Helen Griggs’ bees gorge themselves on wildflower meadows to produce the finest honey. Rachael Oakden dons her protective suit and makes a beeline for Nook Farm

‘If you get a bee in your suit, don’t panic.”

Right. But isn’t the point of these fetching white suits to keep the stinging critters out? Not necessarily, says beekeeper Helen Griggs as she stuffs a bit of old hessian into her smoker and sets it alight. They sometimes find a way in, she continues, in a completely matter-of-fact way, as she strides towards her hives with me and a photographer in tow. They might even sting you through the suit’s thick cotton, if they’re really cross.

Fortunately, on this glorious day at a wildflower meadow near the edge of Kielder Forest, the bees are anything but cross. Like us, they love a bit of sunshine: when the weather’s kind and the flowers are blooming, it makes their job of gathering pollen and nectar all the easier.

“They’re very happy today, busy doing their thing,” Helen says as she lifts the lid on one of 12 hives that she keeps at Hill Head Meadow near her home in the Bailey area of north east Cumbria, puffing them with smoke as a precaution (it subdues them harmlessly by encouraging them to overeat themselves into a contented stupor). She slides out a frame to reveal a buzzing mass of worker bees clustered on honeycomb, performing the miraculous job of transforming nectar into honey. “I inspect them every few days to check they’re healthy and that they have enough room.”

These bees will grow fat over the summer on the spoils of white clover, valerian, rosebay willowherb and meadowsweet. It’s meadowsweet that lends Helen’s Cumbrian Wildflower Honey the subtle green tinge that you’ll see if you hold a jar up to the window. “It has green pollen,” she explains as she rubs her fingers on a flowerhead that’s about to burst into frothy white blossom. Even when tinged with the odour of her protective rubber gloves, the flower’s intensely sweet scent is unmistakable.

Cumbrian wildflower honey is the signature product of Nook Farm Honey, the business that grew out of a hobby that Helen has been practising for nearly two decades. “It’s summer in a jar,” she says of the sticky treasure that she’ll gather at the end of the season and sell at independent delis, farm shops and farmers’ markets. Filtered but not pasteurised, it retains the delicate essence of wild grassland - not to mention the natural antioxidants and micronutrients that have made honey a valued medicinal food for millennia.

She started beekeeping when she and her husband Duncan moved to from Leicestershire to Nook Farm, a farmhouse with a bit of land and a few outbuildings. “I was interested in beekeeping because you don’t need much land; I joined the Carlisle Beekeepers’ Association and it just grew from there,” Helen says. After her daughter, Kate, now 15, was born, it wasn’t feasible to go back to her full-time job as a secretary for Edinburgh Woollen Mill. So she gradually invested in equipment to extract and filter honey and Nook Farm Honey was born.

Helen has 25 hives across four sites near her home. At the end of the summer she’ll remove their supers - the top section of the hive, full of frames loaded with honey – shake each frame to remove the bees from the comb and load the frames into her van. Back at her ‘bee barn’ in a converted stone shed at Nook Farm, she’ll place the frames into the extractor, which uses centrifugal force to remove the honey. She’ll then filter, bottle, weigh and label it, largely by hand (keeping some back to help feed her bees during the winter).

She gets 500-600 jars a year from her own hives: in these exposed and sometimes inhospitable uplands, producing honey commercially is a challenge. “We have a short season, and when it’s cold and wet all summer you don’t get as much nectar flow so you don’t get much honey,” Helen says. “If it’s raining the nectar gets washed away and if its windy the flowers dry out.”

To supplement her own Cumbrian Wildflower Honey Helen also buys in raw honey from other beekeepers to filternd bottle under the Nook Farm label. Her blossom honey and balsam honey come from Manchester; borage honey and heather honey from Yorkshire. “You’ve only got a short time to get heather honey,” says Helen, explaining that the hives must be carried on to the moors when they’re blazing purple to ensure that the bees – who forage within a three-mile radius of their apiary – feast on heather. “They go out on the Glorious Twelfth [August 12] when the heather is just coming into flower. If it rains for two weeks, you get no honey.”

Prized for its thick, gelatinous consistency and rich, dark colour, heather honey is at the intense end of the flavour spectrum. Borage honey is at the other: “It’s light and citrussy; a lot of people who say they don’t like honey like borage honey because it’s not so sweet,” Helen says.

Blossom honey, she says, has a more traditional flowery taste. Balsam honey, which comes from bees that feed on the much-loathed invasive weed Himalayan Balsam, is another surprise. “It looks clear and runny but it has the taste and texture of toffee; you almost have to chew it,” she says. “It’s lovely on top of ice cream.”

And a serving suggestion for her delicate Cumbrian wildflower honey, which smells like the haze of pollen that lingers when you wander through an uncut meadow? “I eat it out of the jar.”

n Find Nook Farm Honey at Brampton Farmers’ Market on the last Saturday of each month. For mail order and A list of more than 40 stockists across the Lakes, Cumbria and the Scottish Borders, visit nookfarmhoney.co.uk.