Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Controversial Honey

My bees have had a great summer with all this hot weather. I think some of the larger hives may have swarmed but I've not noticed a great reduction in bee numbers, or productivity. There have been so many wonderful forage flowers nearby for them; field beans, brambles, bird's-foot trefoil and clover to name a few. There are large swathes of Himalayan Balsam along the river that the bees visit intensively and come back wearing a brand of pollen. As an invasive alien weed, it's not viewed favourably by conservation/river management groups as it shades out native plants, dies back in winter leaving riverbanks vulnerable to erosion and spreads its seeds voraciously. However, it is a forage plant nonetheless and the bees work it to their advantage. I'm sure they (and all of us!) would be just as happy with varied indigenous flora should that abound our watercourse margins but with nitrogen runoff and other contenders making local streams rather poor in biodiversity, HB it is...

I take a box of honey off the top of my hives when it's full, which works out at about every 5-6 weeks during the season so I may take up to three 'crops'. This means that the bees always have enough and I can judge whether the honey is spare by the numbers of bees and amount of space they have, as well as cross-referencing these factors with weather and amount of forage around. It sounds complicated but it really isn't...basically the bees' needs must always be met first, as they store honey for their own use throughout the year, but especially over winter. For this reason, I don't take any honey after the end of July as this gives the bees a clear 2-3 months to refil the frames with decent honey. I also leave room above the top board (the crownboard) as they can then build 'wild' comb if they need the space. Late flowering garden plants and ivy are important for the latter part of the year.

Harvesting little and often also means the honey varies over the season. These two batches were only a month apart:

Himalayan Balsam honey on the left, regular
floral honey on the right
It is a bit of a palaver harvesting such small amounts over the course of the summer, which is why many beekeepers harvest at the end of August. The problem with this is that it is difficult to know what sort of autumn or spring we're going to have, which means they usually have to feed sugar syrup to replenish the bees' supplies. Indeed, many honey producers remove all the honey the bees have produced and feed sugar syrup anyway. The bees do convert these simple sugars in to a thicker product to store in the frames, but it is a long, long way from the floral honey they've collected and has none of the medicinal properties of the nectar from which honey is made. All this at a time when the bees are under the most stress having to deal with low temperatures, damp and dwindling numbers of bees during the colder months.

Some beekeepers advocate a policy of not removing any honey and in some hives it is not possible anyway without severe disruption to the colony. My bees are housed in National hives which are designed to have honey removed from them, and I feel if it is genuinely surplus and the bees are fit and strong, it does no harm to the colony and a jar of raw honey can have huge benefits as a tool for persuading people against the bland, homogenous 'honey' available generally.

It's delicious straight from the spoon or on toast, can be medicinal - it's great to have honey and lemon to soothe a sore throat, or to help reduce your sensitivity to pollen for hayfever sufferers. It's a seasonal treat to be enjoyed and savoured and the price should reflect this. There will be a far smaller harvest from hives that keep their honey, but the bees will be healthier and happier.

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