Category Archives: Honey

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 …


 

Botulism

Do not feed to infants

Do not feed to infants

I was recently asked, Why can’t you give young babies honey?

You can.

But just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

And on this point the NHS guidelines are very clear. You should not give honey to babies under 12 months of age because there is a risk that they might get botulism.

Bacteria, toxins and Botox

Botulism is a serious, sometimes fatal, disease caused by infection with a bacterium called Clostridium botulinum. As it grows, C. botulinum produces neurotoxins which cause a flaccid (floppy) paralysis and can result in respiratory failure. About 5-10% of cases are fatal, but infections thankfully very are rare.

Symptoms include fatigue, weakness, blurred vision and difficulty speaking and swallowing. The paralysis is ‘descending’, generally starting in the head and neck, then moving to the shoulders, arms, chest and lower limbs.

Botulinum toxin

Botulinum toxin

Unusually for a bacterial infection there is no fever. This reflects the fact that there’s probably only limited bacterial growth (which typically induces fever) and the potent neurotoxicity of the botulinum toxin. This toxin stops the release of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine from the nerve endings, thereby causing paralysis.

Botulinum toxin is one of the most acutely lethal toxins known. The lethal dose depends upon the route of administration, but is between 1.3 and 13 ng/kg 1.

Remember, botulinum toxin is the active ingredient in Botox.

No thanks. I’ll stick with the wrinkles 😉

Botulism cases in the UK/Europe

Botulism is a notifiable disease. Consequently, we have good data on the incidence of botulism in the UK and Europe. In 2014 there were 91 confirmed cases in the EU, with 14 cases reported in the UK between 2010 and 2014. Other than injecting drug users, a significant proportion of the cases are in infants – see below.

C. botulinum is widespread in the environment and infection usually occurs by ingestion of improperly prepared food e.g. undercooked or improperly canned foods, in which the bacteria survives.

Clostridium botulinum

Clostridium botulinum

The bacteria grows in the absence of oxygen and produces the toxin during growth. Although the toxin is heat-inactivated if properly cooked (over 85°C), the bacterium also produces heat-resistant spores during growth. These spores can withstand temperatures over 100°C for long periods and usually require both high temperatures and pressures to inactivate them.

As a consequence of this the spores are also very widespread in the environment … cue the Jaws soundtrack … just waiting to encounter the correct conditions to germinate and initiate a new round of bacterial growth (and toxin production).

Botulism cases in children

About a third of all cases of botulism are in the 0-4 age group. I’ve been unable to find a more detailed breakdown by age, but there have been 19 cases of infant (children less than 12 months old) botulism in the UK since 1978.

In many cases of infant botulism the source of the spores is unknown. However, other than well-documented cases of contaminated milk powder, honey is the only food regarded as a significant risk factor. About 60% of cases of infant botulism are in babies with a history of honey consumption 2 and, in several cases, epidemiological follow-up has confirmed that honey was the source of the infection.

Treatment is not with antibiotics as it’s the toxin that causes the symptoms, not the bacteria. Instead patients are treated with immunoglobulin (antibodies) specific for the toxin. These inactivate toxicity fast and recovery is usually complete, but can be protracted.

C. botulinum spores in honey

Oxygen inhibits the growth of C. botulinum. So do acidic conditions. Honey is acidic, with a pH of about 3.9, which is too low for the bacterium to grow. However, the spores remain viable at low  pH. It is this contamination of honey with C. botulinum spores that poses a risk for infants.

It is possible to microbiologically examine honey for contamination with C. botulinum spores. When this has been done, 6-10% of honey samples tested were contaminated, with contamination levels estimated at 5 to 80 spores per gram of honey. The infectious dose for a human is estimated at 10-100 spores 3.

So … much less than one teaspoon of contaminated honey.

Despite this, there is no requirement for honey to carry a label warning that it should not be fed to infants. Instead, the Food Standards Agency recommend honey carries a warning that it is unsuitable for children under one year of age.

Why is infant botulism so rare?

