Category Archives: Honey

Income and outgoings

I discussed beekeeping economics a couple of weeks ago.

I used some potentially questionable survey data on hive numbers, winter losses, honey yields and pricing, together with ‘off the shelf’ costs for frames, sugar and miticides.

Even ignoring the costs of travel and depreciation on equipment the ‘profit’ was not substantial.

Actually, it was just £102 per colony.

Consider the hard work involved, the heavy lifting, the vagaries of the weather and the amount of honey given away to friends and family.

You are not going to get rich fast (or at all) and the Maldives will have to remain a dream.

What a fantastic beekeeping year that was …

Most of us 1 keep bees for pleasure. However, a small profit from our endeavours can’t do any harm, and may actually do some good.

It might pay for a “sorry I was late back from the apiary … again” crate of beer/bunch of flowers 2 or for the new smoker to replace the one you reversed the car over.

Smoker still life

Smoker

So how do you fund the purchase of a crate of beer/bunch of flowers and a new smoker?

How do you increase the profit per colony from that rather paltry £100 to something a little more substantial?

It’s clear that to do this you need to reduce your outgoings and increase your income.

Income and outgoings

I’m going to restrict myself to the same range of outgoing costs and sources of income to those I covered on beekeeping economics.

I’m ignoring most equipment costs, depreciation, petrol, honey gifts to friends etc. All these reduce ‘profit’.

Here is the summary table presented earlier. Remember, this is for a four hive apiary, per annum 3.

Item Expenditure (£) Income (£)
Frames and foundation 40.00
Miticides 38.00
Food 26.00
Honey (jars/labelling) and gross 63.00 550.00
Nucleus colony 15.00 40.00
Sub totals 182.00 590.00
Profit 408.00

Cutting your food costs

Not a whole lot of leeway here I’m afraid.

Granulated sugar is probably the least expensive way of feeding your bees for the winter. Other than shopping around for the best price there’s not much option to reduce your outgoings.

However, before buying sugar it’s always worth asking your local supermarket for any spoilt or damaged packets. Supermarkets are under pressure to reduce waste and can usually be persuaded to support something as environmentally-friendly as local bees.

It costs nothing to ask.

Many beekeeping associations will arrange bulk purchases of either Ambrosia-type invert syrup or fondant. I’ll comment more extensively on this later.

Cutting your medicine costs

There are even fewer opportunities for savings if you want to use VMD-approved miticides.

I’ve discussed miticide costs extensively in the past. The figures are now a bit dated (and they omitted Apivar which was not available off-prescription at the time). However, it remains broadly true that the annual cost per hive is about the same as a jar of honey 4.

If you’re using Api-Bioxal for midwinter trickling remember that you can safely dilute it to a final concentration of 3.2% (w/v), rather than that recommended on the label. Historically the UK has used oxalic acid at 3.2% and there’s no increase in efficacy at the higher strength. Full details are provided on the preparation of oxalic acid elsewhere.

At 3.2% w/v a 35g “10 hive” pack of Api-Bioxal will treat 15 hives.

There … at £11.95 a packet I’ve just slashed your midwinter treatment costs from £1.20 a hive to  80p.

Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves 😉

Frames and foundation

First quality ‘off the shelf’ frames with foundation cost about £3 each. Obviously it makes sense to shop around and/or buy in bulk.

However, much more substantial savings are possible if you do three things:

  • re-use frames after steaming and sterilising
  • use second quality frames bought on supplier ‘sale days’
  • use foundationless frames

If you nail and glue frames during construction they usually survive at least a couple of trips through a steam wax extractor. Yes, there’s some work involved in cleaning them up afterwards, but it’s no more work than building new frames each year.

Drone-worker-drone

Drone-worker-drone …

Second quality frames are sold in packs of 50 for about £37.50 5. Of the hundreds I’ve used I’ve had few (~2% or less) that were unusable due to knots, shakes, splits or other weaknesses.

Foundationless frames take a bit longer to build and you have additional expenditure on bamboo or wire/nylon. However, this outlay is insignificant when compared with the saving made on foundation.

Remember that foundationless frames built with bamboo supports can go through a steam wax extractor and be put back into service. Don’t use wax starter strips. Use lollipop sticks or tongue depressors fixed with waterproof wood glue.

Take your pick ...

Take your pick …

Purchased premium foundation is lovely stuff but freshly drawn comb on a foundationless frame is even better. Contamination-free, robust once fully drawn and much easier to clean from the frame when it eventually goes through the steamer.

Taken together – re-use, second quality and foundationless – I calculate that frames cost me ~25p each. This equates to a saving of £36.75 over a year 6. Remember also that additional outlay on brood frames is needed to produce nucleus colonies (see below) where the savings would be £13.75 per nuc produced.

That’s more like it 🙂

A co-operative association intermission

Beekeeping associations often have co-operative purchasing schemes. Bulk purchasing reduces both individual item costs and (often substantial) P&P costs. These schemes are often organised to pass on the majority of the discount and retain a small amount of the savings for association activities.

The larger the association the greater the savings that can be made, and there’s no reason why neighbouring associations or regional groupings cannot act together.

Yes, of course, it takes some organisation. If your association doesn’t have such a scheme either find one that does or set up your own.

My beekeeping alma mater (Warwick and Leamington Beekeepers) offered excellent discounts on jars, honey buckets, foundation, Ambrosia, fondant and gloves … and probably a load of other things I didn’t take advantage of when I was a member 7.

Products of the hive

That’s enough about outlay, what about income?

Honey bees make honey and bees.

Both are very valuable.

You can maximise income in two ways.

You can make more of either (or both) or you can sell them at a higher price.

You might even be able to achieve both.

I’ll deal with these in reverse order …

Maximising the prices of honey and bees

I’ve discussed honey pricing recently. If you’re producing a unique, high quality, well packaged product (and if you’re not, you should be) you need to price it accordingly.

More local honey

That’s not the £4 a pound charged for the imported, blended, filtered, pasteurised, uniform, dull, available-by-the-tonne-anywhere rubbish stuff sold by the supermarkets.

Look in the delicatessens and local artisan outlets … you might be surprised.

£10 a pound is not unreasonable.

£10 a pound is readily achievable.

But let’s not be greedy, let’s assume a very conservative £7.50 a pound.

Local honey

At £7.50/lb the average UK yield of 25lb of honey per hive equates to £687 (for the four hives) after paying out £63 for jars and labels 8

Two factors contribute to the price you can realise for bees (which, for this exercise, means nucleus colonies):

  1. Timing – to maximise the price you need to sell when demand is the highest and supply is limited. This means early in the season. You therefore must overwinter nucs and ensure they are strong and healthy in mid-late April. Four to six weeks later there’s a glut of bees available as colonies start swarm preparation … prices drop precipitously. Nucs are easy to overwinter with a little TLC.
  2. Quality – with a small number of colonies it is not easy to improve your stocks. However, by judicious replacement of poorly-performing queens/colonies you should be able to produce perfectly acceptable bees for sale. Don’t try selling bad bees – chalkbrood-riddled, poorly behaved, patchy brood or diseased (high Varroa, overt DWV etc.).

If you are selling one or more nucs you should expect to allow them to be inspected before the sale. Just like honey tasting, nothing is more convincing than trying the product.

Maximising the amount of honey and bees

All other things being equal 9 stronger colonies will produce more honey and generate more ‘spare’ nucs.

Compare a productive commercial colony and an unproductive amateur colony at the height of the season. What’s the difference?

Mid-May ... 45,000 bees, 17 frames of brood, one queen ... now marked

Mid-May … 45,000 bees, 17 frames of brood, one queen … now marked and clipped

The productive colony is on a double brood box underneath three or four full or rapidly filling supers. There are 16+ frames of brood and the beekeeper has already split off a nuc for swarm control.

In contrast, the unproductive colony has about seven frames of brood in a single brood box topped by an underwhelmingly light super. There’s little chance of producing a spare nuc this season … or much honey.

But at least they might not swarm 🙂 10

Generating these strong colonies requires good genetics and good beekeeping.

With further good management the productive colony could produce another couple of supers of late-season honey and at least one more nuc for overwintering.

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier

How does that help the bank balance?

Let’s assume an ambitious-but-not-entirely-unrealistic one nuc per colony and 75lb of honey per annum in total (being sold at £175 per nuc and £7.50 a pound for honey). Honey ‘profit’ for the four colonies in our hypothetical apiary works out at £2061 11 with a further £700 for the sale of four nucs at £175 each 12.

That works out at a very much more impressive £690 per colony.

Minimising losses

But wait, surely we have to use some of those valuable nucs to make up for the 25% overwintering colony losses that the average UK beekeeper experiences?

No we don’t 🙂

If you have the beekeeping skills to manage strong colonies you almost certainly also have below average overwintering losses.

And that’s because strong colonies are, almost by definition, healthy colonies which have low mite and virus levels. And, as we’ve seen time and time again, low virus levels means reduced winter losses.

