The ancient art of beekeeping: In it for the honey

Beekeeping is booming. Christopher Hirst looks at why hives are such a hit

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The pastime shared by Aristotle, Tolstoy, Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherlock Holmes has brought an excited buzz to Britain's suburbs and countryside.

According to the British Beekeepers' Association, the number of bee colonies has increased by 50 per cent over the past six months – from 80,000 in March to 120,000 today. Over the summer, amateur beekeepers harvested 3.5 million pounds of honey. The average hive produced 32 pounds, worth £130.

The sweet golden goo that we trickle on yoghurt, spread on wholemeal bread and butter, eat with cheese, drizzle on pancakes, bake in cakes, use as a glaze on ham or simply lick off our fingers is perhaps the most remarkable of all foodstuffs.

When enjoying this everyday treat, it rarely occurs to us that we are eating nectar gathered by bees and transformed by regurgitation into syrup that has the same sweetness as granulated sugar. A pound of clover honey requires nectar from eight million flowers. Over its lifetime (around 30 days in the summer months), a single worker bee will produce approximately one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey. It is just as well that the average population of a hive is 60,000 in summer.

The benefits of beekeeping are not merely culinary. For centuries, beeswax candles provided light. Mead was once the main source of intoxication. Even today, UK growers of apples, strawberries, oilseed rape and other crops depend on the bee for cross-pollination. It is estimated that the value of the pollination done by these ceaselessly toiling workers is more than £600 per hive.

Humanity has been harvesting honey from the provident bee for at least 10,000 years. Bees hoard honey as a source of energy for the winter months and we steal their stores. Just like the suburban beekeeper with his smoke bellows, the Akie people of northern Tanzania use smouldering grass to pacify the wild bee swarms located high in baobab trees.

Hives have been in use at least since ancient Egypt. The Roman poet Virgil wrote a comprehensive treatise on beekeeping. He maintained that the dead bodies of animals could serve as beehives, a phenomenon illustrated on tins of Lyle's Golden Syrup where a dead lion is surrounded with bees to illustrate a text from the Book of Judges: "Out of the strong came forth sweetness".

In her book The Hive, the appropriately named Bee Wilson reveals that the British were eating about two kilos of honey per person per year by the 12th century. The arrival of sugar from Arab countries and the American slave plantations replaced our honey habit, though it enjoyed a small resurgence with the invention of the movable-frame hive by the Rev Lorenzo Langstroth in Philadelphia in 1860. His ingenious construction meant that hives no longer had to be destroyed in order to get the honey. The honeycomb, described by Bee Wilson as "one of those natural phenomenons so marvellous that it is hard for us to believe they weren't made by human hands", is spun on a centrifuge to extract the honey before being restored to the hive.

Sadly, such ingenuity did not restore the mass appeal of honey. Today, the British eat a mere half-jar per year compared with a gruesome 53 kilos of refined sugar.

Many people swear by the health properties of honey. Honey appears to be more effective in healing sore throats and coughs than proprietary medicines. It is consumed in quantity by hay fever sufferers. Honey from the New Zealand manuka bush is said to be effective when used externally as a wound treatment and internally for digestive problems. When afflicted by insomnia, I find a spoonful of honey in warm milk to be a mild and often effective soporific.

One of the pleasures of gaining a taste for honey is enjoying the vast range available. Plutocrats may relish the honey from hives on the roof of the Paris Opera sold by the posh French grocers Fauchon or Fortnum & Mason's honey from hives in the shadow of London Bridge. From his Hawaiian retreat, novelist Paul Theroux produces a honey called Oceania Ranch. Varieties sold by the Hive Honey Shop of Clapham, south-west London range from "delicate" Wimbledon runny honey and "fresh piquant" sainfoin red clover honey to "very aromatic" ling heather honey and the "bitter dark chocolate" flavour of autumn harvest honey, made in part at least from the ivy nectar disdained by grower Philippa O'Brien (see box).

My favourite is borage honey. Relatively common two years ago, it is now a rarity. The flower has ceased to be grown as a pharmaceutical crop. Opaque and crystallised, it can be restored to golden fluidity by heating in a pan of warm water. Although the shelf-life of honey is virtually infinite, there will come a day when the last jar will have been sold. Fortunately, I have developed an equal passion for the delicate floral honey produced from the profusion of flowers grown in town gardens.

British honeys are a major delight of our farmers' markets and a terrific bargain. (Do not be lured by the cheap honey sold in supermarkets. The heat treatment that ensures its liquidity also kills most of the subtle elements in the taste.) If British beekeepers have to fight bad winters and the alien pests that threaten our bees, at least they have been spared the empty-hive syndrome that has afflicted much of America.

Although worker bees literally work themselves to death for our breakfast spread, this does not apply to their human associates. The maintenance of a Langstroth hive requires only an hour a week. It seems a safe bet, however, that the new infusion of beekeepers will spend far more time than that gazing at the strange but charming societies they have installed in their gardens. They will surely agree with Dryden, who wrote about "air-born honey, gift of heaven".

Why I get a buzz out of bees

Apiarist Philippa O'Brien has some advice for Britain's wannabe beekeepers

"My grandfather and father were beekeepers so I knew something about it, but I started only five years ago, when I went on a beekeeping course. I got my first nucleus soon after – a queen bee and workers in five frames that you set up in a hive. All you seem to do in the first year is buy equipment.

I eventually had three hives but last winter was so cold and long that many of my bees died. Unless you feed your bees, they can starve. I feed them on sugar in autumn and fondant icing in winter. You get very attached to bees.

Observing a colony is fascinating but the honey is the major reason for keeping bees. Your own honey is better than anything you've ever tasted. But bees let you know if you're doing it wrong. They'll sting you very happily.

I keep my bees in the walled garden of Capel Manor College at Gunnersbury, west London. In my first two years, I broke even by selling around 400 jars of honey. This year, they made only about 20 jars but the colonies have grown quite strong again. If they get through the winter OK, there should be masses of honey next year.

In spring, you get lime honey – it's pale green and delicious. In summer, it's mainly from lavender and mixed flowers. In autumn, it tends to be sweet chestnut honey, which is dark, blackish and a bit acrid. If you don't feed your bees they'll head for ivy, which makes disgusting honey that sets like concrete.

I'd recommend beekeeping but you have to go on a course. You need to know how to control the diseases and pests that have recently come in from the Far East. Our native bees can't deal with them. That's why there are no more wild bees in Britain. Feral colonies won't last more than 18 months.

You also need to know how to position your hives so that bees will fly in the right direction and not sting people. If they're not handled properly, bees can kill. Someone likened beekeeping to keeping a lion tied up in your garden. That's a bit of an exaggeration, but it's important that people go into beekeeping with their eyes open."

For details of how to get started in beekeeping, contact the British Beekeepers' Association: www.britishbee.org.uk

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