Fresh goats cheese with a drizzle of honey is one of our favourite pairings here at Slate, particularly when it is our local honey from Bracey Bees.
After many years of professional bee keeping in Britain and Dubai, Simon Bracey settled in Suffolk four years ago and set up his own hives around the county. He now has ninety hives at locations including Otley, Framlingham, Easton, Hollesley, Dunwich and by the river at Levington. This wide area covered by his hives means Simon spends a lot of his time on the road but it provides a variety of natural flora for his bees to feast upon and produce honey of different flavours.
Recently we gave Simon a buzz to find out more about this busy time of year for beekeepers and to discover whether Suffolk is a bee-friendly place.
How do you choose where to locate your hives?
I am always keen to place hives in semi-natural habitats rather than farmed agricultural fields as the variety of flora is more interesting. This season I have new bee colonies at Dunwich where they can find heather, and I am hoping that this year I will get sea lavender and sweet chestnut honey from my hives at Levington.
Is Suffolk a good area for bee keeping?
Suffolk is a pretty good area for bee keeping; many of the farmers in this area are sympathetic to bees in terms of their pesticide use. Suffolk does not get as high a level of sunshine as further south in England, and High Suffolk is farmed pretty intensively, but there are still plenty of wild corners to be found for the bees to access natural flora. At their peak population this year, I should have forty to sixty thousand bees in the hives and I hope to produce in excess of a tonne of honey. This spring has been fairly good for the bees and I have had a good crop of honey so far, however we could do with some rain soon.
What needs doing in the hives during the summer months?
We are just coming out of the months when the bee colonies are expanding and there is the highest risk of swarming. I rear my own queen bees to ensure they are a good strain for honey production and in terms of temperament. I clip the wings of my queens to prevent them flying off. Particularly during May, I must check the hives at least every nine days in line with the reproductive cycle of the bees, to ensure that a new queen does not emerge and I lose the bees.
Over the summer months my main job is extracting honey from the hives. I go to each location once every seven to ten days. In July it is a priority to treat the hives with formic acid to prevent the spread of varroa disease. This disease is spread by a parasitic mite and leads to decreased honey production and ultimately death of the bees. Rather than using chemicals to which the mites may become resistant and which may contaminate the honey, I treat each of my hives with formic acid. I put a reservoir of 85% formic acid solution on the top of each hive; the acid evaporates and sinks through the layers of the hive, as it is heavier than air.
You describe your honey "raw honey". What does that mean and what is granulation?
The honey from my hives is collected as soon as it is ripe. I uncap the comb with a cold knife as the temperature within the hives is pretty high at this time of year, about 36 to 38 degrees centigrade. I use a centrifuge to extract the honey and pass it through muslin to filter it before it is stored in containers and later put into jars for sale.
My honey is described as "raw" as it does not undergo any heat treatment and it is not too finely strained. Heating honey will keep it clear for longer. Granulation is a natural process by which the fruit sugars in the honey solidify at cold temperatures, around 12 to 16 degrees. This gives the honey a cloudy appearance and crunchy, granular texture. Rapeseed honey has a particularly high glucose content and is prone to granulation. It can easily be reversed by gentle warming of the honey - just place the jar in warm water.
When you are not tending to your bees, what do you enjoy about living in Suffolk?
Looking after my bees is pretty full on at the moment but I really enjoy living near the Suffolk coast and try to fit in some bird watching and fishing when I can. Come the autumn, I also enjoy mushrooming.