This minimises the need for nucs to maintain overall colony numbers and so maximises the nucs for sale 🙂

For the sake of finishing this already overly long post, let’s assume overwintering colony losses are 12.5% (because it makes the maths easier … 10% or lower is readily achievable) rather than the 25% national average.

That being the case, for our four hive hypothetical apiary, we’ll need one replacement nuc every two years. Therefore, over a four year period we might generate 16 nucs and use just 2 of them to replace lost colonies.

Kerching!

Here are the figures for our hypothetical four colony apiary. These assume good bees, good beekeeping, low winter losses, good forage, good weather and a following wind.

I’ve assumed savings are being made where possible on frames and foundation, but also increased the number of frames (and miticides) needed to reflect colony size and strength.

Item Expenditure (£) Income (£)
Frames and foundation 7.50 13
Miticides 76.00 14
Food 52.00 15
Honey (jars/labelling) and gross 189.00 16 2250.00 17
Nucleus colony 5.00 18 612.50 19
Sub totals 329.50 2862.50
Profit 2533.00

Per colony the overall profit is £633/annum (cf £102/colony/annum for an ‘average’ hive and beekeeper).

These figures are not unrealistic (though they’re not necessarily typical either).

They won’t be achieved every year. They are dependent upon good forage, good weather and having the beekeeping skills needed to maintain strong healthy colonies.

They might be exceeded in some years. With good forage and a good season 100+ pounds of honey per colony can be achieved.

You have no control over the weather 20, but you can influence the other two factors. You can place your bees on better forage and you can continuously try and improve your skills as a beekeeper.

And learning how to maintain (and keep!) really strong healthy productive colonies is demonstrably a very valuable skill to acquire.

E & OE

Just like in the previous article, I’ve made all sorts of assumptions and cut all sorts of corners.

Managing big strong double-brood colonies producing a nuc each every year and topped by at least three supers inevitably means investing in lots more brood boxes, supers and nuc boxes 21.

It also means a lot more work.

Extracting and jarring hundreds of pounds of honey takes time. It also benefits from some automation … an extractor, a creamer, settling tanks, a honey processing room, a warm room for supers etc.

But that lot is not needed for our well-managed four hive hypothetical apiary.

The other things I’ve deliberately omitted are alternative ways of managing colonies for profit. For example, as suggested by Calum in a previous comment, propolis is a very valuable product of the hive. You can split a strong colony very hard to generate 6-10 nucs (but no honey). You can rear queens (very easily) and you can sell wax.

You could even produce Royal Jelly …

And it’s that endless variety and options that make beekeeping so fascinating.


 

 

Beekeeping economics

You are not going to make a million being a beekeeper. Or even a fraction of that.

I know a couple of beekeepers who have all the trappings of wealth … the big house, the big car with the personal number plate, the holiday place in France and the beesuit with no smoker-induced holes in the veil.

Neither of them made their money beekeeping.

Anyone aboard Murray?

I’ve met a few of the large commercial beekeepers here and abroad, operations with 500 to 1000 times the number of hives I’ve got.

None of them seemed to have yachts or Ferraris.

Or any free time to enjoy them if they had 😉

If you want to have a lot of money when you finally lose your last hive tool you probably need to start with lots more 1.

But the vast majority of beekeepers aren’t commercial. Most are hobbyists.

A hobby that (sometimes) makes a profit

In the UK there are ~25,000 beekeepers. Of these, the Bee Farmers Association represent the interests of the ~400 commercial beekeeping businesses.

Over 98% of UK beekeepers therefore do not consider themselves as commercial. These amateur or hobby beekeepers have on average 3-5 hives each, according to relatively recent surveys. Most probably have just one or two, with a few having more 2.

It’s worth emphasising (again) that it is always better to have more than one colony. The small increase in work involved – the apiary visits, the inspections, extracting all that honey 😉 – is more than justified by the experience and resilience it brings to your beekeeping.

Two are better than one …

For the remainder of the post I’m going to consider a (hypothetical) beekeeper with four colonies.

What are the costs involved in running four colonies and how much ‘profit’ might be expected?

Inevitably, this is going to be very, very approximate.

I’m going to make a load of assumptions, some loosely based on real data. I’ll discuss some of the more important assumptions where appropriate.

I’m also going to ignore a load of variables that would be little more than guesstimates anyway e.g. petrol costs to get to your apiary 3, the purchase of additional hive hardware or rent for the apiary.

Why four hives?

I’ve chosen four hives for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it’s a small enough number you could house them in a small(ish) suburban garden and, wherever they’re sited, they will not exploit all the forage in range.

Abelo poly hives

Abelo poly hives on wooden pallets

Secondly, it’s a manageable number for one beekeeper with a full time job and lots of other commitments. However, it’s not so many you have to buy an electric extractor or build a honey-processing room 4.

Finally, some expenses are for items sold in multiples e.g. frames or miticides, and it saves me having to slice’n’dice every outgoing cost too much.

This hypothetical four hive beekeeper also, very sensibly, belongs to her local association. She therefore has access to the shared equipment (e.g. a honey extractor) that the association owns.

The costs of starting beekeeping

I’ve covered this before and will just summarise it here.

I reckon the minimum outlay is a bit less than £500. This covers the purchase of two hives (Thorne’s Bees on a Budget @ £160 for a complete hive, two supers, frames, foundation etc.), a good quality beesuit (perhaps another £100) together with the peripheral, but nevertheless essential, smoker, hive tool and gloves. It does not cover the cost of bees.

Two hives really should be considered the minimum. Even if you only start with one colony, swarm control or colony splits in your second year will necessitate the purchase of a second hive.

So, for the purpose of these back of an envelope calculations I’ll assume our hypothetical beekeeper has already spent about £1000 on starting up and then doubling up the numbers of hives.

Cedar or polystyrene hives should last more than 25 years. I’m not going to work out the depreciation on this initial outlay 5.

So, let’s get back on track.

In an average year, what is the expenditure and potential income from these four hives.

Expenditure

The outgoing costs are associated with maintaining a good environment for the bees, minimising disease and ensuring they have sufficient food for the winter (or during a nectar dearth).

Yet more frames ...

Yet more frames …

The first annual expense is the replacement of ~30% of the brood comb every season. This is necessary to reduce the pathogen load in the hive and to replace the old, black comb with fresh new comb.

Frames and the foundation to go in them are generally bought in 10’s or 50’s. With four hives (assuming Nationals) that means you need a fraction over 13 new frames a season. First quality frames bought in 10’s, together with premium quality foundation 6, work out at £2.99 each i.e. ~£40 for the year.

To control mites you need to use miticides 7. For the purpose of this exercise we’ll assume our beekeeper chooses to use Apivar in the autumn. This costs £31 for 5 hive treatments 8 and is required once per year. In midwinter our beekeeper wisely chooses to use an oxalic acid trickle as well, knowing that – while the colony is broodless – the mites are easier to slay. £13 buys you a ten-hive (35 g) pack of Api-Bioxal 9 which has a shelf-life of more than a year, so for one year the expense is £6.50 (which for convenience I’ve rounded up to £7).

Food is essentially sugar in some form or another. A single colony needs 10-20 kg of stores for the winter (depending – very much – upon the strain of bee, the harshness of the winter etc.). You therefore need to feed about 12.5 litres of heavy syrup (2:1 by weight, sugar to water) which weighs about 16kg (and finally generates ~14 kg of stores) and contains about 10 kg of sugar. Tesco sell granulated sugar for 64p per kilogram. So, for four colonies, our beekeeper needs to purchase ~£26 of granulated sugar.

Remember two of those figures in particular – 14 kg of stores and the 10 kg of sugar that needs to be purchased to make them 10.

Expenditure totals

In total, four hives are likely to cost about £104 to maintain per year.

Yes, I know I’ve omitted all sorts of things such as stimulative feeding in the spring, replacement super frames and hive tools. I’ve not costed in the honey buckets or any number of other ‘odds and sods’ like replacement Posca pens for queen marking. Let’s keep this simple 🙂

The essentials work out at a little over £25 per hive.

But wait … there is something I’ve omitted.

Not expenditure per se, but losses that have to be made good to ensure that our beekeeper still has 4 colonies in subsequent seasons.

Isolation starvation ...

Isolation starvation …

These are the ‘losses’ due to colonies dying overwinter or during the season. I think these should be included because they are the reality for most beekeepers. On average ~20-25% of colonies are lost each season. Not by everyone (which I’ll cover in a follow-up article on economies in beekeeping) of course, but winter losses are so common for most beekeepers that they need to be factored in – either by making increase or by avoiding losing them in the first place.

Enough on these hidden costs, what about the the income?

Products of the hive

Bees, as well as providing critical ecosystem services (pollination) and being fascinating animals, also produce very valuable products.

The best known and most obvious product is of course honey. However, the products of the hive also includes wax, propolis and Royal Jelly.

