The Great Honey Bottle


Often when people meet me and find out I am a beekeeper, they say: “Taking honey from bees is cruel, isn’t it?” I don’t really mind because ‘they’ are usually (self-confessed) vegans and all I have to say is: “Yes, but I don’t eat almonds” to confuse them and make my escape.

Of course, as a beekeeper I don’t think taking honey from the bees is cruel. To me, a single jar of honey at the end of the season is a sign of strong and healthy colony and a well-managed hive. The honey harvest is a culmination of a successful partnership between the bees and their beekeeper.


Today Emily (above) and I celebrated our harvest with a great honey bottling session. We poured and sieved our light golden and mildly sweet honey into containers and jars to be divided between us. I’m planning to label my jars ‘Myrtle’s honey’ after the queen who successfully led the colony for the past two years.

Ah, beautiful jars of honey – a taste for all our family and friends, thank you Myrtle.


If you’re not a regular reader of my blog, be assured that no bees were squashed or maimed in the making of our honey. Not a tiny wing or little leg was found as we decanted the precious golden liquid. Emily and I take care to clear bees from the supers by gently brushing and handpicking stragglers from every frame before they are taken home. Although, I should say that with only four hives we have the luxury of doing this.

Later in the afternoon we returned the last of the wet super frames to the apiary for the bees to clean up and add to their winter stores. The elder beekeepers were surprised that we had returned so much honey in the frames for the bees and thought they had better check to see it was ok. Thumbs were out and honeycomb was crushed, “Blackberry and lime,” was John’s verdict.


Though the days are growing shorter, the autumn has been mild and there was still time to look at our bees. Melissa (Myrtle’s daughter) has got her bees to work filling up another super, which along with the honey we have returned gives the colony more than enough stores for winter. Melissa’s workers had also left a mischievous honeycomb surprise in the hive after four weeks of varroa treatments. But more on that next week.

We took a look under the crownboards of our other colonies to see them calm and content, and building up good stores. Although someone needs to tell the bees that winter is coming as they are still very active: eggs, brood and even drone found in Pepper’s hive.


We have just finished the Apiguard treatments for varroa and the mite drop has shown that both the treatment has worked and that sadly varroa often flourishes when the colony does. Emily and I are both worried about Chamomile’s sickly hive, which we will try to treat further with a thymol mix for the syrup next week.

I’ve never met a beekeeper who isn’t obsessed about the wellbeing and survival of their bees. When many of the beekeepers at Ealing apiary went to a showing of More than honey, a Swiss documentary directed by Marcus Imhoof, they were shocked to watch the treatment of bees at an almond plantation in California. At a larger commercial scale for the pollination industry, the picture for honeybees is grim as colonies are mechanically processed by machines that crush and grind bees in their hundreds. I had mixed reactions to the film – awe at the spectacular scenes of life inside the hive and horror at the management of colonies as nests are torn apart into boxes of ‘brood’ and ‘honey’.


That’s why I don’t eat almonds, or buy almond oil. It probably doesn’t make a difference but I just can’t bring myself to make a purchase without thinking of that picture of suffering honeybees at the almond plantation. When I am asked what I think about taking honey, I suppose that I could explain how most beekeepers care greatly for their bees and how on the whole there are worse things that you could eat. What I really want to do on a Saturday afternoon though is enjoy beekeeping and having a nice cup of tea with the beekeepers, so I usually say nothing and hope the questioner goes away.


Last autumn I remember a visitor to the apiary who told me he was a vegan soon after we met, perhaps he could tell that I am a butcher’s daughter as well as a beekeeper. He showed his displeasure at treating the bees with Apiguard and the use of chemicals in the hive. I didn’t really mind this either, because I had been to an excellent Bee Health Day at London Beekeepers Association at which I had made up my mind that I disliked varroa and bee diseases much more than I disliked treating my bees. But as there was tea and cake waiting on the apiary table, I hoped to make a quick getaway rather than stand around and explain about naturally occurring chemicals thymol and oxalic acid. So I said: “I’m sorry, is there a chemical on the periodic table that you don’t take offense to?” Unfortunately, smoke and mirrors failed as he persisted to poke me like a small honey-stealing bear until I finally agreed “Yes, taking honey is very cruel” and “Yes, I shouldn’t treat my hives”. That done, I apologised for going because I wanted a cup of tea at the apiary, before enjoying a slice of black pudding for my supper at home.

