SCOTLAND is urgent need of more bee farmers, with honey produced north of the border becoming an increasingly “rare commodity”, experts have warned.

Beekeepers say this year’s crop of honey during summer has been a “virtual failure” following variable weather, which is expected to push up prices.

With demand for the produce – particularly iconic Scottish heather honey – outstripping supply, beekeeping organisations have called for more support to encourage more bee farmers north of the border.

It is estimated there are less than 30 commercial beekeepers in Scotland, with only around a dozen of those making a full-time living from selling honey.

The call comes ahead of the biggest honey show in the world, which takes place from Thursday to Saturday in Surrey, as part of an annual week-long celebration of the honey harvest.

John Mellis, the Scottish director of the Bee Farmers’ Association (BFA), who is a bee farmer based in Dumfries, said: “There are very few people making a living keeping bees in Scotland. It is a tiny number of people producing something that is very important to the shops – the heather honey is what the tourists want to buy and there are only a few of us producing it.

“Arguably we want to have more professional beekeepers.”

Mellis, who has hives spread across the south of Scotland, said the BFA had set up an apprenticeship scheme in recent years to encourage young people in particular to become beekeepers. However he said more had to be done to ensure not just to increase supplies of honey, but also make sure there were enough bees pollinating crops effectively to maximise production for farmers.

He called for more support to be given to make it easier to access funds to start up a beekeeping business – such as grants or cheap loans.

“You need about £50,000 to start a bee farm with 200 hives,” he said. “It is not easy and therefore if access to funding was available it could become much more viable in terms of the number of beekeepers and the number of hives.”

Mellis said this year’s yield of honey was running at only around 60 per cent of the average, thanks to a “virtual total failure” in the middle of the year which had only been balanced out by good supplies from heather.

Different types of honey depend on where the hives are located and the time of year – ranging from blossom honey in spring from flowers and hedgerows to heather honey in the later summer and autumn.

Mellis said a pattern of below average honey yields had been going on for the last six or seven years – but in the previous decade to that, there were only two years which had produced such a poor crop.

“It could be down to the weather, it could be farming practice,” he said. “One of the problems we have is farmers now produce silage instead of hay. They cut the grass three or four times a year and any flowers growing in those fields just get chopped, and are no use to the bees.

“Whereas before the flowers grew and the bees would get them and at the end of the season the farmers would cut it once and make hay with it.

“Also I think the weather patterns are distinctly colder and wetter than they were in the previous 10 years.”

Enid Brown, publicity and shows officer of the Scottish Beekeepers' Association, which represent amateur beekeepers, said the honey flow had been “dreadful” this year.

She said: “There are pockets where the weather has been favourable, and the bees have done okay – but there is a general feeling it has been really quite poor and last year wasn’t brilliant either.”

Bron Wright, president of the Scottish Beekeepers' Association, added: “If people think the price of honey is up, it is because it is becoming a rarer commodity.

“We think Scottish heather honey is absolutely as good as Manuka honey (from New Zealand) – there is huge demand and it goes flying off the shelves when it is there.”

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said honey bees played a valuable role in Scotland’s ecosystem and it had launched a bee health strategy aimed at achieving a “healthy sustainable population” of honey bees in Scotland.

He added: “We value the role bee farmers play and encourage anyone who is interested in the industry to see what support they are eligible for under Scotland’s Rural Development Plan as young farmers and new entrants.”