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Show me the honey: conservation vs commercial beekeeping in Frome [WFJ #23]
Two local apiarists contend with the commodification of honey
Part of the reason I commissioned this series on bees is due to what honey says about food’s value, and the perceptions thereof. In terms of everyday store cupboard items, honey has probably the largest price disparity between its cheapest and its most expensive variations.
With food costs spiralling at the moment, it’s a particularly appropriate/interesting/meaningful time to ponder why people make the purchasing choices they do. Whether in the midst of a cost of living crisis or not, why would someone, for example, bother buying an £7 jar of honey when they could easily find one for 99p?
To start answering that, Bee Friendly Trust gardener and WFJ Bee Correspondent Claire Jefferies speaks with two local beekeepers – one more business-minded, one more spiritually and abstractly so – about yes, producing honey for sale, but also belonging to a profession critical to supporting numerous species’ habitats. Not, as what commonly happens, exclusively our own.
Show me the honey: conservation vs commercial beekeeping in Frome, by Claire Jefferies
As a child, Tasha Stevens-Vallecillo spent many summers in her father’s native Nicaragua. There, her friends kept bees, and this is where her fascination began. She describes how Nicaraguans, compared with Brits, have a very different relationship to bees: “I am very lucky to have a strong, deep connection with bees, where I’m not afraid of them but I’m in awe.”
From there, her passion developed. “When I was at university, it was a time of increasing awareness about Colony Collapse Decline (CCD) and the multiple causes of that. I did a craft degree but essentially [focused on] sculpture, so I made a lot of sculptures about CCD. When I decided to start living off-grid at 22, I wanted to start beekeeping and was given the opportunity to learn through living in the Tinker’s Bubble community.”
Tasha kept bees on and off for about ten years, and has since become Production Manager at 42 Acres, a retreat and regenerative farm nine miles south of Frome. She helped vision the farm’s food philosophy, with its overarching aim of producing up to 60% of its own food. Tasha’s role in implementing this involves creating land-based micro-enterprises and ‘wild-tending’ (creating and maintaining an abundance of wild plants for food).
“It’s always been part of the conversation at 42 Acres that it would be nice to be self-sufficient in honey”, says Tasha. “This is my fifth year here and we hadn’t started beekeeping because I needed to make sure that this was never something that was primarily for making money. Bees are under such a lot of pressure in terms of loss of habitat, so I wanted to do a project that was a halfway house between conservation and conventional beekeeping.”
In Spring this year, Tasha and her colleague Rafal Bartnicki began creating 42 Acres’ Sacred Bee Garden. “We use the word ‘sacred’”, says Tasha, “because bees to me are very sacred. They’re a really vital part of the ecosystem.”
The Garden is also based on principles of sacred geometry, which references the spiritual meanings of underlying patterns and proportions found in nature. Examples can be found in snowflakes, cell structures or even in patterns of orbiting planets.1 “We are setting up the Garden with a bee shrine in the centre”, says Tasha. “It’s a honeycomb shape, reflecting the core structure that the bees have built. The garden is formed from a six-pointed star of which all points come off of that honeycomb.”
There are different hive types in the Garden. Some more closely reflect natural bee habitats, such as the Golden and African Top Bar conservation hives, where the breeding area is in the same section as honeycomb. Others, like the WBC hive (named after its creator William Broughton Carr) have these areas separated, making it easier to handle the hive frames and extract the honeycomb, and are similar to those used in conventional beekeeping. “I am keen”, says Tasha, “to show a little snapshot of the many different ways people keep bees.”
Tasha tells me her work is underpinned by the premise that wild bee species are the ones which hold the genetic information needed for species’ survival. This, she says, will also help secure our food sovereignty and security.
Building a business around bees
Head five miles northeast of Frome and you will find Rode village, home to apiarist Louise Howell. She has taken a different approach to beekeeping, with her honey and bee products company Louisebees.
“I started beekeeping”, she says, “as a way to connect with the environment, so I could feel I was doing something positive.” Louise trained with the Frome Beekeeping Association and began finding other local beekeepers who had a spare bucket of honey in the back of their shed. “I paid them the market rate for their honey and undertook all the processing, distribution and marketing.”
Whilst out meeting beekeepers, Louise made connections with landowners and farmers who were keen to have bees on their land, as pollination by bees helps improve crop yield, therefore increasing farmers’ profit margin. Other landowners were simply keen to share their wildflower spaces with pollinators.
“I could see a perfect triangle forming – I could get bees on the land and I could persuade other beekeepers to look after them. But beekeeping is seen as a hobby, not as paid employment. The cost of buying the hives is also really expensive. So, I started thinking about corporate sponsorship as a way to bridge this gap – I realised there’s a rising need for companies to show their sustainability credentials.”
Using a grant from a regional social entrepreneurs’ programme, Louise is now brokering a way for local companies to sponsor new hives placed in suitable community environments, with local beekeepers paid to look after them.
