Show Notes

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Did you know that only 7% of honey consumed in the UK is from British bees?

It’s a crazy stat and Hive & Keeper are on a mission to change it. They’re a social enterprise that aim to support British beekeepers, pay them a fair price and bring a diverse range of great tasting products to honey lovers across the country.

Tune in to learn some fascinating facts about honey, bees, beekeeping and building a social enterprise.

In this episode you’ll learn

  • How and why honey tastes different – even if it comes from the same geographic area
  • How many visits to flowers make up a 224g jar of honey
  • What a honey wheel is
  • Why so we import so much honey in the UK
  • Where the majority of honey consumed in the UK really comes from
  • The difference between a good beekeeper and a bad one

Notes & Links

Hive & Keeper Honey Club subscription

Read more about Hive & Keeper on Eco & Beyond

Social Enterprise UK

For more bee-related podcast episodes, listen to Kath Austin from BeeBee Wraps talk about their plastic-free alternative to clingfilm.

Episode Transcript

Guy: [00:00:05] You’re listening to Good Foodies and this is episode 21. I’m currently standing in the back garden of Emily Abbott, she’s an amateur beekeeper and the founder of Hive and Keeper, a online honey subscription service which brings a wonderful range of British honeys to the public here in the UK. I can see two hives in front of me and they’re buzzing with activity and we’ve just been upstairs having an amazing chat about all the fantastic work that they’re doing at Hive and Keeper to really put British honey on the map. So I’m going to slowly back away from the hives and let’s turn over to that interview that I’ve just done with Emily.

The Interview

Emily: [00:00:47] It was probably the bees that actually that came first. I’m a London beekeeper. I’ve always loved insects, I think stag beetles for the first love and then bees buzzing around the garden around the lavender and things that are a childhood memory. So I started keeping bees in my back garden in Southwest, London.

Emily: [00:01:05] It’s the size of a sort of pocketchief,a standard London garden but I had two hives in it and both hives produce completely different honeys and that was an amazing surprise to me. I had assumed at that point that honey tasted the same from an area and that it wouldn’t be that specific or nor did I realise how different it tasted to the money that you buy in the supermarket. And it was that moment really that started Hive and Keeper, the wanting to bring the excitement of discovering how varied they all are and how different they are in terms of their taste, their colour,their textures. But I’m also wanting to help support local beekeepers. I suppose people like me who are producing small amounts, who aren’t sales people. They’re beekeepers. They’re doing a brilliant job of looking after our bee population but when it comes to selling on and helping to get the finance to support their business, it’s harder for them. And so, Hive and Keeper really is to support those people to give them a platform through which we can get gorgeous local honeys out around the country and also to be bringing people the excitement of discovering how different honey tastes wherever it’s from.

Guy: [00:02:28] Amazing yeah, and we’ll come on to talk about your platform and then all the amazing things you’re doing to support local honey and the local beekeepers. But just going back to that thing that you talked about with your two hives in the garden, which I’ve just been to see it’s like the cutest little set up. It is amazing and you’ve got one hive that has you know buzzing of activity and one that’s kind of just getting started and the fact that it was two completely different flavours of honey from two hives in the same garden. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Emily: [00:02:58] Yes, Bees, Honey Bees forage in a particular way. I can’t remember the technical term, so you have to excuse me but bumblebees will flit from one type of plant to another gently meandering around collecting pollen. Bees, the honey bees will find a forage that they want a natural or a pollen source that they need and then they will go back to the hive, do the famous waggle dance, where they’re telling all of their sisters, effectively their co-workers where the forage is and they will be leaving the hive, finding it and they’ll work it until that lavender bush, that tree has run out of the next and the pollens that they want and so they not only does it make them very efficient pollinators because they’re all sticking to the same flower but it also means it’s very easy for another hive to be working another bush in huge quantities and jump around a bit. But one of the things that I love about honey and this is the connection between that and bee behavior, and so the baby bees, the larvae, are effectively sending out pheromones to the rest of the hive saying this is what I need to eat now in order to grow. And so they’re almost updating the adult bees with information, saying “feed me this, feed me this, feed me this” at particular times which means that the colony has to go and find different things. They’re not all finding the same thing. It depends on what their hive needs and they all need diversity of food in the same way we need a varied diet. They need a varied diet so there’s a lot that goes on and around it. They say there are over a million visits to flowers in a 224 gram jar of honey. That’s why they’re impossible to replicate.

