Beekeeping in Scotland – part 2

The following is the rest of the article I wrote for the NH Beekeepers Association’s Winter Newsletter:

The Highlands seem to have a similar winter climate to NH.  They get snow.  They feed sugar water to their hives until mid-Oct, and then do emergency feeding with fondant or candy boards until spring.    The Borders have milder winters – but no forage, so they feed sugar water throughout the winter.  I heard varying winter loss numbers, but I would say the most common was 10-15%.

When I asked beekeepers about their biggest challenge/issue, the answer was always Varroa.   They use a variety of treatments – including IPM, but oxalic vapor was the most common.   With their weather, I can see that Mite-Away or other treatments that depend on certain temperatures for dispersal could only be used for a very limited time.   I also learned that to use products like Amitraz, they must have a veterinary prescription.

They do not have small hive beetles currently, but they anticipate the bugs will eventually make it to Scotland so they are doing a lot of education for the beekeepers.

American Foul Brood (AFB) and European Foul Brood(EFB) are taken very seriously in Scotland and the entire UK.     Law prohibits the use of any anti-biotics in hives so they do not have many treatment options.  In England and Wales, if a beekeeper suspects they have either EFB or AFB, they are required by law to call the bee inspector.  In Scotland, it is voluntary to call – but most do from what I can tell.   The bee inspector comes out to check out the hives and brings a field test kit (aka Lateral Flow Device Kit).  They sample some larva and put them in a container with some ball bearings.  They shake it up, drop in a few chemicals and it tells you if you have EFB/AFB (there is a kit for each disease).   The inspector then decides what will be done with the hives.  If it is a very mild case of EFB, they will do a shaken swarm and then sterilize the hive.  If it is more severe, the hives are burned.   All of this is done under the supervision of the inspector.  This apiary is then flagged as “red”, and the inspector will come again the following year to inspect it.  Unfortunately, I did not get to ask how common EFB and AFB are.

They have both local bee clubs and the national beekeepers association much like we do in the US. They are laser focused on education.   The national association has worked with the equivalent of our community colleges to develop an accredited beekeeping course. They have a formal training program that starts with Junior beekeepers and ends with honey judging  :  .

The two most interesting conference talks were by Dr. Robert Paxton, head of the Zoology at Martin Luther Universität, Halle-Wittenberg, and Dr. Jamie Ellis, University of Florida.

Dr. Paxton described the research his team has done on deformed wing virus (DWV), and how they have been able to show a direct correlation between DWV and hive loss.  They looked at many other viruses (including Nosema Cerena), but none had the direct correlation that DWV did.   DWV is very interesting because Varroa is ~90% efficient in transmitting DWV to honeybee pupae.  This research was done in conjunction with research groups from around the world, including the Bee Informed Partnership.    In controlled experiments, they also found that bees that did not have DWV lived ~40 days; those with DWV-strain A – lived ~18 days and those DWV-strain B – lived 14 days.

Dr. Ellis (some of you might recognize the name from his regular articles in ABJ) talked about beekeeping in the US.  It was very interesting to hear the reactions in the room when he talked about the migration of colonies to the almond pollination or that the biggest commercial beekeeper in FL has 60K hives.  Since most beekeeping in Scotland is either backyard hobbyist or very small-scale operations, the sheer scale of some of the US operations was hard for folks to imagine.

There was also big honey and wax show with entries with everything from baked goods to candles.     The most amazing thing I saw were flowers made of beeswax.  When I first saw them, I thought they were a silk flower decoration!  I talked to someone about how they make them, and apparently, they warm the wax, roll it out and then use molds made for creating frosting flowers to shape them

We found everyone we met in Scotland to be very friendly.  Not surprisingly, the beekeepers were as curious about our management practices as I was about theirs.   Our trip reinforced how much beekeepers, whether local or from another country, have in common, and how curious and willing to share experiences we all are.  I guess another way to say this is – We never get sick of talking about our bees!


Beekeeping in Scotland – part 1

We spent 2 weeks in Scotland in late August/early Sept 2017.   I wrote about the trip & a 1-day bee conference we attended for the NH Beekeepers’ Winter Newsletter.   Here’s the first part of the story:

Beekeeping in Scotland

What could be better than a vacation in Scotland?  A vacation in Scotland and getting to attend the Scotland Beekeepers Association Fall Conference while you are there!  That is what happened this year when my husband and I planned our vacation.   Once we had the dates for our trip, I looked to see if there were any bee club meetings I might attend so that I could meet some local beekeepers – and low and behold I found the SBA conference.

Scotland is a small country.   Compared to NH, they have approximately 4.5 times as many people (6 million in Scotland vs 1.3 million in NH), and approximately 3 times as much land.   The country is very rural – mostly made up of huge estates where they farm all sorts of things from livestock to barley to strawberries.    To give you an idea of how big these estates are – approximately 500 people own more than ½ the land in Scotland.

