London Honey Show 2014: part 1, Dave Goulson

On Monday 6th October I went to the fourth annual London Honey Show, an event celebrating London’s honey and bees in general. As well as a honey tasting competition, there are stalls selling food, beekeeping books and beauty products, plus expert speakers doing short talks. This year’s show was a lot of fun, especially as I knew several people there and warming honey cocktails & mead samples were on offer.

Dave Goulson’s talk

Here are some notes from the talk by Dave Goulson, the second speaker. Dave is well known as a Biology Professor at the University of Sussex, writer of books A Sting in the Tale andBuzz in the Meadow and founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust in 2006, a charity which now has 8,000 members.

Dave Goulson speaking

Speaking to a room of honey fans, Dave wanted to remind us that honeybees are not the only bees! There are an incredible 22,000 known species of bees worldwide, including around 250 species of bumblebee.

He gave a quick explanation of the life cycle of bumblebees to us. Emerging from their winter hibernations, bumblebee queens visit pussywillow and lumpwort flowers in early spring. They look for ex-mouse or vole cavities, preferably with some soft bedding material already inside. After laying their precious first eggs, they sit over them like birds on their nests, shivering their muscles to keep the eggs warm. So cute!

We think bumbles first originated east of the Himalayas about 30 million years ago. They have adapted to live in cold weather and tend to be scarce in warm areas like the Mediterranean. Bumbles can keep their body temperature an incredible 30ºC higher than the surrounding air temperature, allowing them to fly in the Arctic in temperatures below freezing. Dave showed us a photo he took of a buff-tailed bumblebee flying in January, feeding on Mahonia amongst the snow.

The downside to this ability to stay warm is that it takes them huge amounts of energy to stay in the air. Bumblebees need LOTS of flowers. This appetite and their ability to do buzz pollination makes them major pollinators of crops like oilseed rape, field beans, tomatoes, peppers, raspberries and strawberries. I took the photo of the bumblebee below on chinese anemone and seem to remember she was doing some buzz pollination, intensely vibrating her muscles to shake the flower and release extra pollen from its anthers.

Bumble on chinese anemone

Bumble on chinese anemone

Unfortunately bumblebees are not doing as well as they used to be. For instance, as recently as the 1950s the great yellow bumblebee used to be found in many different sites in England, Wales and Scotland, from Scotland’s Orkney Islands to England’s most southerly county, Cornwall. It is now confined to Orkney, the Hebrides and the northerly coast of Scotland. Why?

Dave gave us his opinions on the reasons some British bumblebees, such as the great yellow bumblebee and the short-haired bumblebee, have declined in their range:

1. Changes to farming
England lost 98% of its hay meadows and chalk downland during the 20th century. Like the great yellow bumblebee, Corncrakes, birds which used to nest in hay meadows all over the UK, now live only in remote corners of Scotland where farming has changed relatively little.

2. Disease
The commercial trade in bumblebees shipped for pollination has spread diseases such as nosema ceranae between bumblebee populations. This has happened in Chile, where accidental releases of European bumblebees being used for pollination have spread disease to native bumbles there.

Dave begged us not to buy bumblebee colonies from garden centres. They are supplied from factory reared colonies from Europe used for tomato pollination, and are often full of parasites and diseases. Read more about this issue at’s Bumblebees for sale? page.

3. Neonicotionoids (Neonics)
For this part I’ve added to my notes using the chapter ‘The Disappearing Bees’ in Dave’s recent book A Buzz in the Meadow. Introduced to the world in the mid-1990s, this type of insecticide works by attacking the nervous system and brain of insects. Their advantage is meant to be that they can be applied as a seed dressing before the crop is sown, which the growing seedling then absorbs, spreading the chemical throughout the plant. This prevents the farmer having to spray insecticides several times as plants develop.

The trouble with a insecticide present in all parts of the plant is that nectar and pollen produced by the plant contains the insecticide too. Each time a pollinator visits the plant, they consume a small amount of the neonic. This stuff is highly toxic – just 1 teaspoon of neonicintinoids is enough to kill over a billion bumbles.

