Busy like a bee
Until recently, honey and I have never been that close. I'd occasionally use it in my tea, was always fond of a drizzle over ricotta on toast, but that was it (sweet things generally don't excite me). That was until I got my own bees. Suddenly, not only was I well on my way to becoming a bee nerd, but I've also a newfound appreciation for the liquid gold. With the assistance of Vicky and Doug from the Urban Beehive, and our excellent neighbours, Jo and Garrett, we put a beehive on the roof last June and have produced over 20 kg of honey so far. Since then, I've found myself constantly learning and sometimes itching from bee stings. Experimenting with honey in various recipes has shown me just how versatile it can be.
A hive of activity
The inner workings of a bee hive are endlessly fascinating – a commune with a queen at its centre, whose sole purpose is to continue producing babies who then grow up to make the honey on which everyone will survive. The queen leaves the hive once to find a group of boys to mate with and, from this encounter, she will be able to produce enough eggs to last her lifetime. Apart from looking after the hive, each lady worker bee produces about 1½ teaspoons of honey throughout their life. They do this by spending summer and spring flying around collecting nectar and pollen. As they bring this back to the hive, the pollen becomes almost like a bee bread and the nectar goes in the comb. That's when the flapping beings. This helps regulate the temperature of the hive but, more importantly, dehydrates the nectar, lowering its moisture content until it becomes honey. Each little comb then gets capped so the honey is safe, ready to be eaten as food for the bees, or gently removed by us.
When they are producing at full capacity, you can smell the sweetness of the honey in the air and hear the low buzzing. The flavours of proper, fresh honey range all over the place, depending on where the bees were collecting and what the seasons are doing. When a type is specifically named, it implies that the bees used a particular plant source for about 80 per cent of their collection. Italian chestnut honey has a very particular, rich, almost lolly-like flavour; Australian leatherwood honey has a strong robust earthy flavour that is very full on; whereas our first batch of Berta honey was said to have come from water gums and was light and fragrant. This sort of honey experience differs greatly to varieties commonly found in shops. Commercial honey is treated with high heat to allow it to flow more readily through the machines, is filtered and is often a blend of many types. This is done to prevent honey from crystalising and to keep it stable, but it can become detrimental to the flavour.
The importance of bees
It has become somewhat a fad for a restaurant to have its own hive, but the wonders of being part of producing an edible product within an urban environment in deeply rewarding. Not only that, apart from being amazing creatures that produce an edible delight, bees are also essential in the propagation of food crops. Bees are said to pollinate anywhere between 30 - 60 per cent, depending who you talk to, of all our food crops. Just picture what our lives would be like if we lost that much diversity in our diets.
Photographs by Benito Martin. Styling by Jerrie-Joy Redman-Lloyd.