Sustainable beekeeping practises
Feeding bees nutritionally poor sugar water or fondant has become the norm in mainstream beekeeping. Instead, Louise and Tasha rely on their own honey. “We have honey kept in frames in our freezers”, explains Louise. “In June, when there’s a gap in the pollen and nectar, we put these frames back in the hive. It’s much better to give them back their own honey.”
It is also a more sustainable way of doing things, which is an especially hot topic in beekeeping. In the first article in this WFJ bee series, we heard how Tasha uses herbal remedies to try to prevent Varroa disease in her colonies. “Beekeepers can prefer there not to be wild colonies in the area because the concept behind conservation is that bees will evolve to manage disease and build resistance,” she said. “If you’re constantly interfering you’re not allowing that natural evolutionary process. You end up with bees that are dependent on routine disease control.”
Louise, however, takes a different tack: “The Varroa mites we have now are not native and can reproduce twice as fast as UK ones. The bees will take thousands of years to adapt to this by themselves. The Varroa reduces their immunity to other diseases that they could ordinarily fight off so can mean they are constantly struggling at lower health. I choose to treat mine twice a year, with the UK veterinary approved treatments. I would prefer not to, but I am also trying to breed strong, healthy local queens who are adapted to their environment, in the hope that this helps reduce reliance on treatments over time.”
Whose bees are these?
42’s Sacred Bee Garden is currently home to 13 colonies. One of these, now housed in conservation log hives, arrived off its own back. Tasha was lucky enough to witness their arrival. “Absolutely magic”, she says. “We’ve had two wild swarms arrive – if within a week or two of providing that habitat they are arriving, it shows that there is a need to create wild habitat for bees.”
She also rescued a colony of wild bees from a chimney cavity in a building on-site. A third colony is from Donald Maude of Fussell’s Fine Foods, which was chosen for being hyperlocal and as it was from a long-term breeder. The fourth are Buckfast bees bred by a monk named Brother Adams in Buckfastleigh. “Because 42 Acres is a place of spiritual practice and wellbeing”, says Tasha, “I felt the connection with the monks and beekeeping as their spiritual practice. These bees are also bred on the moors, which is a damp environment similar to the land at 42 Acres.”
Louise, like Tasha, welcomes bees bred close by. “[My bees] came from Beckington”, she says. “The argument is that we need genetic diversity but I think bees have been around for a very long time and they’re probably best suited to their local environment.”
Looking to the future: building our bee-human connection
As part of 42 Acres’ plan to produce food in a way that aligns with the planet's natural cycles and processes, Tasha wants people to feel better connected to the components that make that happen. “My hope is for visitors to be able to come, sit and watch the bees, and really start to have less of a fearful relationship with them.2
“Our plan is to collect as much information as possible – including survival rates, disease and temperament – to really understand what is best for the bee. For too long people have been very production-centric, very extractive, so we’re doing it a different way, harvesting the knowledge to share it. I know how hard it is to get into farming, I know how access to land is extremely difficult. I really think it needs to be something more people are engaging with and more young people particularly are encouraged to do.”
Hearing from these two beekeepers, it is clear there is much more to understand and appreciate about the lives of our apian friends. For now, our closest daily connection to bees may be the honey we spread on our toast. So, how can we be more informed about the honey that we purchase?
What to consider when buying your next jar of honey
When we see organic honey on supermarket shelves, it is worth noting it has likely not come from UK bees. In order to be certified organic, producers need to prove that their bees have only foraged on pesticide-free plants. It is nigh on impossible to ensure bees haven’t picked up pesticides from a neighbour’s garden and we cannot put a large enough exclusion zone around hives in the UK to ensure our bees only reach organic forage.
Louise sells local, raw honey, filtered to remove any debris from the hive. It is not pasteurised, which would otherwise kill off the honey’s antibacterial and antioxidant properties. “It’s almost impossible to buy real honey unless you buy it from a beekeeper,” she says, pointing out two issues with supermarket honey: “One, it’s pasteurised to keep it clear. It’s also quite likely not to be honey, which is so widespread as to be almost unstoppable because companies are just really clever about using glucose and other chemicals that mimic what goes into honey.”
Louise passes on a suggestion she heard recently from Lynne Ingram, chair of the Honey Authenticity Network UK and a Master Beekeeper from Somerset. “Honey is expensive to produce and maybe we should be thinking about real honey more like champagne – instead of trying to stop the adulteration, we should just label it better. Some people can only afford to pay the pound it costs to buy it in Lidl but you can be more knowledgeable about what you’re buying. If people know the difference between the honey we try to produce and the stuff Lidl are selling for 99p, then they can make a proper, informed choice.”
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Further explanation of Sacred Geometry: https://energiainteligenteufjf.com.br/especial/sacred-geometry-natural-patterns-and-their-connection-to-science/
42’s honey is consumed on site at retreats and their medicinal mushroom honey will soon be available at Frome’s markets and via local retailers. The mushrooms are bred at 42 Acres from their wild native strains, each with a unique profile of medicinal benefits