Research carried out by Dave and his team, published in the journal Nature, found that bumblebee nests fed on nectar and pollen mixed with very low field-like concentrations of the neonic Imidaclaoprid (used to treat oilseed rape seeds) produced 85% less queens over a season than nests fed with clean nectar and pollen. The control nests fed with untreated food produced an average of about thirteen new queens each, the nests fed with treated food an average of just two.

Disturbingly, most of the neonic seed chemical coatings, between 80-98%, end up not in the plants themselves but in the soil. Once in the soil, most published estimates of the half-life of neonics are anywhere between 200 to 6,000 days, depending on soil type and conditions. They are also water soluble. So these chemicals are everywhere in our soil and waterways, having who knows what effect on the insects within them. Please, please don’t add to the chemicals in our world by treating your lawns and garden plants with insecticides.

4. Gardening
Don’t buy “hideous annual bedding plants – an absolute travesty”. They often have no scent, no nectar and some no pollen. Instead, grow perennial cottage garden type flowers. Dave’s favourite is viper’s bugloss.

If you have no garden, badger your local council to stop wasting your money on mowing verges and removing habitat for bees.

I’ve done some other posts on books/talks by Dave:

And Emma’s done a very entertaining post on the London Honey Show with lots of photos:

Below is Dave speaking in front of a photo of Toby, a army-trained sniffer dog who helped one of Dave’s Phd students hunt for bumblebee nests. You can read about him in Dave’s book A Sting in the Tale.

Dave Goulson speaking

Posted in Events, Urban beekeeping | Tagged | 24 Comments

Cats on guard

Inspired by bee guard-dog Lucky, Ealing Chairman Clare Vernon has kindly sent me photos of her cats Simba and LeoRex for our next Ealing newsletter and has also let me put them up here.

She says “Fame for the Boys!! I think they are very handsome but l am their Mum. They don’t seem to have any trouble with the bees and do seem to enjoy watching them.”

No robbing going on whilst Simba keeps watch…

Simba keeping watch

Simba keeping watch @Clare Vernon

Is he sleeping, or just pretending? No doubt he is ready to leap into action if trouble occurs.

Simba @Clare Vernon

Simba pretending to be fast asleep @Clare Vernon

Meanwhile deputy guard cat LeoRex keeps an eye on Clare’s equipment. Making sure this nuc is suitably cosy for the bees is an important job.


LeoRex @Clare Vernon

Aren’t they gorgeous? I love Simba’s thick fluffy tail! Does anyone else have bee-guard pets?

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2nd Honey bee products and forage revision post: an illustrated description of the floral structure of apple

A 2nd revision post, topic picked at random, for the BBKA’s Module 2 exam, ‘Honeybee products and forage‘ in November.

I know the diagram below is no great work of art, but research evidence suggests writing things down helps commit them to memory. One study found that students who physically write notes at a lecture will do better at remembering them afterwards than students who type their notes on a laptop (see ‘Take notes by hand for better long-term comprehension‘). So I like to write and colour in the old-fashioned way.

Floral structure of apple diagram

Apple is a nice simple flower to study. The stamen and anthers providing the pollen are the male part of the flower. The stigma, style and ovary are female parts.

Bees collect pollen as they enter the flower and are also attracted to apple flowers by nectaries at the base of the flowers. As a bee drinks from the nectaries, her body brushes against the anthers and her hairs pick up pollen.

When the bee moves on to another flower belonging to the same plant species, the pollen attached to the hairs on her body rubs off onto the stigma and fertilises the flower. The pollen germinates on the sigma and its pollen tube grows down the style to the ovary.

When it comes to pollination, unlike some other fruit trees apples are self-incompatible. So to develop fruit, apple trees must be cross-pollinated. This means that the flowers have received pollen from a flower on a different apple tree (rather than a flower on their own tree).

