Wednesday 6 August 2008

Of Bees and Honey

I eat my peas with honey
I've done it all my life
I know that this sounds funny
But it keeps them on the knife
Anon/Edward Lear

I have three large patches of majoram and golden marjoram in my garden. As with mint and lemon balm, I watch anxiously throughout spring and early summer considering what I should do with the aromatic leaves before they start to flower and become worthless. Worthless is really a very subjective word, but all the books say one should not gather once the plant has flowered since all energies have been put into the flowers and seeds thus reducing the efficacy of the leaves.

Of lemon balm I usually do gather vast quantities, either for tincture, drying or making liqueur. This year, although I have dried and tinctured, the number of plants in the garden have dwindled, so I’ve mostly made fresh tea along with cleavers and enjoyed it immensely.

Marjoram, to me, is basically a culinary herb. I adore it fresh in the summer and look forward to its flavour and scent during the long winter months. Once it flowers, I know that my time with it is short, but this year is proving a real exception.

I like bees. I could spend hours watching them if I gave myself permission to stop for more than the odd five minutes before the “I should be doing x…” message runs once more through my brain. I notice when the first bumble bee buzzes around the garden in early spring and watch as they crawl deep inside the snapdragon’s or Himalayan balsam’s mouth and manage to emerge unscathed.

This year, the marjoram blossom has attracted a whole army of bees – all different shapes, sizes and colours, from the black, brown and white to the stunning black and orange banded. They land on the delicate flowers like flying tanks, their weight causing the flower stalk to waive and bend until the bee is happily settled and sucking. It’s ok if the bee lands on a milk thistle blossom or an Echinacea head or a moon daisy flower – they are the equivalent of the aircraft carrier in the navy, providing a huge, stable, nutritious landing pad.

The most amazing sight I saw the other morning, was watching a bumble bee clinging to the fragile stem of a vervain plant with the very tips of its antennae delicately stuck inside the tiny flowers.

The world’s honey bees are currently in a perilous state. UK stocks have been decimated by a particularly virulent hive mite and a long harsh winter after a poor summer’s harvest which did not allow colonies to build sufficient food stocks.

My nearest beekeeper lives in the adjoining road from ours, so is only about 2/3 mile away. I was very concerned when I first noticed the bees converging on the marjoram to see only bumble bees, but a closer search did reveal some quick-flying worker honey bees hiding amongst the blossoms. They seemed to prefer the golden marjoram flowers to the ordinary oregano/marjoram and moved so quickly, it was almost impossible to photograph them. It was very reassuring to know they were also taking advantage of the new nectar source.

I started using honey in a serious way when I began my study of herbs. My one and only attempt at brewing was metheglyn, using Rhiannon Ryall’s recipe. It took a long time to ferment, but it tasted wonderful and I still have half a bottle left in the larder after 12 years!

I prefer using honey if I can when I make a syrup, especially elderberry syrup, but it was Kiva Rose who really excited me and all my students when she posted her recipe for elderberry elixir. She gives other uses for the elixir here. I tend to make it with fresh or frozen elderberries rather than dried and half fill a 2 lb glass honey jar with the berries before adding a pound of honey and filling it up to the brim with brandy. It tastes amazing!

Julie Brueton-Seal, in her new book, Hedgerow Medicine, says that honey has natural antibiotic and antiseptic properties so is “an excellent vehicle for medicines to fight infection.” Both Julia and Kiva Rose mention applying honey topically for wounds and burns. Kiva has an inspiring post on using honey infused with bergamot flowers, evening primrose flowers and buds and rose petals for wounds and large burns which might be prone to infection.

I’ve made some dog rose petal infused honey this year and am hoping to try making the burns mixture infusion soon.

Someone introduced me to cider vinegar and honey drinks (2tsps of each in a large mug full of boiling water) as a sore throat soother many years ago, but from Hedgerow Medicine, I learned this combination is actually known as an Oxymel. Apparently they were once popular as a cordial in both Middle Eastern and European traditions being prized for cold and ‘flu remedies. I make many different infused vinegars – now I shall have to start building up my collection of infused honeys as well!

The other method of making honeyed medicines is called an Electuary, which are made by stirring powdered dried herbs into honey to make a paste. Julie Brueton-Seal says they are good as children’s remedies and are often used to sooth the digestive tract. Paul Bergner often talks about making honey pastes or pellets as an alternative to tinctures when you don’t want to involve a someone with an alcohol extraction.

No posting about bees and herbs can be complete without a mention of beeswax for salve making. There is nothing more mouth-watering than the smell of freshly made wax tablets – fragrant and slightly soft.

Chris’current favourite funny story concerning me and my exploits happened a couple of weeks ago when we were in Lincoln. I walked into the second hand bookshop near the cathedral and said to the owner, “I know it’s a long shot, but do you by any chance have any beeswax?”

No, I hadn’t completely lost my mind, in the shop window was a display of honey jars, so I thought there might be the possibility of some beeswax. Luckily, the lady’s daughter very kindly made me some wax tablets that night and Chris collected them the following morning while I was doing a bereavement workshop with the local Carers Unit. I left Lincoln a very happy herbwife!

Bee Song
Buzzing around
Your soothing symphony
Makes me stop
To share your petal dance
I notice you nudging
The dragon’s maw
To gather nectar
Balancing your bulk
Like an errant breeze
On fragile flowers
Yellow pollen drapes
Around your legs
Brushing softness
On stamens
Ripe for release
Transluscent wings
Too delicate at rest
Power you skyward
Leaving my sleepy world

Sarah Head