Getting Drunk Like a Medieval Lord Could Help Save the Honeybee

A resurgence in the popularity of mead-drinking (thanks, Game of Thrones) has led to an increase in demand for honey, something that could help the plight of the UK honeybee.

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Apr 29 2015, 10:00am

Most of the time, inebriation is a pretty enjoyable state to be in. But the residual effects of alcohol? Not so much. Blistering headaches, liver damage, burned bridges—we've all been there.

But what if hangovers could aid the revival of the honeybee, help sustain UK agriculture, and allow you to embody the mindset of a sword-swinging, medieval king? The morning after would never be the same again: dry-mouthed and crusty-eyed, yes, but with the conscience of an environmental saviour/Richard the Lionheart.

READ MORE: London's Urban Beekeeping Scene Is Exploding

There might actually be some sense in this train of thought. It's all about the revival of a drink dating back to before 2000 BC and enjoyed by Vikings and Canterbury Tales characters alike: mead.

Formerly associated with middle-aged men who spend their weekends lumbering around in codpieces re-enacting historical battles, mead is making a comeback. In the last few years, the drink has come to occupy what some say is the fastest-growing segment of the US alcohol industry and there has been a huge increase in the number of bottles brewed in the UK.

"There has been a resurgence of mead and our sales are increasing," agrees Sophia Fenton, Managing Director of Cornish Mead Company. "We attributed this initially to Harry Potter, then to Game of Thrones making it a tad more youthful than its previous medieval incarnation."

Sarah Walter from Devon's Lyme Bay Winery also cites the HBO show as a driver behind the demand for mead (who wouldn't want to clink tankards with Joffrey?) and says the company has witnessed a 15 percent rise in mead sales this year alone.

"Mead has become our best-selling product. The people who are drinking it seem to be young student-types," she explains. "We have extended our mead range from one to five different meads to accommodate the spike."

There has been a resurgence of mead in the UK and our sales are increasing. We attributed this initially to Harry Potter, then to Game of Thrones making it more youthful than its previous medieval incarnation.

It seems strange that a woefully acted boy wizard and a couple of incestuous TV monarchs can influence the British public's alcohol tastes, but for the honeybee, this is all good news. Due to fluctuating weather patterns, disease, and the hotly debated use of pesticides, the honeybee population has been in decline since the late 1990s.

But with honey as mead's central ingredient (the drink's distinctive sweet taste is achieved by fermenting honey with water), the demand for it is on the rise too. This means more hives and a greater awareness of the perils faced by the honeybee.

"In Britain and most of Europe, we've wiped out all the wild honeybees. The only bees we now have live in hives, so they can only survive when beekeepers look after them," says Professor Simon Potts from the University of Reading, who has led extensive research on bees. "Honeybees can't survive on their own in the wild, mainly because of diseases like varroa destructor (a parasitic mite). Pesticides are also a huge problem."

And we could really do with more honeybees. The retail value of what honeybees pollinate in the UK is estimated by the National Audit Office as close to £1 billion. Recent research also shows that honeybees now provide only a quarter of the pollination required in the UK, the second lowest level among 41 European countries. This has lead some scientists to warn of a potential "food security catastrophe."

But before you start doing keg stands with the stuff, Potts warns that an increased demand for mead alone isn't enough to save the UK honeybee. There needs to be a push for locally sourced honey.

"Let's say we all started drinking mead instead of beer, so that would be a massive increase in the demand for honey," he explains. "Most of the demand would be met by foreign imports. If we want to help UK beekeepers, then we need to make sure everybody is proud about drinking mead brewed from local honey."

One man championing mead created using British honey is Steve Benbow, owner of The London Honey Company. He has hives spread across the UK selling 12 varieties of honey and runs beekeeping courses. Benbow's first mead will go on sale next month, after being brewed for two years using heather honey and cider.

READ MORE: This Man Is Making Honey That Tastes Like Well Seasoned Italian Food

"Many meads just add honey at the end, which is not really true to its origins," says Benbow. "We tried a lot of different yeasts and all sorts of systems before we created a consistent product."

Benbow's recent book Letters to a Beekeeper is a collaboration with gardener Alys Fowler, and explores why we should be taking care of "our forgotten insects, whether they are predator or prey, pollinator or pest." According to Benbow, brewing mead is one way to do this.

"It's all about what individuals can do to make a difference, from buying food to lobbying and not using weed killers on their garden," explains Benbow. "Beekeeping in this country is very difficult to make a living from. It's all about investing in young people. Making mead is part of our way of looking at sustainability so we can continue to other things, such as education and community work."