If up to 10% of honey is contaminated with C. botulinum spores, why are there not many more cases of botulism in infants? After all, European paediatricians have even been known  to recommend honey – a long-standing traditional solution – as a means of soothing crying babies4.

The intestine of the developing baby is full of bacteria – the so-called commensal microbiota – all competing to get established and to lead a long, happy and healthy association with their human host. The spores of C. botulinum have to germinate and establish an infection in the face of this competition and, usually, they fail. A likely possibility is that infant botulism only occurs in babies in which the commensal microbiota have not properly developed … either because they are so young, because broad-spectrum antibiotic use has prevented the development of the microbiota or for a pre-existing genetic condition.


 

Downstairs? Upstairs?

Colony inspections usually concentrate on the brood box. This is where all the action is. This is where the queen is and where there needs to be sufficient space for the colony to expand.

Or, if times are lean, sufficient stores and pollen to survive.

In contrast, the honey supers get no more than a cursory glance. There’s little of interest going on up there until it’s time to harvest the honey for extraction.

If the supers are light there’s nothing more to do other than hope for a good nectar flow in the future. In contrast, if they’re really heavy they might be ready to remove for extraction. If the frames are all capped the honey is ready.

Usually the supers are not heavy enough (a full super weighs something like 25kg) and they often don’t even get a glance, instead being bodily lifted off and left in a pile while the brood box is inspected.

Checking supers

Nectar has a high water content which the bees evaporate off during the production of honey. If they didn’t get rid of the water the stores would ferment. Since honey is hygroscopic they then add a wax ‘cap’ to the honey-filled cell to protect their stores for the winter.

Nectar is generally stored in the supers, starting in the middle of the middle frames and moving towards the periphery. This is the warmest part of the hive and presumably the easiest to evaporate water from. Therefore, the central frames in the super are most likely to contain capped honey stores.

Ready to extract

Ready to extract …

All I do when checking a heavy super is to first briefly look at the central frame to see if the stores are capped. If they are not then there’s no point in looking anywhere else in the super.

If the central frame is capped then it’s worth looking to see if the outside frames are as well. If so a clearer board can be placed below the super and you can take the honey for extraction.

Actually, there’s a bit more complexity as sometimes the honey is ready to extract, but isn’t capped. I’ll deal with that another time. The point I’m (slowly) trying to make is that supers are rarely checked in any detail … until they’re full.

It’s therefore interesting what turns up when you do remove them for extraction.

Pollen and stores-free area

With a strong colony, the bottom super i.e. the one immediately above the queen excluder, often has no honey stored in a semi-circular area immediately above the brood nest. Sometimes the edge of this clear area, adjacent to the honey, contains a band of stored pollen.

This clear area indicates that the colony need more space. The workers are keeping it clear for the queen to lay, but the queen excluder prevents her from accessing it. Sometimes you can get the bees to backfill this area by switching the super with one higher in the stack.

“Billy no mates” brood

It’s not unusual to find a very few scattered capped pupae in a stack of supers. These are almost invariably drone pupae, irrespective of whether the drawn super comb is on worker or drone foundation. In ~24 supers I extracted last weekend I saw three or four.

Billy no-mates ...

Billy no-mates …

I’ve always assumed that these were due to laying worker activity. There are always a few laying workers in a colony, but their numbers are suppressed by a pheromone produced by unsealed brood. Laying workers can be a significant problem in queenless and broodless colonies.

Since workers are unmated, the eggs that laying workers produce are unfertilised and so develop as drones 1.

There may be other explanations for these singleton pupae e.g. workers moving eggs up from the brood box. However, this doesn’t explain why they are almost always drones 2.

Clustered brood

Sometimes you’ll find a super packed with brood in all stages … wall to wall eggs, open and sealed brood. This happens when the queen has somehow sneaked above the queen excluder.

When this has happened to me I usually put it down to a lack of attentiveness in checking the underside of the queen excluder when opening the box. If the queen was on the underside and the QE is leant against the hive stand she can easily wander round to the other side, thereby giving her access to the supers.

Spot the queen

While checking supers for extraction last month I found one box – the lowest super of a stack of three – contained two or three frames with small amounts of clustered brood 3.