Local honey

I’m going to ignore everything but the honey. Royal Jelly and propolis are too specialised for the sort of ‘average beekeeper’ we’re considering and four hives produce relatively small amounts of wax each year.

There’s an additional product of the hive … bees. Don’t forget these as they can be the most valuable product made in any quantity.

You can sell complete hives, small nucleus colonies (nucs) and mated queen bees 11. For convenience I’m going to assume the only ‘live’ product of the hive our beekeeper might sell is a five frame nuc if they have one spare. What’s more, I’m going to assume that our beekeeper either recoups the cost of the box or has it returned (but pays £15 for the frames and foundation in the nuc).

So, how much honey and how many bees?

Income from honey

The average honey yield in 2018 in the UK was ~31 lb per hive.

2018 was a very good season.

The annual BBKA survey of 2017 showed the average that year was ~24 lb per hive.

Yields vary year by year and according to where you keep bees. The 2010 figure was ~31 lb, 2012 was a measly 8 lb per hive and 2014 was ~31 lb. I can’t find a record of the 2016 figure (but haven’t looked too hard).

Yields are higher in the south and lower in the north.

I’m going to err on the slightly generous side and assume that the honey yield per hive is 25 lb and that our hypothetical beekeeper therefore generates 100 lb of honey per year.

More local honey

As we saw last week, honey prices vary considerably across the country.  For the purposes of these calculations we can use the BBKA survey which showed that ~56% of beekeepers sold honey at an average price of £5.49 per lb (cf. £5.67 in 2017).

And here’s the first dilemma … did the 44% of beekeepers who did not sell honey not have any honey to sell?

How does this affect the average per hive?

Or did they simply give everything away?

Or just eat it themselves 😉

The annual BBKA surveys are not ideal datasets to base these calculations on. They are voluntary and self-selecting. Perhaps the 23,000 beekeepers who did not complete the survey 12 produced 150 lb per colony.

No, I don’t think so either.

I’m going to make the assumption that the average yield per hive was 25 lb and that our beekeeper chooses to sell her honey at an average price of £5.50.

So the gross income from honey is £550 13.

However, selling this honey requires packaging – jars, labels etc. Like everything else, costs vary, but 12 oz hexagonal honey jars plus lids from C Wynne Jones cost ~39p each, with a standard custom label and a plain anti-tamper label adding a further 10p per jar.  Therefore to sell that 100 lb of honey our beekeeper will have an outlay of £63, reducing the net income to £487.

Income from bees

A strong hive in a good year should be able to produce both bees and honey. With good beekeeping, good forage and good weather it is possible to generate a super or two of honey and a nuc colony for sale or to make increase.

However, you can’t produce large amounts of both from a single hive … it’s an either or situation if you want to maximise your production of honey or nucs.

I’m not aware of any good statistics on nuc production by amateur beekeepers (or even poor statistics). My assumption – justified below – is that the majority of beekeepers produce few, if any, surplus nucs.

Everynuc

Everynuc …

Why do I think that?

Firstly, nuc and package imports from overseas are very high. Demand is enormous and is clearly not met by local supply 14. Secondly, winter losses (25%, discussed above) need to be made good. I presume that this is what many/most nucs are used for.

If they’re produced at all.

There are some major gaps in the available information meaning that the next bit is a guesstimate with a capital G.

For the purpose of this exercise I’m going to assume that our hypothetical beekeeper produces one nuc per year that it is used to compensate for overwintering losses, thereby keeping colony numbers stable.

In addition, she generates one surplus nuc every four years for sale.

I’ve chosen four years as it’s approximately every four years that there is a ‘good bee season’ giving high yields of honey and the opportunity for good queen mating and surplus nuc production.

This surplus nuc is sold locally for £175 which, after subtraction of £15 for the frames, leaves an annual profit from bees of £40 (£160 every 4 years).

Income totals and overall ‘profit’

That was all a bit turgid wasn’t it?

Here are the final figures. Remember, this is for a four hive apiary, per annum (4 year average).

Item Expenditure (£) Income (£)
Frames and foundation 40.00
Miticides 38.00
Food 26.00
Honey (jars/labelling) and gross 63.00 550.00
Nucleus colony 15.00 40.00
Sub totals 182.00 590.00
Profit 408.00

Experienced beekeepers reading this far 15 will appreciate some of the assumptions that have been made. There are many.

They’ll also probably disagree with half of the figures quoted, considering them too high.

And with the other half, considering them too low.

They’ll certainly consider the average ‘profit’ per hive per year is underestimated.

Mid-May ... 45,000 bees, 17 frames of brood, one queen ... now marked

Mid-May … 45,000 bees, 17 frames of brood, one queen … now marked and clipped

But remember, our hypothetical beekeeper is based upon the average productivity and number of hives reported in the BBKA annual surveys.

As you will probably realise, a limited amount of travel to and from the apiary, or to shops/markets to sell honey, very quickly eats into the rather measly £102 “profit” per hive.

Observations

I think there are two key things worth noting immediately:

  1. Miticide treatments cost ~£7.50 per hive per annum. Even at the rather derisory £5.50/lb honey price quoted, this is still less than one and a half jars of honey. It is false economy to not treat colonies for Varroa infestation. If you compare the cost of the treatment vs. the ‘value’ of a replacement nuc to make up losses (£175) it further emphasises how unwise it is to ignore the mites.
  2. Some beekeepers leave a super or two at the end of the season ‘for the bees’. This is also false economy if you want to have any profit. The ~14 kg of stores (honey) needed will be replaced with a heavy syrup feed containing 10 kg of granulated sugar. At £5.50 per pound this honey could be sold for ~£170 16. The granulated sugar costs about £6.40. Do the maths, as they say. There is no compelling (or even vaguely convincing) evidence that bees overwinter more successfully on honey rather than after a granulated sugar feed. None 17.

Summary

This article highlights some of the major expenses involved in beekeeping. Where possible I’ve based the figures on a hypothetical ‘average’ beekeeper with an average number of hives.

I’ve assumed that all outgoing costs were at list price from large suppliers (and excluded shipping costs).

I’ve left out the almost invaluable pleasure you get from working with the bees to produce lovely delicious local honey (or wax, or propolis, or bees or queens).

Do not underestimate this 🙂 Many – and I’m one – would keep some bees simply for this pleasure and the odd jar of honey.

No one is going to get rich quickly on £100 per hive per year 18. However, the purpose of this post was to provide a framework to consider where potential cost savings can be made. In addition, it will allow me to emphasise the benefits, to the bees and the beekeeper (and potentially her bank balance), of strong, healthy, highly productive colonies rather than the ‘average’ 25% colony losses per autumn with less than a full super per hive honey … which is then sold for less than it’s worth.

But that’s for another time …


Colophon

Beekeeping economics as in “The management of private or domestic finances; (also) financial position.” which is distinct from economy in beekeeping (which I will cover in a later post) meaning “The careful management of resources; sparingness”.

Honey pricing

The best way to start beekeeping is to learn by example.

Join an association, go to a Beginning beekeeping’ course over the winter and browse the catalogues.

Get a mentor, buy a nuc of well-behaved local bees in May/June and enjoy yourself.

And talk beekeeping with other beekeepers.

Ask questions, lots of them

In case you’ve not noticed, if there’s enough tea and digestives available, beekeepers can talk a lot. Ask three beekeepers a question and you’ll get at least five answers 1.

They’ll talk about swarming and queen rearing, about how imports are ruining beekeeping and about hive designs.

They’ll discuss how imported queens head calm and productive colonies and why ‘brood and a half’ is the solution to most beekeeping problems 2.

Some will enthusiastically talk about half-assed DIY ‘solutions’ to barely existent problems or why comparisons between treatment-free beekeeping and anti-vaxxers is unfair 3.

Local honey

They’ll talk about anything, agreeing and disagreeing in equal measure.

Well, not quite anything

The observant tyro will notice that there are a few topics on which experienced beekeepers are a bit less opinionated or, er, helpful.

Could you help me requeen my ‘colony of sociopaths’ this weekend?

Can you give me the phone number of the farmer with 40 acres of borage?

How did you prepare that prizewinning wax block for the annual honey show?

How much do you charge for your honey?

And not just unhelpful … they can be downright evasive.

Healthy competition

Topics like these are where beekeeping becomes a competitive pastime (except for the requeening one, which is simply self-preservation).

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. We want the best forage for our bees so that colonies are strong and healthy. We want good nectar sources so that supers are heavy and numerous. We want to win ‘Best in Show’ so we can add the magic words ‘Prizewinning local honey’ to our labels which – for some at least – means we’ll be able to charge a premium for our honey.

Vulture

And there’s nothing wrong with any of that.

But think back to when you were a beginner.

That first year you had a real surplus of honey 4.

After the circling vultures of friends and family had had a jar or two for their porridge/tea/toast or acne 5. After you’ve sold half a dozen jars at the village fete, or to colleagues at work.

When you’ve actually got quite a few jars left over you’d like to sell ‘at the door’, or through an excellent local organic cafe or outstanding artisan cheese shop 6.