We drove all over the country during our trip, and I was amazed at how similar the landscape was to NH (but with a lot more sheep and castles!).     It is not as forested as NH is now – but I can imagine that NH looked very much the same during the “sheep boom” that we had in the early 1900s.

Scottish Landscape (purple on the hills is heather)

The weather in Scotland is generally wetter and colder than NH.  We were there in late August/early September, and the temperature was in the high 50s/low 60s.  They seldom have to water their crops or flowers (one B&B owner was telling me how dry it had been. She had to water her flowers once this summer!).

As I met beekeepers, I found it interesting how similar (varroa is their biggest challenge, they must deal with cold winters), yet different (hive types, honey crops, etc.) beekeeping is in Scotland.

Most beekeepers I talked to use “National” Hives which have 14”x12” hive bodies.  They use “British standard” frames which have much longer “ears” so they can fit in the hive body either left-to-right or back-to-front.  Poly-styrene hives instead of wooden ones seem to be much more common than here in NH.


They do not use inner covers – even on Langstroth hives.  Instead their outer covers are deeper (6”) and have ventilation built in.

Langstroth Hive – note the depth of the outer cover & the notch for ventilation

Most folks I talked to seemed to use 1 brood box and only 1 or 2 supers.  They were shocked to see a picture of my hives which are 5-7 medium boxes tall.  Unfortunately, I did not get to ask how big their typical honey harvest is or how often they harvest.  My guess is the fact that they have so much rain may limit how much their bees can forage; thereby limiting the harvest.

One of their biggest honey crops is heather – which blossoms in August/Sept.   We timed our trip so I could see “heather” blossoming (for obvious reasons!).  I figured we would have to go on certain roads or to particular towns to see the bloom (like going to Sugar Hill to see Lupine), but the heather was absolutely everywhere, covering entire mountain tops.   It was in full-bloom in the Highlands (northern Scotland) and had just gone by in the “Borders” (southern Scotland).

I also learned that in Northern Ireland, a big honey crop is a combination of heather and fuchsia which blossom at the same time.    Apparently, the combination of the two nectars has a wonderful taste.   Unfortunately, I never saw any “heather honey” so I did not get to sample it.


Mead is ready!

This fall I bottled the mead that I started last Feb.      Since we tend to prefer dry over sweet wines, I let the mead ferment until the yeast had eaten all of the sugars – making the resulting mead very dry.

Blueberry, plain & strawberry mead from my first try at “brewing”

I bottled about 2 liters each of blueberry (left), plain (middle) & strawberry(right)  mead.    Interestingly, while they all taste slightly different, you don’t get a strong taste of the fruit that I used.  I asked the expert at the local brewing supply shop, and he told me that this is common.  When you use fruit, you will get the color and aroma but seldom have much in the way of flavor.  Apparently most folks will had a few drops of concentrated flavoring so it tastes as expected.   (I decided not to do this).

We’ve enjoyed the mead with a few meals so far.   I plan on starting another batch this winter.  This time, I will probably stop the fermentation a little sooner so there still is a little sweetness when you taste it. .. stay tuned!

Mead – stage 2

My mead finished its first stage of fermentation about a month after I started it.    The airlocks were no longer bubbling, indicating there was no more CO2 being produced by the yeast – either because it had eaten all of the honey or because the liquid had more alcohol than the yeast could tolerate.    Just to be sure that the mead had fermented enough, I measured the specific gravity of the liquid.  It was had dropped from 1.3 to < 0.8  meaning there was more alcohol than water!  (the specific gravity of water is 1.0).  There was also a pretty strong alcohol smell!

The next step in the mead making process was to siphon the liquid out the 3 gallon container and into smaller bottles for the next stage of fermentation.  You need to siphon off the liquid (vs just pouring it out of the bottle) because there is quite a bit of “sediment” on the bottom from the yeast.    I decided to break the mead into 3 one gallon containers – leaving one as is (no additives), adding strawberries to one and blueberries to the third .   Last summer I had frozen blueberries & strawberries from the garden with the idea that sometime in the not to distant future I would use them for mead – so I put them to use!

Mead – stage 2 fermentation

As soon as I added the fruit to the two 1-gallon containers, the sugars woke the yeast up and  the second stage of fermentation began.  I’ll be letting these 3 gallons of mead ferment & age for the next 3-4 months… then we’ll sample to see how they came out!



First Attempt at Making Mead!

I’ve never been a big fan of mead as any I’ve tasted have always been pretty sweet – that is until  last fall, when  I toured the Sap House Meadery in Ossipee, NH.  I tried their mead – which was dry & delicious!     When the owners talked about the ingredients needed to make mead,  I realized that  except for the yeast & yeast nutrient, I had everything I needed right  in my yard – the water, the honey & different fruits!