Another example of inattentiveness? Possibly, but there were some oddities about this colony.

Eggs and sealed brood ...

Eggs and sealed brood …

Firstly, there was no open brood … just eggs and sealed brood. I uncapped a few cells and the pupae were all just at the purple eyed stage. This is day 15 for workers and day 16 for drones. Since eggs hatch after 3 days this means that there had been a gap of at least 12 days when the queen wasn’t laying.

Half-sisters of the same age ...

Half-sisters of the same age …

Secondly, there was both worker and drone sealed brood present, but it was on separate frames. There was no drone brood in worker cells, which have characteristically domed caps 4.

Finally, I checked the brood box. There was plenty of brood in all stages – eggs, larvae and sealed pupae – in a busy hive. However, I didn’t see the queen (who was nominally marked and clipped) but by this time I was in a bit of a rush.

A partial solution

Some of these apparent oddities have a straightforward explanation.

The separation of drone and worker brood is because I use a range of different frames in my supers – worker foundation, drone foundation and foundationless. They start as matched boxes, but over the years have got completely mixed up.

All the drone brood was in a super frame originally drawn from drone foundation.

That was easy 😉

However, why was there brood at all in the super if the brood box contained the laying queen?

Or should that read a laying queen?

Perhaps there was another queen in the super?

Aside from speculating about how she got there, or – if she was the original queen in the box – where the one ‘downstairs’ came from, there’s also the puzzle about why she’d taken a 12 day holiday from egg laying.

And where the hell was she now?

She’d been in the top box sometime in the last 3 days (because there were eggs present). However, although I’m reasonably good at finding queens, I searched in vain in this super (and the two above) and couldn’t find her.

Time to be pragmatic

Carefully looking through ~30 super frames takes time and I was running out of both time and patience. These three supers were ready for extraction and I still had half a dozen colonies to check.

I could continue looking and eventually find her … if she was there at all.

If she wasn’t, I’d obviously never find her.

What did I do?

I shook all the bees off the super frames – directly over the brood box5 – and took them away for extraction.

I’m a great believer in Occam’s Razor. The simplest explanation is probably the correct one.

I reasoned that there was probably one queen in the box. Any other explanation was going to get convoluted.

If there was only one queen she was either in the brood box or the supers.

If she was in the brood box then all was well.

If she was in the supers she’d hopefully end up in the brood box.

There was little point in using a clearer board if the queen was in the supers. Firstly, with brood present many bees would probably remain. Secondly, if the queen was present in the supers, they’d definitely not clear.

Super frames with brood ...

Super frames with brood …

And … what happened?

I got well over 60 lb of honey from the colony 🙂

There was a blue marked and clipped queen in the bottom box when I checked the colony a few days later.

She was (still) laying well.

Unsatisfactory explanation

I suspect that the queen excluder was faulty or damaged. It was a wooden-framed wire one. If the wires were prised apart during cleaning or through carelessness the queen could get up into the super.

She could also therefore return to the brood box.

The 12 day gap in laying was probably explained by the queen returning to the brood box during this period.

The two short stints when she’d been ‘upstairs’ hadn’t noticeably left gaps in the brood pattern in the brood box – she might have only nipped up for a few hours or so. There were only a few hundred cells with eggs or pupae in the super.

And the most unsatisfactory thing of all … I thoughtlessly stacked the queen excluder with five others from the same apiary and so now need to carefully inspect all of them for damage 🙁


 

Spring honey harvest

With good Spring weather the first honey extraction of the year is usually timed for early June.

Oil seed rape (OSR) ...

Oil seed rape (OSR) …

We’ve had wonderful weather in the east of Scotland this Spring. Unusually, colony build-up was in time to exploit the Spring nectar and several colonies ended up with at least three supers.

One of my two main apiaries is close to oil seed rape (OSR) fields and this was more or less finished by late May. OSR nectar has a high glucose content and readily crystallises. It’s therefore important to get the honey off before it sets rock solid in the frames 1.

Is the honey ready yet?

