What a beekeeping season it’s been: a record year. The one we have been waiting for since Adam was a lad. I mentioned that last month, but, now it is all out of the hives and most of it has been put into jars, we can relax a bit. We have replaced all that honey that we have taken away by giving the bees a sugar solution, and I have treated my bees against the varroa mite, with a new treatment, which is actually formic acid, the substance that ants sting with. The fumes kill the mites, but don’t harm the bees
People are very curious about the sheer variety of honeys that are available. Some are runny, some are creamy, others are solid, and so on. What is the difference? The answer is simplicity itself: it all depends what the bees have been foraging for. If they collect nectar from oil seed rape the honey will set almost immediately and be virtually pure white. If the bees visit chestnut trees in late June the honey will be quite dark but will remain runny for a long time. Between the two extremes there are many shades of honey with different characteristics. Most honeys are light in colour and are comprised of nectars collected from numerous plants, shrubs and trees. All honeys are different, though. The bees from two adjacent hives can quite easily collect nectar from different sources and produce honeys which taste and look very different, and it is primarily the different pollens from different flowers that give them their individual flavours.
Most commercial producers of honey try to get a uniform product that will not crystalise on the supermarket shelves and, to ensure this, they superheat the honey for a short period. This prevents the honey from crystalising, or setting, for a long period of time. We small scale producers don’t resort to such practices, but simply take advantage of what the bees bring us, and resultantly produce what some people call raw honey, because we don’t process it in any way other than filtering it. All honey will crystalise eventually, but again it will depend on what the bees were bringing back to the hive. Bees collect nectar, which is primarily a disaccharide (complex sugar) called sucrose, exactly like the stuff you buy in the shop. Before it is stored, they invert it. All this means is that they break it down into monosaccharides (its constituent sugars), mainly fructose and glucose. The more glucose it contains, the more quickly it will crystalise. So oil seed rape honey is extremely high in glucose and has a lower fructose content. Honey from brambles (blackberries) is much higher in fructose and takes a long time to crystalise.
If we are guilty of any processing at all, it is that we will persuade some clear runny honeys to set and we do this by seeding them with set honey. It takes a little convincing, but, by adding set honey to runny honey in the correct quantities, it is possible make the honey set. If there is a single crystal, or small particle of anything in runny honey, it will promote setting. That’s why perfectly good runny honey is prone to setting once opened. Some small contaminant has gained entry to the jar, and it is usually a toast crumb.
The size of the crystal in the set honey which is used to seed the runny honey dictates the crystal size in the finished article. If you mash the seeding honey in a mortar and pestle you will reduce the crystal size and end up with a creamier honey with a soft buttery texture. The texture of the honey may have been changed, but nothing has been taken out and nothing has been put in. Temperature is a vital component of the process too, and the ideal temperature range is 14⁰C - 18⁰C. I get only a small amount of set honey in comparison with the amount of runny honey and my customers like both, so I indulge in a little alchemy.
We place wooden frames into the hives which have a sheet of beeswax in them. This is to give the bees an idea of where we want the honey stored. The bees store their honey in cells made from beeswax which they draw out from the wax sheet and some people prefer their honey in this original container. That is, they like the wax and honey together, and this is comb honey. The entire comb is cut out of the frame and then cut up into sections and placed into transparent cartons for sale. Nothing else is done to it. Sometimes a smaller section is cut out and placed into a jar of runny honey, and this is known as chunk honey. If the honey sets you have a minor catastrophe.
Last month I said that we had yet to go back and collect the heather honey. Well, we have and the return journey was nowhere near as eventful as the journey down to Exmoor. No bees loose in the car at all, but there was something. The car was completely filled with the intoxicating aroma of all that heather honey, and it has a fragrance like no other honey. It also looks like no other honey. It has a dark gingery appearance and it is absolutely full of air bubbles. It is the Marmite of honeys; you either love it or hate it. We took the bees to the heather as an experiment. It is not a profit making exercise, as we made four 150 mile round trips (600 miles) and we harvested only 50 lbs of honey, with a total retail value of £275, but oh, the flavour! Will we do it again? Very probably. The costs don’t really come into it when you are sitting on a hillside on Exmoor on a sunny August morning, drinking good coffee, eating croissants and watching bees do what they do best – make honey. Then you look around and realise that the field you are sitting in will provide another feast, and so, before going home, you pick the mushrooms.