Plant heather to help bees produce more honey

Heather helps bees to produce honey with benefits far beyond the Manuka variety, writes Peter Dowdall

Plant heather to help bees produce more honey

We are all aware of the struggles facing the worldwide bee population over the last number of years as their numbers have been in decline.

Thankfully, numbers increased last year and hopefully the fine weather in Ireland this summer will further help our populations here.

Bees are an intrinsic part of our biodiversity and vitally important in terms of pollination and thus global food production. However, like Winnie the Pooh, I like my honey and, of course, without bees we would have no honey. I don’t just like my honey, in particular, I like Irish honey.

Local honey is great in combatting sinus infections, hayfever and more. It makes sense as nature normally offers us solutions to all of our problems and, anyway, even if there was nothing to it, I like a spoonful in my coffee or on a slice of warm toast, couldn’t imagine breakfast without it.

I have discovered a great source over the last year at Midleton Farmers’ Market and many other local markets throughout Ireland will have locally produced honey for sale.

Now, it seems, the rumours are true, as an intensive research study by scientists at Trinity College and Dublin City University has found that Irish heather honey has healthy compounds that can rival the world famous Manuka honey.

One of Kildare’s largest plant producers is buzzing this week with this news as it has found that honey produced from Irish Heathers has a higher Total Phenolic Content (TPC) than Manuka honey. This TPC is part of what gives honey its strong antioxidant properties.

Doran’s Wholesale Nurseries in Timahoe is run by husband and wife, Larry and Mary Doran and they grow the largest selection of heathers in Ireland and Britain.

“We produce thousands of these heathers and we are delighted that Irish heathers are getting the recognition they deserve,” says Larry Doran.

“Irish heather honey is collected by bees from a wide range of Irish heather, namely the Calluna vulgaris, Erica cineria and the tougher winter/spring flowering types Erica carnea, darlyensis and erigana.

“These heathers provide fantastic year-round food for bees, so it makes sense that Irish heather honey has rich health-giving compounds.”

Apart from this latest news, heathers are a great addition to any garden as, if you plant several varieties, you can have colour for each month of the year.

For winter I would suggest Erica ‘Tweety’ with its beautiful golden, bronze foliage and ‘Springwood White’ and Springwood Pink’ for flower colour.

Colour will continue through the spring with Erica ‘Brightness’ and ‘W T Rathclife’.

Two of the best summer bloomers are Erica ‘C D Eason’ and ‘Alba’ and as we head into the autumn, at the moment Erica ‘Lyonesse’ and ‘St Keverne’ are giving a great display.

I may be quite adept at eating honey but I’m no expert at producing it. However, I am assured by Larry Doran that the better types for honey production are Erica cineria, Calluna species and Erica Vagans.

“The scientists found that Irish heather honey has a similar level of antioxidants, known as Phenolic Compounds as the much revered Manuka honey which is fantastic news all round,” he says.

“I am producing Irish heathers for the past 40 years and Spring heathers are incredible bee food. Bees are crucial for our ecosystem and people are becoming more aware of their importance which is marvellous. We are all conscious now of the fragility of our planet and bees are an integral part of keeping the balance right.”

Which heather to choose? I often hear people comment: “I can’t grow heathers in my garden as I have the wrong soil”. The truth is that different species will tolerate different soil types, so if you have been unsuccessful with heathers in the past it’s due to planting the wrong type for your soil, not that you have the wrong soil.

While many Heathers such as Erica cinerea species will need an acid soil there are many such as Erica carnea and Erica erigana will tolerate all soils and thus are suitable for growing in an alkaline or limey garden.

Autumn is the ideal time to plant heathers as the soil is still warm and the plants will establish quickly in the garden. Heathers can be planted 45cm apart and provide good ground cover within three years. They also grow naturally in open sunny situations. Both winter and summer flowering heathers have fine root systems and need an open, well-drained soil to give of their best. Heavy clays can be improved by the addition of garden compost. Always plant heathers deeply, so that the foliage is resting on the surface of the soil.

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