However, it’s also important not to remove the supers before the bees have capped off the comb, or at least reduced the water content below ~20% or there is a real risk that the honey will ferment in storage.

Capped honey super frame ...

Capped honey super frame …

When adding new supers I always put them directly above the brood box. Therefore, in a stacked hive, the top super will be the oldest and the most likely to be capped and ready to remove. Lower down the frames may be partially capped. Usually you’ll find the frames in the middle of the box capped before the outliers.

(Very) partially capped honey super frame ...

(Very) partially capped honey super frame …

During weekly inspections in late May I check the supers. If a frame is capped it’s ready. If it’s not and the nectar is dripping out when you turn the frame over then it’s definitely not ready.

You can test if uncapped frames are ready by giving them a sharp shake directly over the open super. If nectar drops are shaken out the water content is still too high. Sometimes you’ll find the majority of the frame capped with watery nectar at the very edges.

You don’t need to check every frame, or even every super. With widely spaced frames you can often clearly see they’re all capped. If you can’t you probably just need to check a central frame and one or two on the periphery.

Clearer boards

Fully capped supers usually contain relatively few bees when compared to partially or uncapped frames. Therefore, if the super is fully capped it’s usually easy enough to shake the bees off each frames, transferring the frames to a spare super for transport.

However, supers like the one pictured above, are often covered in bees. The easiest way to clear these is to use a clearer board. These provide a ‘no-moving-parts-one-way-valve’ means of emptying the super of bees. The design I use has a thick lower rim, providing ample space for the bees that move down in the hive. If I’m clearing a tall stack of supers I’ll often add an empty super below the clearer rather than completely overcrowding the brood box.

Removed and inverted clearer board ...

Removed and inverted clearer board …

Add the clearer board 2 and return the following day to remove the super(s) that are now nearly empty of bees. There are almost always a few stragglers 3.

Interestingly, I’ve noticed this year that there are more stragglers if the colony is queenless. I suspect that this might influence the movement of bees in the hive. This isn’t a scientifically controlled observation … just an “I’ve noticed” 😉

Keeping the supers warm

A defining feature of a good year in beekeeping is that you run out of equipment … frames, supers, split boards, roofs etc. With the exception of roofs (because I knock them up from Correx sheets for a couple of quid each) I’ve run out of all of these this year.

And clearers 🙁

Stacked warming supers ...

Stacked warming supers …

I therefore clear a few hives at a time. However, I like to do all my honey extracting in a single day (or weekend if it’s been a good year). This is mainly because I loathe the cleaning up afterwards 🙂

I therefore keep the supers warm until I’m ready to extract. My honey warming cabinet was designed to take 2 x 15kg buckets of honey (inside) or to allow two stacks of supers to be built on top of the open box.

By ensuring no gaps and adding some insulation (bubble wrap or an old blanket) on top I can set the element at ~40°C and the honey in the stacked supers is kept nice and warm 4.

This offers two very significant advantages. OSR honey takes longer to crystallise and the honey, being warm, is much easier to extract.

If the stack of supers is 6+ high I usually rotate them top to bottom, bottom to top every few days, and try and extract from the warmest supers first. This year I cleared supers over a 7-9 day period and extracted them all together.

Mind your back

A brief word of caution … full supers are heavy. Take care lifting them.

Out of interest I weighed some full cedar and poly supers and they each weighed 17-21kg (about 37-43lb). The weight difference isn’t just the weight of the box as the supers contained different numbers of frames, so I’m not comparing like with like.

Full super ready for extraction

Full super ready for extraction …

Beekeeping is hard work. If you extract just 10 supers, handling the boxes just five times each during the process (hive to car, car to house, house to warming cabinet to extractor and then back again) you’ll have moved about a metric tonne. You will move them more than this.

Beekeepers back is a very real problem.

And that’s before you handle individual frames during uncapping and loading the extractor. After a hundred full frames I get very sore hands doing this bit, let alone shifting all the full boxes.

Extraction

Honey extraction ...

Honey extraction …

Extracting honey is a bit of a chore.

It’s not even much fun writing about it … 😉

The first bucket or two is enjoyable 5, but the novelty wears off really fast. It’s noisy, repetitive, hot, hard work. Did I say it was repetitive?

