Crossing the Rubicon

Glowing with pride as I look at the total of 35 jars of honey that were gleaned from my first harvest I feel an extra tingle of excitement and audacity as a thought entered my head.  “Why not?” Why not pitch my honey against the best of them? It is stunning looking, it’s the genuine article, it’s the real deal, it’s straight from the bees. Why wouldn’t I win?!!

Honey is an amazing thing, it is hypnotic to look at, extraordinary in the making and has beneficial properties which are expounded the world over. Any honey straight from a hive is wonderful and, in my book, all of it is prize winning. How on earth can anyone award one honey a prize and not another? It took me a while to realise that a honey show has many aspects. There are the different categories of entries and honey is not just honey, it’s presentation and packaging, constancy and flavour are all taken into account. There is run honey, granulated honey, creamed honey, comb honey, sections and full frames. There are many by-products of beekeeping that are included in a Honey Show such as the purest wax you’ll ever see and there are beeswax candles, furniture polish, mead, cakes and sweets as well as other bee keeping related items.

Blocks of beeswas

Competition is fierce and the show hall is laced with a fugue of envy. The venerable honey show judges are treated with the respect of a royal. It is no mean feat to become a honey show judge and it takes years. Becoming one is the pinnacle of respectability in the honey world. All judges have been through the agonies of showing honey themselves and have had their own winning entries in many honey shows, they have spent due time shadowing other judges, volunteered as stewards at shows and excelled at tough exams and practicals, as well as having many years of beekeeping under their belt. Most of all, judges are pedantic. Despite this, the honey show judges I have met have the humility  that you’d see in experts in any field – they know enough to know they don’t know it all. And they have a kindness particularly towards the novice. 

Judging at Polehille Honeyshow – other great photos on that webpage

Wining a category in a honey show is not only a thrill, it is a testament to a beekeeper’s ability to follow stringent rules. Surprisingly, it is not a reflection on the honey. The bees make the honey and you cannot say one hive of pure honey is better than another unless you go by taste which is subjective. Admittedly, there is a bit of subjectivity too in judging honey as taste is taken into account.

Talking to my 35 jars of honey I say “Where do I start?” (I seem to do a lot of talking to inanimate objects). There was a local honey show in about 8 weeks, as I’m a beginner, I decided to start preparing straight away. That, it turns out, was my first bit of beginner’s luck. I hadn’t known then that it takes time, weeks even, to prepare honey for a show.

I unearthed the honey show application form that had already been posted to me by the secretary of my local beekeeper’s association. There were an amazing 35 categories that could be entered. Here are some of them.

  • 1 x Frame and 6 x jars of Honey
  • 2 x Sections of Floral Honey
  • 1 x Frame of Comb Honey
  • 2 x Sections of Heather Honey
  • 1 x Container of Cut Comb Honey
  • One Cake of Beeswax
  • 3 x Moulded Beeswax Candles
  • 3 x Non-moulded Beeswax Candles

Thankfully, there were novice classes too. As a novice I could enter 1 x jar of honey, 3 x jars of honey  and/or 6 x jars honey.  Jars of unfiltered honey, when you get up close and really examine them are as different as people. Unfiltered honey has edible minuscule bits of pollen and tiny bits of wax flakes floating harmlessly in it, not many are visible to the naked eye.  Honey for show needs extra filtering to remove the visible bits. When I say visible, you wouldn’t see them without a very bright light behind the jar.  When honey is poured into the jars tiny air bubbles are formed, so after filtering (but not filtering so much you compromise the flavour or take all the goodness out of it) honey needs time to settle so that the air bubbles float to the top to pop or can be removed. You can’t rush this. I examined my honey and was amazed that I couldn’t find matching jars of honey among the 35.  I picked out the best dozen jars. I looked at this video about how to win at a honey show again and again and followed the instructions to the letter and finally choose the top 4 to enter.

The whole honey show lark then got me all inspired. Where I was lacking in quantity of honey and wax I made up for with baking and experimenting with confectionary.  The weeks to the honey show were flying by as every evening I was baking or boiling up a batch of honey toffee as well as checking was the honey ready yet. Eventually, I rocked up to the honey show armed with one novice jar of honey, a set of three jars of honey, a honey cake, sweets, a bee-related photograph and I don’t know what else. I entered the room with my box of stuff, donned my white cotton gloves to avoid thumb prints on my jars and with a flurry of a soft cloth rubbed and pampered my jars of honey. These jars of honey got more rubbing down and shining than a prize-winning horse! I tagged them and lined them up as instructed on the display shelf alongside the other identical jars of honey. I ached to pick up the other jars to examine them closely – this is a definite no-no, I’d be disqualified if I did that. Were mine as good as them? I would have to wait like everyone else. In 24 hours, I’d know.

Photo from CCBKA

The beekeeping community is like any community, new commers are treated will a little suspicion. There’s a Rubicon to be crossed before more general acceptance. I knew by sight the lectures from the beginner’s course I had done the previous year, and others from the classes and demonstrations which I’ve talked about in my blog post Close Encounters of the third kind, so as I was putting up my display there were a few nods and nervous chit-chat among us beginners but nothing like the greeting I received the following day. Somehow, overnight I had crossed the Rubicon! As I entered the honey show I was greeted by my name as I paid my entrance fee, and by other established beekeepers. “Congratulations!” Someone said. What? Wow? Did I win something? My heart gave a flutter and then I thought it must have been for the cake, which I thought had turned out particularly well. The non-honey prizes are not near as valued as a prize for honey, but it would do. The judges put a card under your display with first, second, third or highly recommended or a little note on how you could improve for the next time, such as needed more filtering, cloudy, granulated, wrong type cover, sticky jar etc. I almost ran to where my honey was displayed. The jars had been moved as others had squeezed theirs in next to mine. I looked and honestly did not know which was which. I peered at the cards, no not mine, no, not these either.

Honey is honey is honey?

There, the red card, it had my name on it. First! Wow! What a thrill.  I looked for the other honey entry, first again!! It’s a wonder I didn’t knock the entire display I was so excited. Some of my fellow novices came over and congratulated me. I felt like I had won a marathon or a triathlon and then I felt a bit embarrassed, after all, they were only novice entries. My honey cake came second only and my sweets didn’t get anywhere and my photo of a bee warding off a wasp at the hive entrance came first. The prize money just about covered my entry fees and I received a sliver trophy that I had to return the next year but that didn’t matter, my feet didn’t touch the floor for the rest of the day.  As I left the show, I was already planning my next year’s entries. 😊

North Bucks Bee Keepers Association Honey Show Preparation gives great advice on preparing for a honey show. You’ll get a great flavour (pardon the pun) of what to expect.

The Phoenix Park Honey Show 2017 starts their article about the show with…“Did you know that a bee’s wings beat 190 times a second; that’s 11,400 times a minute? Did you know that Ireland has 98 bee species: 1 honeybee, 20 bumble bees and 77 solitary bees? Did you know that it takes 1,100 bees to make 1kg of honey and they have to visit over four million flowers. Remember this the next time you buy a jar of honey!”

The National Honey Show UK website is wonderful. There is a nice slide show of honey judging 2019 to click through and the The National Honey Show Lecture Series generously share their lectures from 2013 to date.

Photo from CCBKA
Photo by Roberta Sorge on Unsplash

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One comment

  1. A great story, Rebel Bee!
    Good on you indeed
    Elisabeth
    Elisabeth Okasha
    Professor emerita
    University College Cork
    Cork
    Ireland
    ________________________________

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