Bee Culture: Heather Honey

What is Heather ?

Heathers are small evergreen shrubs that grow well in acid soil and are common throughout Europe. You can commonly find them on poor soils, heathland, moors and in mountainous areas.

In our area the main types of Heather Honey are :

  • Bell Heather # ( ERICACEA Erica cinerea )— which flowers during July/August and can be extracted centrifugally, in the normal way. The honey appears as a port wine colour.
  • Ling Heather # ( ERICACEA Calluna vulgaris )— which flowers during August/September. The pollen load is light grey in colour. This honey is thixotropic. That is, it’s jelly like and therefore is often sold as cut-comb or alternatively the comb can be pressed to extract the honey using a nylon sack in a press, and the resulting honey immediately bottled. Pure pressed heather honey is identifiable by entrapped air bubbles in the jelly-like honey and has a distinctive strong smell and taste. It has a high water content ( 23%) , high protein and is amber in colour.
  • Cross-leaved Heath Heather # ( ERICACEA Erica tetralix ) distinguishable by it’s leaves in clusters of four with pink flowers, similar to bell heather.

Where do you find it ?

Generally British heather is found on the hills and near coastlines. In the South of England this means Dartmoor, Exmoor, Dorset Downs, & the New Forest. Elsewhere you might find Heather in the Welsh Mountains, Yorkshire Moors and Scotland. My nearest site is 90 miles away, on Exmoor in the county of Somerset, England.

Why do I take bees to the heather ?

I started my beekeeping whilst living in the county of Wiltshire (UK) and began to read about beekeeping in Manley’s and Brother Adam’s books. Manley says that heather honey was the last of the three big crops available to the bees in this country and so this was my major reason for becoming interested in heather honey production. If you ignore this crop then you are not maximising the return from your bees.

By the end of July the main flow is over for the majority of beekeepers in the UK. In most years heather produces a late supply of nectar and pollen and occasionally a surplus of honey. It has always been common practise for honey farmers and others within reach of heather moors to migrate selected hives to take full advantage of this late flow. Ling heather honey is unique, has a distinctive flavour & aroma, is sought after in the marketplace and commands a premium price..

The bees I use

I prefer to use my pure Apis Mellifera Mellifera bees because of their ability to fly in the cool conditions typically found on the moors at this time of year. In wet seasons foreign bees apparently cannot ripen the honey properly — sealing it unripe can cause dysentery. ( see The Dark European Honey Bee by Friedrich Ruttner, Eric Milner & John E. Dews page 24 ). Beowulf A. Cooper remarked in his book, The Honeybees of the British Isles, that ” … analysis of the honey diastase component by electrophoresis has shown that different strains of bee apply different salivary enzymes to nectars.” #

Other beekeepers I know prefer to take Buckfast bees said to have been bred for such conditions as found on Dartmoor and Exmoor.

I am actually a member of BIBBA, a group here in the UK who are actively breeding Apis Mellifera Mellifera suitable for our native flora & climate.

The Type of Hive I use ?

My preference is for Commercial hives with Top-Beespace, Open-Mesh floors, and narrow adjustable entrances. These hives are 18.3125 inches square and are single walled. The brood chamber takes 11 frames plus a dummy, (16″ x 10″ inches) whilst the shallow supers take ten 16″ x 6″ frames. The Commercial hive allows for masses of bees to be taken and has sufficient space for winter stores in a single brood chamber. Any hive bigger than this would be difficult to move about.

For transportation the hive components are screwed tightly together with brackets holding floor to broodbox, Queen excluder, supers and travel screen. Top-beespace allows me to fasten the frames in place with a 6mm batten for transportation.

When the hive is in position at the heather site, the travel screen is removed and insulation and roof are fitted. Hive stands are lightweight and can be a simple cross shape made in wood.

It’s unusual to get a sufficient nectar flow to have the comb drawn and filled at the same time.My Commercial supers are drawn earlier in the same year, have already been extracted and kept particularly for the heather. This allows me to produce cut-comb which commands a premium price, or to extract in the usual way for heathers.

The type & size of Colony I take

The bees on Heather have access to both Pollen and Nectar and will be worked hard. So it’s essential to use strong colonies with a young queen of the current year and lots of young bees. #

We achieve this by starting nucleus hives in May or at the beginning of June allowing them to grow in strength until we’re ready to assemble the colonies we’re taking to the heather. Each nuc is positioned alongside a strong production hive that will contribute brood and flyers to the heather colony after the main flow has ceased in mid-July. The supers are removed from the strong colony for extraction. The bees are cleared down into a drawn super, (whose frames have been fixed with a wooden batten), which will be taken to the heather.