How much do you charge for your honey?

Firstly, if you’re in precisely this situation, don’t expect any simple answers here.

But also don’t necessarily expect any straight answer from your beekeeping colleagues.

Assuming you’re not actually dependent upon the income, in a way it doesn’t really matter what you charge. As long as you recoup your costs – jars, labels, petrol, Apivar, fondant etc. – you’ll have a hobby that pays for itself and gives you enjoyment 7.

That sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

You can’t really ask for any more than that.

Except you can.

If you charge £3 a pound and cover your costs you might be able to charge £4.50 a pound and buy a new hive tool.

Or hive.

In your dreams

Or something totally unrelated to beekeeping that you’ve always wanted.

Like a Harley Davidson Softail Fat Boy 😉

Or you could charge £9 a pound and have a busman’s holiday in New Zealand every winter with the Manuka honey farmers.

Or you could charge £12.50 a pound … and sell virtually none of it because the beekeeper down the road is only charging £3 and you can buy *&%$£’s Everyday Essentials honey for 99p 8.

Tricky.

What is the competition?

Not inexpensive

With few exceptions, supermarket honey is cheap. Where there are exceptions it’s because the honey is either inexpensive … or exorbitantly priced Manuka.

Cheap and inexpensive aren’t the same thing at all. The former is produced down to a price, like the jar mentioned above priced just below the psychologically important £1 threshold.

I’d bet that any almost honey produced by a local beekeeper, whatever the forage available, however poorly it had been filtered or presented, would be better than most of these cheap supermarket honeys.

I should note in passing that any comments I make here assume the honey is actually honey (it’s not corn syrup for example) and that it’s not fermenting and hasn’t been overheated during preparation. The first of these regularly occur in the millions of tons of ‘honey’ traded globally each year, whereas the other two are more likely to be problems encountered – or caused – by inexperienced amateur beekeepers.

The inexpensive supermarket honey is (usually) bought and sold in bulk, blended, often nicely labelled and attractively packaged. It’s perfectly good honey. It’ll probably taste OK and it might sell for £3 to £4 for 340 g.

The exorbitantly priced Manuka honey is an oddity. It might well be fake and it tastes pretty awful in my view. It’s a marketing triumph of hype over substance.

So is £4 a jar the baseline?

It depends upon the size of the jar 😉

It also depends upon the effort you are prepared to make on the bottling, labelling and marketing 9.

But you’re not bottling, labelling and marketing bulk produced, blended, imported ‘Produce of EU and non EU countries’.

What you have is a far, far more valuable product than that.

You’ve had complete control over its production from start to finish – from siting the hives, through extracting, storage and jarring.

Local apiary, mid-July 2018

The provenance of the honey is without question.

There’s very few products sitting on supermarket shelves that you could say that about.

It’s very rare. This doesn’t in itself make it valuable. After all,  Ebola is thankfully very rare in the UK. However, for some people (actually many people) buying something that’s not available in every supermarket across the country is a distinct plus point.

It’s rare and its availability is limited because it’s local honey. You’ve not got 5,000 colonies spread over half a dozen postcodes in the county 10. There aren’t barrels of the same stuff in warehouses across the country 11.

What you’ve got is a few buckets of mixed floral honey from about 9 square miles (at most, probably significantly less) of the countryside around your apiary.

Known provenance

And local honey should attract a premium price.

Many people want to buy local produce and eat local food. Their definition of local and the one I use above may not align perfectly. For me, local might be the two shallow valleys and the arable farmland my bees forage in.

For the potential buyer, ‘local’ might be anything within Fife (about 500 square miles).

And Fife has a population of about a third of a million people. Which is a lot of potential customers wanting ‘local’ honey. Which means demand should or could be high.

Which, in turn, increases the price you could sell your honey for.

So, I reckon that £4 a jar is about the lowest amount you should charge.

If you can find small enough jars 😉

The £10 ceiling

But what about slightly larger jars? After all, small jars are a pain to fill. How much can you realistically charge for a one pound (454 g) jar of honey?

At the moment the upper limit seems to be about a tenner.

If you look at ‘high-end’ outlets selling good quality local produce you’ll find that there appears to be an upper price limit of about £10.

Remember that this price includes a shop markup of perhaps 20-30%. After all, they have staff, rent, insurance and other costs to cover.

Which perhaps finally gets near the answer to How much do you (or can I) charge for honey?’

Go and look in local outlets and see what they are charging for truly local honey. Not the (perfectly fine quality) honey from the larger regional suppliers (this isn’t local, it’s regional at best and, more likely, national), but the stuff from individuals within 10-15 miles or so.

Take off the guesstimated markup and that’s a reasonable guide to the price 12.

What?

There isn’t any on the shelves?

This can only mean one of three things:

  • They’ve already sold out because demand is so high = opportunity 🙂
  • There aren’t any local beekeepers selling local honey = opportunity 🙂
  • The shopkeeper has yet to realise the benefits of selling local honey = (yes, you guessed it) opportunity 🙂

I’m going to return to this topic several times over the winter.

In the meantime, back to the borage and that prizewinning wax block …

Oh dear, I’ve just reached 1500 words which is my (oft-ignored) self-imposed cutoff for waffle each week.

Those subjects will have to wait 😉


 

The end is nigh

A brief triptych of items this week as I’m struggling with an intermittent broadband connection on the remote west coast 1.

Great view but no signal

There are worse places to be cutoff …

Summer honey

There are no significant amounts of heather in central Fife and there’s none within range of my colonies. Work and other commitments mean it’s not practical to take my colonies to the Angus glens, so when the summer nectar flow finishes so does my beekeeping season.

The summer honey I produce is clear, runny honey. It is best described as mixed floral or blossom honey. In some years it has a significant amount of lime in it.

Lime honey has a greenish tinge and a wonderful zesty flavour. In other years it lacks the lime but is no less delicious.

Honey

Honey

Last year it was “Heinz” honey i.e. 57 varieties. I looked at the pollen content during the excellent Scottish Beekeepers Microscopy course and there was a very wide range of tree and flower pollens, most of which remained unidentified.

What was striking was the relative abundance of pollen in contrast to the ‘control’ samples of supermarket honey. Most of these had probably been subjected to significant filtration during processing.

I’ll return to pollen in honey, and more specifically pollen in local honey shortly.

Following a judicious amount of ‘on the spot’ testing (i.e. dipping my finger into broken honey comb and tasting 😉 ) some of the honey this year has the ‘lime zest’ and, with the flow over, it’s now time to collect it for extraction.

Clearing supers

Towards the end of the summer colonies should be strong. A double brood National hive with three or four supers contains a lot of bees.

To remove the supers it’s first necessary to remove the bees.

Porter bee escape

Some beekeepers use smelly pads to achieve this, some use modified leaf blowers and many use a crownboard with a Porter bee escape (a sort of one-way valve for bees).

I’ve never liked the idea of putting a non-toxic blend of natural oils and herb extracts (the description of Bee Quick) anywhere near my delicately flavoured honey. I know most is capped. However, I want to avoid any risk of tainting the final product.

A leaf blower seems pretty barbaric to me. Shaking bees off the super frames leaves a lot of disorientated bees flying around the apiary. Blasting them halfway to the other side of the field is a poor way to thank them for all their hard work over the last few weeks.

I described the Porter bee escape as a ‘sort of’ one way valve. That’s because they don’t always work dependably. Big fat drones (why were they in the supers anyway?) get stuck, they get jammed with propolis and they’re very inefficient.

Clearer boards

Clearer boards …

I use a simple clearer board with no moving parts, two large ‘entrances’ and two very small ‘exits’. These clear a stack of supers overnight.

I don’t have enough for all my hives 2 so clear a few at a time.

I stack the supers on top of my honey warming cabinet set at 34°C. This delays crystallisation 3 and significantly improves the efficiency of extraction as the honey flows much more easily.

Honey filled supers

Honey filled supers …

Before leaving the subject of clearing supers it’s worth remembering that colonies can get a bit tetchy once the flow is over. Don’t be surprised if they don’t thank you for pinching all their hard earned stores.

In addition, it is very important to avoid spilling honey from broken comb or exposing colonies – particularly weak ones – which may induce robbing.

I prefer to  add the clearers in good weather and then remove the supers in poor weather the following day, or early or late the next day. Both ensure that there are fewer bees about.

Local honey

I get a lot of requests for ‘local honey’. Many of these are to alleviate or prevent hay fever. This is based on the belief that the pollen in honey primes the immune system and prevents the adverse responses seen in hay fever.

Despite the lack of scientific evidence supporting any beneficial effect, the repeated anecdotal evidence is reassuring … and certainly helps honey sales 😉

Le client n’a jamais tort4

And, whether it helps hay fever or not, it certainly tastes good 🙂

I only produce local honey, but am regularly asked for more details.

Where do the bees forage? How far do they fly?

What is local anyway?

British?

Scottish?

Fife?

