I’ve discussed labelling jars of honey previously. In addition to a legally acceptable label, any honey sold via a third party should probably have a tamper-proof seal. More correctly, these should be called tamper-evident seals as they don’t stop anyone tampering with the jar. These usually take the form of an adhesive strip that connects the lid to one side of the jar, although there are other styles. Some of the shops I sell through insist on tamper-evident seals, for understandable reasons.
DIY isn’t always best
I’ve made my own tamper-evident seals using my trusty Dymo LabelWriter 450 Duo. This simple thermal printer has two print heads. One prints individual labels and the other prints to tape. You can purchase thin, clear adhesive Dymo tape which makes quite good tamper-evident seals. It can be printed with a website address or other information in black ink.
However, I’ve standardised on square jars with black lids and the black text on the clear Dymo label was therefore unreadable in places. In addition, the tape is quite expensive (about £11 for 7 metres†), increasing the ‘packaging’ costs of my honey. Finally, the strip that must be removed from the back of the tape was infuriatingly fiddly (hence tamper tantrums), so slowing the labelling process. Perhaps I need glasses?
C. Wynne Jones clear tamper-evident seal …
Instead of persevering with a DIY solution I now purchase rolls of 1000 clear tamper-evident labels from C. Wynne Jones for about £27. These are easy to apply as long as you develop a system to keep fingerprints off the underside of the label. They adhere well and are very unobtrusive.
Importantly, any attempt to remove the jar lid stretches the tamper-evident label destructively, making it very obvious that the jar has been, er, tampered with.
Clear(ly) tamper-evident seals
When the jar is finally opened, the first thing that happens is the tamper-evident seal is destroyed. This isn’t too worrying since they cost less than 3p.
Finally, if you want to support a good cause and use tamper-evident seals consider purchasing them from the charity Bees for Development. These are also available from Thorne’s who developed the scheme. With these, 10p from each jar sold goes to support their work promoting “sustainable beekeeping to combat poverty and to build sustainable, resilient livelihoods.”
† At this price the Dymo tape costs quite a bit more than personalised tamper-evident labels from Thorne’s. These are are available in a wide range of colours and styles.
It’s late August and the end of my least successful beekeeping year ever. That sounds very negative, so perhaps it should be qualified. It’s the end of my least successful beekeeping year in terms of honey production.
However, in terms of the satisfaction I’ve got from my beekeeping, it’s been a pretty good year. Let’s examine these two things separately, dealing with the bad news first.
Tell ’em about the honey, mummy†
My production colonies only generated about 25lb each of Spring honey. Some of this was clearly oil seed rape (OSR) as there were fields just about in range, but much of it was essentially mixed hedgerow and tree nectar, and none the worse for that. This was all extracted in late May or early June and is now stored, set, in buckets. Later in the year, once the temperature drops, I’ll prepare soft set honey for sale or distribution to friends and family.
25lb is firmly at the bottom end of the averages over the last few years though – in fairness – It’s only my second Fife Spring, so I don’t have much recently to compare it with. Colonies were doing well when I first inspected them, but in some cases that wasn’t until early May. The active beekeeping season is only 4-5 months long here (latitude 56.3° N).
June started well, with clear weather and high temperatures.
None of my full-size colonies needed feeding, but most reduced their brood rearing. July nectar flows were poor. The lime yielded a small amount of very high quality honey, but for whatever reason – poor weather, colonies not strong enough, patchy flows – pretty-much nothing else. The summer honey was extracted in mid-August and is already disappearing fast.
I didn’t take any colonies to the heather as I was abroad for a chunk of July when I’d need to be preparing and shifting them to the moors. And, in all likelihood, they probably weren’t strong enough anyway.
There’s some balsam in central Fife along the River Eden that might give some late-season nectar and there’s ivy (but that is some way off flowering yet) but I usually let the bees keep anything they collect once the summer honey is extracted.
And the good news is
Beekeeping isn’t all about honey. There’s also tremendous satisfaction to be gained from working with the colonies, improving your stock and feeling that – although perhaps not in complete control – you’ve got a pretty good grasp of what’s happening and how things are going.
In this regard, 2017 was a success.
