The bees are flying

It may only be the beginning of March, but the bees are taking advantage of every warm day to get out of the hive.

At this time of year there isn’t much available by way of forage for them, but the odd crocus and primrose flower provides vital pollen, as does some of the early tree blossom. The pollen is used by the bees to produce ‘brood food’, fed to the developing bees which will grow into Spring foraging bees.

These early Spring flights are also important to help the bees with the right conditions to clean out the hive.

It is a lovely sight after the long winter months and a true sign of the warm days to come.


Still time to order honey for Christmas and stave off those coughs and colds

There are still a few days to order honey in time for Christmas. I am currently using Tracked 48 hour delivery services to post out honey so all should be fine up to the end of this week at least.

Whether you prefer the light delicate flavour of borage honey, seen on the right in the picture below, or the depth of flavour in blossom honey, as on the left, the choice is yours.

Along with local honey being that ‘what can we possibly buy for ……….’ present, it is good to remember the positive side to eating local raw honey. Even NICE, The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence have been issuing guidance for years that good local honey should be the first defence against coughs and colds, rather than antibiotics.

Beekeepers have been saying this for decades.


Saving bees

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.

How can you tell if honey is pure?

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?

Well, in 2002 all Chinese honey was banned from Europe because it contained illegal levels of antibiotics. Then in 2010 honey from India was banned by the EU for the presence of antibiotics and lead.

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.