by Emma Gilboy November 01, 2022
High above the Teign Valley, overlooking the Powderham estate with views reaching to the River Exe, Simon meets bee keeper Neil Graham.
Neil is a local honey and beeswax producer who we now also use to top up the beeswax we source from Buckfast Abbey. He has kindly agreed to supply us with natural honey which we can sell as part of our Gilboy’s product range. To find out about how we came across Neil, read our article, ‘It’s all about the bees - from polish to honey.’
Neil has several apiaries dotted around the Teign Valley, nearby to Staverton workshop, and today he has agreed to show and explain to Simon how the honey is made and collected.
Neil carefully selects each location for his apiaries. Bees don’t like to fly in strong winds so he tries to ensure that there is adequate shelter.
Each wooden hive is constructed from separate boxes. Each box contains several frames and it is here that the bees live and work.
Neil tells us that each mature hive houses between 50 - 100,000 bees. This number varies throughout the seasons. During the summer there will be a higher population of hard working bees with a shorter life span (around six weeks). The winter bees have a longer life expectancy due to a more leisurely existence. Some can live for up to 6 months.
Each bee colony contains a queen bee, along with mainly worker bees. Worker bees are the ones you are most likely to see as it is their job to collect nectar and pollen.
Drone bees (males) tend only to be found in numbers during the spring. The males sole purpose in life is to mate with a virgin queen. Neil says the drones will fly out from the hive on warm, still spring days. They tend to gang together in small woodland clearings waiting for a virgin queen to fly by. He estimates that only 1% of drones are successful at mating.
To humans this may seem brutal but to the efficient honey bee they are single channelled in terms of their focus. Valuable winter stores of honey need to be protected to feed the queen and workers.
Drones do not collect nectar or pollen and are completely reliant on the worker bees to feed them as they are unable to feed themselves. Towards the end of the summer the worker bees will drag the drones out of the hive where they are left to die from the cold and hunger.
Inside the hive the worker bees feed and clean the queen, build combs and care for the eggs and larvae. They also protect and guard the hive from any intruders. With this diverse and heavy workload and It is not difficult to understand why their lifespan can be so short, especially in the height of summer when honey production is maximised. The worker bee is the smallest of the three types found in the hive but makes up around 98% of the bee colony.
The queen is the largest bee in the hive. She can live for three years or more and is attended by the worker bees. The queen is the most valued bee in the hive as her sole purpose is to lay eggs, sometimes up to 2000 a day. In one of the boxes that Neil shows us, he tells us that this particular queen has built the box from 6 -10 frames (honeycombs) in only 10 weeks, ensuring a high yield of honey. She is proving to be a successful and productive queen.
Most of the honey will be made from nectar collected within a mile radius of the hives shown to us by Neil, although the bees will travel further for a good nectar source. They are able to calculate to make the most efficient use of their energy.
The worker bees use their tongue to suck up nectar from flowers and store it in their honey stomach for the journey back to the hive. When they return to the colony, this nectar may be stored temporarily in wax cells or passed directly, by mouth, to the hive bees who continue to refine the sugar in the nectar using special enzymes in their stomachs.
This process is repeated many times, it is called is called nectar ripening.
The hive bees actually take the drop of nectar from their stomach then draw out this drop onto their tongue. The nectar is exposed to the warm air so that water is lost. This process is repeated many times until the desired water content is reached. At the same time as reducing the water content, the sugars in the nectar are altered until honey is produced.
Bees cap the honey with wax when the water content reaches about 17%. The reduced water content ensures that microbes cannot grow and the sugar will not ferment. Capped honey can be kept almost indefinitely. A perfectly edible honeycomb was discovered in the tombs of the Pharaohs, dated to over three thousand years.
One teaspoon of honey represents the lifetime’s work of twelve honey bees.
Neil harvests his honey twice a year. The spring crop is taken off at the beginning of June and the summer yield is being collected now, at the end of August.