I know I lost one swarm (actually a cast from the queenless half of a split). I got a call to say that the apiary was thick with bees but they’d long gone by the time I extricated myself from meetings and got home. In itself this wasn’t a success. However, I learned my lesson and managed to hive a second cast that issued from the same colony a day or two later. I also had success with my bait hives.
With a couple of exceptions my vertical splits went well, with the resultant queens both laying well and heading well-behaved colonies. The couple that didn’t work developed into (drone) laying workers and were dealt with successfully by uniting.
In retrospect, considering the weather in early/mid-June I’m astounded any queens managed to get out and mate. By late July colonies headed by these newly mated queens were developing well, with frame after frame of brood exhibiting a pretty respectable laying pattern.
That’ll do nicely …
Throughout the season I had a pretty good idea what was happening in most of my colonies. There were no big surprises … “Oops, a virgin queen, where did she come from?”, or “Grrrr … no queen, no eggs and no swarm cells, I’m stumped”.
Colonies behaved in a thoroughly predictable manner. Strong ones were caught before they swarmed, split and were merged back to a double brood box. Nucs developed pretty well, though they needed close attention and some emergency feeding through June. No drama, no panic.
The end of the summer season, other than the truly woeful honey yield, has left me with a good number of nicely behaved and generally very strong colonies. As always there’s one exception, but I’ll unite that weakling late this week if things haven’t picked up.
All the gear, no some idea
Split board …
Gradually equipment standardisation is starting to pay dividends. I ran out of almost nothing (I certainly didn’t run out of supers 🙁 ) and managed to mix’n’match as needed to leave colonies secure, watertight and with the proper bee space when needed. Homemade split boards ended up being pressed into service as floors and it’s clear I’ll have to make some additional kewl floors this winter.
Bamboo-strengthened foundationless frames were a great success. Furthermore, I prepared a second batch mid-season and never got round to using them, so have plenty to start the season next year. Result! However, it’s sobering to realise that one of the reasons they weren’t used was that the nectar flow simply wasn’t strong enough to get them drawn properly.
Finally, whilst we’re on the subject of equipment, I’ve used about half a dozen Abelo poly hives this year in addition to the usual Swienty boxes with homemade floors and roofs. First impressions of the Abelo boxes are pretty positive and I’ll write something up later in the year on them.
Season’s end … or the start of the new season?
Late summer and autumn is an important time in the beekeeping year. Some even consider it the start of the next season, as success in the subsequent year is very dependent upon the preparation in the preceding autumn.
All my colonies are scarfing‡ down large quantities of fondant at the moment. They’ll all get another few kilograms as the autumn progresses. Unless there’s good reason to, it’s unlikely any colonies will be inspected again until Spring.
Varroa treatment is ongoing and the mite drop from most colonies is reassuringly low. I count the mites from each colony over a two week period. Over the first 5 days, some dropped just single figures …
All colonies are coordinately treated to maximise decimation of the mite population at a time when bees have a tendency to drift more and/or rob adjacent colonies – both being well-documented routes by which Varroa can be transmitted between hives. I’ve also helped a neighbouring beekeeper (with colonies within range of my own apiary) by loaning out my Sublimox so that, together, the mite population at a landscape-scale is reduced.
This is simple common sense. I don’t want my (nearly) mite-free colonies infested from neighbouring apiaries and I also don’t want the colonies I do have with appreciable mite levels (~50+ after 5 days treatment) to infest others.
It’s far too soon for much serious thought about 2018. However, I already know there are going to be some major changes to my beekeeping. The local Council have just announced that they will shortly (Spring next year) build a new road literally through the middle of my bee shed and apiary … finding a new location and getting things rebuilt is my major focus at the moment.
And finally … it’s harvest time and raining again …
Mainly dry …
† Tell ’em about the honey, mummy was a catchphrase from a TV advert for Sugar Puffs breakfast cereal. The advert aired from 1976 to ’85 and featured the Honey Monster and Henry McGee (from the Benny Hill show).
Henry is the one on the right.
They don’t make advertising like that any longer. For obvious reasons.
‡ Scarf is American slang meaning to ‘eat voraciously’. It’s probably a bastardisation of the word scoff. Scarf has other meanings and I strongly suggest you don’t look these up.
