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Series 17 - 2. The Death Doulas

Heather honey and hard work

Sunday 1 November 2009, 12:00

Fran Barnes Fran Barnes

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Farming Today honey press

Picture the scene. Blue sky... singing birds... the rolling Derbyshire moorland covered in a blushing pink eiderdown as beekeepers across the country arrive for the annual ritual of taking the bees to the heather.

That's how it should have been on that August day when the Farming Today bees arrived at the much hyped moorland in order that Aunty and her team of thousands of workers would produce gold standard heather honey.

However, the cold, foggy rainy day which greeted us in Derbyshire was not the idyllic scene I had been expecting. As we unloaded the Farming Today bees from the trailer our trousers became heavy with rain, our feet started squeaking and large drips of water were rolling down the backs of our necks.

It had taken 2 hours to drive there, but 10 minutes after arriving and unceremoniously dumping the Farming Today hive near the soaked heather, we were on our way back. Praying that the weather would be kind to our bees and, at the very least, they wouldn't starve.

In September we brought the bees back. They didn't starve. Quite the contrary it appears... Now it was time to harvest it.

Heather honey extraction is not easy. Other types of honey are spun out of the frame in a centrifuge. Heather honey is thicker and no amount of spinning will get it to shift. Instead, it is pressed out using a converted wine press. 40 tonnes of pressure are put on a stack of honeycomb filled with heather honey. The pressure makes the honey runny and it trickles out into a bucket.

For me, honey extraction is the worst part of beekeeping. It's sticky, it takes an age and the cleaning up afterwards would test the patience of a saint. It took 2 hours to extract the honey our bees had produced. It would take another 2 hours to clear up. Add that to the time taken travelling to the moor and back... heather honey production is not for the faint-hearted.

However, Aunty and her gang had done Farming Today proud. They'd produced 30lbs of the stuff. For those who haven't ever tried heather honey, spread thinly. It's not like other honey which can be eaten by the spoonful. It has a strong taste. Chris and I are ashamed to say that when we first tasted it at our evening classes last March we wrinkled our noses in disgust.

We would both now agree that the hard work that bees and beekeepers put into producing the seasonal crop of heather honey produces a sublime product. The consistency of liquid fudge and the taste of... well, you'll have to try some. But when you do bit into a piece of toast smeared with heather honey do think of the work the bees have put in to produce it, and of the lengths the beekeeper has gone to to bring it to your kitchen.

Fran Barnes is a producer on Farming Today

  • Readers of the blog are very interested in bees. The Farming Today Bees category is the most popular on the Radio 4 blog.
  • Farming Today is on Radio 4 Monday - Friday at 0545 and on Saturday morning at 0630. You can listen again online, of course, and there's a podcast.
  • The picture shows the machine used by Fran to extract the Farming Today heather honey.

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