I suppose that I am as naughty as Melissa’s bees.

Further reading – an interesting post by Bees with eeb on The Bee Man of Orn provides beekeeping from the perspective of a migratory beekeeper.


38 thoughts on “The Great Honey Bottle

  1. And I usually get “Oh, I’d love to buy some of your honey.” or some variation when people find out I’m a beekeeper. I didn’t harvest this year (and rarely do) as I’m one of those lazy beeks who only opens her hive a couple times a year. Both of my hives swarmed this year (something I’m totally okay with and actually like) but in both cases the new queen failed (likely due to rainy weather right afterwards, so she probably wasn’t mated). I requeened one with a nuc box, but the other, my Warre hive, it was too late in the year when it became obvious she’d failed. Next year.

    And I’m with you on the almonds; it’s hideous to see if you’re a caring beekeeper. I do eat the nuts on rare occasion, but feel horribly guilty when I do. And I never eat the meal or milk or oil or other products made with them. I try to avoid all mass produced foods though – those bees that do the almonds are then hauled across the U.S. to the blueberry farms in Maine, etc. Once you start keeping bees, the “buy local” food movement becomes part of your way of life, as you see how hard they work for their honey. When I see the huge pallets of honey for sale at Costco all I can think is “but what are the bees who made that eating now?” It IS possible to harvest honey and also take good care of bees, but not by the semi-load.

    Cheers – and enjoy that honey!
    Maureen in Seattle

    • Hi Maureen, I agree completely, mass food production comes at a cost to nature and it’s about supporting local and getting the balance right. Like having blueberries or coffee as a treat, not every day, or only enjoying certain fruit and veg in season.

      Your beekeeping sounds ideal. Living in London, and keeping bees at a communal apiary, we have to follow certain guidance and inspect weekly to avoid swarming and to monitor for disease, but I’d much rather have my bees in the country and leave them alone more. Swarming is a natural part of the honeybee life cycle and natural varroa control, if my bees weren’t in London I’d let them swarm.

      We made an effort this year to make inspections as short as possible to minimise disruption to the hive’s climate and I think it has been a factor in the colony doing so well.

      Sorry to hear about your queens. We had a terrible year in 2012 when many queens failed because it rained and rained and they couldn’t mate. It happens but our bees are little survivors, and with a little help from us, I hope, our oldest colony will be coming up to its sixth year with us soon.

  2. I absolutely agree: “a single jar of honey at the end of the season is a sign of strong and healthy colony”! We need more strong and healthy hives! Great post. Thanks

    • Hi Mary, thanks for that 🙂 I’ll admit the post was tongue-in-cheek but I’ve been asked those questions so many time as a beekeeper that I just can’t take it too seriously any more. This has been a great year for our bees and our honey-producing hive is also our strongest, healthiest and happiest. I’ll miss them over winter.

      • That is great news… What’s so odd is that I recently posted an article for honey alternatives for Vegans. I also have an older article titled: Eco Friendly Bee Garden. Personally, I love honey! Plus I have always wanted to have a hive or two. To help save the bees we need to give them an environment to thrive in. It sounds like you have the ideal garden for bees! I am sure you will miss them this winter, as will I along with all the other plants and summer creatures.

      • Ah ha! I have found your article on honey alternatives for vegans ( – thanks, I now have something useful to reply rather than my less helpful dry humour. I’ll forward this to our association newsletter for those beekeepers who didn’t get a honey harvest this year 🙂 Eco Friendly Bee Garden is brilliant though ( good for the avid gardeners in our newsletter. Sadly, I don’t have my own garden (a house/garden is a bit of a luxury in London) but there seems to be lots of lovely gardens around the apiary for our bees. Have a lovely Sunday.