Honey bees on apple flowers

Honey bees on apple flowers

I was interested to read that a single honeybee forager can carry up to 40 mg in her honey stomach; a apple flower typically produces 2 mg of nectar per day. The flower does not release 2 mg of nectar all at once, but only a small percentage of that amount. So a forager needs to visit many more than twenty apple flowers to fill up her honey stomach. It’s been estimated that a single bee can visit up to 3,000 flowers in one day (The Buzz about Bees, Jürgen Tautz).

Once pollinated, the flower will stop producing nectar as it no longer needs to attract pollinators. Some flowers can also indicate visually to bees that they have been pollinated and their nectaries are empty. Hopefully I’ll get time to write about this in another post.


The BBKA Guide to Beekeeping, Ivor Davis & Roger Cullum-Kenyon (2012), p.142-143
The Buzz about Bees: Biology of a Superorganism
, Jürgen Tautz (2009), p.60-61

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Please help find Arnis Zalkalns

EDIT: on Saturday 4th October a body thought to be that of suspect Arnis Zalkalns was found in Boston Manor Park. I am going to keep this post up in memory of Alice.


This is not beekeeping related, but I feel the need to write about it.

A visitor to my local area might think we’re celebrating some kind of festival. Yellow ribbons festoon the lampposts and park railings, their cheerful colour waving in the breeze.

But there is nothing to celebrate. A month ago, on the 28th August, a young 14 year old girl named Alice Gross went missing. Like me, she liked walking and had gone out for a long walk alone along the nearby canal running through Hanwell. CCTV footage showed her apparently returning in the direction of home under one of the canal bridges.

At first it seemed hopeful that she might have run away. Perhaps she would return. Posters were put out in Hanwell, in Ealing, in West London generally. Her face smiled out at all the passers by. The yellow ribbons were tied as a sign of hope and support for her family, to raise awareness of her disappearance.

Then a week later her rucksack was discovered; it contained her shoes. This was bad – who  would run away and leave their bag and shoes behind? Worse, in the middle of September the police revealed that they were searching for the 41-year-old Latvian builder Arnis Zalkalns, who himself had gone missing in early September. He is a convicted murderer in his home country. Having served seven years there for murdering his wife, a crime he confessed to, he was free to come to this country.

Yesterday Alice’s body was found in the canal.

No-one can return Alice to her family. But there must be someone out there who knows where Arnis Zalkalns is, or might spot him. He has quite an unusual and distinctive face, narrow and long with a prominent nose and chin. This is a photo of him as a young man:

And an older photo:

Zalkalns has been described as white, 5’10”, of stocky build and with dark brown hair that he normally wears tied in a pony tail.

Alice’s family deserve justice. And he needs to be stopped before this happens again. It’s worth mentioning that in 2009, Zalkalns was arrested for allegedly assaulting another fourteen year old teenager in Ealing. The case was dropped because she decided not to make a statement, but perhaps if support for victims were better, and courts less intimidating and accusatory towards victims, the outcome might have been different.

If you think you might have seen him since his disappearance, please please let the police know. Anyone with information on his whereabouts or that can assist the investigation is asked to call the incident room on 0208 358 0100, the police non-emergency line 101 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

More information on the case:

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1st Honey bee products and forage revision post: a list of floral sources of unpalatable honey;

I have decided to take the BBKA’s Module 2 exam, ‘Honeybee products and forage‘ in November. If I manage to pass, I’ll have passed Modules 1,2,3 & 6, which means I’ll be awarded the BBKA Intermediate Theory Certificate. Woo hoo!

But to pass I need to revise, something which often isn’t that appealing after a day at work. To kick me off, I’m going to learn a nice simple part of the syllabus: 2.24, a list of floral sources of unpalatable honey.

Unpalatable honey sources

The nectar of a few flowers produces honey which is unpleasant to taste, while a even smaller number of nectars are poisonous to bees or to humans when condensed into honey.

