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THINGS will be really buzzing in the beleaguered bee world in the New Year. A North-East couple who have set up a business selling flavoured honey are drawing up plans to encourage the traditional skills of bee-keeping in the region.

Their aim is also to encourage farmers to diversify into hives and safeguard the crucial role of bees as pollinators.

It is hoped that the growth of a thriving regional honey industry would prompt the return of hedgerows, hay meadows and flowering field margins to the landscape.

At the same time, a £43,000 project will raise awareness of bees and bee-keeping in Northumberland and help train people who want to take up the hobby. This is becoming increasingly important as wild honeybee colonies are stricken by the deadly varroa virus.

The KidHugs company, which sells tubs of honey in 25 different natural flavours, was set up by Linda Reay, with husband Tony as general manager.

The Darlington couple sell their honey at markets, fairs and events across the North-East. Demand is so great that at a three-day event at Brancepeth Castle in County Durham they sold £1,300 worth of stock.

Linda is from Texas and Tony, whose father's family come from the Whitley Bay area, was raised on Teesside before leaving for the United States in 1967 where he set up a music magazine called Creem.

After living and working across America, he and Linda and their two children returned to the North-East three years ago.

Linda decided to go into business after a friend of the couple, who runs a honey farm in Colorado, sent them a batch of honey sticks.

The clear plastic tubes of flavoured honey are popular in the United States in the exercise and leisure market, where they are used by joggers and cyclists.

The couple, sold 3,200 sticks at a two-day public event and that convinced them that there was a market in the UK for flavoured-honey.

They have now applied for help from regional development agency One NorthEast to market their own version of honey sticks, but their main product is flavoured honey tubs which have sweet pea seeds taped to the bottom of the carton to encourage buyers to grow a flower for the bees.

Tony says: 'We have demonstrated there is a market for flavoured honey which is in addition to the traditional market, because 65% of our customers say they didn't like the taste of honey by itself."

One of the problems, reckons Tony, is that in recent years youngsters have grown up without honey on the table, unlike earlier generations. According to Tony, less than half of the 25,000 tonnes of honey consumed annually in the UK is produced in this country. The rest is imported.

The couple use 1501bs of honey a week on average. 'We are selling everything we can get our hands on but the biggest stumbling block is the lack of large quantities of British honey," says Tony. 'We only use British honey and only want to use British honey, especially from the North-East.

'We can use all the honey which local bee keepers can supply, and I feel we can end up with an exportable product and create an industry which, will help the fortunes of the region." For Linda and Tony the next step is to encourage more bee-keeping and honey production in the North-East.

One idea is to erect plastic geodesic domes, powered by solar or wind sources, to provide under-cover management of bee colonies.

"The advantages are that the domes are not classed as permanent, buildings - they can be sited on land which is not used for anything else," says Tony.

Farmers could either move into honey production themselves or simply provide the sites for the domes.

"This is a venture which would make money but cause no damage to the land or wider environment, would ensure more bees and better pollination of crops, and encourage the provision of flowering plants in hedges, meadows or field margins.

"Our aim is to see a dramatic increase in bee-keeping, the training of people in the skills needed, and which could also be of benefit to farming," says Tony. "It is a sensible way to maintain land. The bee has to qualify as one of the most important creatures on the planet and has been traditionally respected, while honey has long been a valuable currency and commodity."

"It is only in recent years that honey and bees have been marginalised as artificial sweeteners and flavourings have come to the fore, and hedgerows and flowering meadows lost. Historically, Britain is at its lowest ebb for honey production and the importing of more than half of the honey we consume would have been an alien concept in the past."

"There is no reason why Britain cannot grow enough flowering plants to turn out the honey we need."

Linda says: "This could be much more than a cottage industry. At a time when obesity is an issue, honey is a natural product with no fats or sodium."

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