Stings aside, bees don’t cause any harm in this world, their role is purely to enhance. By sustaining themselves with the nectar from flowers, they also sustain the flowers by pollinating at the source. This positive symbiotic relationship between the bees and plants is beautiful and unique in nature.
Bees are indeed busy; in each colony there are thousands of worker bees, a few hundred drones (the males), and one queen bee. All worker bees are female and are assigned different tasks to perform - nurses to take care of larva, construction workers to bond together thousands of wax cells into honeycomb, janitors to keep the hive clean, guards to protect the hive, and last but not least the food finders and gatherers. It is a veritable hive of activity.
Of course, they also provide the gift of honey. Using their proboscis like a tiny straw, they suck nectar from flowers, storing it in one of two stomachs; some of the nectar going into a stomach for their own sustenance. The rest goes into a storage stomach to be taken back to the hive where it is regurgitated and then, through a process of evaporation, turns into honey. The average worker bee produces only 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.
A beehive essentially acts like a sponge, distilling everything in the air and distilling the terroir. Consequently, an apiarist must know how to read both the flower seasons and the bees. By following the re-budding growth they can capture a honey with a strong flavour profile of a single flower: whether it’s introduced species such as lavender and thyme, or the gentle flavour of native eucalypts such as blue gum or yellow box. The potent and distinct Tasmanian leatherwood is one of our most intense honeys. As the plants only flower for a short period the apiarist must be alert to this and collect the honey at the right time, before its flavour is diluted. There can be as many as five million flowers illustrated in one comb.
Honey is easily affected by heat, losing much of its delicate flavour. Ideally it must be extracted and packaged at beehive temperature (around 35C), thereby maintaining the optimum natural aroma and health qualities. This cold-extraction is one of the main differences between commercially produced honey and artisanal honey. Many commercial honeys are also blended from different sources and often very finely filtered. The filtration removes wings and wax but also removes some of the pollen and some of the flavour.
We would be wrong to dismiss the bees’ role in the world. Without bees there would be limited plant life and thus we would have less biodiversity. It is through diversity that we promote stability. It is for this very reason the honeybee was introduced to Australia, without their presence the European crops and fruits would have a hard time reproducing. This is not to say we don’t have Australian bees, we do, the native version is smaller and its “sugarbag” highly prized.
Happily there seems to be a resurgence of interest in the humble bumblebee: restaurants have rooftop apiaries, and there are many courses being run explaining how you can have your own. Good honey not only contains the bees’ knees, it is the bees’ knees. Seek it out.
Select and store:
Honey is the only food that never spoils. Seek out honey that is cold-extracted and experiment with different flavours. Only creamed honey needs to be kept in the fridge. Store honey out of direct light as this will also cause the honey to become granular. If your honey chrystalises you can gently heat it in a pot of warm water and it will return to liquid.
Honey loves chicken, garlic, fruit, goats’ cheese, blue cheese, ricotta, butter, fennel, pork, witlof, lemon, soy sauce, nuts
Using honey at home ... Honey has been used since long before recorded history as a sweetening agent and was, up until the introduction of sugar cane in the ninth century, the primary sweetener in European cooking. It is instrumental in dishes such as baklava and loukoumathes.
But honey is also pure delight in a smoothie or drizzled over your breakfast.
Chestnut and honey madeleines:
Melt 100g of butter and set aside to cool to room temperature. Whisk together 3 eggs, ½ a cup of caster sugar and 1 tablespoon of honey until you can form a figure 8 over the mixture (ribbon stage). It will be white and fluffy. Gently fold in 1 cup of sifted chestnut flour and 1 teaspoon of baking powder. Add the butter and mix gently. Cover and refrigerate for a couple of hours before pouring into the madeleine tray (only filling ¾ of the way) and bake at 180C for 5 minutes before reducing to 160C for a further 5 minutes. Allow madeleines to cool on a wire rack.