Certainly not the first two, even if we do all now live in the global village 5Local means ‘the neighbourhood’ or a particular area.

Area, of course, isn’t defined.

It might not even mean Fife. The honey produced from the town gardens in St Andrews or Dunfermline will be different from the honey produced from the small villages in the flat agricultural land of the Howe of Fife.

Fife and Kinross Shires Civil Parish map

And the honey produced in the spring is very different from summer honey, or in different years.

There’s a lot of interest in eating locally produced food. Just consider the millions of posts using the hashtags #eatlocal on Twitter or Instagram.

Artisan shops that sell local produce tend to sell it at a significant premium. That’s something worth remembering 😉 Customers are prepared to pay more because they know something about the provenance of the produce, or they want to be reassured it has not been transported half way across the globe.

For those who want more information about ‘local’ honey, it would be good to be able to provide it – even if they purchase it in a shop 6. For those who don’t, who aren’t interested, or who just want to spread it thickly on toast 7 then the information is superfluous and should not spoil the appearance of the jar or label.

I’ve been toying with solutions to this over the last couple of years. It provides a bee-related diversion during the long winter evenings.

Some of the commercial Manuka honey producers already have a labelling system that incorporates links to this sort of additional information. With a bit of interweb geekery, a suitable server and a functioning broadband connection it should be relatively straightforward to engineer.

Watch this space …

But for the moment this will have to wait … I have honey supers to collect and no functioning broadband 🙁


 

Off again, on again …

The title of this post could refer to the 2019 season, queen mating, forage availability and the honey supers.

And does …

All are, of course, related to the local weather.

This is my fourth year back in Scotland keeping bees and the season started really well. Scout bees were examining my bait hives by late April and I hived my first swarm on the last day of that month.

Fanning bees

Fanning bees

April had been a good month and overwintered colonies were consequently in pretty good shape and had built up well to (hopefully) exploit the early season forage. Overwintered nucs looked particularly strong …

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier

The oil seed rape (OSR) appeared as expected – there’s quite a bit in range of both my main apiaries – and the bees started hammering it.

And then the weather reverted to ‘about average’ … which for my part of eastern Scotland in May is a mean maximum daily temperature of 12-14°C. With these lower temperatures came higher than average rainfall.

Nothing dramatic, but enough to – literally – put the dampeners on the first half of the season.

June gap

May segued into June and the OSR came and went. Work commitments kept me away from the apiary which meant the clearers went on about a week later than intended.

Unfortunately this was a week in which the weather deteriorated and strong colonies were stuck ‘indoors’ where they had little to do but scoff the stores. And when they could get out there was a shortage of forage – we’ve had a proper ‘June gap‘ this year 1.

Nevertheless, after extracting I managed just shy of 50% of the total from last spring (which was an exceptional year) so I’m not complaining.

One thing notable about this season was that the majority of the supers extracted were not fully capped. Some weren’t capped at all. I’d left a few ‘drippy’ supers behind and every frame extracted passed the ‘shake test’.

(Very) partially capped honey super frame ...

(Very) partially capped honey super frame …

After extraction I always check the water content of every bucket and it was all in the 16-17.5% region … no different from capped spring honey extracted in previous years.

Wheely good extraction

I’ve finally got round to mounting my SAF Natura 9 frame radial extractor on castors 2. I re-drilled the end of the three legs to accept an M10 bolt and then fitted castors with a couple of nuts, one of which was nylon-lined so it should not work loose.

Rubber-wheeled castor with brake

Two of the castors are braked, but they don’t need to be.

The castors make it a lot easier to move the extractor from storage to my extracting room 3 or to the area where I hose it out after use.

No more jiggling

But much more significantly (and the reason I fitted them in the first place) they prevent a poorly balanced extractor from ‘walking’ across the room if unbalanced and unattended.

I no longer have to cling on for dear life until the machine stops jiggling about 🙂

Of course, I always try and balance my extractor. However, the reality is that you sometimes get frames with crystallised honey which unbalance the extractor late in the run. Or runs in which no amount of juggling of the frames achieves a really satisfactory balance.

Under these circumstances the wheels allow the unbalanced extractor to oscillate from side to side rather than march off down the room.

Adding the little rubber wheels has been a revolution in my extracting if you’ll excuse the lousy pun.

… and away again

Summer has now officially started as the longest day has – like the OSR – been and gone. Today we’ve had rain, thunder and lightning i.e.  a typical summer day and almost perfect conditions to return a towering stack of wet supers to the hives.

The bees were not impressed to be disturbed 4 but were grateful for the wet supers. By dealing with these in the late afternoon on a manky day I avoided the bees getting overexcited and triggering robbing.

It’s clear that the June gap is, if not over then certainly drawing to a close. All colonies have fresh nectar stored in the brood frames and the supers in strong colonies are starting to get heavier.

The rain might even help get a good crop from the lime this year (it was far too dry last season) but we need high temperatures as well.

With a bit of good fortune we’ll also now get some good enough weather for queen mating which has been really hit and miss for the last month.

Where did they come from?

Clearly there are some queens getting reared.

I was called out to a swarm in a neighbours garden late in the afternoon a few days ago. It had been in a low bush for a few hours and was a doddle to drop into a Paynes poly nuc. I’ve yet to see the queen so don’t know whether she’s mated or marked.

What’s puzzling is where the bees swarmed from …

My understanding is that the classic football-sized ball of bees hanging from a branch is a temporary bivouac. The swarm sets up camp there while the scouts do their scouting around looking for a better location to make a permanent residence.

Swarm of bees

Swarm of bees

In my experience the bivouacked bees are usually only a short distance from their original location. By ‘short distance’ I mean 5 to 50 metres. Perhaps 100 at the outside. You don’t just find them randomly dotted around the countryside 5.

Which is what’s odd … the closest apiary to the swarm is mine (perhaps 500 metres away). I’d inspected my colonies the same afternoon. All the queens were present and correct. All are marked and clipped. None of the colonies showed any sign of wanting to swarm 6. It’s definitely not from my colonies.

My village is very small. I don’t know everyone but I know someone who does. There are no other beekeepers here. So where did they come from?

Perhaps they were a swarm from a distant colony that failed to reach their intended destination (like one of my bait hives which had been getting some attention 7). Alternatively they might come from a nearby feral colony.

I’m off to take a closer look at the church tower …


Colophon

The title of this post is truncated from the start of the chorus of a 1921 song by E.R. Edson about a train conductor (Flanagan) and a derailed train … “Off again, on again, gone again, Flanagan”.

In praise of the 1lb round

If you go to any of the big supermarkets you will find shelf after shelf of honey for sale.

There are two things that I used to find surprising about this sort of honey.

It’s usually cheap. For example, Aldi’s Everyday Essentials honey is 99p for 340g, Lidl’s Highgate Fayre clear honey is £1.15 for 454g and Sainsbury’s Clear honey is £1.25 for 340g.

I suspect that none of this honey is produced in the UK, though they might be packaged here – an important distinction. All will have the weasel words ‘Produce of EU and non-EU countries’ in very small letters on the label.

Absolutely anywhere

Anyone with even a passing understanding of geography will appreciate that these words mean the honey comes from absolutely anywhere.

Which probably means China. 

China is the biggest global honey exporter by metric tonne. The EU imports 200,000 tonnes of honey per year, 40% of which comes from China … hence Produce of EU and non-EU countries’.

I’m sure these honeys are actually honey 1 but I’d be surprised if it is particularly good honey.

I’m sure it tastes sweet.

But that’s about it.

A triumph of style over substance

The other thing that used to surprise me about supermarket honey was the appearance.

It’s usually reasonably nicely packaged and labelled. The jar contents look uniform and doesn’t change appreciably over time. Foe example, if you leave a jar it at the back of the cupboard for 6 months it will usually look exactly the same when you rediscover it.

It will also look exactly the same if you return to buy a second jar.

It’s made like that.

During processing it has been prepared to remain attractive and unchanged just in case it doesn’t sell in the first few days or weeks of going onto the supermarket shelf.

Jar after jar looks exactly the same and will remain doing so for a long time.

This in itself isn’t an issue until you realise that the processing and packaging of the honey has probably involved all sorts of filtering and/or heating 2. This is done to achieve consistency in appearance and to retain this appearance on the shelf.

For comparison … the current wholesale bulk price for UK-produced floral honey is over £3 a pound, and heather honey is more than £4. That’s 3-4 times more than the supermarket honeys listed above before jarring, labelling, transporting and markup.

First impressions last

If you sell honey it’s worth remembering that some potential customers will have only seen these cheap inexpensive offerings from the supermarkets.

That is the competition. That’s the standard against which your honey will probably be judged.

Madness of course as honey is meant for eating and it should be judged primarily, if not exclusively, on flavour 3.

So what are these potential customers judging?

Appearance and (usually) price.

Or price and then appearance 4.

A wildly high (or low 5) price or an unappealing appearance will kill the potential sale.

