Bees and the honey they produce have always fascinated us. Mesolithic cave paintings show men harvesting honey. The Promised Land of Exodus flowed with it, The Ancient Egyptians embalmed people in it.
Meanwhile Aristotle, Homer and Virgil all wrote about bees, as did Shakespeare and Milton. For they may be just insects, but their social structure of queen, drones and workers is remarkably complex. They have been shown to be able to learn at a level normally associated with vertebrates. Famously, they communicate direction and distance from the hive to nectar sources using a mysterious dancing sign language known as the ‘waggledance’, the study of which by karl von Frisch was to earn him a Nobel prize in 1973. He correlated the patterns of the dance to the location of food from the hive, discovering that the dance’s orientation correlates to the position of the sun, while the length of the waggle portion of the dance correlates to the distance from the hive. A form of bee semaphore.
Today, this fascination carries on. According to the British Beekeepers Association membership has risen by a quarter to 11,000 in the past two years. And bees (which must tap around two million flowers to make just one pound of honey) are economically important too, with their ‘pollination services’ valued at between £120m to £200m a year. (Compare this to the value of UK honey – about £30m a year.)
It was this fascination that set me off last month to meet Tony Spacey, owner of the largest honey business in the UK. Winners of multiple awards. Sole producer in the country of active honey, our equivalent of New Zealand’s famed superfood manuka honey.
Maybe a few too many episodes of Miss Marple, but I was really excited. I’ve never been up close to a beehive, never handled the honeycombs, never worn the protective gear while surrounded by Tennyson’s ‘murmuring of innumerable’ bees. I had images of croquet and freshly squeezed lemonade in the vicar’s back garden.
“I’ll be in the car park,’ said Tony, ‘You can’t miss me. Blue range rover. Number plate 400 BEE”. I jumped in, and as we sped off in clinically clean, plush leather interior (striped in decidedly bee like way), I have to ask. ‘BEE I understand, but why 400’?
‘Cheap,’ comes the reply, with a brusque practicality to which I am about to get much more accustomed. A little more than five minutes later he swings the car onto not the rutted track to some windswept field of heather, but into a small industrial estate, stopping in front of the sign that reads ‘Littleover apiaries – the home of English honey.’ Not a bee in sight. And it’s raining.
Sat inside his small office a couple of minutes later, clutching a cup of tea made by a member of his mostly Polish workforce (“we pay them more than the English, because they work harder”), trying not to look at the scantily clad image of Miss May on the ‘Birds and the bees’ calendar hung behind his head, I begin digging for a life story, wanting to find the romantic image I have under the gruff, functional surface.
‘I got into bee farming because my hands won’t fit up their arse,’ he tells me by way of introduction. “I come from a farming background in southern Africa. When I was four I saw my grandfather’s arm well and truly buried in an uncomfortable place in a cow and the old boy turned and smiled at me and said “one day you can do this. From then on I decided to become a soldier.’ He spent 18 years as a paratrooper, leading bayonet charges in Angola, winning several medals and generally being ‘not really a pacifist’.
On leaving the army he came to England. He’d had some dealings with honey in the past, with his family keeping 1000 hives, (which wasn’t much by way of size in south Africa but is huge by UK standards). He says he looked around the UK sector and felt the general standards were ‘absolutely appalling’. He was stunned at the lack of technical knowledge about honey ‘British honey has evolved over the years to be a choice of runny or set,’ He explains. ‘Everything’s mixed together, the cropping methods used by the average beekeeper are laughable, appalling, the quality control is non existent, hygiene control in the industry is the worst in the world – Peruvian peasants have got better hygiene standards than your average british beekeeper – 60 percent of the members of the BHFA are operating in a totally illegal manner, and they call themselves the trade organization. I wouldn’t join that organisation if it came to me on bended knees.”
So seeing an industry ripe for improvement, just five years ago he set up as a beekeeper. He didn’t hang around. Within a year he was the biggest producer in Derbyshire. Within 2 years he was the biggest in the East Midlands. Four and half years later he was the biggest producer in the UK, with over 1000 hives handling between 250-300 tonnes of British honey each year.
And not just the biggest, but quite possibly the best. All of Littelover’s honey is cold extracted and filtered without the need for additional heat, protecting and keeping intact the natural enzymes and proteins that make honey such a healthful food. He shows me a test certificate showing that the equipment he uses to bottle his honey is exceeding legal minimum hygeine standards by a factor of 1000. It’s not that he thinks what he is doing is particularly impressive, rather that “just shows how slack the industry is. If we can do it, everyone can.”
Most importantly though, Littleover don’t attain these standards through the use of untold amounts of chemicals to keep their machinery clean, but through manpower, and high pressure steam cleaning, which creates no residue to leave behind. ‘People know that even though you wouldn’t taste the chemicals, if they eat our honey they aren’t there anyway. People want as natural a products as you can get and that’s what we provide them with – single flower honey, the way the bees have produced it.’
