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July Star Species: The Honey Bee

If bees disappear then the human race follows shortly afterwards. That’s the story we’ve come to believe. But is it true?  And if so, what can we do about it?

The simple answer is, no, it’s not true – but, as is often the case, there is a seed of truth at the centre of it. Let’s find out more about honey bees, why we need them and why they need us.

The folk at Heather Hills Farm, in the fruit laden valleys of Perthshire in Scotland, have been keeping bees for over 60 years. They supply our Ardgartan Argyll and Strathyre locations with a selection of delicious honeys, Perthshire fruit preserves and even a skincare range using natural ingredients. And, with 1300 hives and 52 million honey bees, what they don’t know about bees isn’t worth knowing.

Honey bee sitting on heather

The importance of bees

The hives at Heather Hills Farm are just being moved from the fields of fruit to the heather-clad hillsides. The blossom honey the bees have been making since early summer will be taken over by the richer and more complex heather honey, prized for its intense flavour and its health-giving properties.

It is in going about their daily business of collecting nectar that bees are helping our survival. Mark Noonan, Managing Director at Heather Hills Farm, says, “It is all about pollination. As they buzz from flower to flower, bees pollinate the plants. Without pollination, the plants would die and without plants, well, there is no ecosystem to support our own needs.”

And, as this week is Bee’s Needs Week (09 July – 17 July 2016) there is no better time to discuss the importance of pollinators to our ecosystem.

Honey bee

Save our honey bees!

It’s not as apocalyptic as the stories tell us, bees of course are not the only pollinators but they are important pollinators and they are in decline. Says Mark, “Wild bees have reduced in numbers. However commercial beekeeping now plays an active role in the survival of the species. Every time you buy a jar of Heather Hills Farm honey or preserves you are playing your own small part in maintaining the delicate balance of the ecosystem and the ongoing health of the honey bee population.”

An insight into how the natural balance is maintained by local producers can be found in Heather Hills Farm’s ‘diversification’ into preserves. “Here at Blairgowrie, in summers past, hundreds of workers came from far and wide for the fruit-picking season. However fruit production has declined significantly since those days, throwing into doubt the future of the famous Perthshire raspberry, and with it our own future – we needed that fruit to be growing for our bees to produce honey.”

Mark came up with a simple but brilliant solution; Heather Hills Farm became a customer of the fruit farms and started to produce Heather Hills Farm preserves. “We guarantee the fruit farmers a level of sales at a sensible price, which makes their operations economically viable. Our bees are satisfied, the soft fruit farmers’ futures are more secure and customers can now enjoy a range of fruit preserves that are grown, produced and packaged here in Perthshire. Everybody wins and a traditional way of life is maintained for the foreseeable future.”

Honey bee extracting nectar

How do bees make honey?

While at Heather Hills Farm we meet Head Beekeeper, Aaron Young, and ask him how and why bees produce honey. Aaron explains, “In the spring and summer bees collect nectar from the flowers and take it back to the hive. The bees use enzymes and evaporation to convert the nectar into honey in the hive. This provides food for the young bees and for the queen bee. And of course this is where we gather our honey from. So as you can see, honey is a totally natural product”

Read more about the lives of the Heather Hills bees in Aaron’s Beekeeper Diary but before we let him go we have one more question: Aaron, have you ever been stung? “Of course I have, almost as often as I have been asked that question!”

Bee keeping at Heather Hills Honey

How you can help the honey bees

Heather Hills Farm runs a scheme called Adopt a Hive. You can adopt a single bee or a complete hive and the Gold level of the scheme includes a day’s beekeeping with Aaron and the team as well as supplies of honey. The money raised goes towards bee conservation and research.

You can also follow #BeesNeeds on Twitter for tips on how to encourage bees into your garden. And of course, as Mark says, every jar of Heather Hills Farm honey or preserve you buy is making its own small contribution to the survival of the species.

Stay at Ardgartan Argyll or Strathyre where you can buy the Heather Hills Farm range from our Forest Retreat and if you fancy a trip into the Perthshire hills you can visit the farm too.

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