Commonest unpalatable honeys in the UK

  • Privet – bitter taste

Celia Davis says of privet “it is very unlikely to be a problem as only very rarely are bees likely to collect large quantities of its nectar. Even so, a fairly small amount can damage the  flavour of other nectars mixed with it.”

The Collins Beekeeper’s Bible comments that privet honey is “very strong flavoured, making it objectionable and unpalatable unless it is blended with lighter honeys.” It flowers during May to June.

Privet – © RHS 2002

  • Common Ragwort – bitter taste

A bright, long-flowering plant which is very popular with bees. It’s tough and can grow in waste land, road sides, rough areas of parks etc.

Celia Davis describes ragwort as being “very attractive to bees… likely to produce quantities of extractable honey which smells horrible when it is fresh. If it is allowed to stand and granulate, the flavour improves and some beekeepers use it to blend with other, less flavoursome honeys. The plant contains several pyrrolizidine alkaloids which are responsible for the deaths of quite a few horses each year.” Ragwort honey is not thought to be dangerous to humans, as it seems likely that someone would have to eat a huge amount of honey to do themselves any harm.

Ted Hooper concurs, saying of ragwort honey “it is bright yellow and has so offensive an odour that when first extracted it is completely unpalatable. Once granulated however, the smell is lost and the honey quite good.”

Clive de Bruyn is also positive about ragwort honey, commenting in his classic book Practical beekeeping (1997) “The honey is a deep yellow with a strong flavour thought by some to be obnoxious. I personally find that it adds a bit of interest.” He goes on to say “Concern has been raised over the possibility of the honey containing pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs). A recent MAFF survey to assess levels of PAs in UK honey produced by bees with access to ragwort stated that there was no cause for alarm.” MAFF being the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, now known as DEFRA.

Honeybee on ragwort

Honeybee on ragwort

Unpleasant to some:

  • Ivy – bitter taste

From the point of view of bees ivy must be a wonderful plant, flowering in September to October when little other forage is about.

However, some people find ivy honey far too bitter. Here’s a description of ivy honey from Cornwall by Elizabeth Gowing in her wee masterpiece, “The Little Book of Honey“:

The aroma is surprisingly flowery and light, but the taste is certainly not. It’s not a very sweet honey, and there is a bitter kick in it which hits you as the crystallised paste melts in your mouth.

I tried to place the flavour and then I got it – if a pointy-chinned woman got out her wand and turned a Stilton into a honey, this is what it would taste like.

And is that a good thing? I’m not convinced.”

To read more about Elizabeth’s bitter experiences with ivy honey, see her post Ivy honey from the Lizard Peninsula.

Yet others, myself included, prefer a honey that isn’t super-sweet and has more character. There are beekeepers with customers who specially request ivy honey. As I’ve got older my tastebuds have changed a bit and I’ve come to appreciate more sour and bitter foods such as olives, grapefruit juice and even gherkins, which used to make me wince.

Ivy flowers

Ivy flowers

Honeys which are poisonous to humans:

Many of the plants in the Ericaceae family, such as RhododendronPieris, Agarista and Kalmia, produce poisonous nectars which contain grayanotoxins.

  • Rhododendron spp

Rhododrendrons are widely grown in the UK (they originally came from East Asia) but I haven’t heard of any reported cases of people here being affected by the honey; Celia Davis suggests this is because honey bees are not very interested in their flowers.

Cases of poisoning from this “mad honey” have been reported in Turkey and America though. It’s said that ancient Greeks and Romans used to leave rhododendron honey in the path of invading armies. The soldiers would eat the sweet treat and end up vomiting and dizzy from grayanotoxin, a toxin contained in the honey. The effects rarely prove fatal but probably would have halted or slowed down the army for a couple of days.

The Collins Beekeeper’s Bible contains a tale of mad honey poisoning from the British botanist, plant-hunter and explorer Frank Kingdon-Ward. His memoir Plant-hunter’s Paradise (1937) vividly describes his experiences with rhododendron honey in northern Burma, near Tibet. The effect on the honey on him and his companions was a delirium similar to acute alcohol poisoning. Strangely the local Tibetans seemed to eat it without ill effects – or perhaps they just ate less than the greedy Europeans?

