Taking the bees to the heather

8th August 2019
Our alarm goes off at the ungodly hour of 4.30 a.m. It is misty outside and we wake up with excited trepidation about the trip to the Heather moors ahead of us. It is ‘no mean feat’ to transport 32 hives with around 50,000 stinging insects in each, strapped onto a trailer, driving through rural villages and then up a mountain. It will be the first time Ceri’s new little van has pulled a trailer let alone one laden with weighty colonies. Heather honey is a premium mono floral honey and is sought after by honey connoisseurs all over the world.
Having selected 32 of our strongest colonies based on numbers, productivity and the age of the queen, we wait until evening time, when the bees had stopped flying before starting to prepare. To make the hives ready for transportation the entrances must be filled to keep the bees inside. Ceri uses bunches of grass and pushes it into the entrance with a hive tool. Some of the equipment has had a lot of use over the years so a thorough check is always necessary, and any holes must be filled in the same way.  An overleaver strap is used to secure each hive with a travelling screen for ventilation on top.
Using ratchet straps, the hives are secured onto the trailer two high. Work preparing for the move finishes at midnight and we park the trailer someway from our house which is at the end of our little North Pembrokeshire village. Caution is paramount when dealing with this many bees and we don’t want to risk escapees building up in a residential area.
So, with a flask of ‘rocket fuel’ espresso coffee and some fried egg bagels we set off, there will be no stopping until we get there.

Selected hives

You may be wondering why we would want to add this extra work and trip at the end of the Summer season following harvesting our Summer crop (which has been manic and fruitful, preventing us from blogging). The Brecon Beacons are after all at least three hours away from the bee’s lowland home in the Teifi valley. Only a handful of beekeepers use this nomadic system of following a nectar source this late into the season.  Getting a Heather harvest is notoriously ‘hit and miss’. Success depends on many factors; the weather, timing, strength of the bees and the growing conditions on the mountain long before we make the trip.
If you get it right, like we did in 2017, the heather flow can be like ‘turning on a tap’ of nectar. The flow can be short, sometimes only lasting around 4-6 days, but if it happens a beekeeper can expect a bountiful harvest of the distinctive, premium Heather honey.

Ling Heather- Calluna Vulgaris

Welsh ‘true’ Heather honey is sourced from the Ling Heather ‘Calluna Vulgaris’. The flowers are tiny purple bell-shaped flowers that grow on a woody stem. This Heather was used historically to make brooms. ‘Calluna’ comes from the ancient Greek word which means ‘to sweep’ Vulgaris’ meaning ‘ common’. Its sister plant Bell Heather ‘Erica Cinerea’, with larger bell-shaped flowers, produces a port wine coloured runny honey but it flowers earlier. There is Bell Heather flowering within reach of our apiary, but its flowering season is almost over by the time we make the trip and it is not so prolific or productive for us as the Ling.

Ling Heather honey has a unique, smokey, tangy, pungent, mildly sweet flavour and leaves a lingering aftertaste on the palette. It has a dark, reddish-orange colour and has a ‘thixotropic’ jelly like consistency. When settled in the jar it is a gel but on agitation becomes liquid. This strange consistency means that extracting the honey from the comb is much more laborious. In fact, beekeepers often will not even try to extract it, but they keep it as cut comb honey in tubs. We use a loosening device with hundreds of sprung nylon needles to liquefy the honey in each frame before extraction can take place, it is time consuming but “oh so worth it”. A quality pure heather honey will have the amber gel appearance with lots of tiny bubbles throughout, and on opening the jar the strong aroma transports you to the heather moors.

Hoping for a good harvest

The higher price of heather honey reflects the rarity of a good harvest and the effort and time involved in preparing it ready for sale.
Heather historically starts flowering from early August to mid-August. In fact an old beekeeping saying calls the 12th of August   ‘the glorious 12th’ which signifies the start of the grouse season and ‘ the flowering of the heather’ the apparent magic date for getting the bees to their upland positions.  Ceri, who has been taking bees to various Heather moor locations for over 20 years, thinks this is a bit out dated and sees the flowering season getting earlier and earlier and likes to get the bees up as soon as possible once the lowland clover and willowherb flow dries up, before the beginning of August if possible.
We arrive at the site without a hitch and the sun has burnt through the sea mist by now and it is turning out to be a glorious summer day, despite the weather warnings suggesting otherwise.

Oak woodland apiary

Our apiary site is in a secret destination at the foot of one of the mountains in the Brecon Beacons. The hives are positioned in the shelter of an old Oak wood, the site is tranquil and dappled light bathes our circles of hives. It is idyllic and we both take a moment to be grateful that this is the lifestyle and way of making a living that we have chosen.
In the past Ceri has travelled through the night and set up the apiary in the dark before travelling straight home. I much prefer this way of preparing the hives, having a sleep, then getting up early and setting up the apiary in the morning light. After letting the hives settle, we open the entrances to let the bees free to explore and forage their new environment.

Majestic views

As it is such a nice day and we are relieved to have transported the precious cargo without a hitch, we decide to extend the visit and walk up to the peak of the mountains. It’s a hot and sweaty climb but once we are halfway up we can see that swathes of Heather starting to flower, there are hundreds of bumble bees and some honey bees, we know they are not ours as they are much paler and yellower than our native dark bees. We get to the top and marvel at the majestic views either side of the mountain and have the last of our coffee with some welcome chocolate Ceri has stashed.
On our drive home we discuss the possibility of a bumper harvest, everything has been done to ensure the best chance of a harvest,  it is now up to mother nature. Unfortunately, the weather forecast is for heavy rain and gales over the next couple of days. Too much rain will wash newly formed nectar from the flowers and also stop the bees from flying. Past good crops have been during a period of muggy, high pressure and reasonable temperatures, not necessarily clear skies but no torrential rain. The hope is that the bad weather will be fleeting. Ceri will return mid to end of September to collect the bees, even if there is not a crop to take hopefully they will have increased their stores for over wintering.