Scotland’s honey farms optimistic despite pressures on their industry.
Heather Hills honey farm’s founder Athole Kirkwood was attracted to Blairgowrie in the 1940s by the great swathes of raspberry blossom the region was famed for. Mark Noonan has run the farm now for over 20 years, and explains that, though much of the raspberry blossom has disappeared since Kirkwood’s heyday, the diversity of nectar still brings the bees back to the hive ‘like jet fighters’.
‘The great thing about Perthshire is it’s the start of the Highlands and the heather’s just a few miles away,’ he says. ‘Heather honey is seen as the premium honey, and it’s a distinctively Scottish product.’
Heather honey is a mono-floral honey, meaning it comes predominantly from just one plant’s nectar. This gives it its distinctively strong, rich flavour. Getting to the heather, however, doesn’t just require work from the bees.
‘Beekeeping is very labour intensive,’ says Noonan, who currently has 750 live hives over a 100 mile stretch of farmland (he lost over 30% in 2013’s spring – the worst he’s ever seen). ‘You get blossom honey from May to June, and then the hives are moved to heather in July. They need checking once every ten days; they swarm if the hive gets too full, taking their honey with them.’
Noonan and Andrew Scarlett, owner of Perthshire’s other major honey brand Scarletts (Scotland), both maintain that the weather has far more impact on bee survival rates than pesticides. Currently unable to keep up with demand for their honey after five years of bad weather, they believe the cycle is due to swing in their favour and production will start going up again.
As wild honey bees have died out, it’s Scottish producers that have kept Scotland’s bee population healthy. ‘Local honey keeps the producer going, keeps the species going, and keeps the pollination going,’ says Noonan. ‘Buy from the packer, and one day he’ll have no producers to buy from.’
‘It sustains jobs and supports Scottish agriculture,’ adds Scarlett, ‘as well as ensuring provenance and quality. Our bees’ pollination is worth hundreds of millions of pounds to farmers, yet without them, we wouldn’t be in business.’