I have been meaning to write about locally produced Surrey honey for a while. I will only buy mine from various beekeepers I meet on my rounds of farm shops and farmers markets. They all taste different and it’s fascinating to know that the source was wildflowers, chestnuts, heather or even oil seed rape. Luckily for me a recent visit to Milford Farmers Market gave me the inspiration I needed, thanks to Bee Keeper Debbie Burton. Her stall was stocked not only with honey but also associated products of beeswax candles, honeycomb and beeswax polish. As I was looking at the products I could hear Debbie talking to a customer so passionately about bees I was sucked in! A walking encyclopedia of bee knowledge this producer also has a fascinating story to share.
Debbie lived in Romania for a few years where her first husband was teaching young men how to become farriers. Years of fighting and fatalities during the Ceausescu regime left many communities without tradesmen to pass on their traditional skills to the next generation. Picking up the language easily Debbie and young son Tex were fascinated by their neighbours garden beehives particularly when the colonies started swarming. Beekeeping in Romania is practiced commonly and most gardens at that time Debbie recalls had at least one hive. Finding beekeeping really interesting Debbie and her son learnt as much as they could and when they returned to the UK in 2006 they started to keep their own. They gradually built their colonies and now have hives in Surrey, Hampshire and East Sussex. In fact Tex is one of the youngest stewards in the UK to judge Honey at events. Honey is categorized by where the nectar has been harvested and has many classes and categories. Crystalline, runny or set the resulting style is dependent on which plant the bees collected the nectar.
I noticed that Debbie has different types of honey for sale and asked how she could know if they were wildflower, heather or borage. It turns out that if you want different types of honey in your portfolio you take the bees on a gourmet vacation! Each season this enterprising beekeeper loads up 20 hives at a time onto a trailer and takes them to area of woodland where there is a concentration of blossom or flowers. In the New Forest for example there is an abundance of heather so when it’s the right time to collect nectar the bees are taken there for 3 months. Debbie has permits to leave her hives in certain locations at certain times of the year. This practice is called migratory beekeeping and is a practice a lot of smaller keepers are able to manage. Because bees will only travel as far as they have to collect nectar and pollen for the hive you can be sure that if a large source is close to the hives then your source is guaranteed. The colour and texture of the honey harvested will later confirm this. What it is difficult to do is claim for honey to be organic as bees are free flying agents and may not stick solely to one area of collection.
There are three seasons each year for harvesting honey and you can collect a different style of honey each time. Borage honey is known for its light colour and runniness. Heather honey is darker, thicker and much harder to extract from the comb. Where borage can be extracted easily by centrifugal activity heather honey has to extracted by breaking the comb and then separating the wax from the honey. The wax can then be used for candles and polish.
Sustainability is also high on the agenda for Debbie’s honey. I had heard that sugar syrup is given to bee’s which she agreed does happen in commercial production. For those who produce honey naturally the key is to make sure you have a healthy, large colony of hard working bees. If the hive is working well the bees naturally produce excess honey, which can be harvested without harming the colonies survival. This honey will be of a superior quality, texture and flavour. Experienced beekeepers know how much honey to leave for the colony particularly over winter when activity in the hive is low. In commercial farming the majority of the honey is taken and the hives fed with sugar syrup. Evidence has shown that this is detrimental to bee health and leaves them more susceptible to disease.
Declining bee populations have been well documented over the last few years with the neonicotinoid pesticides identified as a possible cause in addition to disease. I asked Debbie her view as an experienced beekeeper who currently has many healthy honey producing hives. It’s this; farmers struggle to produce the yields required without the use of some pesticides from time to time or risk losing entire crops. With this in mind she feels its better to continue with neonicotinoids which are now better understood because the replacement may be far worse. Of course there are plenty of different views on this contentious matter and this is just one.
If you like supporting local food producers buying local honey is a brilliant way to do this. Buying from a market trader like Debbie means you have direct contact with the producer and for me it’s just a brilliant way to go shopping. The money goes straight into her pocket and as she says making money out of honey production on small scale is really tough. Last year they had high yields but because we had such unusual weather this summer the yields are a third of what they were. The commercial honey sold in supermarkets is no match for as artisan produced product and its well worth the extra couple of pounds.
My jar of heather honey has pride of place on my shelf. Spread on some local artisan bread with local butter it couldn’t be more satisfying. If you are interesting in keeping bees Debbie says to work first with a local bee club or apiary. As a beekeeper be prepared for hard work, investing in some expensive kit plus you have to be patient and prepared for heavy lifting. But she also says it’s a wonderful job and immensely satisfying. Her enthusiasm and jars of gorgeous honey are proof enough for me.
You’ll find Debbie at all the Surrey farmers Markets which are listed on their website http://surreyfarmersmarkets.org
Mrs B’s Bees do not have currently have a website
This article first appeared in the November 2015 issue of Essence of Surrey Magazine