Chairman of British Land John Ritblat explains to Claire Waring, editor of Bee Craft, how his early experiences of beekeeping came about purely by accident.
'I have loved honey ever since my mother gave it to me as a child,' says John Ritblat, chairman of British Land. 'I eat honey every day, and now I get it from my own hives.'
As we sit in the drawing-room of his home near Regents Park in London, I can see two beehives in the garden.
Many people are surprised to learn that bees can be kept in the middle of London, and they find it even stranger that the honey crops produced there can be greater than those harvested in the country. 'It is a few degrees warmer here in London, and that extends the season,' explains Ritblat. His bees only have to fly out of their hive and over the hedge, and they have the whole of London's biggest park in which to search for nectar. But, rather regretfully, he adds: 'They never seem to forage in my garden and we never see them in the courtyard.'
The love of honey came first. The beekeeping came later, somewhat by accident. A professor friend from the London Business School, where Ritblat has been a governor since 1990, needed a temporary site for his bees while he was away.
'They will be no trouble, and I've arranged for someone to look after them when they become active in the spring,' the friend promised. Ritblat agreed and, indeed, he saw no activity at the hives during the winter.
However, in the spring, no beekeeper appeared to tend the hives and no one seemed to be able to tell Ritblat where the elusive expert could be found.
With characteristic decisiveness, Ritblat took on the job himself. With some help from the London Beekeepers' Association, he jumped in, feet first. That was well over 20 years ago, and his passion for bees has increased ever since. He laughs as he remembers his first, and only, attempt at honey extraction: 'Everything was sticky, there was honey everywhere.'
Pressure of work means that he cannot always attend to the hives himself, but every morning when he is at home, he goes into the garden to look at them. His bees are very gentle and do not stir as we look inside. They have all returned home because of the rain and are patiently waiting for the sun to reappear so that they can fly again. Both colonies have been working hard, in spite of the recent bad weather, and each needs more space for honey storage.
We exchange pots of honey. His carries a label designed by his wife.
She too has caught his enthusiasm for the bees. Not only do they have bees in London, but they now have three colonies at their home in France.
Beekeeping even impinges on his wife's collection of modern art. By the front door of the house is a large black hexagon. Illuminated numbers around the periphery are ever-changing, and the sequence is never repeated. London honey is delicious, Ritblat says, 'the best in the world'. The flavour varies from year to year. I try some comb honey, taken from the hives in May. This is also delicious, with a more delicate flavour.
Ritblat is passionate about his other interests, too. He loves opera, and is particularly interested in ballet. He is president of the British Ski Federation and an active skier. He plays a little golf, squash and rackets, and has great enthusiasm for real tennis. He supports art exhibitions, including those at the National Gallery and the Tate. His company, too, is generous in its sponsorships.
For sponsorship to be done well, Ritblat emphasises, involvement is required.
British Land supports many projects, a large number of which are concerned with young people and education. Can bees really play any useful role in schools? 'Certainly,' he responds. 'They can give young people an understanding of agriculture, the dangers of the inappropriate use of fertilisers, the importance of pollination and other environmental issues.'
Such enthusiasm and thoughtfulness characterise his approach to business too. 'I try to make the office a pleasant place to be. If people are happy in their work, they will pull together and business will prosper. I like to feel the company is a family affair and everyone needs to feel part of what is really rather akin to a select club. Good relationships are fundamental, from top to toe.' He sees the same thing in his beehives.
Good-tempered bees, working together to give him an excellent honey crop.