Guy: [00:04:53] Wow it’s just incredible and I had no idea that it was kind of part of their diet almost. And so does that mean that even with a single hive like one of the ones in your back garden for example, Will the honey flavour change over time? because they need completely different things.

Emily: [00:05:11] The honey flavour changes. So Yeah, the honey that you tried now was taken off the hive last week. By now the flowers will be changing different ones the big coming out.

Emily: [00:05:21] They’ll be on to something else. And so the honey that they make from now, for the next couple of weeks will be different. So honey is almost like a photo, like a snapshot in time say encapsulate what the weather was like, what the plot forage was like and what the bees needed at that particular moment.

Guy: [00:05:39] It’s just amazing and it kind of speaks to the complexity of nature as well as the amazing different flavours. Let’s talk a little bit about the different kind of flavour profiles. Can you tell me more about how they, how those kind of different flavours break down?

Emily: [00:05:51] Yes. So honey is a little bit in the same way that you taste a wine. You can do the same with honey and there has been a honey tasting wheel I suppose developed to help, to help people like me classify honey flavours and it was done in America at the University of California and took them over a year to develop with hundreds of tasters tasting literally thousands of samples of honey.

Emily: [00:06:22] The wheel has many different categories from quite unpleasant ones like animal, which I don’t sell to things which are much nicer, which I do so the floral honeys, London honeys is typically a floral honey and has, you can taste perhaps elder flower in it and you can taste. Sometimes they taste great.

Emily: [00:06:45] Rose likes quite dried flower potpourri you can get in the lavender of course. Those sorts of elements come through. Then there are fruitier honeys where you can always taste lychee coming through sometimes, apples you get coming through, berries of course, apricots,raisins, dried fruit. It is extraordinary the the different flavours you can find. And the fresher ones, fresh is the word used to describe them but they’re more,more grass-like, more herbaceous, more. They have a fresher element then perhaps a little bit eucalyptus sometimes but meadow, that sort of flavour. All seed rape is a honey that often comes into that category or can be quite. You can get caramel honeys. Heather honeys is a good example of that than just I’ve got one at the moment which is just pure toffee. Nothing other than eating sweets in a nice way with the honey flavours of course to it. There are spicy honeys so you can find a honey that has as sort of a nutmeg kick to it or even curry flavours coming through, a nutty hand is. So you find some which have walnut for example. All of those different elements can can come through.

Emily: [00:08:04] I mean of course they will taste like honey in the way that wine always taste that wine but there are definite very clear differences between them all and that’s how I categorize them all to try and help people navigate what is a minefield.

Guy: [00:08:21] Yeah I can imagine it is. I guess this leads on to the question which is why do most people not know this and I guess the answer in short is because most honey in the supermarket just doesn’t taste of anything other than generic honey. And so why is that?

Emily: [00:08:37] Most of the honey that bought or sold is a blend, And I suppose it’s part perhaps it’s I don’t know which way it came. Perhaps it’s driven by consumers wanting to have the same thing every time and knowing what they’re getting. And also retailers wanting to know that it is, It’s both sides of the coin. I don’t think retailers are to blame particularly. It means that if you blend a honey you make it the same and I suppose you make it appeal to as broad an audience as possible so supermarket honey doesn’t have the depth or the complexity to it or the long, so the honey comes straight from the hive has a very long flavour to it. You can feel it a long time in your mouth. Supermarket honey is over much quicker I suppose and the blends that supermarkets are way huge consumers of honey in this country. We import tons of stuff and most of it is coming from from abroad in massive, massive barrels.