Ted Hooper mentions a case of bee deaths in the Isle of Colonsay in 1955 – the island was planted with a large number of Rhododendron thomsonii which subsequently poisoned whole colonies.

See more:

  • Grayanotoxin Poisoning: ‘Mad Honey Disease’ and Beyond
    A scientific paper on mad honey. Contains a fascinating description from the Greek warrior-writer Xenophon in 401 BC on the effects of the honey on an army –  “those who had eaten a great deal seemed like crazy, or even, in some cases, dying men”
  • A rare case of “honey intoxication” in Seattle
    Rusty at Honey Bee Suite reports on the case of a man poisoned by honey purchased at a local farmer’s market. Like Celia Davis, Rusty’s observations have led her to believe “that rhododendron is not a preferred forage for honey bees and they probably collect it only in rare circumstances when other more favorable blooms are not available.” – EDIT: please see brookfieldfarmhoney‘s comment below on 16th Jan 2015 for the inside scoop on this – the scientist involved had his words twisted by the media.
  • “Mad Honey” sex is a bad idea
    That got your attention!
  • Hallucinogen Honey Hunters documentary
    Added after P&B mentioned it in the comments below – thanks! A tribe in Nepal hunt wild rhododendron honey with natural psychoactive properties. One falls unconscious after overdosing on the honey.

Photo by Dendroica cerulea Photo of rhododendron by Dendroica cerulean

Kalmia latifolia

Commonly called mountain-laurel. This grows in the UK, but not in large enough quantities to cause problems. It is native to the eastern U.S.

According to Wikipedia’s entry on Kalmia latifola, “The green parts of the plant, flowers, twigs, and pollen are all toxic, including food products made from them, such as toxic honey that may produce neurotoxic and gastrointestinal symptoms in humans eating more than a modest amount. Fortunately the honey is sufficiently bitter to discourage most people from eating it, whereas it does not harm bees sufficiently to prevent its use as winter bee fodder. Symptoms of toxicity begin to appear about 6 hours following ingestion. Symptoms include irregular or difficulty breathing, anorexia, repeated swallowing, profuse salivation, watering of the eyes and nose, cardiac distress, incoordination, depression, vomiting, frequent defecation, weakness, convulsions, paralysis, coma and eventually death.”

So please don’t go trying it.

Kalmia latifolia

The beautiful but deadly mountain laurel ©RHS

Nectars which are poisonous to bees?

  • Silver lime
  • Silver pendant lime, also known as weeping lime

Some loopy plants make themselves poisonous to their own pollinators – or do they?

There has been some disagreement about whether lime trees poison bumble-bees, or bumble-bees run out of energy whilst feeding on them and die.

In 1997 Clive de Bruyn observed that “The culprits are mainly the late flowering species during dry weather when the nectar is concentrated… Such poisoning is not common and is dependent on the season, district and species of lime. One species that is known to affect bees is the pendant silver lime Tulia petoliaris, a beautiful tree, symmetrical with a rounded top. It can grow to 24m (80ft). Bees appear to get drunk on the nectar, and bumble bees are especially prone. They can sometimes be found dead under the trees in great numbers.”

However, more recent research seems to indicate that the cause of bumbles being found dead under lime trees is their foraging behaviour, rather than toxic nectar. Science writer Philip Strange has left some very useful comments below, including this link on lime trees on the Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s website: Finding dead bees.

As Philip sums up below, “It seems they continue feeding on lime nectar even when levels are low and so they run out of energy. Honeybees don’t do this, they look elsewhere before they exhaust themselves.” Angela Woods of the London Beekeepers Association also left me a plausible comment on a Facebook discussion I started – “Perhaps it is because bumbles have less stores in their nests and this tree tends to flower in the ‘gap’ when other sources of nectar are scarce … I was called out last summer to a street in Holland Park lined with silver limes and there were tons of poor bumbles dead under each tree. It was depressing to see.”