I purchased  “The Compleat Meadmaker” by Ken Schramm to read more about the process & what was required. Last week  I  went to a local beer & wine supply shop (the Kettle-to-Keg in Pembroke, NH) to buy the containers, airlocks, hydrometer & lots of other stuff – and last Sunday (2/19/17), I started my first batch.

Besides learning the process of mead making, I’m learning a whole new set of terminology like carboy  (glass containers used to ferment wine, mead, etc), must (the unfermented mead)  & trying to remember the things  I learned in high school chemistry  like  specific gravity (measuring the density of a liquid vs water – you use this to determine how much fermentation has taken place.) !

The video below shows what I’m seeing 3 days after adding the yeast to the must  – so far so good the yeasts are doing their job!

This first stage of fermenting will last 2-4 weeks after which I plan on splitting the batch into 2 or 3 smaller carboys – for the 2nd fermentation stage.  I’ll add strawberries to 1 carboy, blueberries to another  & leave the third as is  so that we can try different flavors. The second fermentation stage will  go for 4-5 months before the mead will be ready.


#Mead  #HoneyWine

Using Honey for Medicinal Purposes

Honey has been used to heal wounds and burns for thousands of years.  Recently, I’ve read how the Georgia Sea Turtle Center has successfully used honey poultices to heal wounds caused by boat props.

There are several articles online about using honey to treat leg wounds on horses.   Recently, a friend told me that they are using honey to treat wounds on tarantulas at Sea World….so I wondered why don’t we hear more about using honey as a possible wound/burn treatment for us?      I found some very interesting information as I researched the topic.

While there have been many small studies showing the benefits of honey in wound care, there have not been large clinical trials to support the claims, and therefore, there is no FDA approved “honey” treatment.   These small clinical trials which tended to focus on 4 or 5 types of bacteria & infections –   E. Coli, Bacillus Subtilis, Staphylococcus aureus (aka “staph”) & MRSA (staph bacteria resistant to antibiotics) show excellent results.  Examples of the study results are:

  • Skin Grafts – honey treated wounds had superior healing vs. those treated with a saline-soaked gauze
  • Gangrene – when honey was combined with an antibiotic, the infection was gone within one week.
  • Leg Ulcers – the wound treated with honey was cleaner & healed faster than using Aquacel.
  • MRSA infections – honey cleared up the infection when no antibiotic would.

With these kind of results, you are probably thinking – why isn’t there FDA approval?  There are at least two big challenges blocking the path – 1. running double-blind trials where neither the patient nor the physicians know who is being treated with honey; 2.  commercially producing a honey-based treatment with consistent anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Let’s dive into both challenges a bit more.

First, conducting “blind” trials where the patients (and in the double blind case the physicians) do not know which group is getting which treatment is especially difficult when honey is involved.  My first thought when I read this was – Really?  Ok, I understand if you wanted to the honey put directly on the site – that would be hard to disguise because honey is recognizable to most people, but what about having a honey-impregnated wound dressing?   It turns out that the aroma of honey still comes through! They haven’t found a way to mask the smell without altering the healing properties.

Second, when a physician prescribes a treatment for a given symptom or condition, it must have a consistent expected outcome each time it is used.    Unfortunately, this is a huge challenge for any honey-based treatment because as you know from my earlier blogs the taste, color, pH level and other anti-bacterial properties of honey are dependent on which floral source(s) the nectar is collected from.   In other words, clover honey may be better at treating infections from bacteria XYZ, and honey from apple blossoms maybe better at treating infections from bacteria ABC.    (The studies in the reference section show how effective different honeys are against different types of bacteria).

While difficult, it is conceivable that you could give bees only access to one type of floral source (let’s ignore the issue of mono-culture for this discussion!), but the next challenge you must solve is how do you get the flowers to blossom year-round?   Also, you need to ensure consistent climate conditions since the properties of the nectar will vary based on temperature, sunlight, moisture, etc.  Finally, bacterial spores (most commonly botulism) are often found in honey.  (This is the reason why honey should never be given to children less than a year old – their intestinal systems have not developed the bacteria to fight off a possible infection.)     It is possible that the bacteria in honey – even in low concentration –  could cause other infections in the wound that  you are trying to heal.

Even with these challenges, a New Zealand biochemist, Peter Molan, developed techniques to produce a “medical-grade” honey derived from nectar of the manuka plant.     Each batch of honey is treated with gamma rays to kill any bacterial spores (yes – gamma rays are what turned Bruce Banner into the Hulk!), and it is also tested to ensure consistent anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.

Various “devices” using medical-grade manuka honey have been given “premarket approval” by the FDA for use in the US.  You’ll notice that I said “device”. From the FDA point of view, a wound dressing is a device (like a band-aid) – so it has a different approval process than a drug.  Premarket approval means that the “device” has been demonstrated as safe but does not necessarily mean it has been shown to have scientific medical value.  You don’t need a prescription to purchase these “devices” (you can buy these wound dressing on Amazon or at Walmart – just search for medical-grade honey!)

