Honey … discuss

As at this time of year our honeybees are tucked away in their hives and the majority of our wild bumblebees are quietly hibernating underground … so while they are out of sight, I thought I’d do a few posts about honey!

Often people are shocked to discover that honey is the food honeybees make to keep themselves alive and buzzing over our long, wet, British winters. Unlike bumblebees, honeybees don’t hibernate and instead cluster together for warmth in their hive and feed on the honey they collected from trees and flowers the summer before.

Like so many foods we buy and consume, the majority of us are disconnected from the source and method of production of honey. I’m surprised at the lack of discussion about our current consumption of honey when our honeybees in the UK and across the world are suffering such a decline in population due to poor health. Vegans choose not to eat honey and although I am not vegan, I think its important as a consumer to understand the issues around honey consumption.

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The great lengths a single bee goes to in producing the honey on our table is amazing. The average life of a honeybee is six weeks in its summer working season and in this time a single bee will collect one tenth of a teaspoon of honey. I think I’ve probably got one third of a teaspoon of delicious heather honey on the spoon in this photo … which I devoured very quickly … thank you to the three little honeybee females that worked so hard to make it : )

It takes lots of bees!

So what is honey? Where does it come from? And why do honeybees make it?

Honey is made from nectar … the sweet, sticky liquid collected from flowers by the long tongue of the honeybee. Nectar is stored inside the bee where magic bee enzymes transform it so that it can be stored long term.

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When the bee arrives back to the hive, it will pass the nectar around to its sister bees until finally the churned up nectary liquid is ready to be placed in the honeycomb.

Throughout the autumn, the bees fan their wings to evaporate the water from the honeycomb and when it is ready, they cap the comb with beeswax to seal it from the air and water. The nectar has then become honey and the honeybee’s source of winter food.

It is the capping of the comb that tells the beekeeper that the honey is ready to harvest.  The majority of beekeepers will need to feed their bees over the winter with a replacement sugary fondant once they have taken away the honey.

A strong, healthy colony of honeybees produce 2-3 times more honey than they need to survive. At the moment our honeybees are not strong nor healthy. In the UK, we are currently losing about 30% of hives each winter!

Results from the British Beekeeper’s Association annual Honey Survey show that in 2013 honey production was “well below the long-term average”. In 2012, the honey survey showed that production was down by 72% from 2011.

Should beekeeper’s be more careful about the amount of honey they take from our bees given they are struggling to produce it?

At the end of last year the BBKA reported that “1 in 10 beekeeper’s took no honey crop in 2013, being extra cautious leaving more stores than usual with their bees ahead of what could turn out to be another long, wet winter.” Perhaps this is the start of an era of more cautious honey harvesting?

Having witnessed the laborious process of making honey, I think it should be considered a very precious substance. Perhaps we should think carefully about whether we choose to eat honey? And if we do eat it, how much should we be eating at the moment and who should we buy it from to ensure the bees are not suffering?

Lots of my friends ask me where they should buy their honey from so in the next few weeks we will be looking at the honey available to us in the shops and trying to figure out which ones are the best for us to buy, for the bees and for the world!

In the meantime … do bee thankful to the honeybee when you enjoy their honey : )

0 Comments

  1. I have to agree with you about honey consumption. My wife and I have cut waaay back on our sugar intake (including honey). We didn’t start beekeeping with the intention of getting honey, but rather to provide a place for them to live, treatment free, and gather nectar from a pesticide-free flower zone. Any honey we might get will be kept for medicinal purposes.
    Where to get honey is a touchy question. Many of my fellow beekeepers use acaracides. I just found out acaracides are insecticides with the name changed because the manufacturers figured beekeepers wouldn’t want to use them otherwise. Acaracides are used to kill the mites. If you knew that your honey might be tainted with an insecticide, would you want to eat it? I wouldn’t, and for that reason, I don’t buy ANY honey unless I think I can trust the source.
    I especially like what you said here… “And if we do eat it, how much should we be eating at the moment and who should we buy it from to ensure the bees are not suffering?” So many people think it’s okay to exploit the bees…pull the frames out frequently to inspect, replace the queen if she slows down a little (brood break), load up the supers to get more honey, treat for mites, spray antibiotics for nosema, etc. I’ve heard beekeepers boast that they work their bees to death (to get maximum honey.) I think it’s wrong! There, please excuse my rant.

    • I thoroughly enjoyed your rant Solarbeez … more of us should be ranting about these things!
      Its nice to hear from people who share my feelings about keeping bees responsibly and respectfully.
      I’ve not heard of these acaracides before … that sounds shocking! Another example of agrochemical companies fooling people into buying their toxic products? Unfortunately in the UK, many beekeepers loose their bees if they do not treat against mites and in London it is almost unheard of to not treat your bees against mites with the various ‘products’ available. I don’t fully understand the implications of these substances but you must only apply the treatment after you have extracted the honey. I don’t like the sound of this at all … if we are introducing something to a colony which is dangerous in the honey, why are we giving it to the bees at all? One of the reasons I have moved away from the idea of keeping bees here in London is that I would never want to introduce inorganic substances to a colony.
      It sounds like our next bit of research about which honey we should eat could throw up a lot of issues to do with mite treatments!
      Happy beekeeping … its good to see from your latest video footage that your bees are doing well : )

    • Viqui, Amy and I shall definitely have a look at the Co-op’s options.
      From their website it looks that they have a number of UK farms supplying their honey but there is no comment about their approach to bee-keeping. Theres a few fairtrade honey options too from Chile … I know that Chile is one of the areas effected badly by declining honeybee populations … a lot of the vast, extensive fruit growing farms there are under threat by the lack of pollinators.

      Honey aside, the Co-op bee plan is doing some amazing things in this country for bees so its definitely a good cause to support … I love their bee roads project where they’re planting long corridors of perfect forage for bees across Yorkshire 🙂

  2. Pingback: How to find bee-friendly honey … a guide for bee-lovers! | Wrapped in Newspaper

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