THE workers have been buzzing away in their hives for six decades. And now in its 60th year, Rowse Honey has officially been named the nation’s favourite thing on toast.
The honey-packing firm in Wallingford, which imports the sweet substance from around the world, dominates the UK honey market.
In 2013, Rowse brand honey overtook Marmite as the most popular breakfast spread according to an annual survey by industry magazine The Grocer.
UK shoppers spent £46m on about 20,000 tonnes of Rowse honey – around 50 million jars.
The firm, which employs just over 200 people at its factory in Moreton Avenue, Wallingford, attributes its rise in popularity not just to the fact it tastes delicious on a slice of toast, but also its medicinal uses.
Paul ‘Harry Andrews checking storage tanks in the preparation area
Marketing director Kirstie Jamieson said: “We have been very focused on supporting our brand and supporting honey’s unique selling proposition, which is basically its versatility.”
What makes honey different from other breakfast toppers, she said, is that it can be used on a lot of other occasions.
While breakfast time still accounts for 70 per cent of honey usage, the next biggest use is as a cold and flu remedy, either mixed in with a powdered paracetemol drink or just with hot water and lemon.
The firm also started advertising on television for the first time in 2011, and working with supermarkets to get its brand the best placement on shelves.
Rowse now divides its honey sales into three areas – everyday honey, specialist honeys which are made from a single flower type such as lavender, and Manuka honey.
“Manuka is very much seen as a health food,” explained Ms Jamieson, who lives in Sparsholt near Wantage. “It isn’t bought for its taste, which is quite herbal.”
The honey is only produced from Manuka flowers in New Zealand, and because of its scarcity is sold for £9.99 a jar, as opposed to £1.99 for the same amount of everyday honey.
The firm imports honey from 45 countries around the world, but almost exclusively sells in the UK.
Operations director Patrick Robinson
Between 3,000 and 6,000 tonnes come from British beekeepers, depending on the weather, while British breakfasters consume about 10 times that amount.
Rowse imports its honey in industry-standard, 300-kilo steel drums, 20 tonnes at a time.
It is subjected to several tests, including a taste test.
It arrives in a solid form. This is because bees produce honey at around 38C in the hive, and as it cools down in transit it becomes super-saturated with sugars inside.
That means it has to be warmed up gently in a room at the factory to make it liquid again, before it can be decanted into giant vats and pumped into jars.
Companies used to microwave honey to heat it up quickly, but it was discovered that this alters important enzymes in honey which give flavour and texture.
One of those enzymes actually produces hydrogen peroxide, more commonly known as a hair bleach, which in the bee hive kills off bacteria harmful to bee larvae for which honey is intended.
If it is overheated, the sugar in honey is also transformed into a chemical called hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), which gives the honey a caramel-like taste.
The UK government now sets a maximum limit of 40 parts of HMF per million – any more than that and the substance cannot legally be sold as honey.
Rowse has a small chemistry laboratory on site, accredited by the Campden Food and Drink Research Association, which monitors HMF levels in honey.
Once the honey is warmed lids are either popped off, or a machine like a giant can opener is used.
It is then passed through a 1mm-mesh to sift out wax particles and bee body parts – legs and wings. Jars of honey with comb in them are packed for Rowse by a producer in Hungary.
Rowse production director Patrick Robinson came to Oxfordshire from Cumbria, having worked in factories for 30 years.
He said: “This is the nicest factory I have worked in. People here actually give a monkey’s about what they do. We get customers telling us how nice we are. I think it is great for local people to know Rowse is a very significant business in the food industry and people should be proud to have around.
“In terms of scale, there is no one who comes near what we do.”
Locally, Rowse has sponsored the annual Shrove Tuesday pancake race in Wallingford for many years.
Former mayor and town councillor Ros Lester said: “Of course, we are very happy to have them in the town.
“They are a major employer and they are good for Wallingford.
“They are a part of the town now, and we are very proud to have them – especially if they have overtaken Marmite.”
Beekeeper Tony Rowse started keeping bees in 1938 in a small shed at Ewelme near Wallingford.
He started the Rowse honey company in 1954.
The legend goes that one year his harvest was so bad he had to import a barrel from South America.
It sold well, so he got the idea of importing more .
The firm continued to grow and in 1987 moved from Ewelme to Wallingford, with Mr Rowse handing over the reins to his son Richard.
He sold the company in 2006 and it is now backed by venture capitalists.
Honey is the only naturally-occuring food which preserves itself.
That is because of the way it is made.
Worker honey bees eat nectar from flowers (whilst inadvertently collecting pollen on their legs which pollinates flowers).
Inside the gut, the nectar mixes with enzymes. The bees then regurgitate the mixture into cells of comb inside the hive, where it is supposed to feed the growing larvae.
The enzymes have antibacterial properties, including the production of hydrogen peroxide, or bleach, which kills harmful bacteria.
After vomiting up the nectar, the bees fan it with their wings to evaporate the moisture over a period of several weeks, known as ripening.
Each worker bee producers about a twelfth of a teaspoonful of honey in its six-week life, after flying the equivalent of twice around the world.