I am an Essex based WI approved speaker and give talks and demonstrations on an eclectic mix of subjects.
This week we have been doing our bit to save a colony of honey bees.
We were asked to take a look at a hive left by someone giving up beekeeping with some people who had decided this was their opportunity to become beekeepers themselves.
Its new owners had done all the right things. They had bought new equipment to replace the old dilapidated hive and had joined the local beekeepers association to learn what to do, hence asking us to help.
We found a very small colony on old comb with a disorganised mix of frame types and an area where they had been left to make comb as they wished, which you can see on the far right of this picture. The bees we found looked healthy.
The problem was that we couldn’t inspect the bees in this wild comb as it was fixed to the box. It was also, of course, where the bees had decided to live.
So what to do?
We cut the ‘wild comb’ out of the box and carefully placed it between some nice new frames in their new, clean hive. As the bees gradually move onto the new comb, the wild comb can be removed. There are only a couple of cups of bees in there, perhaps a few hundred, whereas a full colony should have upwards of 30,000 bees at this time of year. But they have their queen and there is plenty of nectar around so they have a better chance of surviving now.
This picture shows what we found once we had cut the comb free from its old box. There is everything a colony needs to survive, only on a very small scale.
Right in the centre is the queen, with her female worker attendants surrounding her.
You can see the pearly white bee larvae in cells around her. These will pupate and be sealed into the cell by the worker bees, creating the domed ‘biscuit’ coloured cells you can see around her. In a few days time new bees will chew their way out of the capped cells and start to contribute to the future of the colony.
For food, you can see the nectar the bees have recently collected glistening in the cells on the left and bottom third of the picture. This will have the water driven off by the bees fanning it and, with a little magic from the bees, will become honey.
Then you can see a band of differently coloured cells, with a matt finish. This is pollen from different flowers and trees. See my previous post about the number of different pollen types found in our honey. The pollen is protein to the bees and is used to feed the young larvae as they develop.
So, these bees have everything they need. It is going to be an uphill struggle for them to grow from such a small colony. But, they have a good home, a queen, and some keen new beekeepers to look after them. All they need now is nice weather and a bit of luck.
I had an interesting follow up question to my last post about raw honey for hayfever. It was a simple question, but not so easy to answer. I was asked how an individual can tell if the honey they see on the shelf is pure, raw and unadulterated?
The easy answer might not be quite so correct. You might imagine that if you buy from a ‘man on the market’ then you take your own chances, whereas if you buy from one of the top supermarkets then you are safe in their buyer’s hands. Wrong.
What about price? I just looked on line and you can buy a 12oz jar of honey from a top 5 supermarket for 75p, and that’s typical. Look closely and it comes from China. Some just say ‘blend of non-UK honey’, but is that a problem?
In 2016, countries previously without any significant honey production suddenly became major exporters of honey. Honey from countries like Vietnam was siezed and found to be Chinese honey.
More recently the EU has launched a campaign to fight off adulterated honey flooding the markets. As reported in the Financial Times just a few days ago:
“The drive by 20 member states, led by Slovenia, to tighten regulation against what one official dubbed “honey laundering” follows a European Commission study that found a surge in fraud. Almost half of the honeys surveyed broke EU rules, with ingredients such as sugar syrups, colourings and water, according to findings published last month.”
So, surely if you just buy from your ‘Top 5’ supermarket they will have done all the tests to make sure you have pure 100% honey in that jar you have just purchased for, erm 75p?
Perhaps not if you read this report that nearly half of honey imported into Europe is actually a sugar water mix, with added flavourings and colouring.
A report by the British Beekeepers’ Association in 2022 summarised:
- Between 2000 and 2014 China increased its honey output by 88%, but only increased its hive count by 21%. So where is all that extra ‘honey’ coming from?
- Well, we know where a lot of it ends up. The UK imports 50,000+ tonnes of Chinese honey a year. Take a look at the back of that 75p jar of ‘honey’ and you might start to join up the dots.