I’ve reviewed my extractor previously. It works well and I try and look after it carefully. There’s lots of preparation and even more cleaning up afterwards.

I always run the extractor with the gate open, filtering honey directly through coarse and fine filters into 15kg buckets 6. Once a bucket is full I measure the water content with a refractometer and label the lid with the year/month, source apiary 7, the honey weight and the %age water.

Buckets get stored in a cool, stone-floored room. The honey sets and will keep more or less indefinitely until it’s needed for bottling. Where possible I use the buckets with the highest water content first.

Beer

And once I’ve completed all the cleaning up I treat myself to a well-deserved beer … 🙂


Colophon

Spring follows winter and precedes summer. However, the timing is variable and depends upon the hemisphere and whether you use meteorological or astronomical reckoning. In the US and UK it’s March, April and May using meteorological reckoning. However, there’s not much nectar collected here in the East of Scotland in March. Alternatively, using astronomical/solar reckoning Spring starts on the vernal equinox (~20th March) and ends on the summer solstice (which, conveniently, was yesterday … 😉 ).

Beekeepers might be better using a phenological or ecological estimation for the start of Spring, for example defined by the flowering of a particular range of plants.

Alternatively – and a whole lot easier to measure but much more difficult to predict – define Spring like Swedish meteorologists … “the first occasion on which the average daytime temperature exceeds zero degrees Celsius for seven consecutive days”. This means Spring will vary  with both latitude and elevation. Perfectly sensible and at the same time confusing 🙂

Tamper tantrums

DIY tamper label

DIY tamper label

I’ve discussed labelling jars of honey previously. In addition to a legally acceptable label, any honey sold via a third party should probably have a tamper-proof seal. More correctly, these should be called tamper-evident seals as they don’t stop anyone tampering with the jar. These usually take the form of an adhesive strip that connects the lid to one side of the jar, although there are other styles. Some of the shops I sell through insist on tamper-evident seals, for understandable reasons.

DIY isn’t always best

I’ve made my own tamper-evident seals using my trusty Dymo LabelWriter 450 Duo. This simple thermal printer has two print heads. One prints individual labels and the other prints to tape. You can purchase thin, clear adhesive Dymo tape which makes quite good tamper-evident seals. It can be printed with a website address or other information in black ink.

However, I’ve standardised on square jars with black lids and the black text on the clear Dymo label was therefore unreadable in places. In addition, the tape is quite expensive (about £11 for 7 metres), increasing the ‘packaging’ costs of my honey. Finally, the strip that must be removed from the back of the tape was infuriatingly fiddly (hence tamper tantrums), so slowing the labelling process. Perhaps I need glasses?

C. Wynne Jones clear tamper-evident seal

C. Wynne Jones clear tamper-evident seal …

Clearly better

Instead of persevering with a DIY solution I now purchase rolls of 1000 clear tamper-evident labels from C. Wynne Jones for about £27. These are easy to apply as long as you develop a system to keep fingerprints off the underside of the label. They adhere well and are very unobtrusive.

Importantly, any attempt to remove the jar lid stretches the tamper-evident label destructively, making it very obvious that the jar has been, er, tampered with.

Clear(ly) tamper-evident seals

Clear(ly) tamper-evident seals

When the jar is finally opened, the first thing that happens is the tamper-evident seal is destroyed. This isn’t too worrying since they cost less than 3p.

Finally, if you want to support a good cause and use tamper-evident seals consider purchasing them from the charity Bees for Development. These are also available from Thorne’s who developed the scheme. With these, 10p from each jar sold goes to support their work promoting sustainable beekeeping to combat poverty and to build sustainable, resilient livelihoods.”


† At this price the Dymo tape costs quite a bit more than personalised tamper-evident labels from Thorne’s. These are are available in a wide range of colours and styles.

