Xavier Rolet has just been stung by a bee, in an awkward spot under his chin. But he is not complaining. Rolet simply brushes the sting aside as if it were a minor itch. “The poison is actually an anti-arthritic agent,” he says cheerfully as we stride out from La Verrière, the converted medieval priory that is his family’s home in Provence. “That’s why you won’t find beekeepers suffering from arthritis.”
Having often seen Rolet, chief executive of the London Stock Exchange, dressed in a suit and tie, I am having trouble adjusting to the sight of him in pith helmet and protective netting as he explains the finer points of beekeeping.
The beekeeper’s suit has comic potential. But I decide not to go there. We have only just got started and, although Rolet has a sense of humour, I’m not sure I want to test its limits too early. In any case I’ve never been this close to 50,000 bees and I figure I need him on side in case anything goes wrong. As the harvest season draws to an end, I have travelled to his 360-acre estate to help him collect honey.
Before we head out to meet the bees, Rolet invites me into the store room where he stashes his gear. There is a wax-melting machine, piles of cedar wood to make the hive frames, and posters illustrating the various stages of honey-making.
We climb into our bee suits. I realise I must look ridiculous, holding a notebook and pen wearing what looks like a Nasa spacesuit. Rolet sets his BlackBerry aside. Rule number one of beekeeping: don’t bring a mobile device near a hive – the radio waves disrupt the bees’ navigation systems. But we are also lucky; it is a warm day with little breeze. The more wind, the more “positive ions” in the air and the greater the likelihood the bees become irritated, he explains.
I ask the obvious question: how did you get into bees? The answer surprises me. The son of parents in the military, Rolet was brought up in Sarcelles, an eastern suburb of Paris that was transformed in the 1950s and 1960s into a drab concreted landscape of state-subsidised housing.
On his morning walk to school, the young Rolet would pass the house of an old man who’d refused to sell up to the government. Unusually, he kept bees. “One day I passed by on my way to school and I noticed he was harvesting the hives,” Rolet recalls. “Being an old man, he was struggling so I asked if I could help. I kind of liked it. It was a nice break from all the concrete.”
The memory stayed with him as he grew up, moved to the US and started a career in banking. Robert Rubin, Bill Clinton’s former Treasury secretary, talent-spotted him for a job at Goldman Sachs, from where he moved on to Lehman. He was appointed LSE chief executive in May 2009. His beekeeping career began 12 years ago, when he and his second wife Nicole bought La Verrière, and installed nine hives on a terraced orchard in front of the property.
“I love it,” he says. “It’s like wine. You could spend 100 years on it and still not know all there is to know. It’s a never-ending pattern of discovery.” (Rolet is a wine-grower too – mostly grenache, syrah and viognier. Nicole runs an upmarket wine-tasting “boot camp” on the estate; “I mostly write the cheques”, says Rolet.)
Beekeepers, like wine-makers, have a range of species to choose from; in Britain alone there are 250. Rolet opted for apis mellifera, an Italian strain of the most common species in western Europe. “I chose them because the colony ramps up [honey production] quite quickly. I need a colony where the queen will lay her larvae in winter, so that by spring I have a very quick reaction from the colony to the flowering season.”
The bees collect pollen from the Provençal almond trees in late February, moving on to lavender and finishing off with thyme in May. This produces a clear honey quite different from the darker honey made in June during the final part of the cycle, when it is hot and the bees are collecting tree sap. “This year’s been terrible, I missed the July harvest,” Rolet says. The pressures of his job have prevented him from visiting often enough to keep the hives in shape.
We set about extracting the honey. The bees must be pacified before any of the frames containing the honeycombs can be removed from the “super”, the upper section of the hive on top of the “brood body”, where the queen lives. To do this he uses smoke pumped from a small canister with a tiny bellows attached. Rolet says a lot of beekeepers burn “any old junk” to create smoke. He prefers pine needles, collected from under trees nearby. The smoke needs to be white and cold – too much heat would singe the bees – so it is important not to over-pump the bellows.
The bees react by diving into the hive and gorging on honey. It’s a protective reflex, designed to give them enough energy to survive an emergency such as the destruction of the hive. “Everything in life is how to deal with stress,” Rolet says. “It’s having enough but not too much. You have enough and you give your best performance. But too much and you keel over.”
After gorging on honey, the bees become lethargic, making it safe to lift out the frames holding the honeycombs. Rolet uses a brush to gently sweep away any remaining bees before slotting the frames into a storage box.
Every now and then, as the bees become more alert – and aggressive – Rolet applies more smoke. At one point a swarm builds, and our photographer lets out a yelp as he is stung on a finger. Rolet is not even wearing gloves – he’s been stung so often a few more won’t matter.
I realise that beekeeping for Rolet is more than a release from the pressures of daily life. It is about the satisfaction he gets from being able to reconnect with the “original design of nature”. It’s evident again when he drives me past his acres of woodland, where his rigorous forestry management methods have resulted in the return of a pair of nesting eagles.
The honey harvested, Rolet’s last job is to feed the bees a mixture of brown sugar, water and cider vinegar – a boost for the winter. I suggest it must be hard to get back to running one of the world’s largest stock exchanges after all this.
“I don’t disagree, but you have to make a living,” he says. “Eventually though I’d like to retire, get a couple of horses, some beekeeping, a bit of rally-driving. You know, pass the time.”
Jeremy Grant is editor of The Trading Room, www.ft.com/markets/trading-room
For a slideshow go to ft.com/pursuits
Busy bees: Part-time apiarists
The former governor of the Bank of England installed two hives in the Bank’s roof garden. In an interview with the FT he said: “You can’t handle bees, do things with them, without being totally absorbed with them. If you don’t pay attention or do something stupid, they will attack you, possibly on a massive scale.”
The CEO of NYSE Euronext, owner of the New York Stock Exchange, has a single hive. “My 10-year-old daughter comes to the hive with me … there she is dressed up in gloves and protective netting, and she says ‘Dad, this is way better than watching TV’.”
Sir Roger Norrington
The conductor has three hives. “It’s very amateurish, I leave them to it,” he says. “I reckon they’ve managed pretty well for the past 50 million years so they can probably manage perfectly well without me.”