We now stock the colony destined to go to the heather. The super the bees have previously been cleared down into is placed over a sheet of newspaper, with a cover board over it, and temporarily placed upon an upturned roof. The nuc is moved to one side and the contents including the queen are transferred to a new brood chamber and floor on the nuc’s original site. This is the colony destined for the heather.

The queen from the strong production colony is taken, with the frame she is found on, and placed in the now empty nuc before transferring any frames.

I try to arrange the brood nest ( in the colony destined for the heather ) so that the outer two combs have stores ( footnote 1 ), next to these I try to ensure there are frames of eggs, then frames with larvae, and finally in the centre frames of sealed brood. Any additional frames I need to produce this arrangement I take from the strong colony alongside. As I transfer these frames I shake the older adult bees off in front of the new heather colony and transfer the frames into the required position. The adult bees will find their own way into and unite with the heather colony. When the brood chamber is full a queen excluder is added and the super we’ve left temporarily on the upturned roof is now placed over this and the bees united with the newspaper. Don’t forget that for transportation the hive components are screwed tightly together with brackets holding floor to broodbox,Queen excluder, supers and travel screen. ( A travel screen is essential to allow bees to stay cool when being transported ).

Any remaining frames left in the “strong production colony” including the adhering bees are now transferred over to the nuc to join the queen on her original frame. The empty brood box and floor etc from the strong production colony are now removed completely and any flyers now will go to the nearest hive, which happens to be the heather colony. Finally roof’s are replaced on both the nuc and heather colony.

When the heather colonies have been removed the entrances of the nuc’s are reduced to a single beeway and the nuc is fed.

By using young Queens they will continue to lay well into September/October if conditions are right. The cells of the brood nest occupied by larvae or eggs will prevent honey being stored in this area. This means that the cells with eggs should be occupied for upto 21 days, therefore any nectar will be taken up to the drawn frames in the supers above. Once these cells have been sealed it’s unlikely that the bees will move the honey down into the brood nest. This means that we maximise the honey that is stored in the supers.

What do I need to take ?

  1. The Hives and bees of course !
  2. Water in a hand spray to keep the bees cool on the journey and prevent them overheating.
  3. Someone to help with lifting etc.
  4. Transport suitable for access to your chosen location. Often this means Four-Wheel -Drive and possibly a trailer.
  5. Hive stands to keep the bees off the ground
  6. Spirit level, long enough to reach between the diagonals of a temporary hive stand or across the corners of a flat hive roof.
  7. Illumination is essential if there is a chance of being out working, loading or unloading hives/supers in darkness. Torches or other lighting should be taken.
  8. Don’t forget your hive insulation ( this may have been left behind when the travel screens were fitted ) because it will get cold in the evenings !
  9. Clearer boards can be taken on a later visit.
  10. Lastly, it could be a long day so you’ll probably appreciate having food & drink with you.

Why I chose Exmoor ?

In 1992 I moved to the city of Bath and joined the Bath Beekeepers association. # The following spring I contacted the local secretary to enquire whether other beekeepers in the area were migrating bees for the heather crop. He was able to give me the telephone number of a beekeeper in the county of Somerset, about 20 miles south of Bath, who organised a local group of beekeepers interested in visiting the heather with their bees. This group visited Exmoor in preference to the New Forest because in a dry summer conditions on Exmoor still allow a reasonable flow from the heather. Under the same conditions the New Forest soil drains quickly reducing the nectar available in the heather, which together with the mass of other flora available rarely produced good heather honey.

How I found my Heather site on Exmoor

The first year I visited Exmoor, with beekeepers from Somerset, I used a site that had been established by them for many years. The access to the site was restricted to an initial visit by all of the beekeepers. This was very inconvenient for me because I had to make sure I was available on the day they’d planned and I had to leave very early in the morning to join the group before they left .

On one of my inspections I chanced upon a local that told me stories of the days when commercial beekeepers would fill fields with hives. On making further enquiries I found the name & telephone number of a local farmer with a suitable site adjacent to the moor. This has easy access for vehicles yet is out of sight from the general public.

The nearest hives are in an adjacent field and belong to a commercial beekeeper who has forty hives there !

It’s normal practice to pay a “rent” of 1lb of honey per hive to the landowner.

How to move the Bees to and from the Heather ?

I always use protective clothing — accidents can, and have, happened !

I prepare the bees by arranging the frames as described under “The type & size of Colony I take”, a day or so before the intended move.