Neil tells us that this year the honey yield is smaller than last year due to the summer drought. Limited rainfall through July and August has meant fewer sources of nectar from flowers and harsher conditions for the bees. The worker bees regulate the temperature in the hive in order to ensure survival of the eggs. If the hive becomes too hot they beat their wings to circulate cool air. If this is not sufficient they bring in water which evaporates and cools the hive. This diversion away from nectar collection affects the amount of honey produced.
This summer the honey has been made with nectar collected from bramble, clover and sweet chestnut. These more hardy plant and tree species have been able to produce flowers despite the limited rainfall.
As Neil lifts the honey laden combs from the boxes you can appreciate how heavy they are. Each honeycomb weighs about 3-4lbs (approx 1.5kg). The load varies as Neil tells us that the bees fill the frames on the inside first.
Once Neil has extracted the wax and honey from the combs they are returned to the bees to clean up. The worker bees take off the residual honey, to be added to their winter supply. Some combs are left untouched in the hives so that the bees have a plentiful supply of honey to sustain them over the winter. This autumn honey that Neil’s bees make and keep will be produced mainly from nectar collected from ivy which flowers from late September to early November.
As Neil removes the frames from the hive he points out the propolis or ‘bee glue’ which his bees have used to secure joints in the boxes. Simon is fascinated to hear that propolis is created by the bees who collect the sap of mainly needle leaved trees and mix this with saliva and beeswax to produce a resinous mixture which is sticky above 20C. This propolis or ‘bee glue’ is used by the bees in the construction and protection of the hive as it is used as an anti-bacterial coating. There is limited, available scientific research on propolis but it is thought to contain anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory properties. It is sold as a topical cream or in tablet form today from health food stores but was used historically by ancient civilisations such as the Greeks to treat wounds and tumours and fight infection.
Neil transports the frames of honey to his extraction room to begin the process of removing both the beeswax and honey.
He begins by scraping off the wax capping which seals the honey inside the comb. This wax is then melted down and cooled into the blocks which we use in our furniture polishes.
The frames containing the honey combs are placed into a spinning extraction drum. This centrifuge forces the honey out so that it can be collected at the bottom of the drum. The honey inside the hive is naturally kept at above 30 degrees so when spun, the drum has to be at a similar temperature, otherwise the honey starts to set and is harder to extract.
The honey is then cold filtered three times, through a sieve, so that any large pieces of wax or other debris can be removed. It is critical that the honey is not heated above 40°C during the filtration process.
Raw honey contains small amounts of pollen, living nutrients, beneficial bacteria and enzymes which provide potential health benefits. In order to prevent honey from crystallising and extend its shelf life some honey manufacturers heat the honey up to 75°C/160°F.
This process delays the crystallisation process, but it also kills every beneficial living nutrient in the honey. Dead honey has no health benefits. It is merely a sugar syrup.
A sample of Neil’s honey is sent away to a government laboratory so that they can analyse it and report back on the exact composition of that sample. This information will not be available until next year.
Once the honey and wax has been extracted, the frames are taken away and stored until the next year. The frames are replaced about every 10 years and the combs are used for 2-3 years.
The runny and set honey which we now sell is all extracted and filtered by Neil. As a registered and licensed food handler, Neil is able to sterilise and fill our jars with honey before returning them back to our workshop to be labelled, packaged and distributed.
The viscosity of the honey changes according to its sugar content and this can vary according to the nectar source. The higher the glucose content, the more quickly it will set.
Buy one, buy both, safe in the knowledge that this natural honey has been harvested through a process which places the welfare of the bee at its core. Buy it to be enjoyed by yourself or as a gift.
Your purchase of honey also includes a free pack of sunflower seeds which you can plant to encourage bees into your garden. Give a little something back to the intelligent and hard working creatures who have been producing honey for over 150 million years.
The Bee Book by Charlotte Milner
by Emma Gilboy November 01, 2022
by Emma Gilboy November 05, 2020
by Simon Gilboy October 27, 2020
Staverton Works, New Lane, Staverton, Devon, TQ9 6AQ, UK
Tel: +44(0)1803 762 763