If the label is unattractive, the jar is ugly, the lid is dented, the honey unevenly crystallised or frosting badly, or – horror – there are legs or antennae visible in suspension … they’ll reach for a jar on a different shelf.

Taste tests

If you sell ‘from the gate’ you can offer samples for a taste test. This is usually enough to secure a sale, even if the appearance is sub-optimal or the price unrealistic.

Testing, testing

However, if you are selling via a third party you don’t have this luxury (but you do save a lot of time having interesting conversations about the declining numbers of bees 6, different honey types, whether the honey is raw, bumble bees, hay fever, the weather etc.).

You have control over the appearance of the honey but perhaps only limited control over the price (because of the seller’s markup). The appearance must be good and the price needs to be realistic 7.

Price

The price you charge for your honey is influenced by a swathe of different factors:

  • type and preparation – heather, mono floral, clear, soft set
  • cost of materials – foundation, frames, jars, labels, miticides
  • how you value your time used when preparing the honey (and don’t forget the 7-day inspections, the swarm control, the heavy lifting, the petrol, the colonies lost to disease or failed queen mating … and perhaps even all those jars given away to family and friends!)
  • level of local competition
  • affluence of customers
  • etc.

Just remember those bulk prices I quoted earlier.

By the time you’ve added the price of the jar and lid, the label, and the time spent bottling and delivering it, the wholesale price for a good-looking jar of high-quality local artisan-produced honey should be substantially  higher.

I’ll say that again for emphasis … substantially.

Locally produced honey should be a quality product and should sell at a premium price.

Over the last decade there appears to have been a switch by many beekeepers from 1 lb (454 g) jars to 12 oz (340 g) jars. The acceptability of the price ‘on the shelf’ will be one factor that has influenced this. What was £5 a pound in 2009 is rapidly nudging towards a tenner. This may be too steep for some customers.

But the 1 lb jar still has lots going for it.

Labels and contents

There are three things that influence the appearance of a jar of honey.

  • the contents
  • the labelling
  • the jar

As the producer you have full control over these things.

If you are selling honey you presumably have a fair idea of what the honey should look like. Soft set (creamed) honey should be smooth and uniform, a consistent colour and with little or no evidence of frosting on the inside of the jar. Clear honey should be clear, ‘sparkly‘, with no specks of wax, bee wings or mouse droppings visible 8.

The label design involves an interesting mix of regulations and creativity. There are a whole lot of rules to follow on the words, weights and traceability that must be included.

After that you can use your artistic skills.

Dymo LabelWriter design and printing

My labels are a minimalist. They are simple black on white home-printed labels that don’t obscure too much of the jar. I want the customer to see the honey. They are inexpensive to produce, straightforward to apply, easy-peel, non-smearing and can be printed in batches of one to one thousand.

Which, finally, brings me to the jar itself …

Rounds, hexes and squares

Artisan honey?

A premium product should be presented in good quality packaging.

This probably isn’t a squeezy bear.

Just sayin’ 😉

You don’t have to sell honey by any particular set weight. You can package your honey in glass jars, plastic jars, snap-lid polythene containers, Kilner jars, squeezy bears etc.

But glass jars are probably both the most environmentally friendly and what most customers expect a high-quality honey to be packaged in.

So much so that if you asked someone what a honey jar looks like they will almost always describe one of two jar types.

The classic ‘1 lb round’ or a 12 oz hexagonal jar.

 

Jars are not inexpensive. If you pay normal retail prices (excluding carriage) then 1 lb rounds cost ~34p each and 12 oz hex’s cost ~40p. These prices include lids 9.

Honey in these types of jars won’t surprise anyone and will not put any potential customers off. They expect honey to be jarred like that.

But they also won’t stand out on the shelves from all the other jars that are the same size and shape.

For this reason I use square jars. These are easy to label, distinctive, stack and pack well together, provide a good view of the contents and are only marginally more expensive at ~43p for 12 oz.

I’ve not found a source for reasonably priced 1 lb square jars. If you have, please tell me.

Bottling it

Which in a roundabout way brings me to the subject in the title of this post.

Jarring honey, at least at the small scale I do it in, is a time-consuming manual activity. It’s an important part of the entire process as it’s what ensures that the good-looking contents appear at their best in a nice-looking container.

Aside from the label, the contents and the jar size/shape, the final appearance also depends upon these things being put together properly. The label should be centred and straight, not wonky. The honey should be in the jar, not smeared on the inside of the lid and across the screw thread.

12ox hex jar with clear (runny) honey. The Apiarist

12ox hex jar …

The honey should not be full of bubbles (hint, use a honey bucket tipper and you can maximise the honey jarred from a single bucket) and, ideally, there should no bubbles trapped at the ‘shoulder’ of the jar.

Hex jars are often difficult to fill without trapping bubbles at the shoulder. Some jar styles are better than others, it all depends on how the transition from the vertical side to the neck of the jar slopes (compare the jar on the right with the one shown above).

Square jars are easy to fill. This is because there are only four corners and there is a good slope between the face of the jar and the neck, so bubbles are not trapped.

Honey

Honey

And 1 lb rounds are the best of all 🙂

There’s almost no chance of trapping bubbles at the shoulder of the jar because of the gentle curve to the bottle neck. In addition, filling the jar with 1 lb (454 g) of honey leaves almost no visible space above the honey surface once the jar lid is fitted.

The jar looks full 10. Compare the picture below with the square or hex jars above.

The sweet spot ...

The sweet spot …

Where jarring is concerned the 1 lb round has an additional advantage. For each large bucket of honey you have fewer jars to fill and label.

Result 😉

Unbottling it

I sell over 90% of my honey in square jars. However, almost all of the honey for family and home consumption is jarred in 1 lb rounds.

For two reasons most of the latter is soft set honey; a) the majority of customers want clear honey and b) I prefer it.

And this is where the 1 lb round really excels …

Easy access

… there are no corners 🙂

With a little perseverance and a suitably sized teaspoon you can get almost all of the honey out of the jar.

Easy to fill and easy to empty. What’s not to like?


 

 

Making mead

Every year, usually around Christmas, I make a batch of mead.

About a year later I bottle the mead and leave it to mature.

A year or more later I start drinking the mead … if it’s drinkable 😉

If at first you don’t succeed …

The last couple of batches have been, if not spectacular, certainly very drinkable.

I expect them to improve further with age 1 and so have tucked them away for special occasions over the next 12-18 months … or longer 2.

Clearly this isn’t a quick process.

The early batches I made were pretty rough. Some were ditched at – or rather just before – bottling. However, I’ve now settled on a recipe (which means found … I claim no originality for it) that has worked well for at least three batches in a row.

Here it is.

Equipment

You’ll need a small amount of equipment, all of which is readily available from a brewing and winemaking store. I’ve used Hop and Grape, but there is lots of choice online. In England, Wilkinsons is also a good source of inexpensive brewing supplies.

  • Demijohn
  • Airlock
  • Rubber bung
  • Siphon (or simple piece of tubing)
  • Bottles
  • Good sized saucepan
  • Funnel
Ready for fermentation ...

Ready for fermentation …

Recipe

  • ~4lb of well-flavoured honey
  • 1 mug of cold tea
  • 1 teaspoon of citric acid
  • 1 teaspoon of yeast nutrients
  • 5g of good quality white wine yeast. I’ve had the most success with Lalvin D47.
  • 5 litres of still bottled water
Fermenting mead ...

Fermenting mead …

Preparation

  1. Prepare a mug of tea. Use boiling water and one tea bag, leave it to go cold and discard the tea bag. While it’s cooling prepare the yeast starter and sterilise everything.
  2. Add the yeast to a clean glass containing 100ml or so (quantity isn’t critical) of warm water at ~40°C. Stir to disperse the yeast and leave at room temperature to rehydrate.
  3. Add the honey to the saucepan and add about 2 pints of water. Warm over a gentle heat, stirring regularly to completely dissolve the honey. It doesn’t need to get hotter than ‘hand hot’. Once the honey is completely dissolved take the saucepan off the heat and allow to cool. While that’s happening prepare the demijohn.
  4. Thoroughly sterilise a demijohn. I use crushed Campden tablets as I’m ‘old skool’, there are probably newer and better ways to do this now. At the same time sterilise a rubber bung for the demijohn, a funnel and an airlock. Rinse the cleaned demijohn very well (tap water) and then add ~1 pint of bottled water.
  5. To this demijohn, using the funnel, add the honey mix, the cold tea, citric acid and the yeast nutrients. The temperature should now be around 30°C.
  6. Add the yeast starter. There will still be a considerable volume of the demijohn still empty (see the image above).
  7. Add the bung and, holding the bung tightly in place, shake the demijohn very vigorously.
  8. More, shake it some more. I don’t know if it really helps, but it feels like you’re doing something important and constructive 😉
  9. Replace the bung with an airlock part-filled with bottled water.
  10. Place the demijohn somewhere out of the way to ferment. The temperature (at least for Lalvin D47) needs to be 15-20°C but not any higher or it can produce ‘off’ flavours. I wrap the demijohn in bubble wrap or old blankets to help keep the temperature stable 3. It needs to be out of the way as you don’t want to move it and disturb things during fermentation.
  11. Bubbles will start in 6-18 hours. Initial fermentation can be very vigorous which is why lots of headspace was left at the beginning.
  12. After 48-72 hours fermentation will have steadied to about one bubble every few seconds. The sound is hypnotic 🙂 Once fermentation has steadied remove the airlock, top up with water to within 1″ of the neck of the demijohn and replace the airlock.
  13. Let fermentation continue. After 2-3 months fermentation will have almost or completely stopped. The demijohn will have a thick layer of yeast settled at the bottom of the bottle.
  14. Avoiding the yeast layer, siphon the mead into a new, sterilised demijohn. Don’t disturb the yeast layer … don’t worry about not getting every last drop out of the demijohn.
  15. Top up the new demijohn with ~1:3 w/w honey in warm water (i.e. 227g of honey dissolved in 750ml of water). Replace the airlock. Fermentation will start again.
  16. Once fermentation has completely finished – this takes a variable length of time – the mead should be crystal clear 4.
  17. Bottle the mead. Test it (of course!) and leave it somewhere dark and cool to mature for several months.