 

Honey and hay fever

300 jars of honey

300 jars of honey

I’m conflicted. As a beekeeper I appreciate offsetting the cost of indulging my hobby from honey sales. In a good year I get much more honey than I could ever give away to friends and family. Despite making some of my own equipment, there are the costs of purchasing (yet more) boxes, miticides, extraction equipment and winter feed. There’s also an ever-growing wishlist of things that, whilst not essential, would be very welcome. Abelo’s heated honey creamer looks very nice 😉  Bottling, labelling and then selling honey – either from the door or from local shops – provides a few quid to help … a sort of self-perpetuating process in which I transfer all that summer effort by the bees into the coffers of Thorne’s and C. Wynne Jones.

However, I regularly get asked for local honey to ‘prevent the symptoms of hay fever’. Emails or phone calls go something like this:

“My son/daughter/husband/wife suffers really badly from hay fever and I read that locally produced honey could help her symptoms” … followed by a request to confirm that what they’ve read is correct and could I sell them some honey.

As a scientist I can’t do the former and so usually fail to achieve the latter. No way to run a business perhaps, but honesty is the best policy.

Achoo!

Bless you

Bless you

Hay fever is an allergic reaction to pollen in the air. About 20% of the population have, or will develop, hay fever. I never had it as a child, but in my 30’s developed a strong reaction to some grass pollens that still makes a fortnight or so in mid/late June pretty miserable. Hive inspections with bad hay fever are really miserable.

Symptoms are characteristic – itchy eyes, sneezing and a runny nose (where does all that stuff come from?!). Anti-histamines, either prescription or over-the-counter, help prevent the allergic reaction from occurring. Usually this is sufficient to make the symptoms bearable.

Severe hay fever symptoms, where anti-histamines or corticosteroids are insufficient, can be treated by immunotherapy. Over several months, the patient is exposed sub-cutaneously or orally, to low and increasing doses of the allergen (the compound that causes the allergy) to help develop immunity. Full desensitisation takes about three years.

Honey contains pollen

Honey contains small amounts of pollen. The presence of the pollen forms the basis for lots of tricky questions in the BBKA examinations and is a feature used by food standards to discriminate between flavoured sugar syrup and real honey.

This is probably where the ‘honey prevents hay fever” stories originate. It’s this small amount of pollen that is supposed to stimulate the immune system of hay fever sufferers. A sort of DIY desensitisation course using toast or porridge to help deliver the allergen. Tasty 😉

All this seems pretty logical and straightforward. Honey contains pollen. Low doses of pollen are used to stimulate immunity that, in turn, stops hay fever from developing. Local honey prevents hay fever … I must get this printed on my labels to boost sales further.

Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good theory

Unfortunately, there are a couple of irritating facts that scupper this nice little theory. The first is  a sort of error of omission, the second is the absence of evidence supporting the theory (or, more accurately, the evidence that the theory is wrong).

Honey certainly contains pollen. At least, real honey doesMelissopalynologists – those who study the pollen in honey – can identify the genus of plants that the bees have been visiting and so may be able to deduce the geographic origin of the honey.

The key part of that last sentence is “that the bees have been visiting”. The vast majority of pollens in honey are from the flowers and trees that they visit to gather nectar. These pollens are usually large and sticky so they adhere to the passing bee and are then transferred to another plant when the bee moves on.

What’s missing are any significant quantities of pollens from wind-pollinated plants such as grasses. Studies have shown that almost all pollens that cause allergies such as hay fever are from these wind-pollinated species. It’s logical that these pollens are largely absent … since the flowers, grasses and trees that produce them are anemophilous (wind-pollinated) they don’t need to generate nectar to attract bees, so the bees don’t visit. So there’s little or none of this type of pollen in honey.

No bees legs ...

No bees legs …

Testing, testing …

So that’s the error of omission. What about scientific support, or otherwise, for the theory that local honey prevents hay fever? After all, this must be an easy (and tasty) experiment to do. Feed a group of people honey and compare their hay fever symptoms with a group fed synthetic honey (or perhaps imported pseudo-honey sold from a supermarket near you).