Guy: [00:09:44] Most of it from China, isn’t it? About 40 percent from China?

Emily: [00:09:48] Yes 40 percent of the honey that’s sold in the UK is imported from China. Only 7 percent is British. Everything else is an import from EU and non-EU and if you go to your supermarket and pick up a jar of honey and look at the back you’ll find that it’s the blend of all sort. Well EU and non-EU is usually not more specific than that. That’s really why people don’t realise. I suppose at some level we, we’re used to honeys tasting different when you buy something like a lavender honey. You can buy ahead the honey, you can buy so that we become or a set or a runny honey. So we get used to those differences but whenever I have people tasting honeys which to all intents and purposes are normal.

Emily: [00:10:36] They’ve just foraged on gardens and allotments and trees and woodland and fields. They haven’t been nothing special has gone on. People are amazed at how different they all are.

Emily: [00:10:49] I mean clearly different. You don’t have to have a sophisticated palette to work that out and that’s one of the most exciting things is watching people’s faces when they discover what it really does taste like and how it can taste.

Guy: [00:11:02] Yeah and that’s a huge part of the work that you do at Hive and Keeper is this kind of discovery concept and perhaps will come on in a little bit to talk about that and how you kind of bring together both the beekeepers and then the consumers with all the different kinds of honey that you’ve got. But let’s just come back to that stat which was 7 percent of the honeys sold in the UK is from the UK. That’s an unbelievably low number. Why is it so low?

Emily: [00:11:27] Mainly money I think it’s importing honey from China or other European, non European countries. It is incredibly cheap, incredibly cheap. Beekeepers here can it couldn’t sustain an income on those sorts of prices. That’s why, I mean Manuka Honey is incredibly expensive to import but the British are one of the largest consumers of Manuka Honey. We absolutely one of their key markets. So we’re prepared to pay an awful lot for that but not for not in the same way for the other.And I think it is really that.

Guy: [00:12:05] And so does a struggling industry here in the UK you know we can sustain the people who are creating this wonderful product and such a diverse range of things. And so that’s something that you’re trying to help people with which is fantastic. The bees themselves are massively in decline as well aren’t they. Something like there was an 18 percent drop in bee colonies I think within just two years like to 2014 to 2016. Can you speak a little bit to the scale of this problem?

Emily: [00:12:33] The bee decline is probably there are loads and loads of different species of bee about 270 different species and honeybee is just one of them. Now the British honeybee is a lucky in that they’re farmed so they’re look after. If they’re looked after by a good beekeeper they have been checked for diseases and so on. We’re losing commercial honey bees. I suppose bees went from hobbyists upwards because it’s hard for people to make a living out of it. We do have diseases like varroa and things like that but they’re treatable and farmed bees can be looked after. But our biggest problems are in terms of lost of habitat really for solitary bees,the other bees to live in and for our honey bees to forage on. Every year you will see a decline in bee numbers because bees,honey bees there will be some sort of natural death I suppose of a colony over winter whether they survive or not or come out the other side. So there will always be a decline but there should also always be a pick up during spring spring and summer. The UK honey bees are at the moment okay. We don’t have the same issues that they have in America where they stress them so much by transporting them, that’s a huge monoculture places where they don’t get that diversity of diet and things like that. But we’re in danger of reducing our own diversity, plant-diversity here for our bees.

Guy: [00:14:18] And so by supporting the local beekeepers here in the UK, Are you also helping to kind of reinvigorate bee population or are those two things not related?

Emily: [00:14:27] They are related I suppose from a Hive and Keepers’ perspective. I want to reinvigorate the bee population but only if it’s being looked after by good beekeepers. I don’t want bad beekeepers to be doing it because then we get spread of disease and things like that.

Emily: [00:14:49] So I am very keen that we have an industry here that we can sustain and that allows for good ones to look after more is really what I’m about.