Everything for Tony is about reducing the amount of human interference after the honey leaves the hive. We can’t improve the honey is his argument, but we can do everything possible to keep it as close to what it was when it left the hive. Bees do their utmost to avoid mixing honeys brought in from different flowers, and he shows me the different coloured strata from a hive to prove it. So Tony produces single flower honeys rather than the blended honeys many other producers create (if the honey you see in the shops doesn’t name the flower in the title, such as borage, nettle or heather, its blended). It’s harder work, and means his honey costs more to produce, but it means the end result is ‘as the bees intended’. It’s similar to the difference between a single malt whisky, and a blended one. Each honey has a unique taste depending upon the flower involved.
Not that he stops there. He’s also the UK’s only producer of Active Honey, a superfood considered to have remarkable healing properties. All honey has some antibacterial activity, the result of hydrogen peroxide, which forms due to the presence of the enzyme glucose oxidase. However, how antibacterial honey is can vary hugely, with some no more so than sugar, while others can be more than 100 times more potent. Around 18 years ago researchers in New Zealand discovered that some samples of honey formed from bees visiting manuka plants has remarkable healing properties, especially applied topically for skin disorders and wounds that are not healing properly. Applying honey direct to the wounds allows them to remain moist which makes for easier, less painful, removal of dressings and scar-free healing. When eaten active honey is said to help digestive disorders and stomach ulcers.
Active honey also contains nearly every known nutrient required for a balanced human diet. Other than roughage and water it contains everything needed for totally complete and balanced human nutrition.
For reasons as yet unknown, it is not possible to know whether honey is ‘active’ or to what degree until one has tested it. It neither tastes different, nor looks different. It is only after expensive laboratory testing that one can be sure how ‘active’ the honey is and then legally claim to be selling active honey.
There’s something disarmingly honest about Tony. He’s vociferous about how open he is, about his best practices, telling me he made enemies in the honey industry for speaking the truth, and that he was threatened by bigger honey producers when he started. He states clearly that he’ll show anyone any part of his industry, and challenges anyone to show him a better product. He may be brash, but he’s got the awards to prove it, with perhaps most significantly, in the last two years they have won eight Gold, Silver & Bronze awards at the Great Taste Awards, the UK’s premier fine food awards
Not that he holds great stock by the awards he’s won either (despite promoting his victories prominently on their website). He may have won them eight times, but he says he won’t support the Great Taste Awards anymore because he says they have too many categories, thus debasing the awards. As he sees it its just a marketing con trying to get the great taste awards logo on as many products as possible. As he tells me this I start thinking about the number of products I’ve seen with the logo on and wonder if he might not have a point.
Devalued awards are only one of the many problems Tony is more than willing to hold forth on. There’s a been a lot in the press in recent years about the dramatic decline in bees in the UK and abroad. [The Ecologist wrote about it last issue]. Yet as Tony sees it, bees aren’t in trouble in the UK because of global warming (which he’s not sure is down to fossil fuels) or Colony Collapse Disorder (‘complete bunkum’). No. It’s amateur beekeepers. Tony tells me we are the only major country allowing amateur beekeepers to make and sell their honey. I’ve always thought it seemed rather a nice thing, all part of the village fete approach to life I cling nostalgically to. Tony’s having none of it.
He explains that 1000s of amateur beekeepers nationwide have overused the treatment to combat a disease called varroa, and the end result, over a period of time has been the development of treatment resistant mites. ‘For every good amateur beekeeper there’s 1000s that shouldn’t be allowed to keep goldfish, let alone bees. People just don’t realize the potential damage that they are doing.’
His argument bears some weight. If you keep cattle or pigs and keep them badly, you’re being cruel. But without direct contact you don’t affect the farmer five miles up the road. But bees fly for up to seven miles so if you keep them badly and they are infected they could infect bees from colonies up to 14 miles away. He cites several different instances of bad management to back up his case, such as one in Staffordshire last year where a senior amateur beekeeper was selling nucleus colonies (starter colonies) which he knew had foul brew, a disease so contagious that once proven DEFRA come along dig a whole three foot wide by three foot deep, light a bonfire in the bottom of the whole and tip the hive into it – ‘foot and mouth for bees’ as Tony has it.
‘We are the last western country that allows unlicensed beekeeping,’ he explains. ‘The sooner we ban it the better for the environment, the better for the bees and certainly the better for the honey industry.’ He tells me that just a couple of weeks earlier he’d seen DEFRA’s senior bee inspector told Tony that 85 per cent of British bees should be put down because they are so badly bred.
In fact, Tony explains, the situation is so bad that most commercial honey producers in the UK are having to now import their queens, either from Scandinavia, or more typically from the Greek Islands. It’s a system that has little of the romance of local beekeeping. They find an island too remote for bees to reach other islands, eradicate the native strain of bee, and then breed a stronger train of bee, ironically originally an English variety – the Buckfast – but bred in Greece to ship to the UK for our hives.
Tony may not conform to my cherished beekeeping stereotype. But then, so what if he doesn’t appear like an extra from a Merchant ivory film? He strives to deliver as pure and natural product ‘as the bees intended’. He provides a natural pollination service to farmers for miles around. He is the only producer in the UK of active honey, thus providing a locally grown product to UK shoppers that previously they could only buy from the other side of the world in new Zealand. He even pays his workers well. Tony reminded me a world of diversity and variety is one where you can’t always get what you want. But, as he also proves, more importantly you just might get what you need.