  3. After we watched “More than Honey” my wife and I decided to stop eating almonds. That’s a big thing for us because we not only eat almonds but now we’re making almond milk. That scene in the movie where the commercial beekeeper sort of shrugs his shoulders as the bees are shown dying because he didn’t remove the hives before the spraying began was just too much for us. We’re not vegan, but we don’t eat meat, so beans, rice, greens, and nuts are important to us. After a couple of weeks I looked around for an organic almond grower who didn’t import bees. Actually, once I started looking, I found Bremner Farms, located in Chico, California. When I called them up I talked to a fellow who actually grew up in my little town and whose parents I actually knew. How strange is that? I liked everything I heard about Bremner Farms…they use solar and wind energy, their almonds and walnuts were organic, and the biggest thing to me as a beekeeper, they keep their own bees. Two hundred bee hives on premises.
    Exploitation of bees can be cruel. I think that’s a legitimate concern. I know beekeepers that brag about “working their bees to death.” They will harvest as much honey as they can and feed their bees high fructose corn syrup during the winter. I know you and Emily don’t do that. You are very conscientious beekeepers. You’re not exploiting the bees. You’re doing what you think is best for them.
    I let my bees swarm and swarm they did about 8 or 9 times from just three hives. No honey for me this year, so I’m drooling over your little golden harvest.

    • I watched More than Honey with my boyfriend’s family on the farm. John’s dad remarked at that scene, ‘Well, he could spray at night. We’ve worked the fields at night. They’ve got torches, haven’t they?’ It just sums up the utter careless use of nature, by that particular operation, in the film.

      I’m glad you found Bremner farm, it shows that it is possible to produce crops without cruelly ‘working bees to death’. Luckily, no one at our apiary has ever used that phrase and often fondly refer to the bees as ‘our girls’ or ‘the ladies’ when talking about how well the bees are doing.

      I wish there could be similar animal rights for invertebrates, I think it’s as cruel to abuse farm animals or pets as it is to abuse truckloads of hives or a single spider.

      I went to a talk last year at Zoological Society London about ‘The small things that rule the world’ which showed how important bees, beetles, molluscs and many other invertebrates are to making the world go round. How they save us millions in pollination, waste disposal and water filtration, and how important they are to the food chain. It would be nice if we could all learn to think how these creatures feel and to treat them and their environment better.

      PS. If you’re missing a honey harvest this year, check out the delicious honey substitutes in the link above from Mary’s website 🙂

  4. Beautiful harvest – LUCKY friends!

    That movie gave me a stomach ache. I like to think that it was a single operation that was so insensitive and plain old stupid (killing the goose that laid the golden egg). I hadn’t stopped to wonder if all almonds came at such a high price. Surely not!

    I know how you feel about treating bees with chemicals. I hate it. But when it’s their very existence at stake… I’m about to treat my hives with antibiotics because we’ve had a massive outbreak of European Foul Brood. Something that bees should be able to overcome. But in autumn they were hit hard with some nasty pesticide incident and the winter was very dry and we’ve lost several hives over winter and now, spring is here, it looks like we might lose more if we don’t do something quick. So chemicals it is.

    Obviously I’m not a vegan 🙂

    • I hope that single operation was an exception and not the rule.

      My god, you can’t divvy up frames in the brood nest into ‘types’ of frames like ‘brood’, ‘drone’, ‘worker’, ‘honey’ to make up more numbers of hives! That’s not how to create swarms, that’s how to destroy nests! I watched in horror thinking of how the bees from different hives with different colony smells were suddenly forced together to fight. They weren’t even finding the queens to make sure that more than one queen wasn’t left in a hive – illogical, how do they know the best laying queens will survive in this way? Uh, rant over. I hope it was the exception but now almonds give me a stomach ache too.