Have you had any experiences of toxic or unpleasant honey, or found bees dead by any of these plants? If so I would be interested to hear about it.


Collins Beekeeper’s Bible (2010)
Guide to Bees & Honey,
Ted Hooper (2010)
The Honey Bee Around & About
, Celia Davis (2007)
Practical beekeeping, Clive de Bruyn (1997)

Posted in Honey | Tagged , | 38 Comments

Time to smite some mites

This weekend it was time to replace our first lot of Apiguard treatment and put the second round of trays on. Can you guess which of our colonies had cleaned every last inch of their Apiguard tray empty and shining after two weeks?


Our new queen Melissa’s of course (Melissa being our old favourite Myrtle’s daughter). These bees truly are perfection – gentle, productive honey makers, hygienic.


A worrying sight in Chilli’s hive – a couple of piles of dead bees. Had they met a sudden end, perhaps in a fight with a wasp or robber bee? We helped their surviving sisters clean up by cremating the dead in our smoker.

Pollen supplement

Queen Stella’s allotment bees are doing well – above they’re enjoying a Nektapoll pollen patty treat. All yellow and squidgy. As soon as I wedge it in-between the bars they start nibbling away at it.

Last week I turned up in time to see one of the workers fly into a big spider’s web behind my hive. I felt like it was a beekeeper’s job to rescue bees from hungry spiders, so I fished her out before the spider pounced. Further drama ensued as upon putting her on the hive roof I noticed a varroa mite on her thorax! It’s pretty difficult trying to dislodge a mite a couple of millimetres long from a moving bee which doesn’t want you touching her back. I tried my best and the mite disappeared, but to be honest I think it just hid somewhere else on the bee’s body. Still, she had been saved by death by spider!

Varroa mites

Hopefully the mite is now on that there varroa monitoring board above, knocked out by Apiguard. I have put on some arrows pointing to the mites, which are brown and shiny. Observant eyes at the right angles can spot the ends of their legs pointing out. There are a lot more than two on there, but I didn’t fancy doing an arrow for every mite.

And obviously you can never have too many monitoring boards, so here’s another! Pretty orange pollen and wax flakes on this one. The lines match up with the gaps between the frames.

Varroa monitoring board

I had left some space in the hive and the allotment bees had built some spectacular comb – big, drone cell sized but so far completely empty. I couldn’t really let them keep it as it would have created a lot of mess, so I trimmed it off, brought it home and how have it on display in my window.

Empty honey comb

Honeycomb held up to the light

Magnificent engineering. Finally, here’s a couple of photos from my walks through London recently…

Painter by the Shard

I ate my lunch while watching this painter doing a bridge and boats scene along the Thames. In the background is the Shard. It was quite hard to take a photo of him without tourists looking over his shoulder.

View of the Southbank

Looking at the Royal Festival Hall on Saturday night from Hungerford Bridge. St Paul’s Cathedral is in the distance. I think the red building all lit up is the Queen Elizabeth Hall, but I could be wrong. London’s pretty at night, as long as you have a nice warm bed to go home to.

Posted in Disease prevention, Uncategorized | 7 Comments

All about the hunny

Long-time readers may remember my post back in 2011, ‘Bringing home the hunny‘. This was the last time we had a significant honey harvest. Back then we found our honey wouldn’t spin out in Emma’s fancy electric centrifugal extractor. By this summer the memory of that had faded, so as we prepared to extract the honey in Emma’s dad’s kitchen we were optimistic that this year would be easier.

First, we decapped the honey with a decapping fork. Once the wax cappings are removed the honey can be spun out in the extractor. Steven Benbow has a nice description of an extractor as “a sort of giant salad spinner for honeycombs” in his book The Urban Beekeeper. Those white buckets we’re using belong to Emma’s dad, who is a butcher and runs his own wholesale company (now semi-retired and only working six days a week).

