Discover the Hitchin-made booze helping save honey bees

Andre of Cardona and Son Spirit Co ,Hitchin, with one of his bee covered honey frames

Andre with one of his honey frames - Credit: Liam Dickson

On a mission to protect the honey bee, Hitchin's Andre Cardona is raising awareness with bee experiences, and gin and rum, writes Julie Lucas. 

I love bees and have an urge to assist when one has run out of puff.

I put down a drop of sugar water or find a flower and watch as they guzzle the sweet liquid or nectar. Clover seems to be a favourite, I imagine it must be like tasting a gin and tonic.

Taking one of the frames from a hive. Andre has 60 in the wider Hitchin area

Taking one of the frames from a hive. Andre has 60 in the wider Hitchin area - Credit: Liam Dickson

The only problem is they have a sting in the tail. In a complete contradiction, I am also the person flapping her arms around when one flies too close to me, as I'm petrified of being stung.

I am pondering all this as I stand confronted with thousands of them. 

I am with Andre Cardona, of Cardona and Son Spirit Co. The 43-year-old is an experienced beekeeper, and has combined his passion for bees with that for making delicious alcoholic drinks.

His honey gin is made with his own raw honey from beehives around Hitchin and locally sourced ingredients.

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Andre says they're made with a whole lotta love. A Led Zep fan, I think. 

Andre Cardona with a bottle of his Hitchin Honey gin 

Andre Cardona with a bottle of his Hitchin Honey gin - Credit: Liam Dickson

Andre’s passion for the insect was fostered as a 10-year-old at boarding school in Kent where he would often disappear to the school farm. He loved the animals but it was hives that fascinated him.

‘Honeybees are such interesting creatures. No two days are the same and I really enjoy constantly gaining new insights into the hive and the art of apiculture. When I moved from London to Hitchin in 2005 to pursue the good life, I jumped at the chance to have my own beehive and so the adventure began.’   

He now has 60 hives, 20 of which are managed for corporate clients.

In summer each hive accommodates an incredible 60,000 bees and I am standing by seven of them in fields at Halls Green.

They are, quite simply, a hive of activity. I have been told to bring Marigolds and wellies (mine are black and yellow striped, appropriately) and have decided to wear the tightest jeans to ensure nothing goes up my trousers.

I get suited and booted in a full beekeeping suit and Andre checks that there are no openings which may let in an intruder.

I am part of a small group, a dad with his daughter who has bought the experience for him, a couple who would like to keep their own hive one day, Bushra who is nicknamed Honeybee by her family, and my own daughter who I've dragged along for support. 

Andre’s approach to the hives is slow and methodical and I take note that he advises the group not to wave their arms around, as this in fact is more likely to attract them. I am surprised that I feel quite calm.

When Andre takes out the first honey frame covered with bees there is a collective intake of breath from the group. It is incredible to see these creatures at work and I feel rather privileged.

We immediately spot the queen, noticeable by a white spot on her back and a bee just hatching.

Andre points out that the nectar they collect is a different colour depending on what flower it has been collected from and you can visibly see this.

I find the hum not frightening but rather hypnotic. And then there is a loud buzz in my left ear. It’s disconcerting. Is it in my suit or outside?

Having decided it’s not in my suit, and feeling the insects are happily flying around me rather than swarming angrily, I start to enjoy the experience.  

We learn some fascinating facts. Ninety eight per cent of the hive is female. The queen lays around 1,000-2,000 eggs a day and the bees hatched in late August and September will live through the winter - creating heat by flexing their wings.

A honey frame covered with bees

A honey frame from one of Andre's hives. A hive can hold up to 60,000 bees in summer - Credit: Liam Dickson

Andre continues: ‘When scout bees find a good source of nectar or pollen they tell the other bees of their discovery by doing a special dance on the honeycomb called the waggle dance which communicates the distance and direction of the source.'

They are also spotlessly clean, creating propolis to sterilise the hive, a substance that has been used for centuries for its healing properties. ‘It’s got lots of wonderful and antibacterial properties to it, so the hive is one of the cleanest places on earth.'

Andre is passionate about protecting the honeybee and describes them as ‘unsung heroes’. There are 270 species of bee in the UK, of which just under 250 are solitary bees. They are vital to pollinate crops and many of the trees and flowers that provide habitats for wildlife. It is estimated that one third of the food we consume relies on pollination, mainly by bees.

‘You have 60,000 bees all working cohesively for the greater good. They cannot survive on their own, they need to work together to survive. We could learn a lot from them.'

Women in beekeeping suits in countryside

Julie with her daughter Millie at the hives in Halls Green - Credit: Millie Lucas

As has been well publicised, honeybee numbers are in decline. This year is the worst Andre has experienced since he began beekeeping in 2007.

He blames the rain. ‘I believe it’s down to climate change and extreme conditions,’ he says. Loss of habitat, disease, pesticides and invasive species have also contributed, he adds.

‘Bees are so important to our ecosystem and it's imperative we do everything we can to protect them. One thing we can all do to help is to create pollinator friendly habitats. Whether that's not mowing all of your lawn, planting wildflowers or even installing a bee hotel. The more pollen and nectar we can make available for our pollinators the more chance they have of survival.’ 

I ask if the hives have their own characters. ‘Each colony definitely has their own character,’ Andre says. ‘They are generally based on what the queen is like and which drones she has chosen to mate with. Our colonies are generally quite mild-mannered. Colonies generally remain in the hive. Sometimes the colony may swarm if they run out of room in the hive or a new queen is ready to hatch.’

For anyone wishing to start their own hive Andre recommends finding a ‘bee buddy’ to share tasks, especially during the crucial summer months when they need regular inspections. ‘To start a hive you need around £1,000 for a suit, training, a beehive and some nice bees. It sounds like a lot but it’s an investment. After that it is just a maintenance thing.’ 

A treat at the end of our experience was a glass of honey gin from Cardona’s range, which was met with nods of approval from the group. ‘Honey is such a versatile and delicious ingredient,’ explains Andre. ‘We have experimented in the past with making our own meade and kombucha with tasty results but we knew when we infused some of our own raw honey with a delicious London dry gin that we'd come across a winner.’    

Cardona and Son Spirit Co was launched two years ago and with the success of its Hitchin Honey Gin and Hitchin Honey Spiced Rum, in the summer they launched Hitchin Elderflower and Borage Honey Gin. Andre is working on a clementine and spiced gin for Christmas.

Bottles of honey gin and rum from Cardona & Son Spirit Co

Cardona & Son Spirit Co's Hitchin Honey spirits range. A clementine and spiced gin is planned for Christmas - Credit: Adam Parker Photography

He hopes to expand the business nationally with a percentage of profits used to support local biodiversity projects, as well as continuing to build new hives and cultivate raw honey.

But the focus is also to continue to spread the message about the importance of bees. ‘We've loved introducing people to our honeybees over the summer - it's been so rewarding to watch people interacting with honeybees for the very first time.  

‘If we all do our bit for local honey bees we can make a big difference in their chances of survival and help our environment flourish.’ He calls it ‘saving the bee, one cocktail at a time.’ I’ll drink to that.