Guy: [00:15:06] And so what are some of the things that you’re doing to help the beekeepers and to support them perhaps both in terms of the platform that you’ve created and then also some of the other kind of social and sustainability initiatives that you’re working towards.

Guy: [00:15:18] Let’s start off with the platform and how hiving keeper works as a business.

Emily: [00:15:22] It works and that I buy honey. This is specific to an apiary and a harvest, And an apiary is the word for a collective of hives.

Emily: [00:15:34] I suppose. So if my garden is effectively an apiary with two hives in it at the moment clearly not enough for a business but enough to give me the idea and to understand the differences with it about honey and so really it is an extension of that.

Emily: [00:15:52] I find beekeepers who have the right sort of ethos about looking after bees. I go and visit them. I look at their apiaries, I know that they’re clean and hygienic and that the bees are looked after and I know that they’re not feeding them sugar or anything like that and that they’re only taking honey that’s spare for the bees. It’s important that the bees are given you know allowed to benefit from the rewards of their own labor. They come first and if they’re spared then we’ll take it. I support beekeepers who have good,good beekeeping practice. So answer your question.

Guy: [00:16:34] Absolutely. I mean that’s totally the beginning of it. And so you supporting these , these beekeepers who are good beekeepers. I just like the idea of that there could be good ones and bad ones. I mean it’s you know, but it makes perfect sense right. And so how does it work? They kind of put the honey into jars on their end and then bring it to you or can you explain the technicalities of it?

Emily: [00:16:55] I go and visit them and they said they, the beekeepers will have taken their harvest and so they will have taken the frames off this extra and they will of they will have extracted the honey and by extraction I mean knew you,when the honey is honey is effectively nectar.

Emily: [00:17:14] And so when the bees collect has quite a high water content and so what the bees do is within the hive, they take the water level down so it’s always the constant temperature within the hive however hot it is outside or have a cold it is. They’re amazing sort of heat controllers says about 35 both between 35 and 40 degrees and the hive.

Emily: [00:17:38] And that helps to take water out of the nectar and when it’s below 20 percent, the bees will cap it. And by capping it I mean they’ll put wax on top of that cell because at that level it won’t ferment. There’s too little water in the honey now. Honey for the natural yeasts and things to start fermenting and turn into alcohol effectively. So they cap it with wax and that will, that’s what keeps honey fresh and stable for as long as as long as they’re like that effectively and that’s how they store it for over winter. So during the winter time when there is no there are no plants and things may have to keep alive. They’ll take the wax cappings off and eat the honey and that’s where they’re guessing their their energy.

Emily: [00:18:31] So the beekeepers will have taken off the extra and they will have just sliced off those wax cappings and then put the frames in effectively a very big salad spinner and the honey will have been turned or spun and the honey comes flying out of the frame and then literally all that happens is that’s then run through a sieve, the sort of wire mesh sieve you’d have in your kitchen at home and push into a bucket, i mean a food grade bucket not a bucket bucket. Don’t worry.

Emily: [00:19:06] They come in a proper sterilized food grade buckets and it’s those buckets that I’m that I am buying. So I go and collect them so that I buy them from different harvests and different apiaries that they have and I bring them back in jar and label.

Guy: [00:19:25] Now this makes sense.So we’re recording this interview in your home and I came in downstairs and I saw what I thought was a garage full of paint and I thought oh she must be redecorating but now it all makes sense.

Guy: [00:19:35] These are buckets of honey that you’ve got downstairs from all these different places and so can you give some kind of insight as to how many different beekeepers you worked with from from where across the country?

Emily: [00:19:47] Yes there are about 30 beekeepers.

Emily: [00:19:52] I suppose there are quite a lot from Sussex I suppose. I work with one beekeeper there who has a part time day job and then is building up her beekeeping business, then in her afternoons and has apiaries around Sussex. I work with another beekeeper there. They’re just lovely. They are growing wildflower meadows they’ve turned their their farm into fishing lakes and the acres and acres have been turned over to wildflower meadows with the express aim of encouraging native species and pollinators and is just the most beautiful spot. Very lucky bees and very lovely honey too. And then there are people in Barnsley who keep bees than allotments, others who take their bees to the harvest and to the heather. So they’re a combination of people who are making a living with honey and things around bees that education and so on and others who are literally like me hobbyist beekeepers with just a few hives and they’re now back gardens and things.

