Elementary Beekeeping

Proof of Sherlock Holmes’s residence

Today is the world’s most famous detective’s birthday. No, not James Bond. Sherlock Holmes, if he ever lived at all, would have been well over 150 years old today. Or, at least, his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would be – he was born May 22, 1859.

You likely know some of the old Sherlock Holmes stories. With incredible wit, problem-solving skills, tenacity, deduction, and plain old-fashioned stubbornness, the detective solved the most complicated and beguiling mysteries. So what does such a witty, smart, and stubborn person do in retirement? He becomes a beekeeper, of course.

We are told that Holmes retired to the countryside to make his living from bees. The detective never had much money – Watson helped with his rent at 221B Baker Street – so he probably didn’t notice a big drop in income when he became a retired gentleman selling honey at the farm in Sussex Downs. I am thinking he continued wearing tweeds and certainly his pipe would double as a handy smoker. His bees would have worked wildflowers and made batches of dark pungent honey for the master detective.

One wonders why author Sir Doyle chose to outfit Holmes with a hivetool when he could have left him teaching at Scotland Yard, sharing his tricks with future generations of detectives. Doyle seems mum on this. He doesn’t divulge his thoughts, he just retires his star character to a small holding near a small village and he puts him to work keeping bees. Perhaps it was because Holmes was suffering from a touch of rheumatism near the end of his career (according to Doyle) and bee stings have always been rumoured good for stiff joints.

The bees are introduced rather shyly. There are no long passages describing the bees or any misadventures of the detective prowling among the garden hives, harvesting honey. Quite the contrary. Here is the sum total of the bee references in Holmes’s retirement story, His Last Bow, taking place in the first decade of the twentieth century:
Says Watson: “But you have retired, Holmes. We heard of you as living the life of a hermit among your bees and your books in a small farm upon the South Downs.”
Holmes replies: “Exactly, Watson. Here is the fruit of my leisured ease, the magnum opus of my latter years!”
He picked up the volume from the table and read out the whole title, Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with Some Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen.
Holmes continues:“Alone I wrote it. Behold the fruit of pensive nights and laborious days when I watched the little working gangs as once I watched the criminal world of London.”

Thus we learn that the great Sherlock Holmes had written a practical beekeeping guide in his retirement. If I find a copy, I’ll do a book review for you.

Sherlock Holmes’s retirement house, near Tiger Inn, East Dean, England.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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