That’s All Folks
The phrase That’s all folks dates back to 1930 when it was used on the closing screen of a Warner Bros. Looney Tune cartoon.
Over the years many different characters used this line on both Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons. Mel Blanc (1908-’89), the actor who voiced (stuttered) the most famous version … Th-th-th-that’s all folks! has the engraving That’s All Folks on his gravestone.
There’s a 1949 Merrie Melodies cartoon called The Bee-Deviled Bruin with the Three Bears, a colony of bees and a shortage of honey for breakfast. Typical slapstick ensues. It ends with “That’s all folks”.
I’m conflicted. As a beekeeper I appreciate offsetting the cost of indulging my hobby from honey sales. In a good year I get much more honey than I could ever give away to friends and family. Despite making some of my own equipment, there are the costs of purchasing (yet more) boxes, miticides, extraction equipment and winter feed. There’s also an ever-growing wishlist of things that, whilst not essential, would be very welcome. Abelo’s heated honey creamer looks very nice 😉 Bottling, labelling and then selling honey – either from the door or from local shops – provides a few quid to help … a sort of self-perpetuating process in which I transfer all that summer effort by the bees into the coffers of Thorne’s and C. Wynne Jones.
However, I regularly get asked for local honey to ‘prevent the symptoms of hay fever’. Emails or phone calls go something like this:
“My son/daughter/husband/wife suffers really badly from hay fever and I read that locally produced honey could help her symptoms” … followed by a request to confirm that what they’ve read is correct and could I sell them some honey.
As a scientist I can’t do the former and so usually fail to achieve the latter. No way to run a business perhaps, but honesty is the best policy∑.
Hay fever is an allergic reaction to pollen in the air. About 20% of the population have, or will develop, hay fever. I never had it as a child, but in my 30’s developed a strong reaction to some grass pollens that still makes a fortnight or so in mid/late June pretty miserable. Hive inspections with bad hay fever are really miserable.
Symptoms are characteristic – itchy eyes, sneezing and a runny nose (where does all that stuff come from?!). Anti-histamines, either prescription or over-the-counter, help prevent the allergic reaction from occurring. Usually this is sufficient to make the symptoms bearable.
Severe hay fever symptoms, where anti-histamines or corticosteroids are insufficient, can be treated by immunotherapy. Over several months, the patient is exposed sub-cutaneously or orally, to low and increasing doses of the allergen (the compound that causes the allergy) to help develop immunity. Full desensitisation takes about three years.
Honey contains pollen
Honey contains small amounts of pollen. The presence of the pollen forms the basis for lots of tricky questions in the BBKA examinations and is a feature used by food standards to discriminate between flavoured sugar syrup and real honey.
This is probably where the ‘honey prevents hay fever” stories originate. It’s this small amount of pollen that is supposed to stimulate the immune system of hay fever sufferers. A sort of DIY desensitisation course using toast or porridge to help deliver the allergen. Tasty 😉
All this seems pretty logical and straightforward. Honey contains pollen. Low doses of pollen are used to stimulate immunity that, in turn, stops hay fever from developing. Local honey prevents hay fever … I must get this printed on my labels to boost sales further.
Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good theory∞
Unfortunately, there are a couple of irritating facts that scupper this nice little theory. The first is a sort of error of omission, the second is the absence of evidence supporting the theory (or, more accurately, the evidence that the theory is wrong).
Honey certainly contains pollen. At least, real honey does. Melissopalynologists – those who study the pollen in honey – can identify the genus of plants that the bees have been visiting and so may be able to deduce the geographic origin of the honey.
The key part of that last sentence is “that the bees have been visiting”. The vast majority of pollens in honey are from the flowers and trees that they visit to gather nectar. These pollens are usually large and sticky so they adhere to the passing bee and are then transferred to another plant when the bee moves on.
What’s missing are any significant quantities of pollens from wind-pollinated plants such as grasses. Studies have shown that almost all pollens that cause allergies such as hay fever are from these wind-pollinated species†. It’s logical that these pollens are largely absent … since the flowers, grasses and trees that produce them are anemophilous (wind-pollinated) they don’t need to generate nectar to attract bees, so the bees don’t visit. So there’s little or none of this type of pollen in honey.