      Sorry about the bad time for your hives. It is horrible to see bees sick, they just don’t behave like normal bees. I know when looking at Chamomile’s hive and think they look ‘unhappy’ to me. So time for the medicine – chemicals might not seem like the most ideal solution, but far better than letting bees suffer and perish with a nasty disease. I’m also going to add some dried thyme to the smoker when we visit next week, a tip I got off a beekeeper on Twitter, to see if that helps too.

      I’m not a vegan either 😉 although I have 1–2 vegetarian days a week to be healthier to my digestion.

  5. Lovely lovely bees and well done to Myrtle and Melissa. I hope Chamomile’s bees get better and stronger 😘 . Your jars of honey look so plentiful and yummy. Well done for all the hard work you have put in all year, again. 🐝🐝

  6. Living in California, realitively close to the vast almond orchards you mentioned, I’d have to say that I think bees are treated so poorly on a commercial scale here because of a lack of training and knowledge. I am unsure of what the regulations are in other states, but California does not require you to *know* anything in order to keep bees.
    I really enjoyed reading about the training process you went through and I always enjoy reading about the community of beekeepers you have. Frankly, I am quite jealous. The very, very few beekeeping “clubs” we have here are much more worried about keeping up appearances of being bee gurus and the like than they are of actually educating the public as well as their members. Sad, but true.
    California and presumably most of the US could really learn from the example set by better managed beekeeper associations like yours.

    • Hi Sarah, I’m glad you’ve enjoyed reading about Ealing apiary. We’re lucky that our experienced beekeepers like to share their wisdom and often can’t stop talking about bees! You’re welcome to visit the apiary if you’re ever in London, though you might not always envy our weather 😉

      A lack of education and training about how to keep bees might better explain those scenes. Bees are so much happier and healthier, and more, productive, when they’re not stressed.

    • Sarah- I totally aggree that there should be more education suggested for bee-keeping.

      I learned from my dad, who kept about 100 healthy colonies.

      I was recently caretaking at a large home ranch, where the owner bought 6 colonies of bees and I was told that the ‘expert’ (owner’s lover) was in charge of the bees. He had no experience at ALL, and it was very hard to watch the demise of all these bees (mostly due to ants/negligence). I tried to gently offer sugestions without offending the property owner or her lover, but they felt very confident in their newfound “hobby”, and I could not jepordize my income/housing too much to speak aggressively about how they might keep the bees. The 6 colonies didn’t last. I did take care of the bees as best I could as a ‘ghost’, but am still sad that these colonies probably died because cocky sub-novices were not caring for them.

      • Hi Kristin, hat off to your dad for managing 100 successful colonies! That’s not easy to do. It’s lovely that you remember the bees who have passed on, I’m sure they’d appreciate that. I think invertebrates should be afforded the same rights as mammals and negligence to bees (whether through lack of education, training or other reasons) should be accountable as it is when people are negligent to other pets and livestock. Being a beekeeper you really can tell the difference between a happy and unhappy hive, it’s not difficult, so it makes me sad that people are allowed to keep colonies in bad conditions.

        You didn’t say if you still have your bees? If so, I wish them a happy new beekeeping season.

  7. Great post Emma…

    I planted an almond tree in our London back garden and it was heavy with it’s harvest when we went on holiday… sadly all was robbed by the squirrels by the time we got back 😦

    Cage building next year!

    • We’re pleased with our crop taken from one hive, and that they have made so much more for themselves for winter. We didn’t harvest from the other hives as after the artificial swarms they made only enough honey for winter stores. Although it’s a mild winter forecast which is sometimes not as good for bees as they stay active and use up more stores, so I’ll be doing some bee maths over the next few weeks!

  8. I am glad you flagged up the bad practices of the US commercial beekeepers, they are appalling and need to be as widely known as possible. Surely these commercial practices contribute to CCD?

    • I wondered that but have not read enough evidence to back it up. Personally, I think it little mystery to open a hive and find it completely empty if the bees have been badly treated. When bees are unhappy in a place – they up and leave, simple.

