The Devon honey with as many health benefits as Manuka

PUBLISHED: 13:11 23 July 2020 | UPDATED: 13:11 23 July 2020

Bees forage for nectar from ling heather on Exmoor. Photo: Black Bee Honey

Bees forage for nectar from ling heather on Exmoor. Photo: Black Bee Honey


Bees foraging on Exmoor’s ling heather are making honey with special powers

Wild Heather flowers on Exmoor. Photo: Getty Images/iStockphotoWild Heather flowers on Exmoor. Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Honey has long been associated with health-boosting and healing properties. Historic medical accounts show it being used to treat sore throats, small wounds and minor burns. It’s been cited as improving digestive issues and even preventing tooth decay.

So when the producers of an Exmoor heather honey discovered that it scored top marks for its antimicrobial properties, they were over the moon.

“We were gobsmacked,” says Paul Webb of Black Bee Honey. Their Exmoor honey was tested by Minerva Scientific for its antimicrobial activity on a scale referred to as Total Activity. Any honey with a TA of greater than 10+ may have significant antimicrobial properties, which get more effective as the TA level increases. Their honey achieved a score of 21, putting it at the top of the scale and equivalent to a manuka honey rating. Manuka is a highly-prized honey produced in New Zealand which is famed for its health benefits.

Black Bee produces a range of honeys, all of which achieved a score of 10 or more, but, despite this, Paul isn’t shouting about any possible health benefits of eating his honey; his real mission is to celebrate the richness and diversity of British honeys and to encourage more of us to try them.

Black Bee Honey started with hives on roof tops in London. Photo: Black Bee HoneyBlack Bee Honey started with hives on roof tops in London. Photo: Black Bee Honey

Sharing his outlook is co-founder Chris Barnes. The two friends set up Black Bee Honey after becoming hooked on beekeeping. Both graphic designers, working in London and sharing a love of the outdoors, they attended a beekeeping course run by the London Beekeeping Association. They loved it, but it was only after Chris had been to New Zealand and worked on a bee farm that they thought about setting up a business together.

Initially they rented out hives at various locations across the city. While still working full time, they spent weekends attending to hives on the roofs of art galleries, universities – even ITV’s This Morning studio.

The London honey was sold under the postcode of where the hives were located. The honey became popular, and they started to look further afield. They began working with other beekeepers around the country, the first of which was Peter Little at Allerford on Exmoor.

“Peter sold us our first hives,” says Paul. “He has a lot of hives and has been producing on a large scale for a long time – he’s a ‘bee wizard’.”

Exmoor Heather Honey has special properties. Photo: Black Bee HoneyExmoor Heather Honey has special properties. Photo: Black Bee Honey

Choosing areas where there is low pesticide use and low intensity farming, they have grown the network to around 12 beekeepers. It’s led to a range of honeys with very different and unique characteristics.

For the Exmoor honey the hives are moved onto the moor to gather pollen and nectar from the ling heather. “It’s quite tricky as what we can source is quite low and it only blooms for a couple of weeks in the year,” says Paul.

The bees forage almost entirely on the ling but it’s still a very different honey to that which is gathered from ling growing on the Yorkshire moors. “This is very, very different, more like a traditional heather honey, quite dark and glossy,” says Paul. “The Exmoor honey is lighter in colour; they are both ling but different areas have different honeys.”

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Another variety is the Seaside Honey, where hives are kept on salt marshes and bees forage on sea lavender and there’s the Festive Honey which comes from bees foraging on ivy.

People are amazed at the difference in flavours, says Paul. “We do tastings with honeys and people are blown away by how different they are.”

Importantly, all their honeys are unblended and unpasteurised, so retaining their unique flavours and nutritional benefits – unlike most mass-produced honey.

“Honey has become just another commodity,” says Paul. “It’s become anonymous. It’s imported and blended and quality is not top of the list.”

Most imported honey now comes from China, where it’s produced on massive-scale farms. Although importers will check to make sure it’s genuine (there have been occasions when honey is bulked out with sugar syrup), it will be pasteurised and fine-filtered to remove the pollen. It’s to stop the natural, and harmless, process of granulation, says Paul, which means it can then be sold in squeezy bottles.

Paul and Chris are supporters of sustainable food production, which is why Black Bee Honey is going through a lengthy accreditation programme, the Bee Cooperation certificate, which tests all aspects of the business, from supplies and employment practices to products.

Chris still cares for the London hives, which are now located together in a walled garden in an East London nature reserve. Paul has left London to live in Somerset – perhaps it’s no surprise that he chose a house with a nest of native wild bees living in the garden wall. He’s busy introducing his young son to the joys of beekeeping, although “I’m waiting to see what happens when he first gets stung.” You can sense the mood of the bees when you open a hive, he says.

This is not a job to be rushed; it’s a mindful occupation.“It’s just great in that you have to be focused on the bees and nothing else and it does clear the mind,” says Paul. u

Ling, or common heather, is one of the species of heathers that grows on the acidic soil of Exmoor. It creates beautiful swathes of purple/pinks colours across the moor when it flowers in late summer. The plants grow densely and can live for up to 40 years.

As well as being loved by bees, ling has had a number of uses in the past, everything from fuel and animal food to bedding and thatching material. It was taken to North America by settlers from the Highlands who used it as a bedding material.

Heather’s coarse stems have been twisted into ropes and it’s even been made to make brooms – in its Latin name, Calluna vulgaris, Calluna is derived from the Greek word meaning ‘to brush’.

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