What's the Buzz?
This article was first published in Dartmoor Magazine - Summer 2011 edition. Written by Lori M Reich.
Bee Happy' says the sign outside Peter Hunt's serene cottage on the fringe of Dartmoor. It stands guard over a quaint basket of honey and free-range eggs he sells from home in the longstanding rural tradition of trustworthy neighbours putting the correct change into a jar beside the honey. Honey money?
'I am an artisan beekeeper. I get to do everything - gather it, process it, market it and sell it. I am passionate about bees. It was fascination at first sight. When I was 11 and living in Truro I helped a neighbour with his beehive and I've been hooked ever since.'
'My partner, Hazel, and I ran Blackaller Hotel in North Bovey for 15 years. I had hives there to enhance the country feel of the hotel. We served honey at breakfast and I found myself talking to the guests about the bees. Slowly the number of hives increased. Then six years ago we gave up the hotel as Hazel wanted to reture, but I wasn't ready, and local foods sounded interesting.'
'Keeping bees is not like keeping sheep or cows,' Peter adds. He should know as he also keeps a small flock of Jacob sheep and is committee member of the national Jacob Sheep Society. 'You don't see the bees every day, yet it is really intense work in the summer. During the winter the work just vanishes as the bees stop flying. The numbers of bees in a single hive fluctuates from 50,000 to 60,000 in the summer to around 10,000 in January.'
Peter radiates calm assurance. Is this from working with bees or being a Buddhist? There must be something religious about bees as Peter worked closely with world-renowned beekeeper Brother Adam of Buckfast Abbey.
Peter ran me through a typical beekeeper's year. At the end of January the queen starts to lay eggs. The beekeeper only needs to make sure the bees are well fed at this stage. A hive of bees will eat their way through about 30lb of fondant (a substitute for the honey taken from the hive) over the winter. It is also essential to treat for varroa mite at this time of the year. As the light levels increase in March the bees begin to start flying, looking for nectar.
Come April the beekeeper needs to check and monitor the wooden floors and the frames of the hive, changing them on average every two years. For those who have never seen the inside of a hive there is a series of hanging frames, much like picture frames. Instead of containing a picture, they have translucent wax comb impression ('foundation') which acts as a template for the worker bees to expand and will eventually be filled with eggs and brood from the queen, collected pollen or honey. A brood frame is deeper and bigger as it is essentially a factory where the queen lays the eggs. Honey is stored in the supers, the upper storeys of the hive, and several of these can be added to the basic unit.
Between April and June is the swarming season. If the hive swarms, the bees and their queen leave the hive searching for a new place and are usually lost to the beekeeper. 'You can't tame bees,' insists Peter, 'but you can practise swarm control. It involves checking every brood frame in every hive every ten days. This, for me is the best part of the year. I am out looking at the bees, watching them. I know by the scent of the hive which flowers the bees have visited.'
'In July I start collecting the honey and extracting it. This continues into August. By mid August I also have a very busy three weeks moving hives onto the moor for the bees to collect the ling heather nectar. It is a very short season, lasting only until the middle of September if I am lucky. At my Postbridge site I get a great heather honey harvest only every three years or so.'
There are many detrimental factors affecting heather stands on the moorland; heather beetle is attacking and killing older heather, although younger heather can sometimes recover. Swaling, the traditional controlled burns of the moors, reduces the heather in the short term, although it helps heather longer term. Overgrazing by moorland animals is another obvious problem. Finally, there is always the weather - it could be too dry earlier in the year or too cold during the flowering season.'
'September I need to start feeding fondant again to help the bees last through the winter. I also treat a second time for varroa. Then, until January I can almost forget about them and concentrate on selling honey.'
Extracting the honey is a sticky, laborious process. The honey-filled frames are spun in a centrifugal extractor to liberate the honey. Then it must be potted up and labelled for sale. Just like any other food, British law requires honey to have a 'best before' date, even though honey recovered from ancient Egyptian tombs has been edible!
All honey is a natural product. Chemically it contains simple sugars, proteins and varius enzymes ad breaks down in the body quickly. It has a multitude of colours and textures depending on the season. Early in the season it is clear and golden; later it becomes more granular, somewhat milky, eventually becoming set.
This natural process happens to all types of honey. Oilseed rape honey sets very hard, and dandelion-based honey sets very quickly. 'Ivy honey tatses awful!' exclaims Peter. Midway between runny and set honey there is creamed. 'It is very popular with those who don't like honey all over the kitchen table,' he says.
The flavour of the honey reflects the types of flowers that the bees worked, anywhere within a three-mile radius of the hive. On Dartmoor the fields generally receive little artificial fertiliser therefore producing more varied wild flowers, for a distinguished flavoured honey. For connoisseurs heather honey has a complex smoky, deep, rich flavour. Brother Adam described it as 'red brown, like the water of the peat bog. A gift of nature carrying the tang of moorland air.' Its texture is technically described as 'thixotrophic', meaning it is gelatinous, becoming temporarily liquid only when stirred. Because of this, it must be processed differently, or more often it is sold as comb honey.
News headlines hark to the dangers facing not just beekeepers but farmers and gardeners of the potential lack of bees and their role in pollination. 'Colony collapse is not yet a problem in Devon. However,the varroa mite has made all beekeepers work harder and be more observant. Control in the future leans towards breeding more hygienic bees.'
Farmers' markets are Peter's main sales venue. He also markets his Jacob Sheep's wool and distinctive skins alongside honey flapjacks and cupcakes.
With all the work involved, Peter still enjoys the sweeter side of the business. ' I like a bit of honey in my tea, especially after a stressful day - it is very comforting.'
This article was first published in Dartmoor Magazine, Issue 103, Summer 2011