World of Honey

Heather Honey

Common (Ling) Heather

Heather honey is made from nectar collected from the tiny purple bell-shaped flower of the common heather plant so named because of its domination of many areas of heath and moorland, and also known as ling heather.  Other heathers, such as the bell heather, flower earlier and are less common which makes them less viable for honey.

Common heather is used to make honey mainly in Scotland, Wales and Northern England, although it is also found in a few other places such as

heather and mountain scene

heather and mountain scene

on Dartmoor in Devon and in a few parts of Northern Europe.  Heather hugs the ground, growing usually no more than two feet high in its windswept habitat.  Heather’s thin, brush-like branches were in days gone by used in bedding and to make brooms (its official name is Calluna Vulgaris, and calluna is from the Greek word for broom).

Heather Moorland

According to the British Moorland Association, 75% of the world’s heather moorland is in Britain with Scotland having the most.  But what is moorland?  Well, it’s the land to be found above the lower, enclosed farmland (cultivated fields) and it stretches right up to the tree line – the highest point where trees will grow.  Heather moorland looks wild and unmanaged, but in reality, like the apparently natural “patchwork quilt” of the English countryside, it is a highly managed environment.  Left to grow wild, the heather would become tall and woody, and no use to man or beast.  Properly managed, the heather stays young and more tender which means it can be grazed.  Producing good grazing land is the reason that the moor is managed today as it has been for thousands of years.  Farming on the moors is limited because of the harsh climate – no crops will grow, and only hardy animals can survive all year round – some hardy species of cattle, sheep, deer – and of course grouse, that famous bird of the highlands.  Farmers manage the heather so that these animals can eat and survive, and in turn the farmer can eat and survive!

Burning the Heather

Heather moorland is kept young by burning huge swathes of it in rotation.  Depending on how fast the heather grows in a given location, this takes place between every seven and 25 years.  Burning in rotation means that there are areas of younger plants, for grazing, and areas of larger, older plants to provide better shelter for the grouse and other birds.    Conditions have to be just right to carry out a controlled burning.  The peat, in which heather grows, has to be very wet – yet the plants themselves have to be very dry.  If the ground was too dry, the peat, which is the ground itself, would catch fire (peat was in former times used as a fuel for fires).  If the peat caught fire it would be very very hard to control and the roots of the heather would be burned, destroying the whole plant!  After a successful burn, the plants soon sprout fresh young shoots which the animals love.  So, if you are visiting Scotland and happen to see what looks like a great fire sweeping across the countryside between October and April, do not be alarmed – wildfires are very unlikely at this time of year, and although you may not see anybody around, you are probably witnessing skillful moorland management in action.

The Story of Heather Honey

Common heather flowers in about the first three weeks of 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 beekeeper, who spends the summer at home with his bees, happily producing honey from summer-flowering plants in the relative warmth of lowland Britain.  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 in July, which stimulates growth of the hive again.  Then, at the start of September, the fun really begins.

British beekeepers from all over the north of England and lowland Scotland haul literally thousands of beehives up onto the moors, and it’s the same story in parts of Wales.  After dark, cars, vans and trucks are painstakingly loaded with the beehives, bees still in residence, and carefully driven up into the hills.  On arrival, the hives are unloaded and  maneuvered 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 moor to feed on.  This cooler weather makes foraging for heather nectar a dangerous business, and bee mortality rates are high up here on the moors.  Many bees get too cold to fly when they are out and about, and simply never make it back to the hive.

After three short weeks, that famous purple haze of the Scottish moors starts to fade as the heather flowers die.  The poor beekeeper then has to load up all the hives and take the bees all the way home again.

This whole process is very laborious as you can imagine, and it’s one reason that this honey is so valuable.

What’s So Special About Heather Honey?

Heather honey is a very special beast.  Dark in color, it has a powerful aroma that is reminiscent of the heather from which it comes.  Uniquely, it has a very unusual texture: it is thixotropic, which means it is like jello until you stir it, when it turns liquid.  When you stop stirring, it soon sets again.  That’s not to say it crystallizes, because this honey is not inclined to crystallize in its pure form.  It also contains tiny bubbles which makes it shimmer in the light.  Its strong, rich, smoky taste has been compared to toffee, and gets stronger the longer the honey is stored.  While some people crave heather honey wildly and will never be without it after their first taste, there are others who hate it!  In Great Britain, it is highly-prized by connoisseurs and known as the “Rolls Royce” of honey.  It’s available in the U.S. too, although not widely and you may have to buy it online.

