Heather honey, to­tally moor­ish

This month, hives will be moved to the up­lands while bees go hell for heather. But what does it take to cre­ate the per­fect heather honey?

The Field - - CONTENT - writ­ten BY emily ab­bott

Bee­keeper Emily Ab­bott and chef Philippa Davis make the most of this sweet bounty from the moor

Imust come clean: I’m a Lon­doner. For me, the coun­try­side is a place of es­cape and beauty but it’s also un­fa­mil­iar and can some­times un­nerve me. On the up side, I’m a bee­keeper and over the past four years that’s given me an in­creas­ing un­der­stand­ing of, and fa­mil­iar­ity with, our nat­u­ral world. My bees have opened my eyes and brought home to me the con­nec­tion be­tween the land, plants, weather and bee health to honey in all its in­cred­i­ble va­ri­ety. Even in Lon­don th­ese con­nec­tions are ob­vi­ous once you start look­ing.

I set up Hive & Keeper for two rea­sons: to re­mind us all of the place and land­scape the honey in each jar came from and of that place’s in­flu­ence on the honey’s unique taste; to recog­nise the UK’S net­work of lo­cal bee­keep­ers who have been look­ing af­ter hives, with bee wel­fare at the heart of what they do. One of th­ese keep­ers is Shane Llewellyn Jones from Builth Wells, Powys.

Llewellyn Jones started bee­keep­ing as a boy, help­ing a lo­cal bee­keeper at the week­ends with tasks around his api­ary. To­day, he’s an award-win­ning bee­keeper, hav­ing re­ceived tro­phies from the Welsh Na­tional Honey Show and Na­tional Honey Show; this year his heather honey was awarded the high­est num­ber of points in its class.

For heather honey, points are awarded for taste; the clar­ity and clean­li­ness of the honey; the size and dis­tri­bu­tion of air bub­bles (they have to be equal and evenly distributed); and the tex­ture, which should be firm – it shouldn’t run out of the jar when it’s on its side as heather honey is nat­u­rally thixotropic (it has a gel-like vis­cos­ity). This makes ex­tract­ing it dif­fi­cult, too, as it can’t be spun out of the frames like “nor­mal” honey,

it has to be cold pressed with the honey lit­er­ally squeezed out of the wax comb.

Llewellyn Jones de­scribes heather honey as the Rolls-royce of Bri­tish honey for two rea­sons: its taste and the mem­o­ries of the heather moors it stirs; the labour of love in­volved in har­vest­ing it. As soon as the sum­mer honey crop is over at the end of July, he moves his api­aries up to the heather moors seven miles from his home so the bees can feast on the heather that flow­ers dur­ing Au­gust.

When he first started har­vest­ing heather honey he took two hives up; now, 26 years later, it’s be­tween 35 to 40. They are pre­pared the day be­fore with all the sum­mer crop taken off so that it doesn’t mix with the new, in­com­ing heather nec­tar. Then, the en­trances to the hives are blocked to keep the bees safe in­side. The hives are strapped up, loaded onto a trailer and then taken to the moors at day break the next morn­ing.

Llewellyn Jones puts his hives on a farmer’s land and from there they for­age the heather moors. He only takes his strong­est colonies up to the moors, how­ever. Th­ese are the hives that have a young, vig­or­ous

queen and are ro­bust enough to have the strong­est chance of sur­viv­ing if the weather turns bad.

tne nec­tar flow

It’s this risk that keeps Llewellyn Jones busy dur­ing Au­gust. He drives to the heather moor to check the hives af­ter work and at week­ends to make sure the bees are not in dan­ger of starv­ing. Much of the risk is down to the weather; for a good heather nec­tar flow it needs to be hu­mid, sticky and thun­dery. It can’t be too dry, oth­er­wise the heather won’t pro­duce nec­tar. If all of th­ese con­di­tions come to­gether, then the honey can come pour­ing in with the bee­keeper barely able to keep up with it dur­ing Au­gust, work­ing a full-time job as well as run­ning the hives. But be­ing the UK, the weather doesn’t al­ways play ball, Llewellyn Jones is con­vinced that it’s once ev­ery five years that there’s a good sea­son. In one of th­ese good sea­sons he was able to take 94lb of heather honey from one hive: that’s equiv­a­lent to that one colony of per­haps 60,000 bees mak­ing more than 180 mil­lion vis­its to heather flow­ers in four weeks. Bees are in­cred­i­ble work­ers.

It sounds stren­u­ous for both bees and bee­keeper. “Back break­ing” and “colos­sal work” were the words Llewellyn Jones used to de­scribe it. It’s cer­tainly a labour of love but is it worth it? Yes, be­cause of the an­tic­i­pa­tion and ex­cite­ment about whether the sea­son will be a good one and be­cause of the in­tense heather smell that greets him as he walks to­wards his hives, in such a beau­ti­ful part of the world. It’s by far his favourite time of the bee­keep­ing sea­son.

Only the strong­est hives with a young, vig­or­ous queen (above) are taken to the moors (top)

Heather honey is judged on its taste, clar­ity and tex­ture Be­low: a smoker is used to calm the bees be­fore the honey is ex­tracted

As heather honey has a gel-like vis­cos­ity it has to be cold-pressed out of the frame

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