bees, honey and other sticky subjects

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Miss Olive Brittan, Libya's last queen bee

I missed the beginning of a correspondence in The Times last month, but here's the gist of what I've been able to track down so far:

A Mr Philip Venning of London visited Libya in 1965 and stayed with an Englishwoman who was employed by King Idris to run what she claimed was the world’s only pedigree bee farm.
The fertile site, in Cyrenaica, was so isolated that the ancient bee colony had never had contact with other bees, it was said. Her best honey, juniper, was strictly reserved for the King, a chain-smoker who used it to soothe his throat.
Mr Venning ended his letter wondering if Colonel Gaddafi had kept the tradition alive.

Today, two responses came from other readers:

Sir Peter Wakefield (Consul-General in Libya from 1965-69) named the Libyan royal beekeeper as Miss Olive Brittan MBE and explained:
Sadly, after Colonel Gaddafi’s arrival Miss Brittan’s role came to an end and she had to leave, as, indeed, did the last of the British military mission to Libya. However, she insisted on a proper ceremonial leave-taking, and marched the colonel of the mission and myself to the top of “bee hill”, where she unfurled the Union Flag for us to salute. The flag was then folded away and carried back down the hill, past the hives of the slumbering royal bees.
A Mr Peter Cook, the then Commanding Officer at the RAF Supply Depot in Tobruk, said that after Gaddafi's coup a detachment of Royal Irish Rangers was sent to Cyrenaica on a rescue mission:
They returned with a charming but reluctant and indignant lady bee-keeper.
LATEST: I'm delighted to have received a picture of Miss Brittan.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

ddcfoThis dear old lady played host to many service men in lybya. A quaint old lady who drove ambulances in the 2nd world war. She lived in a large residence with no electricity, and only paraffin for heating and lighting.Very stiffupper lip British,

9:30 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had the wonderfull privellage of meeting this extroardinary lady while serving in Libya in 1968. I even got to sample some of the kings honey while enjoying a cup of tea and some home made bread. What a truly delightfull experience it was. She was extermely chatty and enjoyed our company. She took us on a tour of her bee hives and gave a full comentary on all her activities regarding the production of the king's honey.I wish Video cameras had been invented back then as I would dearly treasure having a copy now. A very strong independent lady. Bless her heart!!

11:19 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also met this lovely lady, along with about fourteen others who she allowed to camp on her floor one dark night on the way to either Bengazi or Cyrene.
There was no light, not even a torch between us. Didn't know why at the time but now believe the poor dear had no oil for her lamp.
I have a photo of her taken with our group and would be glad to mail it to anyone interested, though this site.

6:21 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I would love to see a photo of Miss Brittan, but you didn't leave your email address. Could I post the photo on this site?


9:11 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Turlough,
I would like very much to post the photo of Miss Brittan.
My email address is
If you could mail me please, I will send photo to your address.
A Webb ( lofty )

8:24 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was in El Adem 64-67 working in TASS. I lived in Tobruk opposite the King's Physician a German Doctor whose name escapes me at the moment. I remember Miss Brittan visiting El Adem on several occasions. Usually these visits were to sell fruit - largely grapefruits. If it was known in advance that Miss Brittan was coming a tannoy message would be broadcast asking us to give generouly for the grapefruits as she was a victim of the political situation and often did not get paid. At that time we talked of the 'Black Prince' trying to take power from the King who was old and largely ineffective. I've always assumed that the 'Black Prince' was Gadafi; but stand to be corrected. I think even while I was there the King's head did not appear on new coinage. We were also asked to give Miss Brittan English tea, soap and other such things difficult to come by in Libya. I also remember at one time we were asked to give items of clothing and shoes of a certain size. Her story has always intrigued me - at the time the rumour was that her betrothed had died in the desert campaign and that she took up the post in Libya to be near him. A romantic story but probably not true. Does anyone know more about her?

1:37 pm  
Blogger Bill Krouwel said...

As a scout in Libya (Was there from age 7-12, 1955-1960)we camped annually at Res-el-Hilal and usually spent a day walking to and visiting Miss Brittan. Once (1959?) we were treated to a true Gebel feast (Kid and all the trimmings, eaten without the aid of cutlery)by her trusty team of Arab beekeepers.

We also visited as a family whenever we were in the area (which was pretty frequently).

A truly indomitable character whose MBE was well-deserved. Interviewed, I believe, by Fyfe Robertson for the BBC "Tonight" programme in 1961 or thereabouts...

12:13 pm  
Anonymous Dudley Seifert said...

I was headquartered in Miss Brittan's house in the summer of 1961 whilst doing geologic field work in the Ras el Hilal vicinity for the Oxford University Expedition to Cyrenaiaca. At that time she appeared to be living alone with no help but there was a lone British Army Major also staying there as a paying guest supposedly taking 'time out' from other assignment to hunt Sand Grouse. Her large house had for a time been sequestered as a World War II German Officer's quarters and there were several well executed murals on the walls showing aspects of the life of the German soldier in the desert. Miss Brittan was a most gracious hostess, a very strong and determined character and obviously a very capable apiarist. She explained to me that there were about nine different, seasonal phases of honey depending on the types of blossom. She undoubtedly got great pleasure of watching me outrun a few angry bees who resented my presence watching Miss Brittan extracting the honey cones. The sight must have been of cartoon quality for I made a 'bee line' for the kitchen flyscreen door, which I reached first. Having slammed the door shut behind me, a succession of bees proceeded to slam against the flyscreen. She may even have been impressed at the speed at which I traversed the path back to her house.The Romans certainly knew how to select their settlement locations. One can only imagine the views from such locations as Cyrene when the climate was less arid. Miss Brittan's home was similarly placed. We were very privileged to have met her and grateful.

11:31 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Picking up on this on Boxing Day 2013 I might add a bit of background following my original letter about Miss Brittan. We were five 17 and 18 year olds from Sherborne School on an expedition to the region that we had arranged ourselves. We had set ourselves a number of tasks, one of which related to collecting microlepidoptera. In the fertile enclave of Ras-el-Hillal as well as bees there was a plentiful supply of these small moths. Our aim had been to find a species that was known to show some evolutionary changes at the margins of its known area. We had agreed to help an Oxford research project bring back examples from what had last been recorded as its southern boundary. In fact we didn't find a single specimen, but did bring other species, several of which were previously unknown (according to the Natural History Museum).
For a fortnight we camped in the grounds of Miss Brittan's house, which had been used by convalescing German officers. The walls contained several examples of heroic graffiti including a parody of Churchill.

While we were there word came that members of the Moroccan Royal family were on their way to meet Miss Brittan. She seemed to have become familiar with various members of prominent Arab families in the past (she knew Glubb Pasha). In due course two Mercedes arrived containing, if I recall correctly, the brother of the King and a Prince. They were very friendly, invited us to visit them in Morocco (which alas we couldn't take up) but gave us two pots of the extra special juniper honey that Miss Brittan was only permitted to give to King Idris. She had felt able to make an exception for her important guests who in turn enabled us to try this otherwise forbidden treat.

While based at Ras el Hillal, with staggering naivety and unjustified confidence, we invited about two dozen local people to a meal that with a lot of help we managed to cook. And in turn we were invited back to a similar event a few days later.

On leaving Miss Brittan's we travelled to Tripoli where BP generously lent us a flat and flew us out to an oil drilling camp deep in the desert. We were amazed to drink the cold pure fresh water that they pumped out from below the most barren of sands. One of group subsequently enjoyed a career with BP.

Philip Venning

10:55 am  

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