Guy: [00:21:07] And in terms of where you sell this then so you have your own online shop I believe and you also sell through some other online platforms like farm drop. Is that everything or do you sell in other places as well?

Emily: [00:21:20] We sell in a few other places. Through the website, I sell honey clubs subscriptions and things as well as individual jars and gift sets. But really my part of it is the subscription element, the honey club element that I sell through notonthehighstreet.com as well. So there of course all of the gift sets the collections I suppose where you get the story of the beekeeper and the honey plus the different ones to taste and explore and I sell through National Trust shops in Maine in the southeast which is good to Farmdrop. And then markets actually quite a lot of quite a lot of fairs.

Emily: [00:22:06] And Christmas is already on my,oh even in the 29 degrees heat for Christmas markets on my mind.

Guy: [00:22:14] Amazing. So one thing that I find really interesting is that this is a very kind of traditional approach to not growing honey but you know farming the honey I guess a bit. Farming just sounds like the wrong word. And yet then you’ve put a really modern twist on it with like a subscription and a discovery and that you can get it all online. Was that something that came naturally to you or was it something that you just thought well this is the only way?

Emily: [00:22:38] It was. Did it come naturally? I don’t know that it came naturally but it is seemed to be the most sensible way of getting.

Emily: [00:22:48] Well there are lots the good things about subscription service obviously but the most important thing I really want to do is to get these different honeys into people’s homes so they could get it, so not get as an have it but just understand how different honey is and enjoy the excitement of it without me having to be stood behind a table at a store saying try this one now this one. And that’s also why I like the gift collections as well as not I can put different things together so that people again have that sense of wow. Blimey that’s good.

Guy: [00:23:28] And you are taking that experience that you have gained through your, you know many years and fascination with honey and you’re kind of becoming a honey curator almost to me saying like oh these ones would go really well together because they’re also different which I think is just fantastic and something else that’s very big in the Hive and Keeper brand is kind of sustainability and being a social enterprise and I believe that recently you were just given your social enterprise status, Is that correct?

Emily: [00:23:53] Yeah I’ve joined also a member of the Social Enterprise UK which I’m really pleased about then what it really is is the reflection of it’s how I want to do business.

Emily: [00:24:06] I think we’ve all worked for or come across,this way perhaps lose sight of what it really is that you want to do or the people involved or just it sounds says some sort of numpty but a touchy feely. But it is important that I always remember that Hive and Keeper is only ever as good as the beekeepers and their honeys and I really wanted to be a collective expense where we’re much better than some of other than some of our parts I suppose. And so that’s the of course there has to be a business, it has to make money otherwise it doesn’t doesn’t work. It has to do that by supporting those beekeepers. I don’t, I don’t want to be one of those honey brands that buys honey in massive drums and it just loses all of the individuality and all of those stories, all of that providence behind it.

Guy: [00:25:17] I mean it is great to hear and it is very much what we’re all about on this show. Can you talk a little bit to some of the social impact stuff that you’re doing? or how your kind of weaving that through the business practices? and how you’re helping the beekeepers from that kind of social element?

Emily: [00:25:32] It’s early days. So at the moment the help is really in paying. I pay them all a fair price that’s important as well it’s not, it’s not a rush to the to the bottom. So they get relatively, relatively well paid for honey by me that’s important. I will take as much as I can from them. It’s a new business. I want to get to the stage where I am almost like operating the same way as one of a dairy co-operative head space where I am guaranteeing to take all of their honey that they want to sell to me at a particular, at a particular price. They can then go on and plan their businesses. I want to get to the stage where at the moment were that 30 beekeeper’s it needs to be it needs to be larger and the business needs to get on to firm financial footing, that I want to get to the point where it’s not just the benefit of being, I can’t get the words. At the moment we’re all greater by being united in that we can they can get their honeys to a national market by going through this.

