Updated: Sep 28, 2021
Sept 2021 by Fred Warden
‘And we'll all go together In the wild mountain thyme All around the blooming heather Come on’
Van Morrison- Purple Heather... (1)
At the start of every season I plan to take the bees to The Mournes, late summer, in pursuit of the magical and almost mythical heather honey. However, it never seems to work out that way as inevitably the bees have different plans laid out for the year ahead and haven’t informed me.
Going to the Orchards marks the start of my bee season and going to the Heather seems a fitting end to what has been an extraordinary year for Irish beekeepers. Encouraged by the old hands’ stories of the particular difficulties in getting a crop of heather honey, it’s something I’ve always wanted to try.
Heather honey is, at best, an uncertain affair but when it works, it is surely the most prized and sought after honey of all. The wine red bell heather honey or the later flowering ling heather honey with its jelly consistency is the most difficult of all honeys to obtain.
Recent studies have shown Irish Ling honey has medicinal properties comparable to the very best manuka honey with the considerable advantage that it also actually tastes fabulous (ever tried manuka?) (2)
There are two distinct and overlapping types of heather available throughout the Mournes.
Bell Heather with its distinctive purple blaze usually begins to flower around the third week of July. Its flow of red nectar can begin at any point from then until the middle of August and may last just a few days or as much as ten or rather brilliantly may not even appear at all! Its honey has a distinctive brick red colour and is easily spun out in an extractor.
Ling Heather has a pale pink flower which can begin ten days or so into August and sometimes lasts until early September. Ling honey has a dark amber colour, a jelly-like consistency and cannot be spun out in an extractor. In its pure form, it has to be pressed in a specialist heather press.
Joe Thompson beside his heather honey press at his apiary on outskirts of Newcastle.
The bees need reasonable weather to work the heather, warmish days with minimal wind and nights not too cold so that they can process the nectar. Obviously conditions like this are at best hit and miss in the Mournes so the odds are already stacked up against success.
Colonies need to be as strong as is possible, preferably headed by new Queens who continue to lay well into late August, a time when colonies headed by older Queens are typically shrinking their brood nests and making preparations for winter. This is because you need the strongest force of foragers with continual supply of new bees coming on to take advantage of any available flow.
Beekeepers typically add frames of sealed brood to the colonies going to the heather so that the brood box is packed with brood, also forcing returning forager bees to place the nectar upstairs in the supers and not in the area vacated by a decreasing brood nest.
In the Ards Peninsula, the summer flow is effectively over late July and local beekeepers report their colonies in August are a bit cranky, defensive and bothered by wasps. In other words the bees have nothing to do.
I’ve always felt that happy bees are busy bees and if they haven’t something constructive to do, like gathering nectar, they’re more likely to hatch some mischief at odds with the best (or worst) laid plans of the beekeeper.
So what’s to lose, let’s go to the heather...
Fortunately, one of our association’s top beekeepers, Phelim Breen, (a not so old hand) was able to arrange a spot for our hives on the foot slopes of Slieve Binnian and so, an end of season road trip was undertaken, ending with us setting up the hives and opening the entrances as the sun rose across the Irish Sea with the majestic Mournes lit up behind us.
Sometimes we have the privilege to enjoy the best past time/hobby/mania in the world.
Phelim Breen getting a hive set up. Note east facing site so the bees benefit from early morning sun and wall giving shelter from any cold westerly winds.
Myself, Fred Warden about to release the bees to their new home.
Early on the bramble and clover were still yielding freely and the supers filled quickly, but really all I wanted was that elusive red nectar and each inspection frustratingly had not a speck of heather honey to be seen.
Perhaps it was going to be one of those years when even though the conditions all seemed perfect, the flow just would not appear. Despair was beginning to set in until, when I arrived on 8th August and even from 20 yards distance I could smell that incredible aroma of heather nectar being processed in the hives. Its a sensation I will never forget. I don’t think the actual flow from bell lasted long , maybe 4-5 days but the ling was still to come.
A newly drawn frame with dark red nectar
The weather held out for another 2 weeks and after that, the bell was past its best but the bees moved onto whatever ling was present and the colonies were then all brought home in first week of September.
Bees in full force mid August.
Extraction yielded enough bell honey and a little ling to call this year’s adventure a success. Would I go back next year?.....no doubt!
Bell heather honey vs bramble & clover summer honey
Ref (1) listen while reading.
Heather honey: A comprehensive guide - M Badger, exhaustive and exhausting account of heather honey
Honey Farming –R.O.B. Manley ,my all time favourite no nonsense guide to getting honey , he’s quite gruff and amusingly ‘doesn’t really care much for the taste of honey’
Thanks to Phelim Breen for all his help & patiently enduring my endless questions about taking bees to the heather, Darren Nugent, a Mournes beekeeper for his constant humour and encouragement (yes, Darren, you were right, I should have taken more colonies down!) and another Mournes beekeeper, Joe Thompson, a legend amongst Irish beekeepers.
I started Our Wee Bees back in the Bee Winter of mid February when it was snowing and what an amazing season it has turned out in Ireland. It was as if we got the normal Southern England blue sky-beekeeping of towering supers & easy queen rearing whilst across the water they’ve endured something more like our usual temperamental & moody climate, when you’re somehow always up against the elements.
However, beekeeping is not really about buckets of honey or types of bees... it’s about enjoying working with your bees. I’ve loved every moment & hope you all have too.
‘The beekeeping season can feel like a series of calamities interrupted by winter’
Only 24 weeks until all the chaos begins again...
All the best,