Mar 20th. 2013

Honey Honey

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Nectar was described as the sweat of the heavens and the saliva of the stars by Ancient Romans. They thought bees were celestial creatures who carried this God-given substance to their hive. But honey bees are even more miraculous because they actually turn this nectar – which comes from flowering plants – into honey. Plants produce nectar as a present to entice bees and other insects and animals to come and pollinate them. When the honey bee sucks up her sweet reward, it goes into her special honey stomach (crop) where enzymes start to turn the sugary liquid into honey . When she returns to the hive, she regurgitates the liquid and it’s placed in a honeycomb cell where the house bees use their wings to evaporate the water content. Like making a reduction when we cook to thicken a sauce and concentrate the flavours, the bees vibrant their wings until there is only about 19% water left in the clear, golden liquid. Now it is honey and the bees want to store it for their winter food, so they seal it with a white wax capping. So we, the beekeeper, can rest assured that whenever we take the sticky substance from the honeycombs as long as it has a white seal it is pure ‘home-grown’ raw honey. We don’t need to heat it, or treat it, all we have to do is filter it through a sieve to remove bits of wax and then to jar it a few hours later. If you cut off a piece of the honeycomb and put it in the jar with the liquid honey, it’s called chunk honey. Comb honey is a slab of honeycomb full of honey taken from the hive. It’s a chewy delicacy, but beware the bees wax from the comb can get stuck in your teeth. If your liquid honey naturally solidifies over time, it’s called crystallised honey and can be re-liquified by gentle heating.

However you prefer to eat your pure, raw urban honey it will be created from a rich variety of nectars collected from hundreds of plants and trees dotted around our parks, railway sidings, tree-lined avenues and gardens. The flowers bloom at different times from early spring to the end of the summer and through to the autumn. So the taste and the colour of the honey will depend on what flowers were in bloom, the day or the week the bees’ collected the nectar. In late June, for example, when London’s streets are resplendent with Lime trees, the pale straw-coloured honey you can harvest will have a hint of citrus. Darker, amber honey from the chestnut trees may display a richer, toffee taste, while earlier in the year your bees may make a lighter, runnier honey with a delicate bouquet of elderflower. But generally, your honey will contain a variety of delectable flavours to reflect the diversity of plants your bees have been foraging on.

Last summer, beekeepers had to feed their bees a sugar syrup solution made of water and sugar in the middle of the summer as a nectar substitute because it rained so much the bees couldn’t get out to forage and risked starvation. The bees used their bee magic to turn the beekeeper’s food into honey in the same way they do with nectar. So while the honey tasted less flavoursome than if it had been made from the flowers’ nectar, it was honey nevertheless. We know because the bees put their seal of approval (the white cap) over it.

Urban honey is unlikely to ever be certified organic because it would be difficult to prove that with the 5 km radius urban bees can forage they only collected nectar from plants that met a strict organic criteria. But all pure, local honey is good for us. It’s thought to help lessen the effect of pollen allergies that give us hay fever, because there are tiny particles of pollen in the honey. And all honey is anti-bacterial and an antiseptic, and has been used to treat an A-Z of ailments throughout the centuries.

Alison Benjamin, co founder of Urban Bees