Hive & Keeper's Founder Emily Abbott: Supporting British Bee Keepers for a More Transparent Honey Industry

It might come as a shocking fact that most of the honey consumed in Britain today is being exported from abroad, with a staggering 40% from China. Hence, not surprisingly, the blended honey found on the supermarket shelves features nothing but an unvarying, average taste. No more - by supporting local bee keepers in the UK and neatly jarring their nuanced local honey that comes with great variety in taste, Hive & Keeper's limited edition raw British honey is here to fight for a more transparent honey industry. Emily Abbott, founder of Hive & Keeper, talks us through her honey co-operative helping small scale honey makers to find a route to the shelves through Hive & Keeper's curated honey collections, and in general, the much disregarded sustainability factor in the honey industry today. 

Words: Hanna-Amanda Pant

Image: Emily Abbott / Founder of Hive & Keeper

Image: Emily Abbott / Founder of Hive & Keeper

How did you find your way to the honey industry, and what was the catalyst that made you explore the concept of sustainability in it? 

I found bees first, honey soon followed! I started beekeeping in London as a hobby, driven from my interest in bees and their behaviour. It was when I got my first honey harvest that I realised that the honey each hive produced reflected all that I found fascinating about the bees, too: each time I tasted the honey, it was different, even in colour and texture. I had assumed that honey made by bees in the same area would be the same – but it’s not, reflecting the unique combination of literally millions of flowers each hive visits, to bring the nourishment that their colony needs at that moment in time.

It was a real moment of discovery for me that honey straight from the hive tasted very different from the honey I’d been eating from the supermarket, and I wanted to share this excitement with others. And so Hive & Keeper was born. Sustainability was always at its heart, as I only ever wanted to sell honey from beekeepers that I knew were looking after their bees properly, only harvesting the bees’ excess honey, and practicing an integrated pest management system to maintain healthy colonies throughout the year.

How does Hive & Keeper help other local, small scale beekeepers today? 

As Hive & Keeper has grown, so too have our ambitions, motivated by the EU report into the state of honey production, which highlights the year on year decline in beekeepers, beehives and honey production in the UK. Ever-increasing amounts are imported at cheap prices and used to create blended honeys that sacrifice each honey’s own character to create a homogenous, very average honey. As I spoke to more and more small scale beekeepers, I discovered the challenges many were facing getting their own honeys to market: bees will continue to make honey while they can, which means, in a good season, the beekeeper can have a huge harvest, which they can find hard to sell, as they’re beekeepers not salesman with access to national retailers. Hive & Keeper is akin to a collective, giving the UK’s small scale beekeepers a route to market, and allowing us to bring more of our own home-grown raw honeys to appreciative consumers. We intend to help the UK’s beekeepers build sustainable businesses, and reverse the decline in the industry and consumption of British honey.

"It was a real moment of discovery for me that honey straight from the hive tasted very different from the honey I’d been eating from the supermarket, and I wanted to share this excitement with others."

Image: Hive & Keeper

Image: Hive & Keeper

What are the most shocking facts about the honey industry we should all know about and that are perhaps not usually revealed to the end consumer? For me, it definitely was a shocker that only 7% of honey sold in the UK is actually of British origin. 

Only 7% of honey sold in the UK is actually of British origin, the rest is imported – and mainly from China, which accounts for 40% of honey imports. China is producing enormous quantities of honey; around 3 times more than all of the EU put together: 473,600 tonnes produced in 2014 compared to the EU’s 161,031. However, at the same time, the Chinese struggle to pollinate their own crops, as the number of bee colonies declines – it makes you think about what it is we’re eating in our honeys that include non-EU honeys. Read the labels in the supermarket, many honeys are a blend of EU and non-EU (NB! references from data published here).

How does Hive and Keeper ensure the end consumer gets access to a quality controlled, local, ethical and authentic product? 

Authenticity and trust are rather over-used words and have become rather hackneyed – but even so I’m still going to say it - consumers and beekeepers can trust us to do the following:

  • Never blend or ‘improve’ a honey, which means they will all be as close to how the bees made them as possible, including unpastaurised, unblended and not fine filtered.
  • Visit each beekeeper and talk bees with them, hearing about their apiaries and the seeing where the landscape the honey has come from. Each story we tell is true, the location of the apiary that each honey came from is written on the jar, with the beekeeper’s name and the main flavour note of that honey. It really is what it says it is.
  • Every honey is tested to make sure it was taken from the hive only when it was ready (the bees take the nectar’s water content down to below 20% before capping it with wax  - once capped, the honey’s ripe and ready to harvest and spin out of the frame). 
Image: Emily beekeeping

Image: Emily beekeeping

Who are the honey makers you are currently working with? What are some of their most interesting stories you'd like to highlight and share with us? 

