Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Buzz About Honey

Honey possesses a wealth of features, making it so much more than a humble toast topper. It has proven antibacterial and antioxidant qualities; it's also a humectant which makes it ideal for baking and cooking. The versatility of honey is well established and let's face it; if you're constantly being sought by someone smarter than the average bear, you must be doing something right.

At this time of year, blossom at the orchard is in full swing. It's 6:30 am on an overcast Thursday and I'm roaming the orchard with the guys from Kintail Honey, dropping off hives to assist in pollinating the apple trees. The bees are docile at this time of day which makes the manhandling of the hives a little easier (a stiff gin before commencing work would be totally understandable).

With 70 hectares of orchard to cover, the place is saturated with bees and hives to ensure effective coverage - the orchard has a 3-4 week period in which pollination has to occur. Pollination comes about as a result of bees gathering nectar. In its search, a bee will travel from blossom to blossom, and as it does so, it brushes against the stamen, the pollen-bearing part of a flower, picking up pollen grains. When the bee lands on another blossom, some of the pollen from its first visit sticks to the blossom at its latest stop - pollination can now take place. Once fertilised, fruit will eventually develop.

Bees can cover a five kilometre range but if they're in an area full of blossom, they usually won't travel any further than a couple of kilometres.

These particular hives are called Langstroth hives.

Hive placement is important. Bees are more active when they're warm, so hives are kept away from shelter belts and buildings, anything which may shade or block sunlight. With this in mind, the hive exit is always placed facing north to take advantage of the sun.

The tool below is a smoker, an essential tool for the protection of bee handlers. This device is made up of a firepot, bellows and a nozzle. The bellows force air through the fuel-filled firepot; the resulting smoke pours out of the nozzle, and is directed into the beehive.

The smoke has two effects: it dulls the senses of the hive's guard bees, preventing them from releasing a pheromone that alerts the hive to a threat, summoning bees to attack intruders. The second effect of smoke is to suggest to the inhabitants that the hive could be on fire. This triggers a feed response where the bees gorge themselves on their honey, preparing for a possible evacuation. This distracts the bee, allowing time for the beekeeper to work on the hive. Bees at this stage find it hard to use their stinger, a honey-stuffed stomach impeding use of the stinger muscles.

Once the hives are set up, Kintail send people to periodically check on the hives and the condition of the bees, as well as to remove any honey. On occasion, they'll also remove some of the brood (the eggs, larvae and pupae) to de-strengthen it. This prevents them from swarming and allows more room in the hive.

At any one time, there are an astounding number of bees in a hive. In winter, around ten thousand bees; during the summer, up to a hundred thousand! Bees have a lifespan of between thirty five to fourty five days and will often die of exhaustion, living as they do very active lives.

Bees will die if exposed to insecticides and are subject to predators such as insects and birds. Varroa mites - tiny parasites that feed off bees and bee brood - are a major problem for bees, and have led to the death of whole hives. Varroa mites cannot be erradicated, only controlled; hives contain plastic strips treated with miticide.

So how is honey made? As mentioned earlier, bees roam the countryside collecting nectar. This is brought back to the hive and processed into honey by the worker bees, through a process of partial digestion, where enzymes break the complex sugars into simple sugars, a more digestible form for the bee. It is then stored in the cells of the honeycomb, exposed, for evaporation to take place (it has a high water content). Evaporation is essential so that fermentation and spoilage of the liquid by bacteria don't occur. Interestingly, the evaporation process is hurried along with the aid of the bees fanning the liquid with their wings! The resulting syrup is considerably thicker and will store for a long time, with the bees capping the honeycomb cells with plugs of wax - this will feed the bees during the winter. Often, more honey is produced than will ever be consumed by the bees and this is what is taken by the beekeeper.

Over the course of the morning, I was stung twice - once on the neck and then on my forearm. Twenty four hours later, the forearm was the size of a Christmas ham (honey glazed).

Feeling inspired, I bought some honey and proceeded to look for something tasty to make with it. Here's a yummo recipe I lifted from Airborne Honey's recipe page - the ice cream I made was rich and sweet (in the photo, it's a bit melty, brought about by spending too much time artfully arranging what turned out to be a lacklustre shot). There's a bit of elbow grease required - well worth it though.
Rata Ice Cream
1/2 cup (100gms) Rata honey
4 tblspns water
4 egg yolks
300 mls whipped cream

Melt the honey and water together slowly until the honey has dissolved. Stir, then bring the liquid to a rolling boil, until there are little even-sized bubbles all the way across the pot. Whisk the egg yolks in a large bowl with an electric beater. With the beater running, slowly pour in the hot syrup. Continue whisking until the mixture has cooled and is double its volume, or as thick as whipped cream. Fold whipped cream into mixture, checking sweetness. Pour into a mould, cover with plastic wrap and freeze for a minimum of 8 hours.

To Serve
Leave at room temperature for 5-10 minutes to soften slightly. Run a knife around mould, sit mould momentarily in 2.5 cm of hot water and put ice-cream onto a serving platter. Garnish with Southern Rata flowers if possible. Serves six.

And now for something extra:

- Information about bee and wasp stings Clicky

- Bee hives Clicky

- National Beekeepers Association of New Zealand Clicky

- Beekeeping in NZ (the podcasts are interesting) Clicky

Apologies for the big delay in posting. Both my laptop and the desktop are dying!


Shaun said...

Nigel ~ Thanks for the informative post not only on honey production but also on bees' importance in orchard life. The folks at the Honey Centre in Warkworth do an amazing job of informing visitors on the importance of bees to horticulture and to the environment.

I got stung a lot as a kid as my parents have a rata tree in front of their house, where bees love to congregate during Summer. Now, if I get stung, I don't even feel it but just assume so later when I notice a minor redness (nothing like your honey-glazed forearm).

I prefer monofloral honeys, my most favourite being from pohutakawa. I love its salty aftertaste. Great ice cream...will give it a go.

Nigel Olsen said...

The monoflorals do taste best. Over the last couple of months, I've been trying as many different honeys as I can get my hands on - it's been surprising how differently they all taste, quite the revelation!

Nigel Olsen said...

Keep an eye out for "Vanishing of the Bees", a film/doco about hive collapse and the possible consequences for humanity. Quick mention here on Boing Boing about it; the comments are worth a read, too: