All about the bee, and local New Forest honey

New Forest bees, pollinators par excellence 

At a bloom near you. Along with blackberries...

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The latest chapter from our prolific writer and crafter Mark and cartoon magician Hugh: true, irreverent, entertaining as always, we hope you enjoy.

Bees: pollinators par excellence

"Humans have achieved incredible things. We put a man on the moon, satellites into space and then to top it all, invented the Gin and Tonic. Try to imagine then that in order to have enough food to eat, we humble humans depend on a tiny flying insect weighing around two tenths of a gramme.

The hard-working bee is responsible for the vast majority of pollination. Put simply, without it, we would starve.

Recently my wife and I went blackberry picking on the small patch of heathland adjacent to Blackfield cemetery. With us was Poppy, our pony friendly terrier. The gorse blooms carried the faintest smell of coconut, the grass looked bleached as a result of this extended dry spell. Here and there were gorse bushes which were interwoven with bramble which, like ivy, enjoyed the support of its host, both plants looked healthy despite these drought-like conditions. My wife and I gradually drifted apart as we moved from bush to bush, carefully threading our hands and fingers between the gorse and bramble prickles in order to pluck the glossy, beaded black fruits. There was almost complete silence, just the occasional distant car and the tearing sounds of the ponies feeding on the remaining edible grass. Our fingers became more and more stained and Poppy gravitated towards the shadows seeking relief from the scorching sun.

At a bloom, near you

If you have a minute, (most of us do, you just have to make the time) stop awhile and stare at a bloom. It won’t be long before a bee comes by, lands and crawls inside. The bramble flowers, white with a splash of yellow were visited constantly. The bees that I watched that day were tiny, smaller than house flies and, as the expression suggests, they were busy. It struck me that none of the fruits we were picking would have been there if it wasn’t for these little workers. They are fussy creatures, bees, at some blooms they walked in and stayed awhile, other blooms which were perhaps barren or previously harvested were treated to the shortest and most perfunctory of visits.

Farming of the stickiest kind

Bees work hard in the summer in order to build up food stocks for the winter. Then we humans steal that food. Unsurprisingly this makes the bees a little uppity and in order to placate them, and to ensure the bees make it through the winter the bee keeper has a few tricks to employ.

The first is to use a sting proof suit and hood. It is possible to harvest honey without suitable protection but you need to be tough, very tough. Then you need a smoker which is a device which, as the name suggests, makes smoke. This has the effect of calming the bees. Finally, the bee keeper might replace the stolen food with something similarly nutritious, baker’s fondant works well apparently.

Once the combs have been removed from the hive the honey needs to be extracted and this is done with a hand operated centrifuge. My friend Steve confided in me that at his first attempt he was determined to use his logic and planning to confound the dire warnings of the old hands who had warned him that this was the stickiest job ever. To his credit he was honest and confessed that by the time he had finished there wasn’t a square inch of kitchen floor, not an item of clothing, not a hair on his head, that wasn’t sticky with honey. Have you seen the Tar Baby sketch in ‘Song of the South’? It was like that.

Beware of the fraudsters, they want your money

There’s an old saying in the investment world, ‘If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.’

If you like your honey, and I certainly do, you’ll generally pay between four and five pounds a pot. If you come across what appears to be a bargain then surely you can’t go wrong? After all, honey is just honey, isn’t it? Far from it. I have spoken to an expert who told me that a great deal of honey is adulterated with corn syrup. Suddenly a cheap product which is falsely labelled can generate high revenues. It pays to buy local; Lymington market might be a good place to start. A local car repair garage depends utterly on its reputation; bad news spreads fast. Honey producers are no different. Buy local.

Capitalism. Progress?

You might have heard of the latest problems in our food production industry and this is Colony Collapse Disorder. This refers to the collapse of bee hives. For farmers in the US this problem is so serious that travelling bee keepers are employed to visit with their hives in order to pollinate crops. Unsurprisingly the reason for this sudden change in the health of bees appears to be one of human origin. The finger is being pointed at large agrochemical producers, particularly of chemicals referred to as neo-nicotinoids. It would appear that, once again, our quest to defeat insects that consume profitable crops has backfired. Bees have extraordinary navigational skills. These include a spatial mapping ability, using the sun to navigate (even on a cloudy day), and the ability to interpret the magnetic waves surrounding the earth. These abilities appear to be adversely affected by the latest chemicals, consequently the sad reason for Colony Collapse Disorder appears to be that the bees cannot find their way home.

There was a similar situation with the now banned DDT many years ago. History is repeating itself, when will we learn from our silly, greedy mistakes?

Anger works! Well, in a hive at least.

A final word from Steve who tells me that of his three hives the one containing the most aggressive, the most feared, the most spiteful bees, is by far the most productive. He tells me that when he has taken their bounty of honey, he makes the long journey from the bottom of the garden to the patio and then skips like a Morris Dancer to shoo off the bees and then, with his wife Evelyn watching carefully, does a twirl or three. Once she gives the all clear he can come back into the house with his prize.

Home cooking, is there anything better? Sorry Rishi.

On a final note, the blackberry crumble was delicious, local, hand prepared and high in cholesterol (I’m sorry, goodness). The sloe berries will be out soon, pass the gin darling. Here’s to local!

 Busy bees cartoon

More tales and cartoons from Mark and Hugh

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Meanwhile if you'd like to read previous articles on diverse subjects written by Mark and illustrated by Hugh's cartoons here they are, click the links embedded in the titles:

Cordless home entertainment
The joy of sheds

When the Isle of Wight was just Wight
Bucklers Hard

Salisbury Cathedral 
Pond Life in our Forests 
Bombs Away 
Baileys Hard 
Rufus Stone and Sir Walter Tyrrell
Graffiti through the ages
Freedom of the roads
Heath fires
Lymington Lido
Watch the birdie
Unstoppable momentum of nature
Socially distanced socialising
Calshot Spit, a curse for mariners...



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