Tucked away on the border of Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire, Jez Rose’s Bees for Business has just been named as the world’s first Carbon Neutral bee farm. Working with businesses that want to adopt beehives and help reverse the decline of the honeybee, they also run courses as well as producing award-winning raw British honey under their Bees&Co. brand.
Locavore spoke to Jez about beehive adoption, the decline of pollinators, and the privilege of working with bees.
How did Bees for Business begin?
It’s quite a long story. In essence, when we moved to the farm – which was dilapidated when we took it over – we realised we had a wonderful opportunity to start afresh and welcome wildlife, to provide sources of food and habitat. Why wouldn’t you do that? We were aware of the plight of bees because of media reporting and, when we looked into it, realised that we could diversify farming and help the environment at the same time by caring for honeybees. We bought a few hives and a colleague of mine asked if they could perhaps adopt one of them – and it all grew from there.
You grew rapidly from one hive to over fifty. Was this a steep learning curve?
We actually had a few hives to begin with and keeping bees is a bit like getting a tattoo; it’s really addictive! It’s been a steep learning curve, like caring for any animal, but we have a lot of experience in rapid learning curves and also of caring for animals. We’ve also had enormous help and support from a bee farmer colleague and friend of ours, so it was smoothed by his assistance. However, the reality is that you never stop learning when you’re working with nature.
Can you tell us about your hive adoption scheme?
It’s very simple – we provide calm, healthy honeybees with a strong progeny, and care for them on behalf of companies wishing to adopt a hive. Environmental impact, corporate social responsibility, and sustainability are important issues for everyone but especially for business.
More businesses are looking for ways to balance and manage the unavoidable impact they have on the environment, to involve stakeholders, and for interesting marketing angles. Adopting a honeybee hive on our organic farm is one of the ways of doing that. We send regular updates and then harvest the honey for them, which is shipped to their door with bespoke labels. There are lots of other ways to get involved, too.
There has been much discussion in recent years about beekeeping practices, with some espousing a ‘natural beekeeping’ approach. What are your thoughts on this?
Like anything really, there are many ways of doing something. Beekeeping is no different and there are so many different types of hive, strains of bee, equipment variations, that ultimately what it boils down to is if you are safe, ethical, sustainable, and care for your bees, the reality is that they will live happily and healthily. We are always looking for ways to improve, and I really mean that – every week we have a meeting to assess if what we’re doing is the only way, the best way currently. We spend a lot of money on research and innovation.
The number of beekeepers in the UK is predicted to fall by around 6,000 over the next couple of years. What pressures are driving this decrease? Do you think there is a link between the decline of bees and the decline of beekeepers?
There absolutely is a link between the decline of honeybee hives and beekeepers. That’s largely to do with facts like the average age of bee farmers, which is 63. Less people keeping bees equals less bees. Which is why we weren’t so interested in producing honey but in installing more beehives to help support the honeybee population, which in turn is made possible by businesses adopting bee hives.
Do you think your honeys express the surroundings in which the bees produce them? Winemakers speak of the terroir of vineyards – is it a similar expression with honey?
Honey is a truly beautiful product. I didn’t used to like honey, having grown up on the cheap supermarket stuff but like a wine or even artisan chocolate, raw honey is a signature of the landscape the bees have foraged on. It changes every year and, in its raw state, British honey is considered to be some of the best in the world.
You offer various courses and workshops around beekeeping. Have these proved popular?
Hugely popular! To put it into context, there are other courses available that are free and some much cheaper than ours, yet we’ve sold out every year so far. Every course has been reviewed with 5 stars; it’s incredibly humbling. I like to think that people recognise the care and attention we put into our surroundings, as well as the time and value we put into our beekeeping, along with encouraging and supporting people interested in honeybees and what they can do to help. We keep things simple, practical and fun!
What advice would you give someone who is interested in becoming a beekeeper?
Sit on your hand for a bit and get booked onto a workshop or course of some sort to learn the basics. Find someone who you can turn to when you need advice because bees are animals; they require our attention and respect, and it is our privilege to handle them, not a right. Only then get some bees. Spend more on the bees to ensure they are healthy and from a trusted and respected source – this will mean they are disease-free and of the right strains that will support the ecology.
