To be or not to bee is a question Hull’s legendary Jean Bishop has no difficulty in answering. Alex Wood reports.
Her bee outfit has seen better days – the “children keep tugging at it and doing all sorts”, says Hull’s legendary Bee Lady.
But at 96 Jean Bishop is raring to get back into her famous outfit and is “definitely not retiring –there is no such word.”
Over the past two decades Mrs Bishop has raised over £120,000 for Age UK dressed as a bee and has attracted a swarm of fans.
The lounge in her west Hull home is full of mementos and awards which bear testament to the esteem in which she is held.
Next to her armchair is the Olympic flame she carried in Hull as part of the relay through Yorkshire in 2012.
Her British Empire Medal is displayed in a glass cabinet – along with her Freedom of the City scroll, more awards, a bee brooch and glitzy ornamental bee. She has done so much.
But despite suffering crippling rheumatoid arthritis in her legs, what she really wants to do is get back on the road collecting.
“During the winter I had a really bad cold and I was run down and my legs gave up.
“But now I have a little scooter so I am hoping I can collect on that.
“I was collecting on Veterans Day in East Park and I used the scooter – it was marvellous.”
Her fundraising began after she started going to a knitting class at Age UK, following the death of her husband Cliff, whom she had married in 1947 – the same year as the Queen.
She had met him at the Blackburn’s aircraft factory in Brough, while the Second World War was raging.
“I didn’t go anywhere – my husband had died, and I said to my daughter: ‘I’m not used to being at a loose end.’
“She said she’d seen in the paper that Age UK was starting a knitting group.
“She said: ‘Why not go there?’ So I went the next day.”
Ever since being a child Jean has liked dressing up – she remembers being a fairy, dancing round a piano.
So every now and again to jolly things up at the knitting class, she would put on a mask or hat and make up poetry.
One Christmas she had a witch’s mask, cauldron and rubber snakes, rats and mice.
“I picked up a rat and threw it at them – you should have heard them scream.”
It’s no surprise that when a fundraiser at Age UK saw a bee outfit displayed in a London shop window, she decided to hire it and ask Jean to try it on and go out with a collecting tin.
It was an instant success: “It went down like a bomb – it was lovely.”
But it became too expensive to hire so her daughter made her one out of “cheap fur and hula hoops.”
Her outfit is beginning to get a little tired: “The children grab me and stroke the fur. I am dreading it falling to bits.”
Jean has literally thousands of fans and the tributes to her keep piling up.
Earlier this month the latest accolade – a tiny statue of her, measuring just 13 inches (35cm) tall, was unveiled at a reception in Hull’s Guildhall.
The statue – one of 25 new sculptures recognising inspirational women across England – came just months after the opening of the Jean Bishop Integrated Care Centre in east Hull.
The centre is helping 3,000 of the city’s oldest residents live active and independent lives – just like the centre’s namesake.
She said: “When I look back I don’t believe it. I think how on earth did I do that?
“They all say how pleased they are to see me – they give me a hug or a kiss. I have never had one nasty person.
“They are all treated with a smile or a hug if they want one.”
Putting it to her that no one would dare disagree with such a large bee, she laughs: “I’d sting them.”
She loves meeting people – you could say she gets a buzz from it.
Even beggars insist on giving her money and she notes how it’s often the “big posh blokes” who sort through their change, before giving her 10p.
One or two children can be frightened or unpredictable like the little boy urged to put some money in her tin by his mum, but put it in her cup of tea instead.
“I had a laugh that day!” she adds.
Being a bee has helped as she has got older. “If I wasn’t a bee what on earth would I do?” she asks. “I would just sit and wither away.
“What pleasure in life is there? You can only do so much crossword and knitting.
“I could go mad sometimes – I think, oh what a long day.”
So you thank God for being a bee? “On yes definitely. I often wonder what would have happened if she hadn’t fetched the bee costume.
“It’s not the same as a fox or a tiger. I can’t imagine anything else.”
And her secret to a long and fulfilling life? “Have an interest in something – mine happens to be a bee.”
Key moments in a busy bee’s life:
2012 – Jean was an Olympic torchbearer, carrying the carry the torch between Ellesmere Avenue and Maybury Avenue, in east Hull, but at the time she said: “I will have to walk slowly because my knees hurt”;
2013 – She is crowned Pride of Britain fundraiser of the year;
January 2018 – In the New Year Honours she was awarded the British Empire Medal;
July 2018 – A new health centre looking after the needs of Hull’s most frail, elderly residents is opened, called in her honour, the Jean Bishop Integrated Care Centre.