Additional notes and comments

Mead

Mead

This is a very basic guide to making mead. That’s because, despite making it for a few years, I’m still very much a beginner. There are hundreds of guides and at least as many recipes online. Read a few, but then just have a go … don’t get bogged down in the minutiae. If you can’t find Lalvin D47 use generic white wine yeast.

Use well-flavoured honey. Don’t use something bland or insipid. Many people use heather honey for mead though the best batches I’ve made have always been with a good midsummer mixed floral honey.

Using the recipe above the last few batches have cleared perfectly. One or two early attempts remained cloudy after racking it off and I remedied this by adding a bit of bentonite.

I’m a bit of a heathen and usually use 500ml “Grolsch-type” bottles, which are more properly termed swing-top bottles. If you’re intending to compete in your association annual honey show make sure you use the correct type of bottle … which will not be a swing top 😉

Whatever bottle style you use make sure it is made of clear glass … you want the lovely golden amber colour of the mead to shine through.

I’ve no idea of the alcohol content as I’ve lost my hygrometer. Lalvin D47 can tolerate 14-16% alcohol which gives you an idea of the upper limit it will reach.

I know the stuff I’ve made is reasonably potent. Test your mead in moderation. If you like the flavour I’d recommend NOT guzzling the entire bottle in one sitting … particularly if you use standard volume (75cl) wine bottles 5.

Remember that you can’t sell alcohol without a licence.

Drink it with friends and sell them lots of honey when their defences are lowered 😉

Have fun


 

 

Flour water salt yeast

FWSY

FWSY

Prompted by the first hard frosts of the year and the end of the beekeeping season, here’s a post that is of only peripheral relevance to beekeeping.

Though since you presumably prefer to eat honey on something, rather than on its own, it’s not completely irrelevant.

Almost two years ago I wrote a post about breadmaking. In the intervening period I’ve baked a lot more bread … probably over 100 loaves. Almost exclusively I’ve been working from an outstanding book by Ken Forkish entitled Flour water salt yeast.

Forkish is an artisan baker from Portland, Oregon. The book, and his YouTube videos that accompany it are an excellent introduction to simple, easy and quick 1 methods for producing truly spectacular homemade bread.

Like this …

Overnight white loaf

Overnight white loaf

Matthew 4:4

Man cannot live by bread alone … well, I’m not so sure.

This bread is really good.

The general principles promoted by Forkish are:

  • Use high quality ingredients
  • Carefully control temperatures and timings
  • Use minimal amounts of mixing
  • Use small amounts of yeast and long rise periods
  • Bake in a very hot oven in a container to seal in the steam

Forkish earns his living writing and baking, so I’m not going to reproduce his recipes here – buy the book (or look for them online as some people have splurged them all over the internet).

What I will do is qualify some of points in the list above. Hopefully this will encourage you to have a go as well (and to learn from the few mistakes I made by either trying to cut corners or not reading the instructions).

Ingredients and environment

The flour you use has a big influence on the characteristics of the dough. I almost always use Bacheldre organic stoneground flours. These are strong, absorb water well and have a high protein content. They’re available direct from Bacheldre Mill and lots of places online. In my experience, the own-brand ‘strong bread flour’ sold by most of the supermarkets make a much sloppier dough than the Bacheldre flours. The resulting bread isn’t necessarily worse, but the dough is a lot harder to work with as it’s always trying to escape.

I use a thermometer to check the water temperature at the start. This ensures a uniform early development of the dough. I also check the temperature of the place I’m going to allow the dough to develop. If it’s much warmer or cooler than expected you might need to modify timings.

Mix, leave, mix, leave, mix …

One of the attractions of the breadmaking method promoted by Ken Forkish is that it involves very little work. For a standard loaf it probably takes no more than 8 minutes of mixing in total, in four blocks. And that includes rinsing your hands before and after working the dough.

All of the mixing is done in a large container.

A 30lb honey bucket is ideal.

How convenient 🙂

The flour and water are premixed to make an autolyse. This is allowed to sit for 20-30 minutes before adding the yeast and salt. Most of the recipes use very small amounts of yeast (much less than a gram for a 500g loaf) so the small, accurate scales used for weighing your oxalic acid (er, Api-Bioxal) are ideal.

After mixing the dough is allowed to develop with a further 2-3 quick ‘turns’ in the first 90 minutes or so. These ‘turns’ aren’t even really mixing. You just fold the dough over two or three times. It takes as long to write it as it takes to do it.

Then leave it overnight.

Cooking on gas

The following morning you turn the dough out, shape the loaf and allow it a final rise while the oven heats to a ‘serious-risk-of-burning-if-you-touch-anything-without-very-thick-oven-gloves-on’ 240°C 2.

As well as preheating the oven you also preheat the container you’ll cook the bread in. I use a Lodge 3 litre cast iron Combo Cooker (or Dutch Oven for convenience). These are $56 in the USA, or an uncompetitive £90 in the UK.

I was robbed 🙁

However, I then checked out the Le Creuset prices and felt a whole lot better 🙂

Any heat-retaining covered ovenproof container should be suitable. Cast iron is probably best. The goal is to trap the steam inside while the bread cooks to give the crisp crust. As an alternative to the Lodge Dutch Oven I’ve also used a large Pyrex ‘chicken brick’ which work almost as well.

Cooking takes 30 minutes with a further 15 minutes uncovered to crisp up the crust.

You can of course use an electric oven 😉

Overnight 20% wholemeal loaf

Overnight 20% wholemeal loaf

Quick and easy

From start to finish a loaf takes about 16-18 hours.

Not quick.

However, during that period you’re only actually handling the dough for about 10 minutes. Almost all the time is a long overnight rise period while the yeast works its magic 3.

So … very easy.

The proof of the pudding

The resulting loaf tastes excellent, with a very crispy crust and wonderfully textured crumb. Since the yeast has worked hard overnight the crumb is full of large holes (which conveniently fill with honey or butter or marmalade). Assuming it’s not devoured when still warm it keeps well. If anything, the loaf improves if allowed to cool properly before scoffing 4. Once cold, just wrap it up in a plastic bag and you can use it up to 48 hours later, or perhaps longer as toast … though it never lasts that long in our house.

Final notes

The book Flour water salt yeast has about a dozen different bread recipes. Almost all use essentially the same steps I’ve outlined above. Some use an overnight starter (a biga or poolish) and these take a little bit more work, and a bit more time. Actually, with the exception of the ingredients, quite a bit of the book is rather repetitive as the mixing and cooking instructions are essentially the same for all the loaves.

The second part of Flour water salt yeast covers the preparation and use of levains or sourdough starters. These also make great bread, but take more work. With travel and other commitments I can’t always keep the sourdough starter in tip-top condition, so all of the comments here (and for at least half the book) are for loaves made with freeze-dried yeast.

For a standard weekend loaf you can’t go far wrong with a standard overnight white loaf, or a 10-30% overnight wholemeal loaf. These can be started on Friday evening, cooked early on Saturday and enjoyed all weekend.

Forkish explains each of the individual steps in the breadmaking process in a series of short YouTube videos. Of the 11 on his breadmaking 5 YouTube channel, the first 8 are relevant to loaves made without a levain, or sourdough starter. Watch them in sequence, ideally with the book to hand, and you’ll appreciate just how simple the process is.


 

Line ’em up

Honey sold via a third party needs to carry a label with all sorts of information on it 1. A well-labelled jar of honey looks good on the shelves and undoubtedly helps sales.

However, an attractive label does not need to be fancy, printed in colour or expensive to produce. I firmly believe that the contrast between a simple black and white label and the rich golden colour of the honey enhances the appearance of the end product. This helps sales.

