Save the bees, save the keepers – Hive & Keeper

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Hive & Keeper’s honeys are different. Each is properly single-origin, being from just one apiary rather than blended and homogenised as is common in the honey industry. The honey is sourced from independent beekeepers around the UK, each with unique flavours, connecting back to the hives and the region where they’re made.

Emily Abbott started Hive & Keeper after taking up beekeeping as hobby. Realising the obfuscation that is rampant in importing and marketing honey, Emily determined to help both British beekeepers and consumers in supplying, sourcing, and enjoying honey with a truly traceable origin.

Locavore spoke to Emily about London beekeeping, the terroir of honey, and the complicated issues facing today’s beekeepers.  

How did Hive & Keeper begin?

I took up beekeeping as a hobby a few years ago, mainly because I’m fascinated by their behaviour and lives and wanted to learn more about them. Back then honey wasn’t really my focus, or at least it wasn’t until I discovered how different the honey from each of my hives was and how it changed each time I tried it. Before that I’d always assumed that honey tasted pretty much the same, and especially within the same area. The variety and complexity of flavours, colours and textures was a huge revelation. It was the spark that ultimately led to Hive & Keeper, which I set up so I could give others the same sense of discovery as they tried honeys that are truly created by nature, and that speak of their place and the bees that made them.

You source your honey from small-scale beekeepers throughout the UK. How do you choose which beekeepers to work with?

I started by using my own beekeeper network, either sourcing their honey or honey from others who came recommended. I visit all of them and spend time talking to them about their bees, hearing how their season went, how they run their apiaries and understanding how they look after them and what their priorities are. I don’t want to buy from beekeepers who put honey production above the colony’s own needs.

You learn a lot from visiting a beekeeper, as well as seeing the landscape in which the bees are foraging. The beekeepers network I work with has grown largely through word of mouth and recommendation – which is lovely and gives me a sense of community.

There has been much discussion in recent years about beekeeping practices, with some espousing a ‘natural beekeeping’ approach. What are your thoughts on this? Do you work with any natural or treatment-free beekeepers?

I’m a London beekeeper, and with a high hive density in an urban environment ‘natural beekeeping’ feels dangerous to me. Bees forage widely, and will rob other hives if they can and take the honey back to their own colony. Drones (the male bees) are welcomed into most hives, the female guard bees will ward off strange workers, but not drones. This means that disease can spread quickly in an area, and kill off more than just the bees that are looked after by a natural beekeeper who won’t treat, and who will inspect the bees as little as possible.

I’ve seen the damage that varroa can do to hives that are left to nature – some on a London rooftop were decimated, the wax foundation black and the bees dead. An integrated pest management system would have kept the varroa at bay and the colonies healthy.

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 are so many pressures, but yesterday I was out visiting one of my beekeepers who makes his living as a beekeeper, but has had to diversify to make it a business. So not only does he sell honey, he also runs training courses for all abilities, provides pollination services to fruit farmers in the spring, and raises queens and nucs (a nuc is akin to a starter colony which a beekeeper would buy to build up their own apiaries). It’s hard and demanding work, and you have to love it.

However, he told me one thing that I can’t put out of my mind: the Bee Farmers Association started up in the 1950s and at that time you needed 40 hives to become a member because that’s the size of operation you needed to make a living from just selling honey. Now they estimate you need to run 350 hives per person in the business to make a living from just selling honey – and that’s all down to loss of habitat, of wildflower meadows etc. Now you can’t keep hives in one place if you want honey, you have to move them to find new forage. It’s shocking isn’t it? Forage seems to be our problem – let’s hope that the proposed new agricultural policy will help to turn this around.

All your honeys are sold raw and unmixed. Do you think these honeys express the surroundings in which the bees produce them? Winemakers speak of the terroir of vineyards – is it a similar expression with honey?

Yes! Honey is the result of 2 things. Firstly, the plants available at a certain point in time, which in turn is dictated by the weather (rain and wind can damage blossoms, dry spells can dry up nectar production).

Second, the colony’s needs – the young larvae are sending out pheromones that tell the worker bees what stage of development they’re at and so what they need feeding. The colony feeds on a diverse range of flowers, each of which has different pollens and nectars that will act like a larder or a medicine cabinet, keeping the diet broad and the colony healthy.

Raw unblended honey has a complexity and depth to it that means that, although the honey essence is always there, it’s not simply ‘sweet’. The main sugars in honey are fructose and glucose: fructose is the sweeter sugar, and glucose is the good sugar that our bodies need for energy and as a building block for some cell groups. The sweetness of a honey will depend largely on the balance of these two sugars in it.