With only 7% of honey sold in the UK coming from British sources – with most of the rest imported from China – how do you think the coming political changes will affect the honey industry?
What’s truly mad about this is that our raw, British honey is in demand by our Chinese and US customers – it tastes so good! Unlike chocolate though, it’s a finite product, and with England being seasonal we are restricted as to when it can be produced, especially when bee farming ethically. We are working hard for people to recognise the taste and health benefits of raw, British honey, and I am optimistic that the demand for it will rise both in this country – to help offset any export challenges – but possibly as a specialist product in other countries, too.
Can you tell us about your Honey Academy?
The Honey Academy is the UK’s first “school of honey”. It is our way of increasing awareness of how remarkable these tiny insects are, what they produce naturally, and also to showcase British honey. I would say the majority of people who don’t like honey have formed an opinion of it, just as I had, because of supermarket honey that is pasteurised and has no real flavour other than sweetness. These people try our honey and are amazed at the variety of flavours, and how much nicer it tastes straight from the hive. There’s a fair amount of excitement over the mead tasting, too!
Where does your honey go once harvested?
Firstly it goes to our adoption partners who have adopted a hive. We keep some here for our Honey Academy and as giveaways during our workshops. The rest is jarred to order for wholesale and corporate gifting. We sell out every year and supply is becoming a challenge for us. However, we’re launching three new products this year that I hope will help alleviate that challenge!
You’ve just been certified as the world’s first Carbon Neutral honey farm. This is a huge achievement – what were the challenges of becoming Carbon Neutral? Were there any surprises?
It was such hard work, but we were determined to do it. When you begin you realise that it’s simply a mindset change that makes it hard. The reality is that the changes are relatively simple.
The big surprises were just how much we threw away without realising it. Take, for example, the nitrile gloves we wear when inspecting the hives. We discovered that they take upwards of 15 years to break down. So we sourced the world’s only biodegradable nitrile glove, which breaks down in just 2 years. We switched to a 100% renewable energy supplier which it works out less expensive than the main supplier we were using before.
We’ve also stopped throwing out plastic packaging, instead using it to create eco-bricks or pack out plant pots, and have had discussions without our suppliers to encourage them to reduce the plastic they send us. It’s been a really fascinating journey but an eye-opening one that is tinted with sadness.
You’re committing to install 250 new beehives over the next 5 years, and partnering with land owners to sow 250 acres of organic, bee-friendly flower seeds on unused land. How far along are you with this?
We started ‘Project 250’ in 2018 and have installed 28 hives so far, and sown more than 15 acres of land. We have some interesting partnerships and collaborations this year, which will helps us to increase this and I suspect we’ll achieve our target sooner.
The headlines and reports about the decline of pollinators make grim reading. Do you think beekeeping, and businesses such as yours, can make a difference?
Bee farming is hard work. It’s extremely long hours, extremely hot and sweaty, but can be as joyous as it is heartbreaking. It’s extremely physical and it’s really not well paid for the number of hours and amount of work we put in. Believe me, if I didn’t think we were making a difference there is no way I’d be doing this! The bottom line is that the more people who help bees – and you don’t have to keep them to help them – and other pollinators, the better off we’re all going to be. Just because we don’t notice them, it doesn’t mean they aren’t important.
What are your hopes, fears, and plans for them future?
I sincerely hope that there is a wider awareness and acceptance of British honey as a valued product. My two main fears are the number of increasing threats to the health of bees that didn’t exist as little as 20 years ago, and that the British honey industry goes the same way as milk did. The public will happily pay for artisan chocolate and fine wines but grumble at paying for honey. It’s better for you than wine or chocolate, it lasts longer, and it is much more versatile in its uses.
We plan to grow the retail and corporate gifting side of the business to help people have greater access to, and enjoyment of, British honey, and to collaborate with strategic partners on special projects.
Finally, why do you do what you do?
A teacher of mine taught me that it is a human privilege to touch an animal, not a given right. Every single time I open a hive it is a genuine privilege to spend time with the bees whilst simultaneously knowing that we are actively making a difference – that’s a great legacy to live.
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