For my honey
It’s spring, a time to celebrate the abundance of asparagus, to be woken too early by exuberant birds, to forage for ramps or morels, to soak up the perfect rays of a not yet too strong sun. Time for spring cleaning (or that’s what I hear), spring break and spring fever. For the beekeepers it is time to check the vitality of their hives after the winter’s cold. Even those of us who never met a bee they didn’t want to swat at hysterically should be concerned about how the bees have fared over the winter months.
For one thing, without bees there is no honey. Bees harvest the nectar of plants and through a beautiful and carefully coordinated process, turn it into the sticky, sweet syrup that humans love. Each bee spends half of its short life (about 6 weeks during the busy spring and summer months when they wear themselves out working so hard) shuttling back and forth from flower source to hive to provide food for the colony, and when she dies (the workers are all female) exhausted at the end of her labors, she has produced only a teaspoon or two of honey. Then humans step in and take it for themselves. To get a good feeling for life in a bee colony, the history of honey and the many ways we have stolen from the bees, I recommend Holley Bishop’s ‘Robbing the Bees’.
For connoisseurs, honey has as distinct a terroir as wine, with the flavor dependent on the floral source of the nectar as well as the season. Even for those of us with a less refined palate, if you bring home bottles of various monofloral varieties it is easy to taste the difference between the mild floral honey of the bees who have gorged at the raspberry bush and the earthy, peppery flavor of the sage honey. The creamy white star thistle honey is a totally different substance from the dark buckwheat which seems almost like molasses. Find a few varieties, get some good white bread (maybe a few bottles of mead) and have a honey tasting party at your house. My friend & cheese guru, Miya, aka, @Love_Roquefort suggests pairing your stronger honies with strong blue cheeses – for example Chestnut Honey with a strong Sheep’s Milk Blue (like Persielle de Malzieu), for milder honey she recommends a mild, creamy fresh goats cheese. I suggest you have both on hand to go with the full range of honey you’ll be offering. I also recommend finding a spot by a window to set up the food: look how pretty the honey looks with some dramatic back lighting!
However delicious, and beautiful, the honey, the value of bees goes far beyond the syrup they produce, for as they alight on flower after flower they transfer pollen from one to the next, providing the plants with a service necessary for their survival. Over millions of years the flowers have evolved to become more attractive to the small insects they depend upon, their sweet nectar as sure a beacon of desire as any peacock’s tail. The list of plants at least partially pollinated by bees includes about 30% of global agriculture produce – from cashews and cinnamon to mangoes and mint. As of now we have no reliable way to pollinate these plants without their help – though in Sichuan, China, where no insect pollinators remain, humans have had to laboriously carry out their work with thousands of people meticulously painting pollen onto each tree blossom in spring.
I’ve been reading and thinking about bees a lot lately so this post is only the first of a series — my next post will be about CCD, the ‘mysterious’ disease that has been decimating bee colonies, but for today its mostly just an ode to our friends the bees! Stay tuned!