Honey competitions are regular occurrences at beekeeping clubs around New Zealand, and we even celebrate national awards judged at Apiculture New Zealand’s annual conference. What is the history of honey shows though and what is their value? Regular contributor DAVE BLACK gives that question some thought and determines the answer is in the name.
As honeybees arrived in New Zealand in the second half of the 19th century the ascension of an age of ‘scientific beekeeping’ 300 years in the making had finally surfaced. Up until that point most beekeepers were agricultural labourers or small farmers living off subsistence wages, while the nascent industry was being reimagined by urban intellectuals with a moral, religious, and practical agenda to change the lives of the agrarian poor and save the bees.
In those last fifty years the moveable-frame hive, the centrifugal extractor, queen excluders, the porter bee escape, and foundation, grew out of an international soup of ideas fostered by new Associations founded expressly to promote ‘improved’, ‘scientific’, methods.
In the English-speaking world the British Bee Journal in 1870, the formation of the British Beekeepers Association, and the first National Honey Show in 1874 were at once cause and effect of a period of rapid technical, social, and intellectual reformation for beekeeping around the world.
For a long time, central to all this, the honey show performed an essential function. To this day the stated purpose of the British National Honey Show, probably the world’s most prestigious, is for raising the standards of production of honey and all other bee-produce. The honey show, often added to a long tradition of annual autumnal produce shows, formed the basis of the educational ‘outreach’ promoting new methods, and forged political and intellectual connections between the academic and moral elite and the rural worker. Beside the display, The Honey Show was the billboard for manufacturers and suppliers of equipment, a host for lectures and theorists, and in Europe and North America every beekeeping organisation, local, regional, and national, had one.
By the 1930’s a system of qualified professional honey judges was in place. It was the competitive peer pressure of honey shows, not a government department, which established a consumer’s expectations, and taught how they were to be met. It was honey shows that established your credentials as a product supplier.
We live in a different world. Are honey shows still important? I’d like to think so. Honey shows are in the business of making experts. They are supposed to be a test of some essential beekeeping skills and examine the ability to harvest and pack honey while maintaining the highest standards for quality and hygiene. They should be aspirational and provide examples of best that can be achieved, and not just for the beekeeper. A visit to a show by a member of the public can change their perception of the product forever.
Some of the more peripheral talents, like brewing, making polishes and cosmetics, and cooking with honey, provide an opening for more diverse interests and supply ideas for innovative revenue streams. Creative arts exhibits celebrate novel perspectives on what we do and play to an audience; actually, it is all about the audience.
While a good show celebrates the season, it celebrates authenticity and cements the confidence of an industry in the quality of its undertaking. There’s a clue in the name. It is not hidden away, an obscure back-room pastime for the amateur dilettante. A Honey Show should be a front-page news, public affirmation that we know what we are doing and do it well.
And yet (there is always a ‘but’). If we create an industry where scale forces specialisation, where intermediaries separate the ‘producer’ from the ‘consumer’, the harvester does not pack and the packer does not sell, maybe the honey show is finished. Maybe the consumers have to have government regulate standards they cannot choose. Maybe the regulations just facilitate fair-play and foreign foes, rather than perfection at any price, and, maybe beekeeping associations just become representative trade unions for a common cause. Is that what we want?
Dave Black is a Bay of Plenty based hobbyist beekeeper who now works in the kiwifruit industry. He has a degree in Environmental Science and for the past 25 years he has been reading and writing about bees and beekeeping. His essays are available at www.beyondbeebooks.substack.com