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?
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