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Honey - what's in a name?

The price of British honey is set to rise.

Brexit? European economics? Greed? Perhaps none of the obvious are to blame but without a greater public understanding of just how much goes into getting honey to your table, I fear honey may well go the same way as milk.

I grew up right next to a bovine farm and have met many dairy farmers in my time; they all have the same story to tell. It's one of long hours, hard work and adepressing recount of aiming to break even on a good year - there's no talk of profit. According to the Office of National Statistics, more than one farmer a week dies in the UK by suicide - it's a tragic situation for an important industry, which provides almost everything we eat. It poses the question as to whether we provide enough support and put sufficient weighting on the importance of the work farmers do.

Before we moved to the farm, I'd spent the past 13 years as a behaviour insight advisor working with organisations all over the globe to help them better understand how to make efficacious changes to culture, leadership and environment in order to improve output. The only real contact I had with hands-on farming was living right next to and spending time on farmland and with farming friends. I knew it was tough only by association. Then in 2016, as part of our research project into the impact of nature on health, behaviour and wellbeing, we moved to our small farm in Lincolnshire to set up a honey farm.

Just this last week, while inspecting colonies in the apiary we maintain at Burghley House, I began to really understand how much hard work it is - the heatwave we are experiencing in the UK certainly makes it even more challenging! It's 31 degrees celsius outside and I'm dressed head to toe in a white boiler suit and veil, wearing nitrile gloves. I could feel the sweat running down my back, dripping off my forehead and everything I did was made slower by the heat bearing down on me - but Mother Nature waits for no one; the bees have to be inspected regularly to ensure their health and wellbeing. Such is the nature of farming: there's no time for sickness, days off or putting jobs off until you feel like it or for when it's more convenient. This relentlessly hot summer (which I'm enjoying every second of), has made caring for our bees an absolute joy to be out in the warm but it's also made everything that little bit more difficult. Lifting heavy supers full of honey is all the more exhausting; caring for those attending our beekeeping workshops and beekeeping experience days to ensure they don't faint in the heat gives you extra things to be conscious of and stomping around in boots while fully covered without any shade from the sun isn't that much fun in the glaring heat. I stopped off on the way home to pick up another bottle of water from the supermarket - I'd already drunk two large flasks of water while in the apiary and needed to replenish more lost fluids - when I overheard a couple talking about the price of honey and how she'd seen it had "crept up" from "£4 something last year to a full £5 a jar".

We've been taught to happily pay more for a good quality wine; encouraged to pay more for artisan or hand-made chocolates and of course if you want a scented candle that you can actually smell when you burn it, you need to pay for those premium ingredients, too. Honey - like milk - seems to have a more commodity feel about it. And that has to change.

All of this inspired me to write this blog to give you all a tiny snapshot of exactly what goes in to getting honey onto your table. I'm going to leave out all of the details otherwise this will become long and boring but to give you a flavour of just how much time, effort and expense goes into getting your jar to you, here's an insight into what this past week has involved for me (remember - this is a brief overview.....):

During the peak season (from around April to September) the bees need to be inspected once a week to prevent swarming, ensure they are healthy and manage capacity as the colony size increases. Each colony takes 20 minutes to quickly inspect but invariably there are always a few colonies that need extra attention and that can take up to 30 - 40 minutes per colony. Multiply that out by our 40 colonies and suddenly I'm fighting to find time in the week to achieve the inspection time I need. Some of the colonies aren't on our farm so require travel, too. This week, most evenings, I've been finishing about 10pm (having started at 8am). We've had small nucleus colonies to transfer to larger hives and then in order to prevent the spread of potential disease, those smaller hives require cleaning.

Some of the colonies need feeding to provide them with energy and strength to build up going into the autumn and to draw out flat wax foundation to store food and space for the queen to lay. That food is in the guise of 12.5 kg jerry cans of sugar syrup (£20 per bottle) that I carry to each of the apiaries and requires monitoring every couple of days. I've been spending a bit of time keeping a close eye on a colony that appears to have a fungal disease and on ensuring each of the colonies is maintaining strength and health so that come the end of summer, they'll be safe.

All of these is on top of  monitoring the supers where the excess honey is produced and clearing that - those things can be really heavy. I've lifted supers in excess of 25kg this season and each week when we inspect each hive, the supers have to be lifted off, sometimes three per colony, in order to get to the brood box to inspect the bees. Then the supers are put back on to close the hive up. Multiply that out by 40 hives and I'm beginning to realise why I ache and why my back is a little stiff.

We're about to assess the levels of varroa mite in each of the colonies and if any require treatment, which is quite likely, I'll be breaking open a packet of special treatment that costs £30 and treats 5 colonies.

And that my friends is just the husbandry side of things! We invested £8,000 into honey extracting equipment to make things a little more efficient and quicker but it still takes time to uncap the honeycomb frame, extract the honey, filter the honey, jar the honey, melt down the wax and take the empty supers back to the hives to be cleaned up by the bees. We've not even discussed the costs of the jars and the labels, have we?!

Our honey is currently sold by some of our clients in London for £10 per jar - sometimes more. And it's worth every single penny. Look at the price of artisan chocolate. I'm not ashamed to say that we'll be increasing our price of British, raw, artisan honey here on the farm to £7.50 per jar and am proud of the intense amount of work that we put into getting that jar to you - and if you think all that sounds exhausting, just marvel at the remarkable work the humble honeybee does to get that honey to you.

Buy British and support your local bee keepers.


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