Wax uncapping

The darker honey in the foreground comes from my allotment hive in Northfields, west Ealing. The lighter honey on the right comes from Myrtle’s hive a few miles away in Perivale. Emma preferred Myrtle’s honey as she found it more delicate and floral, while I preferred the darker allotment honey as I felt it had more oomph to it.

Honey bucket

Decapped allotment honey – dark and rich. Time to extract.


So we put the first three decapped frames in the electric extractor, and left it to spin – and spin, and spin. Every few minutes we checked hopefully to see how much was coming out. But only a trickle gathered at the bottom. Eventually, after about twenty minutes of churning, smoke began coming from the engine. At that point we admitted defeat. Our bees have decided that if we’re going to take their honey, we’re going to have to work for it!

Time for Plan B(ee). We cut the honey away from the foundation and mashed it through colanders. This removed most of the wax, but it will need to be more finely filtered using muslin.

Honey sieving

It’s a slow, time-consuming process. Emma is completing it at her flat – thanks Emma!

Honey buckets

Sadly, it means we have lost the valuable wax honeycomb cells the bees worked hard to produce. If we could have extracted the honey by spinning it out in the extractor, the comb would have remained intact and would have given our bees a head start next year.

So why is our honey so thick and awkward?

Well, what is honey? Most of us know it’s concentrated nectar, reduced in water content by the bees to around 18% water, at which point they cap the honey cells with wax and it’s ready to be extracted. Once nectar has been evaporated down to 18% water, what’s left is mainly sugar in the form of fructose and glucose. But the proportions of sugar types can vary enormously, so that some honeys will contain more fructose than glucose and vice-versa. On average honey will contain 38-40% fructose, 31-35% glucose, 1-3% sucrose and 17-19% water, along with about 2% minerals, pollen, protein and amino acids (The Honey Bee Around & About by Celia F Davis, Bee Craft Ltd 2009).

The type of sugars contained in honey are one of the factors affecting its viscosity – its thickness. Ted Hooper in his classic Guide to Bees and Honey (2010) explains the varying viscosity of honey:

“Viscosity is the name given to the property of a fluid which causes it to flow slowly, or which resists an object falling through it. … The viscosity of honey is mainly controlled by its gravity, and the lower the water content… the greater will be the viscosity.”

He goes on to say:

“Viscosity is also increased by the amount of colloid material in the honey. The colloids, which are probably small pieces of solid substances and large molecules and include proteins [pollen?], have a similar electric charge and so repel each other. This repulsion again offers a resistance to movement and increases the viscosity, higher in dark than light honey. The extreme example of this is heather honey which has moved beyond a viscous fluid to become a gel.”

He also mentions that honeys with a greater than average proportion of glucose to fructose will granulate more quickly, as glucose is less soluble in water than fructose and crystallises more quickly – oilseed rape honey is an example of this. High viscosity honey also slows down the rate of crystallisation, as molecules of sugar migrate through the honey more slowly. I would say our honey has a high fructose to glucose ratio, as it shows no signs of granulating yet. The 2011 honey we got never did crystallise.

About heather honey, Ted says “Extracting is a problem because the honey is a jelly and will not spin out of combs in the normal way. The jelly is thixotropic, and thus if it is stirred it becomes a fluid and can be extract normally. A form of stirring can be done in the comb using an implement which looks like a scrubbing brush set with fine steel needles for bristles.”

If we had such an implement, perhaps that would have helped – but it sounds very messy! We would love to get our honey tested to find out where the bees have been. Although it’s thick like heather honey, it seems unlikely that the bees have found large quantities of heather in west London. Elder (and younger!) beekeepers, have you ever had such problems extracting?

EDIT: Emma has now written a post on how she’s been getting our stubborn honey out. She’s been hard at work stirring each cell individually with a key… How to extract honey too thick to spin out of a perfectly good extractor.

Wildflowers, Walpole Park

Wildflowers, Walpole Park

Posted in Honey, Uncategorized | 42 Comments