Honey

Honey

If you are selling via a shop they are often have more than one type of honey on display. Your honey might well be next to a row of brightly labelled, mass produced (Product of EU and non-EU countries … and we all know what that means), factory packed jars … all looking uniformly – though perhaps blandly – identical.

In contrast you’re selling a top-quality, artisan product that is probably being sold at a premium price.

And if it’s not, it should be.

Artisans and amateurs

Remember that artisan does not mean amateur. It means traditionally produced, high quality and handmade by a skilled tradesman.

Therefore, your honey should not look amateur. If the jar contents look attractive, with no antennae or obvious wax crumbs, and the label is good then the individual jar should be very appealing.

But how do they look half a dozen at a time? All lined up in a row?

If the labels are all higgledy piggledy 2, neither being level on the individual jar or level with its neighbours, then you might not be conveying the impression you want.

Or if you are, you might be able to convey a better impression 😉

Line ’em up

With a steady hand, good lighting and a convenient ‘guide’ it is easy to reproducibly label jar after jar after jar after jar after jar 3 of honey.

I use offcuts of wood laminate flooring as the guide 4. These are available in a range of thicknesses from about 8 to 15mm. For the sizes of jars I use these represent a suitable distance to place place the label from the bottom of the jar.

I ‘offer up’ the label just touching the wood ‘guide’, check that it’s level and centred on the jar, then press it into place with my thumbs.

Labelling honey jars

Labelling honey jars

Four things that help in getting a reproducible finished effect:

  1. Easy peel labels that can be removed and reattached if you get it wrong
  2. Working at a reasonably high table to help with the lateral alignment
  3. Using square rather than round jars
  4. Practice

The square jars really help. More specifically it’s the guide butting up against the side of the jar that helps. If I routinely used round jars I’d cut a semi-circular hole in the edge of the guide – in a choice of sizes reflecting the diameter of the jar – to help align the label.

Once the front label is in place it’s a simple (but repetitive) task to turn the jar around and add the anti-tamper label, unless you’re the type who prefers to ‘trap’ it under the front label … in which case it obviously has to go on first.

Alternative approaches

There was a prize awarded recently at one of the large conventions (perhaps the National Honey Show?) for a lovely handcrafted wooden ‘cradle’ that held the jar and aligned the label. The principle was identical to that described above … just implemented much more elegantly. I thought this was made by Thomas Bickerdike who also produces lovely handcrafted wooden spoons. However, my Google-foo has failed to find it, so if you remember seeing it please post a link below.

Or, for a few hundred pounds, you could buy a labelling machine …


Colophon

Nice to see you ...

Nice to see you …

Line ’em up was a game from US version of the eternally popular game show The Price is Right. Amazingly (have you ever seen it?) this was recently voted the fifth best gameshow of all time.

Extraordinary … but not in a good way.

Mad honey

Attractive ... briefly

Attractive … briefly

Over the next couple of years I will be establishing a new apiary in a region that is currently heavily overgrown with rhododendron. In moderation rhododendron are attractive evergreen ornamental shrubs that flower profusely for a short period in spring.

However, in many areas where rhododendron has been introduced, they have become highly invasive shrubs that have spread widely through seed dispersal and suckering.

As a beekeeper there are some interesting links between rhododendron, bees and honey.

Rhododendron ponticum

The common rhododendron (Rhododendron ponticum) is native to Southern Europe and South West Asia. Although it was probably present in Great Britain before the last Ice Age it only became re-established after the late 18th Century when reintroduced by nurseries for ornamental gardens.

On the west coast, particularly in Snowdonia and western Scotland 1, rhododendron has become highly invasive, covering large areas of land and even entire hillsides. It swamps native trees and the development of understory growth by cutting out any light getting to the ground. In addition it poisons the soil to prevent competition from other plants.

Rhododendron is considered a major problem and grants are available for its removal. Estimated costs for eradication of rhododendron from Snowdonia and Argyll and Bute are £11M and £9.6M respectively 2.

It looks striking when it’s in flower … but for most of the year it just looks green.

Rhododendron ... lots of it

Rhododendron … lots of it

Unless you’ve got acres of the stuff in which case it just looks awful … all the time 😉

Rhododendron, bees and toxins

Rhododendron are insect pollinated and produce large amounts of sugar-rich nectar to ‘reward’ visiting pollinators. A number of species of bees are known to pollinate rhododendron, including honey bees. Surprisingly – for an insect pollinated plant – rhododendron nectar contains high levels of diterpines which are toxic to many different animals. These types of toxins are usually produced by plants to reduce foliar grazing.

The most important (by amount) diterpine in rhododendron nectar is grayanotoxin.

Grayanotoxin is a neurotoxin. It works, i.e. its toxicity is due to, interference with voltage-gated sodium channels (VGSC) in neurones. We’ve discussed VGSC’s before in the context of resistance of Varroa to Apistan.

Although the modes of action of apistan and grayanotoxin are different, the consequences are not. If you block neuronal activity, stuff 3 that’s important often stops working properly – ‘stuff’ like the heart 🙁

Symptoms of grayanotoxin poisoning include cardiovascular problems, nausea, vomiting and loss of consciousness.

But wait, there’s more. Add to that heady mix one or more of the following … blurred vision, dizziness, hypersalivation, perspiration, weakness and paresthesia4 in the extremities and around the mouth.

In higher doses, symptoms can include loss of coordination and severe, progressive, muscular weakness. Fatalities are rare but not unknown.

These are all symptoms in humans experiencing grayanotoxin poisoning.

Great … could it possibly get worse?

Grayanotoxins and honey bees

Recent studies have suggested that grayanotoxins are also toxic for some bees. In these laboratory studies, honey bees fed syrup laced with field-realistic doses of grayanotoxin were twenty-times more likely to die than those fed undoctored syrup 5.

Note that this does not necessarily mean that honey bees foraging in the natural environment are twenty-times more likely to die.

The laboratory experiments effectively ‘force-fed’ bees syrup containing the toxin. Toxicity was monitored 6 hours post feeding. Perhaps they were hungry and, having no choice, ate the stuff 6 and consequently poisoned themselves.

In the natural environment there are probably a wide range of nectars available simultaneously. Perhaps the bees simply change their diet and choose these nectars instead?

I don’t think that this has been formally tested. At least, not yet.

It might be an interesting experiment to conduct. You could set up a feeding station with syrup, train the bees to use this sugar-rich source and then add grayanotoxins to the syrup. If the bees continue to gorge themselves on the toxin-laced syrup (and showed increased mortality) then they presumably either can’t taste the grayanotoxin or can, but don’t care 7.

Alternatively, they might switch away from the toxin-laced syrup and use other plant and tree nectars and, in doing so, not jeopardise their longevity.

Although this experiment hasn’t been conducted, we do have evidence that honey bees forage on nectar from rhododendron.

Mad honey

If bees forage on rhododendron the grayanotoxin-containing nectar would get processed in the hive to create toxin-laced honey 8. Since grayanotoxins are known to be toxic for humans this honey would be expected to exert some adverse, or at least interesting, effects.

And that’s exactly what is seen.

The most common cause of grayanotoxin poisoning in humans is from eating honey made by bees foraging on rhododendron. Small doses cause light-headedness and hallucinations. In large doses it is overtly toxic and induces the range of symptoms described above.

In Nepal and parts of Turkey this so-called ‘mad honey’ is deliberately produced. You can buy mad honey online … a snip at $199 for 250g 9.

As well as causing light headedness and hallucinations, mad honey is consumed – particularly in Turkey – because of its perceived therapeutic benefits for conditions such as diabetes, bowel disorders and hypertension. Perceived because I’m not sure there’s real evidence of benefits for any of these conditions.

Mad honey, or deli bal in Turkish, is also thought to enhance sexual performance 10. Perhaps unsurprisingly, mad honey poisoning is most commonly observed in middle-aged men 😉

The proof of the pudding honey is in the eating

Are Welsh or Scottish bees foraging in rhododendron-infested areas able to produce ‘mad honey’?

I don’t know. I guess I’ll find out. After all … there’s a lot of rhododendron.

Rhododendron ... lots more

Rhododendron … lots more

There are a few disputed reports of honey toxicity case studies in the British Medical Journal. Some are very old and are suggested to actually be caused by fructose intolerance. There is also a reported Scottish case where a man licked rhododendron nectar from his hands and rapidly experienced paraesthesiae (‘pins and needles’), loss of coordination and an inability to stand, symptoms which resolved completely a few hours later 11.

However, I strongly suspect that a range of factors mean that although a beekeeper might be mad to try and produce honey in these areas, he or she would be unable to produce mad honey. Rhododendron blooms relatively early in the season, the climate of the UK and Nepal/Turkey are dramatically different and there are known to be significant strain-specific variations in grayanotoxin production between rhododendron.

On the island of Colonsay – the first black bee reserve – there are extensive tracts of invasive rhododendron and yet Andrew Abrahams, the local beekeeper, produces excellent heather honey there.

In the meantime I’m busy removing rhododendron from my site …