Hive & Keeper has a current network of about 30 beekeepers from across the country. Each year, between August and November, after the season has ended and the beekeepers have harvested all the year’s crop, Hive & Keeper goes on the road visiting beekeepers and buying honey. Often, each beekeeper will have different honeys for us, each taken from a different apiary, or at a different time. The trip takes me to hidden places and introduces me to a diverse group of people, with one common thread: we all love bees. I bought a delicious caramel honey from Ketil, a Viking re-enactment enthusiast who kept his bees on his garage roof in a suburban road in Berkshire. You’d never have known they were there unless you looked up by chance. I have met a driving instructor who kept bees in an allotment up in Yorkshire called Coal Pit Allotments, with the bees making a lovely floral honey.

John and Con in Hampshire are 75 and 92 and keep bees together, they’re looking for a youngster (anyone under 60 would do apparently!) to help them. John is a shepherd, buying and fattening up lambs in the winter for sale in the spring, just in time to free him up to look after the bees with Con. I’ve spent a magical day on the North Yorkshire moors with Jeremy a beekeeper from Filey, who takes his bees up to the heather every August. The day was beautiful with no one around other than thousands and thousands of low flying bees working the heather and the low buzz in the air. Jeremy is a tree surgeon by trade and took up beekeeping a few years ago, and has fallen in love with it. Helping him get his fabulous honeys to market, so he can grow his business is one of my main motivations for growing Hive & Keeper.

How can the end consumer make sure they have chosen the right, quality product? 

The best thing I think a consumer can do is to read the label and vote with their feet!

"With around 43,000 beekeepers in the UK, we should between us be able to reduce our reliance on imports from China at least, and increase the proportion of British honey we consume."

Image: Emily Abbot

Image: Emily Abbot

Tell us more about the honey co-operative you are currently working on building. How does your activism work perhaps help to create a better dialogue concerning what is happening in the food industry, e.g. small-scale makers are often left out because of competition and production also in small batches etc?

Many of the beekeepers I work with are producing relatively small quantities, but more than they can jar, label and sell. We’re also all very proud of the honeys our bees produce, which means for some, selling our honey at a low price to bulk producers to become part of a blend or an ingredient in cereal, beer etc is depressing. Hive & Keeper pays a fair price to every beekeeper. It means our margins are tighter, but it better reflects the work and skill involved in the custodianship of our honey bee population. We also proudly show off each honey, crediting the beekeeper responsible, with packaging that we hope does them and their bees justice.

The aim is for Hive & Keeper to be able to guarantee a market for our beekeepers’ honey, so they have the security to grow their businesses and number of hives. As with any collective, the power is in the numbers, with us being able to supply ‘local’ and different flavours of honey in large quantity, ensuring supply for retailers, restaurants etc..

What are the current challenges in your everyday work - why do you think not many other people have not chosen to do what you stand for, e.g. promoting sustainable and ethical production / fairtrade in the food industry? 

I’m currently looking for national retailers who are excited by the same ideas as we are, and who relish the idea of bringing pure, unblended British honey of known provenance to their customers – but on a national scale. It will take imagination and a willingness to buck the trend of homogeneity if we’re to find the right solution. But with around 43,000 beekeepers in the UK, we should between us be able to reduce our reliance on imports from China at least, and increase the proportion of British honey we consume.

What is that one thing that keeps amusing you about the bees? What keeps you going in your chosen industry? 

My current favourite bee story is about how the larvae, eggs newly laid by the queen, emit pheromones that tell the rest of the worker bees in the colony what the larvae need to be fed at that stage of other growth. It means they get the nutrients they need for a speedy and strong growth, ready for them to pupate and emerge as worker bees in 3 weeks’ time. 

I love the stories I hear about their bees from my beekeepers and the advice they all give me for my own beekeeping challenges. It’s been meeting these people, and my continued fascination with bees and protecting them and their environment that keeps me motivated to continue – if I ever flag I think of how Jeremy and the others need Hive & Keeper to succeed.