We love you, honey

Eye witness: As sales soar, the nation's beekeepers are swarming with activity
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"Calm down!" orders the beekeeper as I flap at one that is making an angry noise in my ear. "Move away from the hive." There are 100,000 honey bees here, flying around or crawling inside wooden boxes in a shadowy copse on the edge of Salisbury Plain, and they make my flesh creep.

"Stand still!" That's easy for Robert Field to say from behind his veil. I'm remembering family picnics and hysterical tears. These things are everywhere; they're going to get in my eyes, my hair, my mouth. "That one's getting a bit shitty," says Field, flicking the errant bee into oblivion with his brown-stained fingers. "You've got to kill them when they get in that mood or they'll just keep coming for you. But if you squash them, then the venom will be in the air and two or three more will check out what's going on.'

Honey. The word makes you smile. It means sweetness and comfort, toast and crumpets. We have fallen back in love with it lately - sales of honey have shot up by 11 per cent in the past year, it was announced last week. That is a lot when you consider that the British eat 25,000 tons of the sticky stuff every year. We've started spooning honey into tea and coffee, drizzling it on to yoghurt and muesli, cooking with it and even eating it on toast more often. Honey is outselling marmalade for the first time.

And people like Field are trying to keep up. He is vice-chairman of the British Bee Farmers' Association, which has about 300 members. There are thought to be 44,000 beekeepers in Britain, but almost all are amateurs and some keep only a hive or two. Field has 500 hives tucked away in fields and woodland all over Dorset and Wiltshire. Each contains 50,000 bees at the height of the summer, and together they produce 15 tons of honey a year. I had imagined a gabled white hive in a sunlit orchard (but then I thought The Swarm was just a bad movie until now). The humming all around us is getting louder, gaining intensity. Voices shout orders in the distance and we hear the rattle of gunfire, because Field has brought me to the edge of the military zone on Salisbury Plain. He looks like a member of the chemical weapons squad, in his yolk-yellow boiler suit and black veil.

The "apiarist", as it says on the badge on his chest, drives a blue pick-up truck with a livid-looking insect drawn on the side. Bumblebees are cute. Honey bees are not.

"They won't swarm, don't worry," he says, puffing smoke from a vintage hand-held woodburner to sedate them. "It's the wrong time of year." But he does seem worried: "Stand back, would you? You might only get stung once or twice, but I don't know how you're going to react. You might get in real trouble."

The hives on the plain were established generations ago, but most locals do not know that this one is here. The bees ignore the tanks and troops to roam freely over the chalk downlands, collecting pollen from white clover and vipers bugloss, sainfoin and birdsfoot trefoil, among others.

"This is what England was like before it became over-managed and sown with oilseed rape," says Field. "The flowers give the honey a beautiful, subtle flavour."

Honey is made when bees collect nectar and mix it with enzymes in their mouths. Whether it is runny or clear depends on the source of the nectar. Honey evangelists enthuse over local varieties - particularly the English ones - like other people rave about wines. They also say you should spread it on your skin as a moisturiser or mix it with olive oil to make hair conditioner (they would suggest bathing in it like Cleopatra if asses' milk were not so hard to come by).

Depending on who you believe, honey can prevent or cure sore throats, hayfever, insomnia, constipation and anaemia. Some hospitals use it in treating wounds, as did the ancient Egyptians. The antioxidants in it are said to help fight cancer.

But the main reason for the resurgence in popularity seems to be that it makes us feel better about ourselves.

Health scares have helped shoppers to develop a taste for foods that seem to be pure, from sources that can be traced. Even if we can't be bothered to go to the farmers' market we still want to feel a bit virtuous - and the latest food to suffer an image problem is sugar, or "white poison", as some honeyists call it. "Honey is a pure product; sugar is refined," says Field. "It is better for you, enormously so."

Nonsense, says the man from the Sugar Bureau. "There is not a shred of evidence to support that," says Dr Richard Cottrell. "In terms of effects on the body there is no material difference. Honey tastes nice, so why over-egg the pudding by making wild claims for it?"

Honey has slightly fewer calories per teaspoon and a lower glycaemic index value, which makes it useful for those on the popular GI Diet. Back near the hives, Field and I are trying the Winnie the Pooh diet.

"Try this," he says, dipping his finger into the residue of honey left on an old hive tray, among snakes and peaks of beeswax that resemble the landscape of a science fiction film. Runny and clear, it has a more intense flavour than any honey I have eaten before. But this honey will not be sold; it is to sustain the bees through the winter. Field will be building new wooden frames for the hives. And getting over the stings: "Every day I am out working I get stung several times." He doesn't wear gloves. "They diminish your dexterity. The stings hurt but I don't think about it. I don't swell up."

Stings are more likely on an overcast day. "The angry bees are the old bees, which go out foraging on a sunny day," he says. "But if you turn up when it is wet, overcast and cold, take the roof off their home, let all the heat out and start cracking the frames apart, they get really upset."

Fair enough, maybe. Field knows the character of each hive and can replace the queen bee to change that character. But do they know him, as some beekeepers suggest? "No. That's nonsense. You can have a hive where the bees are so dozy that you can handle them without gloves or a veil all the time and not get stung, and the beekeeper might say, 'Oh, the know me'. But it's rubbish. It winds me up, to be honest. It's just down to the genetic make-up of the bees, whether they are gentle or nasty." Then he blows another puff of smoke and says it is time to leave before we come to an, ahem, sticky end: "They're getting wound up. With bees, you've always got to be careful."

TASTES OF HONEY

Enthusiasts say we should savour honey as wine buffs do their favourite drink, enjoying the differences between varieties. The thickness and appearance depend on the source of the nectar. Here are some of the best:

Acacia Blossom: Mild, sweet and fruity flavour, very light appearance

Australian Eucalyptus: Rich toffee taste with hint of raisin, light amber colour

Brazilian Organic Wild Flower: Medium-mild, smooth taste of barley sugar

English Clover: White colour, mild taste, cream and vanilla tones

Greek Mountain Flower: Strong, dark, with a distinctive taste of aniseed and molasses

Italian Chestnut: Medium-strength, full-bodied flavour, light amber colour

Tasmanian Leatherwood: Strong, amber-coloured, perfumed and herby

From www.rowsehoney.co.uk, the UK's largest honey-packer

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