After a rather fit full minibus journey across the border, several miles south of Berwick upon Tweed, we arrived at a small farm holding - a place that time seemed to have collected in. Surrounding the collection of understated buildings, was a collection of machinery and vehicles from years gone past... parked alongside the sleek black delivery van was a dark green, rather worn-looking, double decker bus advertising its use as a cafe... next to that was a rather large piece of farming machinery painted bright orange clearly named "Little Geordie", and we had passed by two red double decker buses advertising their final destination as "Picadilly Circus"... it appears they became slightly lost over the years.
There was also a viewing hive in this area, glass covering one wall so you could see how the hive was arrange, where the queen stayed and how the bees behaved generally. We peered into the hive before it was covered back up so as to maintain the heat the bees had worked hard to gather.
The other walls were covered in educational posers, discussing how the bees see to the phenomenon of "bee beards", the idea of swarms to honey and its related products.
Heather re-appeared with tea before we moved through to the office with Willie. In true tutorial fashion we sat in a semi-circle, Willie in prime position in front of us, answering the barrage of questions and in his own time and way, explaining the history of bees and bee-keeping. The knowledge of bee-keeping it seems it passed down the generations, directly from father to son, and in this way is one of the true forms of family business remaining. Willie barely employs anyone external from his own family, as he insists that bee keepers are to live and work on the same premises and within the same area as the bees. Hence why we met his wife, two daughters and glimpsed at his son during the day, all deep within their own tasks in the business.
Willie thinks bee, he has grown up and cared for the hives all his life, working with the bees is a natural state for him, their concerns are his concerns.
He speaks in a slow, haltering fashion, his mind flickering back and forth over a range of topics, finding his tangents and storming along the path before realising that wasn't exactly the point he'd been originally making.
The all black honey bee, Apis mellifera, is the variety that Willie keeps within his hives, he's never used any imports and he doesn't export his bees. Depending on where the hives are, the bees attune to that environment, moving the hives too far or seriously altering the external environment of the hives, can cause mass death within the bee population. When moving the hives, Willie prefers to do it very late at night or very early in the morning, when the large majority of the bees will be in the hive - Willie's hives have a summer and winter location; in the winter they're sheltered from the harshness of the Scottish winter where possible and in the summer, they are moved to local farmers land to help pollinate the area.
The Californian industry of honey-making is highly damaging to the bees, and Willie clearly feels deeply about the subject. The idea of exporting or using imported bees is just not considered, imported bees aren't used to this environment he states, mixing the gene pool is good to a degree, but they can lose immunities to diseases this way, such as the ability to groom each other which can stop the bee-disease varroa spreading.
Varroa was brought into the country with an import of bees, the breed Apis mellifera aren't adapted to this disease, and it has killed thousands. The disease was first discovered in Southeast Asia around 1904, and was identified in the UK in 1992. Varroa is a genus of parasitic mites, that feed off the bodily fluids of adult, pupal and larval honey bees, similar to other parasites they can carry other diseases that are particularly damaging to the bees e.g. deformed wings. They have accordingly been implicated in Colony Collapse Disorder - a phenomenon in which worker bees from a beehive abruptly disappear. There have only been a couple of other diseases that have wiped out bee populations in such numbers before, an example is the "Isle of Wight" disease that caused a mass wipe-out during the World Wars.
The survival of such diseases within the beehive is impressive, as a beehive is known to be one of the most hygienic places on earth. Propolis is a resinous mixture that the honey bees collect from tree buds, sap flows, or other botanical sources. It is used as a sealant for unwanted open spaces in the hive, it is used for small gaps, approximately 6mm or less, whereas bigger gaps are filled with beeswax. It is commonly a dark brown colour, easily identifiable from the honey, however the colour can differ slightly depending on its original botanical source.
Originally beekeepers assumed propolis was just used to protect the colony against the elements, however 20th century research has shown that propolis is actually believed to:
- Reinforce the structural stability of the hive
- Reduce vibration
- Make the hive more defensible by sealing alternative entrances
- Prevent diseases and parasites from entering the hive, and to inhibit bacterial growth
- Prevent putrefaction within the hive. Bee's usually carry waste out of and away from the hive. However if a small lizard or mouse, for example, found its way into the hive and died there, bees may be unable to carry it out through the hive entrance. In that case, they would attempt instead to seal the carcass in propolis, essentially mummifying it and making it odourless and harmless.
As Herbology students we are interested most in the idea that propolis can inhibit bacterial growth. In Herbal Medicine the use of propolis isn't uncommon in the relief of various conditions, including inflammations, viral diseases, ulcers, and superficial burns or scalds. Propolis is also believed to promote heart health, strengthen the immune system and reduce the chances of cataracts, it is also used to aid sore throats and lozenges can be bought widely.
Depending on the chemical composition of the propolis, which varies dependent on country and season, published scientific research has proven that propolis: is a powerful local antibiotic, with antifungal and antimicrobial properties; is an effective emollient and useful for treating skin burns; exhibits immunomodulatory effects; is being researched as an antitumour growth agent in Japan; and it actively protects against dental caries and other forms of oral disease.
As for the honey, Willie uses traditional cutting and extraction methods, the honey isn't heated, or if it is, very very minimally, as this alters the taste and in terms of Chain Bridge Honey, ruins it. Heather showed us around the new factory, where Frances, her sister, was working on bottling the honey. There is no wastage in the factory, a phenomenon in itself within the food industry. The botanicals the bees have been collecting nectar from to make the honey alters the overall taste of the honey made, making flower-based honey taste different from heather-based honey.
The FSA, Food Standards Agency, demands that all food products have best before/display until dates, and so this had caused debate. Frances gave the honey an 18 month sell by date, however, honey has an ability to last for years. The debate came about as the honey would be made and stored in the hive for an unmeasurable amount of time, before removed and stored in containers, then finally bottled and put forward for sale - was this time to be included or excluded from the sell by dating?
Supermarkets produce and sell "runny honey" which has the ability to remain runny for several years without crystallisation, this suggests that the honey has been overheated during production, ruining the chemical composition, losing any beneficial properties the honey has, and ruining the taste.
Heather ended our grand tour by taking us to the lotions and potions room, where they created the candles, ointments, lotions, lipbalms and soaps that were sold in the shop. It was yet another room, kept cool to benefit the honey and wax, with a collection of machinery, gathered from different countries and different times. Even though Willie doesn't help to make the cosmetic products he still has an overall say about how he wants them to appear, or how he would prefer them to be made, for example, adding the honey at the very end of the procedure when making a cream so as to give it as minimal heat as possible.
The major problem Heather faces is the rules and packaging surrounding cosmetics, honey is known to be beneficial to health and other factors, however this cannot be advertised on a cosmetic without testing having been completed on the entire product. So a cream that is useful to soothe dry skin cannot be stated to do so without relevant scientific proof and certificates, as dry skin could refer to eczema, which is a medical condition. The rules are rigid and irritating to argue your way around, its a constant flow of money out to find or even originally prove that one product can be used on "dry skin", is that cost effective?
The trip was relaxing in comparison with the past few weeks of intense brain work, and an eye-opener into the world of bees, honey, cosmetics and the legalisation problems company's face.