No bees legs …
Testing, testing …
So that’s the error of omission. What about scientific support, or otherwise, for the theory that local honey prevents hay fever? After all, this must be an easy (and tasty) experiment to do. Feed a group of people honey and compare their hay fever symptoms with a group fed synthetic honey (or perhaps imported pseudo-honey sold from a supermarket near you).
Researchers in Connecticut did this experiment in 2002. They published their results in a snappily-titled paper “Effect of ingestion of honey on symptoms of rhinoconjunctivitis” published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
Rhinoconjunctivitis, or perhaps more correctly, allergic rhinoconjunctivitis, is the symptoms of hay fever – the itchy eyes, sneezing and runny nose. Three groups of a dozen hay fever sufferers, pre-screened for reactivity to common wind-borne allergens, were randomly assigned to receive local ‘raw‘ honey, filtered non-local honey and honey-flavoured syrup (the placebo group). They took one tablespoon of honey, or substitute, a day and recorded their hay fever symptoms. The abstract of the paper neatly summarises the results:
Neither honey group experienced relief from their symptoms in excess of that seen in the placebo group.
… leading the authors to conclude that:
This study does not confirm the widely held belief that honey relieves the symptoms of allergic rhinoconjunctivitis.
Absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence
So, this study does not confirm (prove) that honey prevents hay fever. What about the opposite? Can we use it as evidence that honey does not prevent hay fever symptoms?
1934 Loch Ness hoax
Tricky … as the skeptic James Randi asserted, you can’t prove a negative. I can’t prove that the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist. However, in the absence of convincing evidence that it does exist, I can be reasonably sure that Nessie is a 6th Century tale, embellished in the 19th Century and blatantly exploited by the 21st Century tourist industry.
Of course, lake monsters are ‘found’ worldwide, which isn’t evidence that any of them actually exist 😉
We’re getting into the messy intersection of science and philosophy here. I think it’s sufficient to say that there’s no scientific evidence that honey prevents hay fever. The Connecticut experiment was a properly controlled random study. To my mind (as a scientist) this is much more compelling evidence than any amount of anecdotal stories to the contrary.
An abbreviated version of which is what I tell potential customers who want me to confirm that buying my local honey will help alleviate their hay fever symptoms. Essentially, it won’t.
Sure, they might not get hay fever after eating my honey, but that’s almost certainly a coincidence. It’s a coincidence I’m happy to live with, but not one I’m happy to promote as a reason to buy my local honey.
Why buy local honey?
I don’t think it’s necessary to cite dubious medical benefits when encouraging people to buy local honey.
Why claim something that’s probably not true?
Far better to claim the things that are true, some of which are also clearly demonstrable:
It’s local, from the hedges and fields within 3 miles of the apiary. It wasn’t imported by the tonne from a location or locations unknown‡.
It’s a very high quality product – clearly to claim this you need to ensure it looks wonderful and that there are no legs or antennae lurking in the jar.
It hasn’t been excessively heated before jarring – all the goodness is still present, including pollen, just not the sort of pollen that will prevent hay fever.
The honey hasn’t been micro-filtered, pasteurised or tampered with in any way.
It varies during the season as the forage changes – a jar of spring OSR honey is very different in flavour from a jar of mid-summer floral (hedgerow) honey. It’s a wonderful edible snapshot of the changing seasons.
Buying it supports a local cottage industry.
It tastes fantastic – clearly demonstrable.
The ‘taste test’ is usually the deciding factor. A couple of tester jars – clearly labelled – a limitless supply of plastic coffee stirrers and a discard pot will allow customers ample opportunity to ‘try before they buy’.
Which they surely will … 🙂
∑ Honesty is the best policy is an idiom dating back to the late 16th Century when Sir Edwin Sandys, a founder of the Virginia Company and one of the first settlers in America, stated “Our grosse conceipts, who think honestie the best policie”.
∞ A corruption of the saying by Mark Twain “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story”.
