Recently after posting on Instagram a photo in which I was roasting pumpkin with lots of spices and honey I received a message - “[Didn’t you know honey is] the most poisoning thing in Ayurveda [when heated]?”. Well, the gauntlet was truly laid down to my Sunday roast.
Many traditional cultures hold honey in the highest esteem as a food - the Egyptians buried it with their pharaohs - and it was still edible when it was exhumed 2000 years later! In Nepal, the mountain people still scale 200 foot cliffs on ladders made of grass and vines to launch themselves into armies of angry, wild bees up to 2 million in number on an annual mission that looks almost suicidal in nature in order to harvest this most precious nectar. In Spain there are cave paintings dating 8000 years old depicting honey harvesting. These paintings only contain processes that seem ritualistically significant to their culture in some way, these guys aren’t picking up their brushes to tell stories of their daily grind, so when we see the figures on ladders surrounded by winged insects like this we know they held this process in high regard.
In practically any culture we choose to look at, we see evidence of an attachment to honey, both in the effort to seek it out, and its use as a lauded health food and medicine. So it’s no wonder that in Ayurveda they have such a strict set of codes laid down in its use. In the west where we like to put everything to the test in a laboratory environment, and we don’t like to trust our ancestors and their “tried and trusted” approach to medicine especially, honey has been the subject of countless studies to try to identify the molecular components that make it up, that make it sweet, and that have given it this vaulted place in human gastronomic and folk medicine history.
Honey is the result of foraging bees consuming nectar from flowers, and enzymatically processing it before regurgitating it into little cells in the hive in order to feed themselves and the brood that they valiantly guard and nurture as their queen goes about populating the hive in the order of roughly 2000 new bee babies per day. The honey they lay down into the hive in the summer months provides the entire brood with fodder (along with collected pollen) for the colder winter months when the flying bees pause their gathering to stay in the hive and keep it warm; it has to be above 32 degrees at all times. So during winter, the bees form a clump around their queen and keep their wings pulsing in order to heat the air around them without stopping. It’s just one of the myriad magical processes that make bees such a fascination for me.
You just see this intense, dogged struggle for life, for order and this magical tale of seduction that plays out between pollinator and flower, that furthers both’s ambitions towards procreation. It’s a fully mindblowing example of nature’s symbiotic relationships.
Finn Dons A Beesuit
10 years ago on Christmas morning, I opened a parcel containing an astronaut suit and the form for a beekeeping course in Wesley House with the CDBKA (County Dublin Bee Keeping Association). 3 months later, myself and my mum found ourselves in a precarious position, driving from Castleknock with a box full of live bees and literally no clue what we had got ourselves into. Over the proceeding months, despite our best efforts, we had two thriving colonies and I found myself overawed by the complex and organised systems that revealed themselves as we peered into our hives for our regular 7 day inspections.
It was only a couple of years in when we had a schedule interruption while my mum moved house, and so the bees came in the van with me from the leafy suburbs of Churchtown, to the badlands of Drimnagh, coming to rest nestling beneath a lovely thicket of hazel trees that my nature loving predecessor had planted 10 years previous. This was a major upset for me as it meant I would be beekeeping solo from here on, and my much more diligent mother with her Haynes Beekeeping Manual and fastidious note taking was no longer present as a crutch. Could I really keep bees on my own? When you have up to 250,000 bees flying in high summer you do get an acute sense of the responsibility you have as a steward to these little lifeforms...and also to your neighbours with potentially allergic reactions to their stingy bits.
The Bees Calendar
Now I’m nearly a decade in and though it’s been quite the deep dive into apiculture, it’s fair to say I’m the perennial beginner. Every spring I try to get out ahead of the little critters, building space to facilitate their colonies as they grow inexorably towards the peak of their season, and though I’ve mildly improved my timeliness in this regard, it still feels like I end up playing catch up. You’re a slave to their rhythms, and no matter how hard you try to plan any predictability into their calendar in terms of the work you do with them, they routinely confound you. It feels like I’m talking about parenting here - something I’ve never done, but perhaps 200,000 bee babies is enough for this man.
As I was saying my mum was evermore the didact when it came to our beekeeping efforts so when I discovered a more “natural” beekeeping method, that meant less intensive interventionist work with the hives, I was excited - both for a chance to throw some of the more synthetic aspects of beekeeping (feeding sugar syrup in the winter, dosing with thymol and oxalic acid to reduce/prevent varroa mite infestation), and also for the reduction in overwhelm during the summer evenings, when I already had a heavy schedule of “homework” from the shop, and then had to engage with my hives so often. This method, entitled the “Rose Method”`, essentially involves making much bigger broods, which are restricted in conventional beekeeping in order to separate which parts of the hive the bees are fostered and which parts they lay honey into.
The beauty of this method is that the queen only keeps growing her brood up until the summer solstice, after which time the colony becomes focused on building stores up to feed themselves through the winter. So as the bees at the top part of the hive hatch, their little cells are replaced with honey and pollen stores when they leave. The ultimate purpose of this method is that as you build much larger broods, the turnover in population is much greater and the space they have to move is freed up, and so the immunity within the hive seems to improve. When I started toying with this method 3 years ago I was told that eventually my bees would succumb to health problems if I wasn’t dosing them or that they’d die off as I wasn’t feeding them extra syrup. But as the years have gone on, I’ve seen only stronger colonies, and the production of more excess honey for themselves, which has allowed me in the last three autumns to start to take some honey off the hives, so my little bees can begin to pay their way!!
