“I did it without reading the script, because I said, ‘Who’s in it?’ and they gave me this great big star list: Henry Fonda, Olivia de Havilland, Richard Widmark, Jose Ferrer,” Caine said. “I told them ‘I’ll do it.’ One day we were all having a conversation with live bees above us, and suddenly we noticed all these little black dots on our shirts. The bees were shitting on us”.

“And so the first review was in, but we didn’t know it at the time.”

Michael Caine on the filming of The Swarm in 1977.

Like the tossed coin, there are two sides to every story, including those from a potential apiarist, so I thought it prudent to examine them simultaneously.

Having been brought up amidst densely built, urban areas of London, nature wasn’t exactly bursting through our doors. Urban architecture and tarmac playgrounds made more of an impression than tree blossom, enchanting mammals or fleeting insects. Assorted creatures, in the present tense, were seen during zoo visits. For the past tense, it was the Natural History museum on Sunday afternoons. The duck pond in Regent’s Park got some infrequent visits and our peanut-stocked bird table in the back yard displayed some frantic activity during the winter. Insect engagements were confined to swatting wasps and harassing the occasional stag beetle on our way home from school through Chiswick House gardens.

When assessed at career’s evenings I don’t think I was earmarked as possible David Attenborough material.

So my formative experience of the seminal creature we know as the honey bee (Apis mellifera mellifera), was via one of the biggest ‘turkeys’ in cinema history – The Swarm (1978). All bees, especially hive, honey, or bumble, workers, drones or queens, fell to the same descriptor after that kitsch movie – they subsequently carried the moniker of killer bees.

That all hive bees swarm, and have to do so in order to safeguard their species, did not automatically mean that they wished to kill assorted residents of downtown Houston on a daily basis. But the cinema-going audience would need some convincing after Michael Caine’s improbable and maladroit performance. The concept that bees had fatal stings, enjoyed ganging up on humans (especially children, helicopter pilots and train-drivers) putting them all to a painful, if over dramatised death, had taken hold of the best part of many young cinema-goer’s imaginations. As a result, sympathetic understanding of bees seemed way beyond my generation’s combined initiative. So The Swarm served to generate a subliminal distrust – from its very first buzz to its very last improbable scream. Safe to say, I did not see myself as  a bee-whisperer.

So recently, as I donned a beekeepers veil as part of Richard’s two-day, practical beekeeping course, Michael Caine’s deadly adversaries were never far from mind.

Richard carries the impressive title of Master Beekeeper, and runs intense courses in order to convince both the optimistic and the enthusiastic with an assurance that we could “all start keeping bees by the end of the course”. Given that only four students were in attendance, and that the film in question was mentioned on several occasions, it became clear that my theory of enduring fear was not so farfetched. I felt comforted to know that we brave newcomers were all quietly battling Michael Caine’s historic demons on our very first morning at the hive face.

Working alongside Richard and dismantling one of the many active hives, we came face to veil with the thousands of busy incumbents we had rudely disturbed, played the demanding game of ‘find the Queen’, and inspected the honey-combed contents in the quest for Apis well-being. As a new-found serenity fell upon us, via Richard’s calming tones and the bees equally gentle thrum, we finally put aside all thoughts that had earlier plagued Michael Caine and the doomed cast.

Leaving the spellbindingly practical, and returning to the earnestly theoretical, it became clear that we had the responsibility of defending the bees, rather than the other way round.

Bees are under threat from the moment they pupate. Industrial and inflexible use of pesticides, environmental degradation and loss of habitat have all dramatically reduced colonies around the world. Varroa mite, Colony Collapse Disorder and American Foul Brood, alongside numerous other unedifying maladies – all lay in wait too. Ignoring the earlier cinematic drama, we might all be facing a non-fictional Doomsday outcome, if it were not for beekeepers such as Richard.

Given that bees do the human species an immense favour as the principal pollinators of 75% of our major crops (ensuring the growth of apples, carrots, pears, strawberries, melons, onions, nuts, beans, garlic, asparagus, lemons et al), they also provide us with our morning cup of tea, alongside our honey on toast of course, as well as the cotton clothing we wear whilst preparing it. Perhaps the most disarming information for a former wine merchant is that all vineyards would become alcohol-free wastelands if it were not for regular pollination. And bees make one of the most sublime natural foods you may ever eat.

As to whether I follow in the footsteps of W.B. Yeats is yet to be decided…

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

…yet my view of these precious insects has been much enlightened by my adventures amidst Richard’s busy colonies.

But a reminder that Richard and the fully occupied hives do not work alone, came later in the day with a reference to Louise’s Honey Cake. Richard’s wife, it is rumoured, is a dab hand at this little tea-time treat, literally dripping with their twice yearly harvest. So the recipe (and some of their unfiltered honey) was an essential close to the day. She kindly sent me the recipe, which I believe emanates from a 1980 publication by Geraldene Holt, entitled Cakes but charmingly modified by Louise for those who are blessed with an Aga in their rural retreats.

Devonshire Honey Cake from Cakes (1980) Geraldene Holt

250g clear honey, plus about 2 tbsp extra to glaze
225g unsalted butter
100g dark muscovado sugar
3 large eggs, beaten
300g self-raising flour
Preheat the oven to fan 140C/ conventional 160C/gas 3.
Butter and line a 20cm round loose bottomed cake tin.
Cut the butter into pieces and drop into a medium pan with the honey and sugar. Melt slowly over a low heat.
When the mixture looks quite liquid, increase the heat under the pan and boil for about one minute.
Leave to cool for 15-20 minutes, to prevent the eggs cooking when they are mixed in.
Beat the eggs into the melted honey mixture using a wooden spoon.
Sift the flour into a large bowl and pour in the egg and honey mixture, beating until you have a smooth, quite runny batter.

Pour the mixture into the tin and bake for 50 minutes-1 hour until the cake is well-risen, golden brown and springs back when pressed. A skewer pushed into the centre of the cake should come out clean.

Turn the cake out on a wire rack. Warm 2 tbsp honey in a small pan and brush over the top of the cake to give a sticky glaze, then leave to cool. Keeps for 4-5 days wrapped, in an airtight tin

In a separate note Louise adds –“It does use a lot of honey as it really soaks in when warm, which is fine if you have your own hives! It does say 2 tbsp but we put on a lot more than that.”
So did I. And it is a most delicious cake.