Researchers in Connecticut did this experiment in 2002. They published their results in a snappily-titled paper “Effect of ingestion of honey on symptoms of rhinoconjunctivitis” published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

Rhinoconjunctivitis, or perhaps more correctly, allergic rhinoconjunctivitis, is the symptoms of hay fever – the itchy eyes, sneezing and runny nose. Three groups of a dozen hay fever sufferers, pre-screened for reactivity to common wind-borne allergens, were randomly assigned to receive local ‘raw‘ honey, filtered non-local honey and honey-flavoured syrup (the placebo group). They took one tablespoon of honey, or substitute, a day and recorded their hay fever symptoms. The abstract of the paper neatly summarises the results:

Neither honey group experienced relief from their symptoms in excess of that seen in the placebo group.

… leading the authors to conclude that:

This study does not confirm the widely held belief that honey relieves the symptoms of allergic rhinoconjunctivitis.

Absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence

So, this study does not confirm (prove) that honey prevents hay fever. What about the opposite? Can we use it as evidence that honey does not prevent hay fever symptoms?

1934 Loch Ness haox

1934 Loch Ness hoax

Tricky … as the skeptic James Randi asserted, you can’t prove a negative. I can’t prove that the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist. However, in the absence of convincing evidence that it does exist, I can be reasonably sure that Nessie is a 6th Century tale, embellished in the 19th Century and blatantly exploited by the 21st Century tourist industry.

Of course, lake monsters are ‘found’ worldwide, which isn’t evidence that any of them actually exist 😉

We’re getting into the messy intersection of science and philosophy here. I think it’s sufficient to say that there’s no scientific evidence that honey prevents hay fever. The Connecticut experiment was a properly controlled random study. To my mind (as a scientist) this is much more compelling evidence than any amount of anecdotal stories to the contrary.

An abbreviated version of which is what I tell potential customers who want me to confirm that buying my local honey will help alleviate their hay fever symptoms. Essentially, it won’t.

Sure, they might not get hay fever after eating my honey, but that’s almost certainly a coincidence. It’s a coincidence I’m happy to live with, but not one I’m happy to promote as a reason to buy my local honey.

Why buy local honey?

I don’t think it’s necessary to cite dubious medical benefits when encouraging people to buy local honey.

Why claim something that’s probably not true?

Far better to claim the things that are true, some of which are also clearly demonstrable:

  • It’s local, from the hedges and fields within 3 miles of the apiary. It wasn’t imported by the tonne from a location or locations unknown.
  • It’s a very high quality product – clearly to claim this you need to ensure it looks wonderful and that there are no legs or antennae lurking in the jar.
  • It hasn’t been excessively heated before jarring – all the goodness is still present, including pollen, just not the sort of pollen that will prevent hay fever.
  • The honey hasn’t been micro-filtered, pasteurised or tampered with in any way.
  • It varies during the season as the forage changes – a jar of spring OSR honey is very different  in flavour from a jar of mid-summer floral (hedgerow) honey. It’s a wonderful edible snapshot of the changing seasons.
  • Buying it supports a local cottage industry.
  • It tastes fantastic – clearly demonstrable.

The ‘taste test’ is usually the deciding factor. A couple of tester jars – clearly labelled – a limitless supply of plastic coffee stirrers and a discard pot will allow customers ample opportunity to ‘try before they buy’.

Which they surely will … 🙂


∑ Honesty is the best policy is an idiom dating back to the late 16th Century when Sir Edwin Sandys, a founder of the Virginia Company and one of the first settlers in America, stated “Our grosse conceipts, who think honestie the best policie”.

A corruption of the saying by Mark Twain “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story”. 

† Jean Emberlin (2009). “Grass, tree, and weed pollen”. In Kay et al. The Scientific Basis of Allergy. Allergy and Allergic Diseases. 1:942-962. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 9781444300925

‡ This isn’t xenophobia. The UK is a net importer of honey. 95% of the honey eaten in the UK is imported – 50% of the 34,000 tonnes imported in 2012 came from China. Most honey on the supermarket shelves contains some rather vague term like Produce of EU and non-EU countries. You don’t know where it came from, and probably nor does the supermarket. There have been bans on imported honey due to it being not honey (just doctored corn syrup), or being contaminated with antibiotics.