Bees depend on plants we try so hard to eliminate

Bees depend on plants we try so hard to eliminate

I’m ashamed to admit I have not been an especially good friend of honeybees in my lifetime. I still shudder thinking of all the times I stepped on one of them as a small, barefoot child, getting stung repeatedly through the summer until I wised up and put on shoes.

I still have something of a phobia of going barefoot outdoors and never do it. If it’s not a bee lying in wait with its butt needle, there’s sure to be some broken glass somewhere. But bees are a much more welcome presence overall, now that I’ve stopped foolishly stomping on them from the safety of shoes. Bees, of course, bring us one of life’s great delicacies, honey.

Though honey production is seeing a rise in recent years, prices are still at record-breaking highs, making the sweet treat a rather dear luxury these days. I love the stuff, but eight or more dollars for a tiny jar can make you think twice.

Honey is dearer in large part because of the alarming drop in honeybee populations in recent decades, with beekeepers finding their hives have collapsed, the bees dead, in all too many cases. Their sharp decline isn’t fully understood, but our behavior plays a role. Is it really necessary to have a weed-free lawn?

I love an immaculate lawn of perfect, manicured grass. It makes a home seem tidy and well looked-after. It invites us to shed our shoes, come outside and lounge in it all. But a perfect lawn comes at a price. Bees depend on the dandelions and clover we try so hard to eliminate.

Traveling from flower to flower, they gather nectar, picking up pollen on the journey, helping nature to propagate the next generation of plants. This is so, not only of garden flowers, but of the crops upon which we depend for our food. Bees are not in danger of extinction, but we do depend on their services for our food supply.

Weed killers eliminate part of the bee’s food source — the poison chemicals aren’t doing them any favors, either, likely killing off large numbers of the insects either directly or indirectly.

On the bright side, interest in beekeeping as a hobby has grown, and several friends have given over a part of their land to the buzzing guests. More power to them: With the memory of painful stings as a child still clear, I give bees a wide berth.

Honey has been enjoyed for as long as bees have been making it, and not just by us. A wide variety of species try to snatch the work of the honeybee. “Work” is the only way to describe it, as manufacturing honey is a group process among the worker bees of digestion, storage, cooling and evaporation until the stuff is just the right level of concentrated sugars and water.

Remarkably, honey is naturally antibacterial and never spoils if you keep it sealed. If Cleopatra had a jar of honey in the pantry when she died, we could open it and have it on biscuits today.

Honey also doesn’t freeze solid — it just gets thicker. Honey will sometimes crystallize naturally. If that happens, it doesn’t mean it’s spoiled or of poor quality. It’s perfectly fine to eat it that way, but you can restore it to a liquid again by warming the jar slowly in a pan of hot water. Allow the honey and water to cool together afterward.

One caution: Honey can cause problems for infants, so you should not give honey to any child under 12 months old.

The honey-based brew called mead is enjoying a revival of interest after a long period in our collective mental storage. Mead is an alcoholic drink made of fermented honey. You can now find it in stores here and there.

I’m a big fan of seeking out local honey at the farm markets, but if you get the chance, try some of the fancy imported honey from New Zealand called Manuka. Some of the brands are north of $200 for a little under a pound, but keep your eyes peeled at discount stores for deals.

The thought of doing without peaches, cream and honey or honey on oatmeal is a frightening prospect. Stir some honey and cinnamon into plain yogurt and you have a dessert better than just about anything else.

As a drink sweetener, as an addition to sweet and savory dishes, or a variety of other uses, it’s worth keeping a jar of good-quality honey around, even if it’s a little pricey.

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