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Honey suffers after bad year for bees

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It has been a disastrous year for British honey, with bee farmers reporting heavy yield losses. After the worst honey crop in years, could some of Britain's most distinctive flavours be at risk?

"It's been absolutely terrible this year," says Derbyshire bee farmer Tony Maggs.

"I'm down 90% on my normal yield of honey. It's been the worst main crop I've ever had."

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The total honey crop for England and Wales is estimated to be down 50% on an average year, which equates to a loss of £7m for UK honey production, according to a recent survey carried out by the Bee Farmers' Association (BFA).

"It is not being alarmist to say that… many bee farmers will cease to trade as a result of this season," says Margaret Ginman, general secretary of the BFA.

But given that the majority of the UK's honey is imported, is this a serious cause for concern?

"In Britain we underestimate the diversity of regional flavours, especially if you consider that only 15% of our honey is produced in the UK," says Ms Ginman.

"As we don't really have mono-floral honeys in the UK, every flavour combination is unique."

And this means that some of the UK's more unusual flavours may be lost.

The problem started earlier this year when Britain experienced its wettest spring on record.

Despite good early spring nectar flows, the prolonged period of cold and wet weather between April and August meant that honeybees had less opportunity to leave their hives, so little pollination took place.

"This year has been almost apocalyptic for bees," says Steve Benbow, owner of the London Honey Company, who has seen his honey yield drop by 25% this year.

Bee-keeper inspects his hives on the Tate Modern rooftop Steve Benbow inspects his hives at the Tate Modern in London
Bee-farmer holds up a frame of honey on a heather moor Bee-farmer Tony Maggs holds up a frame of heather honey from Derbyshire

Mr Benbow describes himself as a "purveyor of fine honey" and moves his hives around the UK to gather the best varieties of nectar.

"We do have bees in London... but we also have sites on heather moors, the south coast, the east coast and the west so that we can produce more unusual honeys."

London honey, he says, has a complex and unusual taste, with flavours ranging from butterscotch to citrus fruits.

Mr Benbow is currently managing hives on the rooftops of Fortnum & Mason and the Tate Galleries to obtain these flavours.

Although the sites are only two or three miles apart, the difference in taste and colour is quite noticeable, he says.

"Tate Modern honey is dark and quite toffee-like, whereas Tate Britain honey is quite citrusy, which is down to what the bees have been foraging on in those areas."

But this year's colder weather has affected the flavour of the London honey, says Mr Benbow.

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"When it's hot and sticky the aphids come out and secrete all that sticky stuff which the bees go out and collect. This creates honeydew which is really toffee like and unusual.

"We haven't had any of that this year because of the cold weather. Instead our London honey this year has a really floral and citrusy taste."

In Devon, crops of orchard honey have been particularly low due to the lack of fruit flowering, says Ken Basterfield, a small-scale bee farmer based in Seaton, Devon.

He specialises in producing distinct honeys, ranging from darkest buckwheat through to medium and light clover.

"We extract by source and by flowering times... so batches of honey vary in flavour according to the flowers that were worked on by the bees at each period."

Ken has seen other floral sources coming through in his honey this year, such as rosebay with a light delicate flavour; bramble, a darker honey with a mild after bite and balsam, a pale honey that goes well with Pimms.

"Devon has its own particular climate and soil structures, these affect the types of flowers that grow in the county and when and how effectively they yield pollen and nectar.

"Consequently it affects the honeys also giving a wide range of different flavours."

Earlier this year, top west-country chef Peter Gorton was inspired by Basterfield's honey to create a new dessert recipe: honey mousse with port jelly.

"Honey and port go together really well. And the beauty of this dish is that you can prepare everything in advance.

"Devon honey is superb to cook with because of the variety of different flavours you can find.

Duck with honey, chilli and mango chutney Peter Gorton uses honey with duck (pictured), but also in monkfish and pork dishes

"Take Dartmoor for instance which produces delicious heather honey. It goes very well with things like pork."

But yields of heather honey are reported to be low across the UK this year.

In Scotland bee farmers are reporting losses of two thirds of their heather honey production, says the BFA.

"The failure of the bees to build up because of the bad weather means that colonies are not in good shape to work the heather," says Ms Ginman.

She predicts that supplies of Scottish heather honey will run out after Christmas.

In Derbyshire, bee farmer Tony Maggs has taken his hives up onto the heather moors of the Peak District, to profit from the abundant ling heather.

"Ling heather is really special as it has a very delicate flavour," explains Mr Maggs, who has won awards for his Derbyshire heather honey.

"It has a taste of its own, rich like toffee and fabulous on buttered toast."

After his worst season, Mr Maggs remains hopeful that the milder early Autumn will yield a reasonable crop as he goes to harvest in the coming weeks.

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But achieving a good consistency of honey this season remains challenging for producers across the UK.

"I'm getting stories everyday of bee keepers in the area reporting that their honey is different this year," says Mr Maggs.

"Some are saying that the honey is not clearing as well as it normally does and has more of a cloudy appearance due to left over pollen particles."

Commercial producers such as Rowse have reported similar problems.

"British consumers have a preference for clear, liquid honey which is not commonly available," says Audrey Dury, brand manager at Rowse Honey.

"The impact of the weather on [Scottish heather] honey will be most severe."

While imports will fill the gaps created by any shortages, prices of British mono-floral honeys such as Scottish heather are likely to increase.

The full impact of this year's poor season will not be known until the Autumn harvest is complete.

The British Beekeepers Association is due to publish the results of its annual honey survey at the end of October.

In the meantime, bee farmers such as Tony will have to sit tight and hope for better weather ahead.

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