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The Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay
Economics of the Heather - Bees and Heather


Oh! the wafts o' heather honey and the music on the brae,
As I watch the great harts feeding nearer, nearer, a' the day;

Oh! to hark the eagle screaming, sweeping, ringing round the sky,
That's a bonnier life. . . . —Kingsley.

The Heather flower is a favorite of the honey bee, and the honey gathered from the Heather, though of a darker color, is much preferable to that which is extracted from the garden flowers. (See under Medicinal Virtues for the ancients' idea of Heather honey.)

Burt, in his 'Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland," thus characterizes the quality of the Heather honey: "And as I have mentioned the honey above, I shall here give that its one commendation. I think, then, that it is in every respect as good as that of Minorca, so much esteemed, and both, I suppose, are in a great measure produced from the bloom of the heath." Ruskin tells us that this utilitarian side appealed more to the ancient heathen writers than the beauty of the plant itself. He says, in Modern Painters, "They loved the Hybla Heather more for its sweet hives than its purple hues."

Rev. Hugh Macmillan, in his "Holidays on High Lands," has also a good word for the Heather honey preed from the skeps of Donald Macrae, afar amid the wild moors of Bohespick. He says, "Mount Hybla itself could not boast of more luscious honey than the liquid amber gathered from the heather-bells, by the three bee-hives in the sunny corner."

It was and is still a custom of the bee keepers in the lowland districts of Scotland to transport their beehives to the Highland hills about the middle of August, so that the bees could have full advantage of sipping the nectar from the great sea of Heather bloom then available. The presence of the bees there is beautifully pictured by Leyden in the following verse:

The tiny heath flowers then begin to bloom,
The russet moor assumes its richest glow;
The powdry bells that glance in purple bloom,

Fling from their scented cups a sweet perfume;
While from their cells, still moist with morning dew,
The winged wanderers sip the honied glue;

In wilder circle wakes the liquid hum,
And far remote the winged murmurs come.

Another poet, Charlotte Smith, sings:

The Erica here,
That o'er the Caledonia hills sublime
Spreads its dark mantle, (where the bees delight
To seek their purest honey) flourishes,

Sometimes with bells like amethysts, and then
Paler and shaded like the maiden's cheek
With gradual blushes—other while as white
As rime that hangs upon the frozen spray.

This custom of transporting bees from one place to another, says a writer, appears to be of a very ancient origin. Niebuhr states he met upon the Nile, between Cairo and Damietta, a convoy of four thousand hives, being transported from one region where the flowers had passed to one where the spring was later. Columella says that the Greeks in like manner sent their beehives from Achaia to Attica. A similar practice prevails in Persia, Asia Minor, Italy and on the Rhone.

An authority on apiculture thus explains the advantage of locating the beehives among the Heather when it is in flower:

"It is always a good plan to send late swarms of the hive into the Heather-bearing countries; for the bees being young, and having every inducement to work for the approaching winter, will store better their hives which have been 'swarmed' and deprived of honey, the colonies of which are worn or fatigued with a long-continued gathering of a summer in more southern countries. It must likewise be remembered that bees cannot gather, or rather will not do so, late in the autumn, when the cold prevents them from sealing over with wax the top of the cell."

With Scotland's natural advantages in large areas of Heather available, it has been a matter of wonder to some as to why apiculture was not carried on to a greater extent by the Scottish Highlanders than it is. The custom of conveying the skeps to the hills in vogue among lowlanders is gradually dying out, having been found somewhat expensive, it being necessary to maintain one or more men to look after the hives; besides, the charge for transport to and from the hills is a considerable item. Sugar is being substituted for the Heather nectar, though the honey secured has not the flavor for which the Heather honey is famed.


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