I remember my maternal grandmother telling me that once when she was little, after she'd ripped a nasty tear in her finger on some barbed wire, her mother coated the wound in honey and wrapped it up in a spider web. After a couple of weeks, it had healed up beautifully. The use of honey both as a sweetener and as a healing substance has ancient origins. The Egyptians used it for embalming bodies and as a dressing for burns and wounds.
Numerous myths surround bees and honey; in many cultures they were regarded as symbols of fertility, marriage and long life. Honey cake was the food of the fabled serpent guardian of the Acropolis. The word honeymoon is connected to the fact that wedding celebrations used to involve copious amounts of honey in a ritual to promote happiness and fertility.
For more than 100 million years, bees have lived in colonies, gathering honey and pollinating plants. Bee pollination is needed for a vast number of our food crops and contributes billions of dollars to the global economy. We aren't just talking about many of the fruits and vegetables we enjoy, but also lots of nuts and oil-producing plants, as well as clover and coffee. While other kinds of bees help with pollination, it's the honeybees that do the bulk of the work.
It's hard not to feel a kind of wonder for honeybees and their significance in our lives. But for all their outward bravado, bees are fragile creatures and as most of us now know, right now they are in jeopardy. Colony losses of 40 – 60 per cent have been reported in Europe and the USA for the past few years. There seems to be a strong link between bee losses and a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids. These chemicals (which have been banned in the EU but are still in use in NZ) appear to affect the bee's central nervous system, disabling their sense of direction so they can't find their way back to the hive. Varroa mite is another big problem for bees (imagine a big dinner plate stuck to your body, sucking the life out of you - some bees have been found with more than 6 of these on their bodies). Add the loss of habitats as industrialised agriculture and monocultural environments eliminate bees' naturally varied food supply and the size of the bee depletion problem becomes very alarming.
The events of this year have shown us how important it is that we are stalwart guardians of our own existence. As part of this we need to ensure that bees not only survive but flourish. Backyard bees, rooftop bees and clever initiatives like pollinator pathways (https://www.pollinatorpaths.com/) help support healthy bee populations no matter where we live we can have happy bees and delicious honey in our kitchens. Here are some of my favourite recipes using honey.
Carrot Orange Honey Muffins
Ready in 35 mins
Honey is hydroscopic, which means that it attracts water. As a result, any kind of baking that uses honey will be nice and moist, and often better a day or two after it's been baked.
1 cup neutral oil
½ cup honey
¼ packed cup soft brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 carrots, peeled and grated
2 cups flour
2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp cinnamon
finely grated zest of 1 orange
½ tsp salt
¼ cup desiccated coconut
1 cup chopped walnuts or sunflower seeds
Preheat oven to 180°C and line 15 muffin tins with squares of baking paper. Beat eggs, oil, honey, sugar and vanilla until evenly combined. Mix in carrots. Stir in flour, soda, cinnamon, orange zest and salt to just combine, then stir in coconut and walnuts (do not over-mix). Spoon into prepared muffin tins to ¾ fill. Bake until springy to the touch (25-30 minutes). Uncooked batter keeps in the fridge for several days and can be cooked to order.
Chinese Honey Spareribs
Ready in 1½ hours
Covering the ribs for the first stage of cooking gets them tender, then the cover comes off so they can get glazed and lip-smackingly sticky.
1-1.2kg meaty short pork spareribs, cut into 2-3 rib sections
1 cup apple juice or water
¼ cup light honey
¼ cup soy sauce
2 Tbsp rice vinegar
2 Tbsp neutral oil
2 Tbsp grated fresh ginger
2 cloves crushed garlic
2 dried chillies (optional)
1 tsp five-spice powder
3-4 whole star anise
Preheat oven to 180°C. Arrange pork ribs in a single layer in a large baking dish. Combine all other ingredients in a pot and bring to a boil, then pour over the ribs. Cover dish tightly and bake for 1 hour.
Remove cover and tip most of the juices back into the pot. Turn ribs and continue cooking, uncovered, until golden (about another 15 minutes). Simmer juices in the pot until slightly thickened and brush over cooked ribs to serve.
Sticky Honey Mustard Drumsticks
Ready in about 35 minutes, plus marinating
Darker honeys usually have stronger flavours and are richer in mineral content. Use pale honey for light cakes and biscuits and dark honey for strongly flavoured recipes like these drumsticks and the spare ribs, marinades and savoury dressings.
12 chicken drumsticks
¼ cup light honey
3 tbsp white wine vinegar
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tbsp Dijon mustard
2 tbsp neutral oil
2 tbsp chopped thyme or rosemary leaves
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
Place chicken in a bowl or clean plastic bag. Combine honey, vinegar, garlic, mustard, oil and herbs, add to chicken and toss to coat. Marinate in the fridge for at least 1 hour or up to 24 hours.
When ready to cook, preheat oven to 200°C and line a large baking dish with baking paper for easy clean-up. Arrange chicken drumsticks in a single layer on prepared oven tray and season with salt and pepper. Transfer marinade to a small pot and simmer until slightly thickened (about 3 minutes).
Bake chicken, turning frequently, until juices run clear when chicken is pierced with a skewer in the thickest part (25-30 minutes). Brush with reduced marinade during the last 15 minutes of cooking. Alternatively, microwave in a covered dish for 8 minutes then brush with reduced marinade and barbecue or grill for 6-8 minutes until golden and fully cooked through. Spoon over the remaining reduced marinade to serve.