In the winter months honeybees are tucked away in their hives and the majority of our wild bumblebees are quietly hibernating underground. Often people are shocked to discover that honey is the food honeybees make to keep themselves alive throughout the winter when nectar and pollen are scarce. Unlike bumblebees, honeybees don’t hibernate and instead cluster together for warmth in their hive and feed on the honey they collected from trees and flowers the seasons before.
Like so many foods we buy and consume, the majority of us are disconnected from the source and method of production of honey. I’m surprised at the lack of discussion about our current consumption of honey when our honeybees in the UK and across the world are suffering such a decline in population due to poor health. Vegans choose not to eat honey and although I am not vegan, I think its important as a consumer to understand the issues around honey consumption.
The great lengths a single bee goes to in producing the honey on our table is amazing. The average life of a honeybee is six weeks in its summer working season and in this time a single bee will collect one tenth of a teaspoon of honey. I think I’ve probably got one third of a teaspoon of delicious heather honey on the spoon in this photo … which was devoured very quickly … thank you to the three little honeybee females that worked so hard to make it!
So what is honey? Where does it come from? And why do honeybees make it?
Honey is made from nectar … the sweet, sticky liquid collected from flowers by the long tongue of the honeybee. Nectar is stored inside the bee where magic bee enzymes transform it so that it can be stored long term. When the bee arrives back to the hive, it will pass the nectar around to its sister bees until finally the churned up nectary liquid is ready to be placed in the honeycomb. Throughout the autumn, the bees fan their wings to evaporate the water from the honeycomb and when it is ready, they cap the comb with beeswax to seal it from the air and water. The nectar has then become honey and the honeybee’s source of winter food.
It is the capping of the comb that tells the beekeeper that the honey is ready to harvest. The majority of beekeepers will need to feed their bees over the winter with a replacement sugary fondant once they have taken away the honey. A strong, healthy colony of honeybees produce 2-3 times more honey than they need to survive. At the moment our honeybees are not strong nor healthy. In the UK, we are currently losing about 30% of hives each winter. Results from the British Beekeeper’s Association annual Honey Survey show that in 2013 honey production was “well below the long-term average”. In 2012, the honey survey showed that production was down by 72% from 2011.
Should beekeeper’s be more careful about the amount of honey they take from our bees given they are struggling to produce it? At the end of last year the BBKA reported that “1 in 10 beekeeper’s took no honey crop in 2013, being extra cautious leaving more stores than usual with their bees ahead of what could turn out to be another long, wet winter.” Perhaps this is the start of an era of more cautious honey harvesting?
Having witnessed the laborious process of making honey, I think it should be considered a very precious substance. Perhaps we should think carefully about whether we choose to eat honey? And if we do eat it, how much should we be eating at the moment and who should we buy it from to ensure the bees are not suffering?