Borgue Honey (from 1841)

From “The Western Farmer & Gardener” published in Cincinnati, July 1841.

Borgue Honey – Management of Bees.

For many years by past, Borgue has been famed for producing fine honey— perhaps the finest in Scotland. It is of a transparent sea-green hue, and possesses an exquisite richness of flavor which is keenly relished by connoisseurs. What gives it the beautiful colour has hitherto baffled the investigations of naturalists; but it is certain that it is clear until the beginning of July. Many of the pasture fields in Borgue abound with white clover, and in fine dry weather in July, thousands of the industrious insects may be heard buzzing, and, seen gathering sweets from the time that the dew rises until late in the afternoon. Extreme dry and warm weather is unfavorable for producing good honey, for the flowers either never arrive at perfection, or the scorching rays of the sun burn them up. Extremely wet weather is also unfavorable – for however numerous the flowers of different kinds are, the plashing rains wash out what the bees so ingeniously mix in their laboratory, while they are reluctantly confined in their cells.

In good seasons, as much as one hundred and fifty pints of sixteen imperial gills each, have been produced in Borgue, though for some years past, the quantity has been considerably less; and bee husbandry is by no means so generally cultivated as in former times, when the seasons were more propitious. Season 1839, was highly unfavorable, and the produce in the parish of Borgue was but little more than forty pints; while that of 1840, which was something better, yielded somewhat more than eighty. The summer of 1826, was the warmest that any living person remembered, and the most unfavorable for producing honey, not only in quantity, but in quality; for in that season it was as dark in the color as what comes from the Moors, and wholly devoid of the rich flavor that it commonly has.

In the winter of 1838, and also that of 1839, many hives died of starvation, though at killing time each season, numbers of weak ones were taken with the view of preserving the lives of the stronger ones in the ensuing spring; and hence the small number of hives that are to be found in the parish of Borgue. In former times, almost every married labourer, as well as each joiner, mason, cooper, blacksmith, &c. had a winter-stool; and in the month of the following October, the gains of each would amount to from £ 1. 5. to £2.  besides a small quantity for family use, and an old hive to breed, and throw off swarms next summer. Some of the more extensive cultivators of bee husbandry, used to have from six to ten winter-stools, and their gains were in proportion. For some years past, few persons in Borgue have had more than four hives that survived the winter; and in tolerably good seasons they throw off on an average, two swarms each. There are sometimes one, or even two more; but they are commonly weak, and the produce would have been greater and finer in quality had they remained in the parent stock. In very good seasons, the top or first swarm throws off one hive, and the produce of it is called virgin honey, which is of a truly beautiful hue, and always commands the highest price in the market.

A virgin hive seldom produces more than two, though in particularly good seasons, three, or even four pints. In fine summers, the honey is always much superior in quality, to what it is in unfavorable ones. In general, there are but few young swarms before Whitsunday; and the greater number are thrown off from the 1st to the 21st of June. Sometimes there are a few as late as the last week in July; but unless the season is highly propitious, they do not gather as much as will preserve them through the winter, and are smoked in September. In good seasons the average quantity from each swarm is probably three pints, though the top one occasionally yields from six to seven. If the top swarm is very strong, it is customary to put one, two, or even three ekes (additions) to hinder it from casting; and in extraordinary fine seasons, from six to eight pints have been produced.

In bad seasons, the drones are sometimes killed before the first swarm is thrown off, which materially injures the parent stock; but in good seasons, the drones are not destroyed until the hiving is past. Owing to the darkness of the color and the difference in the flavor, Moor honey rates from two to three shillings per pint lower than the finest produced in the low countries – at least in Borgue. Honey gathered off heather, and also off the leaves of oak, fir and sycamore trees, is always of a dark color, and consequently less marketable. It is allowed on all hands, that white clover is peculiarly rich with materials for producing fine honey; but it is a mistaken notion that bees also gather from red clover. The wild, or bumble bee very frequently extracts food from red clover; but the tame one, owing to the shortness of its proboscis, cannot penetrate. The latter, however, are very fond of gooseberry and currant trees, cherry, apple and pear tree blossoms, wild and garden mustard, rape, kale, &c. They are also very partial to the flowers of german greens, yellow clover, and many other wild flowers, which callous persons pass by with indifference.

In some apiaries, the writer of these remarks has seen the ground in their immediate vicinity delved in the spring, and sown with rape or mustard seed. In Borgue, old swarms or winter stools, are not removed to the moors, but are kept in their summer stations. In summer, bees are often found at a considerable distance from any dwelling house, though how far they fly in search of food cannot be accurately calculated. A long time ago, some hives were kept from ten to fifteen years; but of late they are seldom allowed to stand for more than two or three years. A hive which weighs 30 lbs. including the skep, will keep during the winter, and if it is heavier, will most likely throw off swarms earlier in the ensuing summer; but for several seasons past, some weighing not more than 20 lbs., have with a little spring feeding with honey, or melted sugar, been preserved, though the produce is commonly scanty. In bad seasons, the killing of hives usually commences about the 1st of September; and in good ones, about two weeks afterwards.

In Borgue, the way of getting the honey is by digging a round hole in the garden or apiary, putting two pieces of wood horizontally over the mouth; placing two brimstone candles in the bottom; then placing the skep right over them, and covering it with a sheet. In a short time the bees are suffocated; and lest on the following day the rays of the sun should revive them, they are covered over with earth; and thus are they not only unscrupulously robbed of their store, but cruelly put to death. Fine honey usually weighs from 7 to 7½ lbs. per imperial pint; and in proportion to the quantity produced, or to the demand, it brings from six to twelve shillings. In ordinary seasons, it brings about nine shillings, – though in very bad ones, it has been as high as fifteen shillings per pint. The latter price is very rare indeed. In the beginning of October, persons desirous of having a new stock, repair to the moors, and purchase keeping hives at from fifteen to twenty-one shillings each. Though all the moor honey is of a dark color, it is principally consumed during the winter and spring; and the new honey is commonly of as fine a quality as if the parent stock had been bred in the low country. Old hives are sometimes destroyed by the white moth, or miller, though its ravages in proportion to the number of hives kept are by no means so great as they appear to be in some parts of America.

Sam’l Houston.
Borgue, near Kirkcudbright,
April 1st, 1841.

(The preceding communication was received from a correspondent in Scotland, in answer to our enquiries on the subject. We were anxious to know if Borgue honey was still as beautiful in appearance, as delicious in flavor, and as highly prized, as when we were wont to ramble in our boyish days ower the muir amang the heather. We wished to learn, too, if the secret of its peculiar excellence had yet been discovered.
We are much indebted to Mr. Houston, and will be pleased to hear from him again, on such like topics.)