The health benefits of New Zealand’s manuka honey are well documented. However, a few years ago Irish researchers found a similar presence of powerful antioxidants called phenolic compounds in Irish heather honey.

In early August, the annual ritual of taking bees to the heather takes place. It is a laborious task, best suited to the young and fit. However, many beekeepers, whose years are on the high side, still persist in this practice.

Heather blooms

What, one may ask, is the lure? The prize of getting some of the best honey that nature provides has to be number one. This year, the ling heather had a reasonably good yield despite the lack of ideal conditions. Those looking at the heather blooms on the distant hills would have noticed that the brilliance of colour did not stand out as in other years.

Honey from Ling heather is dark with a strong flavour and has properties which equal or surpass manuka honey. It is a thixotropic liquid, requiring different methods of processing to other honeys. Because of its thixotropic nature, the gel-like honey is generally sold in cut-comb form, packed in tubs.

Heather Honey Press. / Willie O'Byrne

However, for those who can afford it, a special piece of equipment can be purchased to change the viscosity of the honey in the honeycomb, by agitation. Once agitated, the honey becomes less viscous and can be extracted in a similar way to other honeys. A honey press (pictured), is much more affordable and is another method which beekeepers use to remove the honey from the honeycomb. The pressure exerted on the honey changes the viscosity causing it to flow, so it may then be packed in jars. The change in viscosity is only temporary and once the honey is allowed to stand for a while, it will revert to its thixotropic nature.

The heather season is over for another year, as is the ivy flow. Beekeepers have moved beehives back to lowlands. The preparations for next year are now in hand, since beekeepers consider autumn as the start of their year. Bee colonies have been fed and left in a secure state for the winter months. Varroa mite controls may have been completed but some remain for the brood-less period in late December or early January.

Heather honey supplies will be short lived so now is the ideal time to get it. One of its benefits is it is good for digestion. It could even help to relieve some of the symptoms of a rich diet during the busy Christmas season.

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