Bee Blog & tips November 2015
November is the first of the inactive months in beekeeping. It’s the bees that are inactive, or at least, less active. You should be beavering away in the shed, getting ready for next season. You should have lots of frames which need cleaning, and then there is all that beeswax to render down and turn into candles, or furniture polish. You could even make lip balms, soaps or all sorts of other cosmetics, but beware, Every cosmetic product sold requires a safety assessment carried out by a suitably European qualified professional. The website for the Cosmetic Toiletry and Perfumery Association at www.ctpa.org.uk has a link to the Regulations and can provide a list of safety assessors, but it doesn’t come cheap. Every assessment will cost you at least £100. Strangely, you can make soaps and cosmetics to give away, without a licence, but please be very sure of what you are doing, as the ingredient which turns fats into soaps is caustic soda, and one mistake could be disastrous. There are some excellent books on soap making, and I would advise reading one from cover to cover before even starting.
In the middle of winter, it is common practice to treat bees with an oxalic acid solution. That’s the main constituent of rhubarb juice, but it needs to be a bit more scientific than that. A couple of years ago, the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) banned all oxalic acid treatments for use with bees, but several companies went on selling it as a hive cleanser. Then the VMD backed down slightly, and allowed certain imported products to be used, under what is called the cascade system. If a product was not available in the UK, but one was on sale in another EU member country, then it could be imported and distributed with a prescription from a vet. On September 16th of this year, the VMD backed down even further and granted a UK licence to a product called Api-bioxal, which is manufactured in Italy, and in a bizarre twist, this was one of the two products available under the cascade system.
This year has been wonderful for all sorts of fruit and flowers. I had boughs breaking under the sheer weight of crop on my fruit trees, but what is good for one, is not necessarily good for another, and bees were very confused by the wet and cold weather that prevailed here in the south west. One beekeeper acquaintance who has 20 hives and would normally expect between 800 and 1000 lbs of honey, got only 50lbs. Last year I had 350lbs, but this year, less than 100lbs. Swings and roundabouts eh? We can’t complain though because 2014 was a terrific year.
On a totally different tack, I get asked on a regular basis, what the term ‘raw honey’ means, and I thought I would just set the record straight on a few things relating to honey. The vast majority of hobbyist beekeepers in this country, extract the honey from their hives and filter it to get the extraneous bits of wax etc. out of it, then they let it settle so that all the air bubbles come to the surface. That product is then put in a jar and sold. The Americans have coined the expression ‘raw honey’ for this product, but we have all been producing it for a very long time. Most commercially produced honey is filtered to within an inch of its life, then flash heated to prevent it from crystalising too soon. These processes tend to remove all the goodness, and those things which make it taste so delicious. You end up with a bland sugary product.
If you want a pleasant evening on the computer you can look up the consequences of heating honey, but I‘ll set you on your way. All honey will crystalise eventually, but you can reverse the process by standing the jar in hot water for a short while. You should never place honey in a microwave oven, as it will heat from the centre out, and will cause all sorts of problems. Overheating honey will cause the formation of hydroxymethylfurfural, or HMF (now you can start googling) which will speed up the deterioration of the honey. You can also google diastase (amylase) which is an enzyme.
Diastase plays an important part by changing starches to sugars in honey. Again, overheating honey can cause the levels of diastase to drop, and the honey to degrade. Confused yet?
What about organic honey then? I love this one. Assuming that you live in the UK, your bees would either have to live in an extremely isolated area or be miracle workers to produce organic honey. Bees fly up to three miles, in all directions, to collect the nectar they use to make honey. So in order for your honey to be organic, you would have to ensure that all flowers, within a three mile radius, were not treated with chemicals, or pesticides of any description. That might prove tricky. It is possible, but I would treat any British honey claiming to be organic, with a great deal of circumspection.
So to my final pet subject, manuka honey, that elixir and ‘cure all’ from the Antipodes. The claims made for this honey are legion. Are they all true?
There seems to be increasing evidence that as lot of the claims are not all they seem to be. How much is a jar of manuka honey? Well, you can pay up to £82 for 500 grams of it. Now that is expensive honey, but will parting with more money be to your advantage? Here are a few actual facts about manuka honey that you may not know. According to research by UMFHA, the main trade association of New Zealand manuka honey producers, somewhere in the region of 1700 tonnes are produced every year. That’s a lot of honey, but somehow approximately 1800 tones of it are sold in the UK alone, every year. Mmmm! Isn’t that more than is produced? Let’s keep going, shall we. Globally, sales of manuka honey are in the region of 10,000 tonnes per year. Now, either it is getting heavily diluted along the way, or (heaven forefend) it’s not all genuine manuka honey.
The property which is supposed to make manuka honey special is ‘non-peroxide anti-microbial activity’, yet in Government tests carried out between 2011 and 2013, the majority of honey sold as manuka in the UK, lacked that component exclusive to manuka. Furthermore, the 12+, or 15+ gradings on these honeys refer to several different qualities. In fact, they seem to refer to almost any old thing. Almost none refer to that unique quality which makes it manuka honey. You be the judge, but these figures have been published by several august bodies. A lot of people are making a lot of money from people’s gullibility.
What you could do is buy a manuka bush (leptospermum scoparium) and start cashing in. It will, and does grow in this country. Or you could just put any old honey in a jar and call it manuka honey. It seems a lot of other people are doing just that anyway.