† Jean Emberlin (2009). “Grass, tree, and weed pollen”. In Kay et al. The Scientific Basis of Allergy. Allergy and Allergic Diseases. 1:942-962. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 9781444300925
‡ This isn’t xenophobia. The UK is a net importer of honey. 95% of the honey eaten in the UK is imported – 50% of the 34,000 tonnes imported in 2012 came from China. Most honey on the supermarket shelves contains some rather vague term like Produce of EU and non-EU countries. You don’t know where it came from, and probably nor does the supermarket. There have been bans on imported honey due to it being not honey (just doctored corn syrup), or being contaminated with antibiotics.
I sell the majority of my honey in 8 or 12 oz (227 or 340 g) square glass jars. They are easier to fill than hex jars and look distinctive on the shelf. These, together with 16 oz (454 g) jars, are the ‘conventional’ weights in which honey is usually sold.
However, the regulations allow the sale of honey in any weight. The polypropylene, airtight “Lock and Lock“-type containers have a silicone seal and are ideal for packaging and selling larger quantities of honey. The 1.4 litre container (above left) takes almost four pounds of honey when filled – perfect for those that like lots of honey on their porridge, or for storing the ‘seed’ for preparing the next batch of soft set honey.
Four pounds of honey is, conveniently, about the upper limit for making a gallon of mead; if you regularly sell honey to mead makers a tub like this is both easier to empty (with less waste) than jars and reusable.
These containers are sometimes available in Poundland. It’s worth shopping around as the increased packaging costs will otherwise have to be taken into account in the sale price.
Honey has a long shelf life if prepared and stored properly. By long shelf life I don’t mean weeks or months. I mean years. And lots of them. Ceramic pots of honey have been found in Egyptian pyramids and are apparently still edible, though it’s notable that there’s never any direct quotation on what the flavour is like. Honey has also been discovered in Georgia that date back about 5,500 years, though again there’s no comment on the flavour. At the time of writing (autumn 2016) my honey carries a ‘best before’ date of December 2018 which I reckon is reasonably safe. From January next this will be December 2019.
Faded glory …
Whether those ancient honeys tasted good or bad, there can be relatively few foodstuffs that remain even identifiable over hundreds, let along thousands, of years. This longevity is due to a combination of the low water content and high acidity of honey, which makes it an extreme environment for the micro-organisms that usually spoil food. In addition to this, enzymes added during nectar processing by the bees increase the hydrogen peroxide content. Hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) is also anti-microbial, and is one of there reasons that honey can be used for wound dressings. Notwithstanding all of this natural protection, honey deserves being properly looked after to ensure it can be enjoyed at its best.
Long term storage
Spring honey crop …
I store extracted honey in food-grade 30lb buckets with airtight lids in a cool environment (an unheated entrance hall with a flagstoned floor). I measure the water content using a refractometer when I extract and write this on the lid of the bucket, generally using the honey with the highest water content first (though this also depends upon demand for particular honey types). The apiary and date of extraction are also recorded.
I bottle in batches, one or two buckets at a time. This is a convenient amount in terms of sales, space in the warming cabinet and minimising problems with frosting. It’s also just about my limit for repetitive manual work and restricts the amount of heavy jarred honey that needs to be stored. Finally, labelling 60 or more jars is also a pretty tedious experience, though I do like the appearance of serried rows of identically labelled jars ready to go off to the shop.
Jarred honey needs to be stored somewhere cool and out of direct sunlight. I use the same cool entrance hallway I use for buckets of honey. The out of direct sunlight instruction is really to avoid subjecting the honey to fluctuating temperatures. Inevitably, one or two jars are kept on the shelf to attract sales or as gifts for visitors.
I recently noticed that the thermal printed labels (Dymo) I use fade quite badly when exposed to sunlight. The ½lb round at the top of this page has been on my office shelf since January, exposed to full sun (or as much full sun as we get in Fife). Next to it is a ¾lb square† that has been recently labelled. The fading of the label on the left is very obvious. Therefore, if you use thermal printers to prepare simple DIY labels this is an additional reason to keep your jarred honey in dark, cool conditions … or give it away/sell it faster 😉
† These jars are from C. Wynne Jones, as are the clear anti-tamper labels which are a big improvement on the fiddly thin Dymo transparent tape I was previously using.