Closing

Close the colony up the night before the move after all foraging has stopped, fitting the travel screen, insulation and the roof. I often have to use water spray to drive the bees in before I’m able to close the entrance. Remember, I am able to add the insulation under the roof because my hives have bottom ventilation so the bees don’t overheat when they realise they’re closed in. ( The roof and insulation must be removed before the journey starts. ) Before my hives had bottom ventilation I fitted the roof directly over the ventilation screens until immediately before the move.

Loading up — Packing the Trailer !

The following morning , roof’s and insulation are removed and the hives are loaded up. If possible with their frames pointing in the direction of travel. Packing may be required between the hives in order to to take up slack between the sides of the transportation to prevent movement. The insulation can be used as the packing. All the hives should now have full ventilation with their travel screens exposed to keep the bees cool during transportation. Enclosed bees in transit have difficulty regulating the colony temperature and without proper ventilation can generate so much heat it can melt wax and kill the colony. So in hot conditions I stop on a regular basis to spray water into the hives through the travel screens. A distinct roar can be heard from the bees generated by their fanning activity.

The roof’s and insulation must be transported as well so have to be fitted in some way. Often I have fitted the roof’s above the hives but packed up to ensure there is adequate ventilation to the travel screen. This also helps in heavy rain conditions and prevents the rain soaking the bees. I use adjustable nylon straps and ropes to prevent any movement of hives. Depending upon the distance to the moors or heaths, the hives could be loaded up ready, or done the next day on the morning of the move. It’s always best to move the bees in the cool. Ropes and straps are checked and tightened after a few minutes journey to makes sure everything is secure.

Unpacking

When packing your trailer, remember , “last in first out” . Once on the moors, the hive stands are unpacked, set-up, levelled, and set out in a manner to minimise drifting. At this time I can add extra supers , or otherwise the travel screens can be left on, with the insulation placed directly above, and finally the roof fitted ! Some people even peg down their hives to prevent livestock knocking them over.

Now I’m ready to release the bees. I may have to make a hasty retreat so I make sure everything is packed and secured for the return journey. The bees may be aggressive after their journey so I wear a veil to protect me. Entrances are opened fully because I will not be returning for several weeks.

Returning

Before the bees are returned from the heather, the weight of the supers and brood box should be assessed to decide if the supers should be returned separately.

The bees should have stopped flying before you close them in,and you may wish to choose a wet or cool day for the return journey so that unloading can be done in daylight.

How do I prepare my colonies for the winter ?

When the hives have returned from the heather the entrances are reduced and the colonies are treated for Varroa with Bayvarol strips, for six weeks. Thick sugar syrup should be fed to help the bees build up in the following spring. Fumidol B is added to the syrup as a prophylactic against Nosema. The colonies returned from the heather are all taken to a new site to prevent robbing when their fed.

I have often noted that there is little or no brood on return from the moors, but within one week the queens are back into lay. Six weeks later, when the Bayvarol strips are removed I also remove the queen excluder and protect against woodpecker damage using plastic fertiliser bags. Often at this time there are still eggs being laid.

Honey Sales

As I said earlier, ( Why do I take Bees to the Heather ? ) this honey commands a premium price. Some people prefer to eat honey and wax, ( cut-comb or sections ) while others prefer pure honey.

Whilst consumers will happily pay for 227 grams ( 8 oz ) of normal cut-comb , they are not willing to pay the premium for a similar weight of heather cut-comb. Consequently I find Heather cut-comb sells better in smaller quantities. Therefore my Heather cut-comb is always sold in quantities of 150 grams.

I’ve never been asked for Heather sections yet, and because of the price it would take a really wealthy connoisseur to buy it ! I know of a beekeeper who is producing roundsections of heather but I haven’t any feedback on sales yet.

My pressed heather honey is sold in 227 gram ( 8oz ) hexagonal jars.

This year I sold cut-comb and pressed heather honey at twice the price of “regular” blossom honey.

Pro’s and Cons

Is it worth your while ?

Each beekeeper has to make his/her own mind up as to whether they wish to tackle this particular crop. As you can see there is a lot of preparation during the week before the move, and the beekeeping year is extended into mid-November because of Varroa treatment. There are additional costs to be considered but these are usually recuperated. In a poor year you may end up with small colonies and no honey. You will need extra equipment, i.e. brood chambers, travelling screens, supers, and don’t forget a trailer !!

Expense

My biggest expense is fuel , 90 mile journey each direction from my home to the moor.

Rent per hive of a 454 gram ( 1 lb ) jar of honey to the landowner.

Time — what price ?

What you have in your mind?