However, like wine, there are other flavour notes which the UC Davis Honey and Pollinator Center in the US spent a couple of years analysing with an army of tasters. As a result, they developed the honey flavour and aroma tasting wheel. The broad flavour types they identified range from fruity to caramel, with each broken down further – to toffee and lime for example.

We have used the tasting wheel’s broad categories and have fruity, floral, caramel, nutty, fresh, and spicy on the side of each jar – we then tick the one that best reflects the honey’s flavour profile. We’ve found it to be a good way of helping people to navigate the range, and either find the ones they’d like to try for the first time, or to find a replacement for the ‘fruity’ honey they loved and want more of the same type.

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? 

British honey is definitely growing in popularity, which is brilliant. With more people wanting to buy it, the more likely the big companies will be to sell it and reduce their imports. There is also a growing interest in provenance and knowing exactly what’s in food, and trusting its supply, which also helps the British honey market.

By definition, all of the honey in a jar of British honey has come from one country, rather than from the ‘EU and non-EU countries’ which is the alarmingly broad-definition of origin given on many honeys in our shops. With Brexit looming no-one knows what will happen or what our relationships outside the UK will be. It feels easier to keep business within our own ‘four walls’ – is it? I don’t know, but then perhaps that’s the point, we’re all uncertain.

Hive & Keeper is fortunate in that we only source British honey and we don’t rely on an export market. The large honey packers like Rowse have enormous international operations and will, I’m sure, be planning for all Brexit outcomes.

You’re running a competition for students and illustrators to design a panel for your jars. Can you tell us more?

Giving people a helping hand and an opportunity to shine is a great thing to do when you can, and I can! Giving an artist or illustrator one side of the jar to have their work displayed on is exciting for them and for us. All it has to be is in black and white, to work in context of being on a honey jar, and to sit above the strapline “Only 7% of honey sold in the UK is British; our mission is to change that”. I’ve had entries from school children and students, and am still happy to welcome more as the next labels won’t be printed until January.

How does sustainability affect other aspects of your business?

We have just redesigned the way we package the gift sets and Honey Lovers’ subscription boxes so we no longer use bubble wrap, but wood straw instead, to protect the jars. We have also been able to reduce the amount of printing we do in the office to help reduce our carbon footprint.

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?

It’s a complicated situation. In part it’s down to a nationwide decline in forage which is making it harder for pollinators of all types to find the resources they need. The competition for nectar and pollen amongst the pollinators is fierce, with some evidence that honey bees are in effect taking food away from other, less efficient, pollinators. In urban environments developers have much to answer for – taking away green spaces and trees and replacing with buildings (I know many are needed!). And the architectural plants and grasses used for any planting are just a green desert to a pollinator! In the countryside it’s the loss of hedgerows, field margins, meadows etc., none of which is helping pollinators find places to live or to feed.

Can businesses like mine help this? I’m not sure, but where I can help is working with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) on the National Honey Monitoring scheme, which is being piloted with 50 samples of honeys I have from known hives across the country. CEH are using cutting edge technology to analyse the pollens and DNA to determine much about where the UK’s bees are foraging, and on what. They are able to look at the health of the bees, too, at a sub-clinical level that gives us early indicators of the UK bee population health. And the impact of agricultural policy, as we will see if flower margins etc. are coming through in honey.

What are your plans for the future? What are your hopes and fears?

I want to continue to open people’s eyes to the wonders of the world around us. Honey straight from the hive is a lovely way of doing this as each one’s flavours really are created by nature – not people – and speak of their place and the bees that made them. If Hive & Keeper can continue to bring the excitement of discovery and learning to people then I’m happy!

My fears? That I’m not up to it… Then I give myself a pep talk, or tell my children and they give me an even better pep talk!

Do you have a current favourite amongst your honeys?

I’m a London beekeeper and will always be partial to London honey, so my Tooting one is a favourite – though I try not to eat stock!  However, when I’m jarring there’s always a bit left over which I can’t bring myself to throw away so every morning I have spoonfuls of honey on my porridge, all from my left over supply!

Finally, why do you do what you do?

Because I love doing something that I completely believe in: I know that it’s helping the beekeepers I buy from, and that the people I sell to are buying a good quality product that is what it says it is. I love hearing how chefs and consumers alike enjoy discovering the flavours and stories behind each honey. No spin, no smoke and mirrors – what’s not to enjoy about that?

For more on Hive & Keeper, visit their website and find them on Instagram.

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