- As part of a survey, researchers in India ‘spiked’ honey with varying percentages of sugar syrup (25%, 50% and 75%). They were sent to labs where UK style tests for adulterated honey were carried out. Scarily only the 75% sugar syrup sample failed. This suggests that ‘honey’ with 50% sugar syrup would pass UK tests for ‘pure honey’.
So where does that leave the consumer? Well, the oldest of sayings always hangs true. If the price looks too good to be true then it probably is. If you are happy to take that risk on your 75p jar of honey, or even that reassuringly expensive jar of supermarket honey, first take a look at the back and see where it has come from and ask yourself how sure you are that it is what it claims to be.
So, what do you do?
Buying direct from a beekeeper is the best way to make sure you are getting what you are paying for, as any honey which has passed through a supermarket supply chain, particularly with overseas origins and sold cheaply, might not be quite what it claims to be.
Much has been written about the claimed benefits of raw local honey to help reduce the symptoms of hayfever. Little of it has scientific backing, perhaps because there is nothing to be gained, financially speaking, by the larger pharma companies from doing the work.
This leaves the anecdotal words of those who have suffered from hayfever and found local honey to be beneficial in reducing the affects, whether directly or indirectly. The principle is a simple one. Eat raw, unprocessed honey, which still contains pollen, and in consuming that pollen it finds its way into your mouth/nasal passages etc and helps desentisize you.
My own personal experience was that of a 20 something having steroid injections once a month through the summer just so that I could survive. After a season of taking regular unprocessed honey (teaspoon a day) I found my symptoms reduced to the level where only on the highest of pollen level days did I need an antihistamine tablet. This was a direct trigger to me starting to keep my own bees. Now the only pollen that affects me is when the grasses are in full flow, as bees don’t collect grass pollen, it is wind distributed.
So, if you want to give it a go what should you, or shouldn’t you, do?
Firstly you need untreated (not over-heated, not micro-filtered) raw honey. Overheating breaks the sugar strings and damages the more subtle enzymes and structure of the honey. Micro-filtering removes all particles, including the beneficial pollen. Both of these processes make liquid honey stay liquid for longer, ideal for bulk storage on supermarket shelves.
Whilst our use of ‘Raw’ to describe honey is unregulated, you get the idea and can decide how much processing you want in your honey.
Out of interest, last year we had our late season honey tested and there were 35 different types of pollen. When we jar our honey we mix early and late season, further increasing the range of flowers visited to produce the depth of flavour in the honey and for its pollen content. Ours includes:
- Oil Seed Rape
- Purple Viper’s Bugloss
- Wood Forget-me-not
- White Clover
- Indian Balsam
- Broad Bean
- Stag’s Horn Sumach
- Purple Loosestrife
- Bird’s Foot Trefoil
This list surprised even us, our bees are truly busy when it comes to visiting a wide range of flowers and collecting nectar and pollen.
So, after ‘raw and unprocessed’, ‘local’ is a good principle to use when buying honey for hayfever. However, saying that, the important thing is to have honey from an area where the crops and wild flowers etc are similar to your area. Taking it to the extreme, if you live in Essex and suffer when the oil seed rape is in flower, then pretty much any honey from Essex, or areas with fields of yellow, is going to be the honey to go for, whereas Scottish Heather honey isn’t going to help you much (delicious as it is).
Hope that explanation helps answer some of the questions I always receive at this time of year about honey for hayfever.
OK, I have to admit to being a bit rubbish at this blogging at the moment. Life has been extremely busy, but the bees go on and have had a very busy year, doing their bit for pollination and generously providing some excess honey beyond what they need for their winter stores.
A hot dry summer is a double edged sword. Whilst the bees are out and about in the heat, it isn’t great for honey. The general lack of water and moisture in the soil reduces the amount of nectar produced in flowers and so reduces honey production by the bees. We must also be extra vigilant to provide a water source for the bees as it is essential for their survival.
It didn’t deter the swarming season though. Here’s one after collection from a local village, just about to be rehomed.
September is the end of the beekeeping season. Whilst there are a few flowers left and the bees still fly on warm days, it is the month we remove the last of the excess late season honey and tuck up the bees for their, and our, winter rest.