  9. That was a great documentary. I responded strongly to the European beekeeper and his attitudes. I loved the direct comparison.

    We watched another documentary on Netflix called Vanishing Bees, and they look at CCD and some of the causes.

    While I know a lot of people think commercial practices are a big contribution to CCD, I do not think they are the cause. I feel that CCD is more related to the systemic pesticides that Bayer, Monsanto, and other corporations are developing. These low-level toxins build up over time. The commercial practices of over-medicating, constant re-queening, sugar-feeding, and transporting the bees across the nation may be a contributing factor, but only as much as the monoculture diet of industrialized farming and pesticide use. It’s a lot more than just sugar or medicine that’s doing this.

    One thing that I’m realizing and believing more and more is that the small scale, organic beekeeper is going to end up being the “ark” for the species. As the documentary said, “60,000 hives owned by one beekeeper is worse than 60,000 beekeepers owning one hive.” And I even think that the strong differences in methodologies is part of that. The differences create strength in experimentation, successes, and even our failures.

    • Back again. I too think that the causes of honeybee (and other bee species) decline or CCD, or whatever you want to call it, is multifactorial and I wrote a post about this a few years ago based on a talk at a beekeepers’ event:

      I like the idea of an ark for the species being in integrating bees more into society on a smaller scale, not just for honeybees but for all pollinators from hives to bug hotels. A bit like the giving nature a home project by RSPB.

      Although as my family has been part of the food industry for generations I do look at it pragmatically. We need to eat and we need to feed a lot of people. Also the food industry is a livelihood for millions. So I think it’s about looking about how we do it better without a cost to ourselves or nature, and there’s always room for improvement in every business.

      Except honeybees of course, they do everything perfect already.

  10. Most of the descriptions on this blog on how bees are treated on almond ranches is a lie.. Maybe on a couple of the huge ranches it might be done this way, but for the other 99% of the almond ranches it is NOT!! we have 200 acres of almonds in Chico,Ca and we know many more almond farmers and have never even heard of these practices that you are talking about. we do not even take the honey from our 200 hives. we actually even plant flowering plants down the rows when almonds are not in bloom. Do your home work people and don’t just go by what someone tells you bremnerfarms

    • I am pleased to hear that there are good practice cases of honeybee pollination at almond plantations in California, and, as I said in an earlier comment, do hope that the scenes shown in More than Honey are not the norm either in the US or elsewhere.

      I watched the documentary last Christmas and have given myself over 6 months to think about it and to read further before commenting.

      The practice of migratory beekeeping for the pollination industry has been widely covered, eg:

      BBC 4 On the trail of the American honeybee

      The pollination industry must, of course, be relied on worldwide from Australia to Europe and UK for food production. I hope there are many initiatives looking at how to help bees and agriculture work together, such as this report from Sussex in the UK:

      However, if only one commercial practice exists like that shown in the documentary then it is one too many and it does need highlighting. Watching the conditions of bees being transported in the trucks (in that particular example filmed) made me flinch and it has deterred me from eating imported almonds while encouraging to buy local foods.

      As for my almond quip at the beginning of the post, this was tongue-in-cheek as was much of the post being a wry statement on my seemingly annual conversations about honey.

  11. I’ve been saving this one until I had time to read it. Excellent honey harvest news, it looks wonderful. Unless you have © it, I shall adopt your comment “Yes, but I don’t eat almonds’ as an all-purpose blocker of interfering queries / remarks in all circumstances. To the response “what’s that got to do with my point?” I suppose the counter is “Well, if you can’t see that, then we’ll just have to agree to differ”… Replies to your Rolling Harbour comments in a minute. RH

    • Feel free to re-use RH 🙂 I have found it useful as an all-purpose blocker even when it has nothing to do with bees and honey. To the response “What’s that got to do with my point?” I’ve taken to saying “42”.

      Well, if people think you’re a bit mad they usually leave you alone.

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