If you’re going to the trouble and expense of getting hold of some heather honey, my advice is that you try the pure stuff, made using the traditional method, from 100% heather nectar.  Then you can decide if you are a lover, or a hater, of this uniquely British honey.

21 Responses to “Heather Honey”

  1. looking to buy some heather honey ….

  2. Hello Stephen

    Thank you for your message.

    We don’t sell honey ourselves, but for heather honey you might like to take a look at this site:

    http://www.heather-hills.com

    Regards

    Michael
    World-of-Honey.com

  3. Agribetz makes organic heather honey that is wonderful.
    It comes from the hills of Piacenza, Italy. There is where I got mine…it is very special. I know it is not imported yet …sadly. But if you ever find your self in the vicinity you should treat your self.

  4. Thanks for the comment and also the tip!

    Michael
    World-of-Honey.com

  5. Should ye not locate the heather or the honey, laddie…don’t be forgetting the Drambuie. It’s loaded with the stuff and so delicious. Cheers!

  6. Och, away wi ye Rob! A’v no bin a laddie fer many a year!!

    Thanks for the comment though!

    Michael
    Your surname isn’t Burns by any chance…?

  7. Great story. Just sad about the bees mortality rate.

  8. I now finally know at least have seen a picture of my namesake, heather! my mum was born in Ayrshire. I have been there twice, but have seen the heather growing wild. thank you! heather

  9. Thanks for writing, glad you enjoyed the picture. Heather honey is very distinctive and has a taste all its own.

  10. What a great write up about Heather Honey, I and my familiy eat this type of honey for decades, but we get ours from a little family farm in northern Spain.

  11. Hi Selin, thanks for your kind comment, I’m pleased you liked the article. Regards, Michael, World-of-Honey.com

  12. Hi, I’m interested in some ling heather honey to make some mead. I’ve been trying to track down ling heather flowers or tips to make some mead but nobody seems to know where I could get the flowers, even brew shops in Scotland have no idea. Do you have any suggestions on where to get the flowers. I appreciate any help you could offer.
    Cheers
    Dan

  13. Hello Dan

    I’ve found a few sellers on Ebay – just search for ling heather flowers. Also this supplier: http://www.localharvest.org/heather-flowers-C30834 . Hope that helps.

    Kind regards,

    Michael
    World-of-Honey.com

  14. I found heather honey produced in the island of Kos, Greece. Wonderful tast.

  15. I thought I received heather honey before and I couldn’t tell the difference between it and the so called rape (canola) honey. The smokey taste mentioned wasn’t even there. Where I swapped mine with another fellow across the pond. Where mine was much better.
    Could you suggest where I might be able to buy pure heather honey, which I don’t think I want a big producer unless they’re the only ones. I’d prefer a smaller beekeeper who’s honest and takes pride in his product.
    I’d appreciate whatever you can tell me.
    Best Regards,
    Bert Clayton

  16. Hi Bert, hopefully our readers can help with your enquiry?

    Regards

    Michael
    World-of-Honey.com

  17. https://www.facebook.com/marion.affleck.3

    bought some whilst i was in Mallaig. contacting her now to buy more and post it to me. it’s not 100% heather honey but predominately heather and tasty :)

  18. Hi Bert, We’ve just finished harvesting a beautiful, pure, ling heather honey from our two apiaries in the Knockmealdown Mountains in Ireland. The quality and purity this year is superb…we’re thrilled with it :) If you’d like to order some you can contact me through our Facebook Page ‘Knockmealdown Honey & Tilly’s Natural Cosmetics’ or on tillysnaturalcosmetics@gmail.com. Kind regards, Michelle

  19. Thanks for the info Tilly.
    Regards
    Michael, World-of-Honey.com

  20. I recently discovered this honey, a bio “raw heather honey” produced in Spain (miel de brezo). I bought it for its color, which I found quite tempting… I absolutely love it! I wonder if its taste varies according to the region the heather grow in… Anyway, it has now become my favorite honey!

  21. That sounds very interesting Rose. I will have to look out for that one when I next go to Spain.

Leave a Reply

You can use these XHTML tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>