It’s a busy life being a bee and all that hard work is being turned into sparkling nectar by a couple who are giving these communal insects the helping hand in life they need.

Luke and Suzie Hutchinson know a lot about bees. And they are using that knowhow to not only educate people about the importance of these vital pollinators and the challenges they face, but to also produce honey and a range of sparkling meads.

The two come from medical and scientific backgrounds. Luke trained as a dentist and Suzie undertook a PhD in molecular nutrition at Newcastle University where she met Luke, who had carried an enthusiasm for honeybees with him since childhood.

And that scientific approach, while going the extra mile to look after their bees by, for example, controlling the mating to improve the bloodlines and keeping them fed correctly in the winter months, is resulting in stronger healthier bees which are not only good for business, but good for the environment.

Luke is from Yorkshire and he used to help out when his dad kept bees. “At that time, in the 1990s, varroa hit and it became a lot harder and he stopped,” he said. “As a young teenager I saw these empty beehives and thought, can I put some bees back into them?”

During his summer holidays Luke, then aged 13, went to the Central Science Laboratory in York, where they have a national bee unit, to learn more about the science of beekeeping.

He later qualified as a dentist, but developed carpal tunnel syndrome in both his hands. Meanwhile, Suzie was in university studying molecular ageing, but decided working in a laboratory was not for her.

And so the pair decided to set up Northumberland Honey Company in 2015, the same year they got married, followed by a working honeymoon in America visiting commercial meaderies to find out more about the trade.

Selling jars of honey at farmers’ markets got the fledgling business off the ground, before trials began to create a sparkling mead ¬¬- not as easy as you might think and Suzie’s scientific background came to the fore to ensure they could consistently make a high quality product.

Today, Luke and Suzie have 150 hives, which are moved around the area to ensure the bees have a plentiful supply of food.

And their work as commercial beekeepers is also helping to increase the number of honeybees in the country. To give an example, they have calculated that it takes 3,000 bees to create the honey for just one bottle of mead.

Luke and Suzie are one of only 400 commercial beekeepers in the UK, which produce a mere five per cent of the honey consumed in the country. The rest is imported and that is something they want to redress.

“The thing that separates us from other meaderies or alcohol producers is that we keep our own bees,” said Luke. “So we can see the numbers and quantify that it takes that amount of bees for every bottle – very much like a Champagnery that produces its own grapes, we are just the same, but produce bees for our own honey.”

The type of nectar the bees feed off at different times of year produces a range of meads with their own distinct taste and this seasonal foraging pattern, Luke explained, is called the honey flow.

So for their Wildflower mead, this is made from honey produced from spring and early summer when the bees are foraging on flowers like dandelion and hawthorn.

“We did analyse the honey and found 40 different floral sources that the bees used for that,” said Luke. Luke and Suzie describe the sparkling mead’s flavour as that of fresh bee pollen. When you open a bottle it’s like opening a opening a beehive.

The Rose mead also comes from the summer honey when the bees are feasting on, for example, white clover and lime trees, but hibiscus is also added. And later in the year, the hives are moved to the Allen Valleys so the bees have access to the heather moorlands, producing a honey used in the Heather mead.

“It takes an acre of flowers for one hive,” said Luke. “Unless you have a continual supply of acres of flowers for every hive, they are not going to do as well and what they could do. Local farmers let us put our hives on their land and they get the benefit from crop pollination.”

As well as making their own honey and mead, the couple raise their own queen bees which they sell to other beekeepers. The temperament, the hardiness and the health of the bees in one hive is all down to the queen and if a queen does not mate within a nine-day period she becomes infertile.

Susie and Luke use a process called instrumental insemination to produce stronger and healthier bees. The result was that last winter, they lost no bees whereas nationally, 50 per cent losses are the norm.

“What we are doing is picking hives that are doing really well and crossing them with other hives that are doing really well. We need bees that are going to produce honey and the main thing is bees that survive,” said Luke.

Unlike bumble bees where the queen alone survives on her own over the winter months, honeybees maintain a colony all year round and have to cope with the rigours of cold weather and less food.

Suzie and Luke therefore feed the bees during this period with a special bee fondant which they have to place on the cluster of bees in the hive, because they don’t move at this time of year.

“If we do not provide them with any food, there is a fair chance that colony will die,” said Luke. “It is simply because the bees have very little feeding time in the winter to gather.”

All this is helping to increase the number of bees in the country and the amount of honey produced locally, but more needs to be done.

“A lot of people view beekeeping as something they do as a hobby, but people need to be seeing it as a commercial entity and a career because unless you start thinking like that in the UK, we will never be self-sufficient,” said Luke.

“There are 40,000 hobby beekeepers, but when you look at the number of colonies, it is the commercial beekeepers that are keeping the most and are in a position to increase the numbers much more than a hobbyist. If we had the support we could double the number of bees in a year, but it is difficult because we are having to plough our furrow.”

It’s a time consuming process as well. From start to finish, the process of turning the honey into sparkling mead can take two years and there’s no waste.

Once sufficient honey is extracted from the hive, yeast is added and fermentation takes place to produce an 11 per cent still mead.

Then a secondary fermentation takes place inside the bottles by adding a bit more yeast which produces the carbon dioxide and therefore the sparkle. The bottles then sit in a stillage for a minimum of nine months and up to two years, with the yeast doing its work to enhance the flavour.

You don’t want a cloudy sparkling mead though, so the yeast is removed by a process called riddling.

The bottles are turned at an angle to gather the yeast in the neck before the neck is reduced in temperature to minus 25C – in effect freezing the plug of yeast which is then quickly removed before the cork is put back in.

“Basically, the honey comes through the door and leaves as sparking mead,” summed up Luke. “It’s Northumberland’s answer to Champagne.”