What does all of this mean to you and I?  If you chose to use raw honey to treat a wound, burn or infection, remember that every batch will have different anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties due to the different nectar sources that were available to the bees.   Some batches may be more effective than others in treating your condition.   Alternatively, you can purchase medical-grade honey over the counter which will always have consistent characteristics.

#honeyForWounds #medicinalHoney #medicalGradeHoney


  • Examples of FDA premarket approval for medical grade manuka honey devices:

  • Presentation showing results of using medical grade honey to treat chronic wounds…/Medihoney-Acute-Military-Wounds.pdf

Honey’s Secret Ingredient – Enzymes

We all know honey tastes good – but did you know that honey  is easier to digest than table sugar? or that honey has strong anti-bacterial properties and i has been used to heal burns or reduce an infection?   To understand why – we need to look behind the scenes at the science of how nectar becomes honey.

The “sound bite” I typically use to describe  how bees make honey is the following  –

“Honey is basically “dehydrated”  nectar  – a good analogy would be evaporating the water in  sap and making maple syrup”.

Technically, this is correct since honey has only 15-18% water content and nectar is typically in the 80% range.   However, my sound bite is missing the very important fact that honeybees also add enzymes to the nectar.  The chemical reaction caused by these enzymes  give honey its unique properties and taste.

Let’s back up a bit & remember some basic chemistry (I promise this won’t hurt too much!)

  • Enzymes are organic compounds (complex proteins) that cause chemical reactions.
  • Different enzymes create different reactions. For example, some convert starch to other carbohydrates; others breakdown chemical bonds causing a substance to morph into its simpler components.
  • There are many types of sugars.  The important ones for our discussion are:
    • Sucrose (aka table sugar) – is considered a “complex” sugar because it is made up of 2 “simple” sugars  that are chemically bonded.
    • Fructose & glucose – are the  “simple” sugars that make up sucrose.  Both share the exact same chemical formula – but each has a different arrangement of  the atoms giving the two different properties – especially taste  – (fructose tastes sweeter than glucose)
  • Honey is made up of water (15-18%), fructose  (40+%) & glucose (30+%).
    • Notice there are only  simple sugars in honey.  This is why honey is easier to digest than table sugar (and also the reason why many diabetics can use honey and not have a problem)
    • Also, the higher fructose content explains why honey is very sweet
    • Just for comparison – Maple syrup is 33% water and 66% sucrose

Ok.. now let’s go  back to how nectar becomes honey

  • Nectar contains 3 sugars –  sucrose, fructose & glucose.    The floral source, region & weather will determine exactly how much of each is in the nectar – but a good rule of thumb is 55% Sucrose, 24% glucose & 21% fructose.
    • notice that fructose is the smallest percentage in nectar (21%), but the highest percentage in honey (40+%) – This is why honey is sweeter than table sugar.
  • A honeybee collects nectar from the flower and stores it in its “honey stomach”  (Yes – bees have a special stomach just for storing nectar!)
  • After their honey stomach is full, they head back to the hive, but on the way they add some new enzymes into the nectar to start “ripening ” process.
    • Some of the enzymes begin breaking down the sucrose in the nectar into fructose & glucose.
    • Other enzymes convert the nectar’s  glucose into  substances that  yield hydrogen peroxide giving honey its anti-bacterial properties.
  • When the bee gets back to the hive, it transfers the nectar to a “house bee” who adds additional enzymes and then stores the nectar in one of the honeycomb cells.  While in the cell, the enzymes continue to work breaking down the sucrose, etc.
  • The house bee’s job is not done once they store the nectar – they still have to get the water content down to 15-18% or the honey will ferment.   They do this “dehydrating” by  “fanning” (aka flapping their wings) next to the cell helping to evaporate the moisture.    (If you walk by bee hives during a nectar flow, it smells sweet which is the vapor from the evaporation)
  • Once the nectar has become honey, the bees put a wax capping on it – to prevent it from absorbing moisture  and keep it from fermenting.

Some of the honey’s enzymes become dormant once the  honey has “ripened”, but will become active again in the right environment.  For example,  honey is very acidic (ph = ~4.0) causing the enzyme that create peroxide to go dormant, but when honey is applied to a wound, the ph often rises. This activates the enzyme and more glucose is converted  into hydrogen peroxide.

Unfortunately, the honey you buy in the grocery store won’t have these beneficial enzymes because it has been been through a heating and filtering process.     Heating honey above 110F will kill the enzymes.  This is why it is important to be careful with the heat when you are reliquifying crystallized honey.   “Raw” (or sometimes “local”) honey is the term typically used to indicate  it is unprocessed.



#honey, #NHbees