of his own."

Considering the concerns about rapidly declining numbers, it is a relief to know there are still enough around to sate the celebrity market.

It is not known what became of their wedding gift when Johansson and Reynolds divorced last year. Perhaps they went through them one by one, dividing them up like CDs. More likely, perhaps, they agreed to give them up for adoption, if they hadn't done so the day after they returned from honeymoon.

Still, it could have been worse. They might have idly chit-chatted with Samuel L Jackson about cobras, in which case he would almost certainly have sent them instead a consignment of snakes on a plane.

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