Emily: [00:26:51] I want to also to have the power to get perhaps discounts the better prices. Beekeeping equipment that sort of, that sort of angles the things that can support their businesses or hobbies as a result of being part of a larger group. I also want to bring honey festivals like that to the country so that we’re getting more beekeepers out meeting people just sharing the sharing the passion and so on. So possibly the way that I’m doing it at the moment is more of a wish list of where it wants to be then actually doing it. But I hope in a year or two is time if you ask me the same question, I’d be able to to show you more.

Guy: [00:27:41] But I think it always starts with a vision doesn’t it? It’s you have to know where you want to go and what you want to do and who you want to help. And it sounds like that is very concrete and present in your approach which is brilliant. Just to kind of wrap things up, this sound that you mentioned that it’s a new business and that you’re trying to do this thing and really put British honey on the map which is, no mean feat, when currently only 7 percent of it is UK honey. So what are some of the, what are some of the challenges you’re facing at the moment? and how are you overcoming some of those?

Emily: [00:28:12] The challenges are working out scalability really, because the fact that seven percent start that we keep on going back to. If I, if I really want to change that then it has to be millions of jars of honey, It can’t just be a few thousand and I mean I would be very happy with it being a small business but actually I want to make, I do want to make an impact so that scalability then comes in to us and of course that’s where so many brands have ended up buying drums of honey and importing them working out how to do, how to do that and how to overcome that by by keeping the small person involved, small, you know what I mean, small producers are involved in something that’s mass market is the challenge but yeah I’m sure there’s a way.

Guy: [00:29:12] And a challenge very much worth overcoming and when you have a big challenge like that it almost gives you more momentum and more drives because it’s you know it’s not simple and so you have to go and you know really innovate to solve it and it sounds like that’s very much what you’re doing.

Guy: [00:29:28] So just one final question, your, On your journey to creating an impact and it sounds like everything is going really well. I’ve had the opportunity to taste some of the honey and its amazing, What would be something that you’ve learnt that you would give as a piece of advice to somebody else starting out on their kind of social enterprise for food journey?

Emily: [00:29:47] My piece of advice,I think, the one thing that stuck with me is that I’ve always, my background is a market researcher, which is helpful for my background but I equally I’m not a honey producer. I am not used to logistics and things like that so that’s been most enormous sort of learning curve and there continues to be and I nicely call it learning really it’s making shedloads some mistakes and being furiously sucks you have no one else to blame.

Emily: [00:30:22] Which is really, really annoying and one of the most painful, painful things but I’ve always been sorry that I well that’s a good idea but I’m sure someone else’s, someone else be doing that but other people will have had this idea.

Emily: [00:30:37] Other people will be trying it. They haven’t done it yet, you know so why not me, why not you if you have an idea it won’t be you won’t be the only one but you might be the only one who decides to actually have a go. And I think that’s, that’s the difference then that made a huge difference to my mindset when you realise that you didn’t have to come up with the one thought that no one else ever heard had. You know, in just you might be the only person to have a go.

Guy: [00:31:12] That was Emily Abbott from Hive and Keeper. And you can find out more about them and buy their honey online at hiveandkeepercom. So pardon the pun but a short and sweet episode for you today.

Guy: [00:31:28] Next week, we’ll be back with yet another interview for you. And I’ll be talking to Ben Pugh, the CEO of Farm Drop. They call themselves the “ethical grocer” and they’ve just recently raised 10 million pounds as part of their mission to fix the food supply chain here in the U.K. So it’s a great interview. Do join us next week for that one. In the meantime if you want to catch up on any of the past episodes then do head over to our website, goodfoodies.co.uk. You can listen to everything there online. So thanks so much for joining us today. We really appreciate it as always. And we’ll see you next time. Cheers.