Everything about honey is just slightly magical, from the glands the bees have which actually secrete wax to build more frames, to the propolis they use to glue up draughty gaps in the hive and prevent infection, to the amazing communication that goes on within the bee population. Like when the bees swarm for instance, which means the queen leaving the colony with a bunch of the flying bees - they find a temporary spot to rest, while the most experienced foraging bees are sent off in all directions to hunt for a suitable place to lay the foundations for a new permanent home. As those scouting parties return to the main colony, they tell a story of the locations they’ve found, detailing the height from the ground, the amount of sunlight exposure, the distance they have to fly to get there etc.
What ensues is proper magic, and is recognised as one of the most complex examples of democratic behaviour in all the animal kingdom. Essentially the returning scouts attempt to recruit bees to vote for their preferred chosen site by dancing to communicate the specs of the new location, and attempting to convince the rest of the population to dance to their tune. The colony engages in a lively “dance debate” at the end of which a consensus is reached and the swarm flies to the new location and builds their home from scratch. If the ability to organise in a peaceful, democratic method is a reflection of an evolved species, then it’s time for humans to do some serious reflection as the bees are WAY ahead of us.
One of the other magic bits of the whole beekeeping process which is more familiar to us all, is the consumption of that sweet nectar that we essentially steal from them in a calculated risk in which I hope to have left enough for them to survive the winter. As the removal of honey from my hives is only a relatively recent endeavour, it’s been so exciting to taste the new season’s crop each year, with its subtle variance from other years - but I don’t think the novelty of this will ever wear off. Every honey on our shelves in The Hopsack has some particular character all its own, and it’s one of my great pleasures to walk you guys through some of my favourites in the store. From Wainright’s Zambian forest honey, which is the closest thing to a “wild” honey that our palates will ever get to experience, to the citrus-ey notes of our Greek thyme honey, to the ultra floral scent and flavour of the Ulmo Blossom honey from Equal Exchange (possibly my favourite around our shelves over the years). Oh and the Ulmo excitement continues as there have been some pretty convincing studies that suggest it may have similar anti-microbial properties to the famed Manuka Honey from New Zealand.
Which brings us neatly to our next stop - Ling Heather honey. So last year, a Trinity College research team unveiled their studies on all sorts of varieties of Irish honeys. The most comprehensive in depth analysis on the properties of honeys from city and countryside, from mono-floral rapeseed honey, to multi-floral urban honeys, the team got stuck into looking at the quality of the sugars, and more excitingly the health promoting properties of the phenolic compounds across the various honey sources.
Within honey we know that bees secrete enzymes that serve to protect and preserve the precious foodstuff, and these enzymes have been the subject of a LOT of attention ever since Waikato University released their studies demonstrating the profound anti-microbial properties contained within manuka honey. Something specific to this honey is that it comes from the nectar of a relative to the tea tree flower, a plant which is poisonous for humans to consume directly, but which, through the enzymatic processing that the bees carry out, becomes not only safe, but also confers all the anti-microbial properties of the manuka plant to us upon consumption. It was thought until recently that manuka was the only honey containing such powerful health giving benefits…
The Irish research, published in the distinguished international journal, Food Chemistry, gives lie to this myth, as it showed that many Irish honeys have similar if not even stronger (in the case of heather honeys particularly) contents of these phenolic compounds, making them even more than just “healthier” sugar alternatives. All they need now is something like the classification system that New Zealand has adopted for its manuka industry and Ireland could have a seriously valuable foodstuff on its hands.
Also referred to in the research was the makeup of sugars within the honey, as part of the ongoing investigation into why honey has been shown to have “antidiabetic” properties, something that is mystifying for a substance that is basically sugar at its core. Honey is made up of a combination of the two simple sugars, fructose and glucose, but for some reason (or possibly a combination of factors) that confounds scientists, honey behaves differently to its constituent parts when put together, and seems (at least in most studies) to actually help to regulate the blood sugar control in diabetic patients. Now please don’t take this as some wild endorsement of honey as a treatment for diabetes, but it seems that if you’re hunting for gentler sugars, your body is well predisposed to the addition of raw, natural honey as a replacement to the dreaded white powder...nope the other one...refined, white sugar.
Honey’s other great known strength lies in its mucolytic properties, having a pronounced ability to thin the viscosity of mucous, allowing the lungs to dispel heavy congestion - microbial invaders love to hang out in thick old mucous in our airways causing recurrent persistent infections. And down in our gut, this same effect is also useful, where honey, along with supporting the mucosal lining, also has demonstrated a prebiotic effect, supporting the colonisation of the gut with “good” bacteria.
All this honey research is so fascinating that I tend to get lost down the rabbit hole that western research has gone down, relentlessly working towards identifying more and more of the precious enzymes and phenolic compounds that make honey such a prolific health tonic. The truth is though that we’ll never be done finding out more about honey, even as our technology evolves to help us look more closely into the thousands of compounds honey contains, the intrinsic wisdom that makes this wholefood so magical will always be hidden to our human intelligence - all we can do is wonder at it, watch it and delight in tasting its bounty!!