Heather honey is made from nectar collected from the tiny purple bell-shaped flower of the common heather plant (Calluna vulgaris), so named because of its domination of many areas of heath and boglands, and also known as ling heather.
Other heather species, such as the bell heather (Erica species), flower earlier and are less common which makes them less viable for honey.
Calluna vulgaris or Ling Heather takes its name from the ancient Greek meaning broom as heather boughs were often tied together and used for sweeping. It is a low growing evergreen native of Europe with a liking for dry acidic soils.
In Ireland Ling heather is found primarily on our hills and boglands. However, open heather moorlands are common in Scotland which accounts for more than 60% of the earth’s heather moorland, with the rest found in Western Europe.
In fact in early September a group of Irish beekeepers joined me in exploring the heather heathland of Lüneburg in northern Germany from where large quantities of heather honey are obtained each year.
The Lüneburg Heath is world famous not only for its honey but also the rare forms of black grouse and sheep that graze on the heather and gorse along with a variety of grasses.
The boglands on which Calluna heather blossom exists, have been kept young and clear of scrub by burning and grazing for thousands of years. Many readers and environmentalists are aghast at this burning, but depending on how fast the heather grows in a given location, managed burning of swathes of bogland takes place only between every seven and 25 years.
Farmers burn bog in rotation so that there are areas of younger plants, for grazing, and areas of larger, older plants to provide better shelter for birds and wildlife. The peat, in which heather grows, has to be very wet – yet the plants themselves have to be very dry and this tends to be in early spring.
After a successful burn, the plants soon sprout fresh young shoots and have an abundance of blossoms producing more nectar and therefore more honey.
Common heather flowers in late August and early September, and where it lives, there is often nothing else much for bees to feed on. The beehives cannot be left in the heather all year round or the bees would starve.
This means that heather honey is produced by a sort of nomadic beekeeping husbandry, where bees spend the summer at home in apiaries in the lowlands, happily producing honey from summer-flowering plants in the relative warmth.
But when the summer flowers approach the end of their season, the beehives go into a natural decline as the queen stops laying.
The beekeeper has to stop this decline because this is the very time at which the heather begins to flower. He does this by introducing a new queen bee at the end of June, which stimulates growth of the hive again and should provide a good strong stock fit for the rigours of collecting the nectar from the heather by August. Then, in mid-August, the fun really begins.
A heather-loving beekeeper literally has to transport his beehives up onto the boglands in the second week of August. Very early in the morning or after dark when all the bees are back at home, cars, vans and trailers are painstakingly loaded with the beehives, bees still in residence, and carefully driven up into the hills.
On arrival, the hives are unloaded and manoeuvred into position amongst the heather, which is just beginning to flower.
Next day, the bees venture out after their long journey to find an unexpected chill in the air and nothing but the tiny purple flowers of the bog to feed on. This cooler weather makes foraging for heather nectar a dangerous business, and bee mortality rates are high up on the hills.
Many bees get too cold to fly when they are out and about, and simply never make it back to the hive. This is why a beekeeper will ensure that only vigorous hives are brought to the boglands.
After three or four weeks, that famous purple haze of the hillsides starts to fade as the heather flowers die. The poor beekeeper then has to load up all the hives and take the bees home again. The traditional advice to those moving bees to the heather is — go early, early in the morning, early in August and come home late, late in the evening, late in September.
This whole process is very laborious, and combining it with extracting or pressing out the honey, it means that heather honey is scarce and expensive. However, a great benefit of bringing bees to the bog is that they will need little or no feeding over the winter.
Ling heather honey has unique qualities and is very jelly like and will not run, so extracting is a problem because the honey will not spin out of the combs in the normal way. It is thixotropic which means that it is normally gel-like and firm, but it will become temporarily liquid if stirred or agitated.
Often beekeepers will not extract the honey from the comb but cut it up to sell as cut-comb heather honey, which commands a premium price.
In judging honey, a common test of the purity of Ling honey is to place the opened honey jar on its side to test how quickly it will flow out. Pure Ling heather honey will stay firmly in place for several minutes. The longer it stays, the purer the honey.
Another sign of purity is the presence of small air bubbles trapped in the gel-like honey (a result of pressing to extract the honey), and while it has a bright appearance, it will not be clear.
Heather honey is dark in colour and can be reddish/orange to dark amber with its own particular flavour unlike that of any other honey, and is a favourite with many people. The taste is tangy, pungent, smoky, and mildly sweet that leaves a long aftertaste.
he unique flavour and consistency of heather honey makes delicious dishesand was also once used in the making of alcoholic beverages like mead and Drambuie has heather honey as one of its contents.
As Heather honey is good for the digestion a sample or two over the Christmas season should help relieve some of the fallout the enjoyably rich diet. Give it a go!