Honey: the nectar of gods and posh hippies

Honey has been prized throughout history and its sweet appeal shows no sign of abating

H is for… Honey. ‘A taste of honey’ crooned Paul McCartney on the album Please Please Me, ‘/ tasting much sweeter than wine.’ He wasn’t the first to value it so highly: honey has been prized for at least 8,000 years, when pictures of hives were painted on the walls of caves in Valencia. Georgian tombs dating back 5,500 years contain phials of honey, presumably as an offering; in Ancient Egypt it was dedicated to the fertility god Min. Up on the peaks of Mount Olympus the ancient Greek gods feasted on – and were kept immortal by – honey in the form of nectar or ambrosia. And by 594 BC beekeeping was so prevalent in Attica, with its clear air and wildflower meadows, that Solon had to pass a law about the proximity of hives. It had practical uses, too, and was (as it still is) widely used to treat sore throats and wounds – and even to embalm, in the Middle East.

The Bible is awash with honey – or would be, if it wasn’t so viscous. There’s the incredibly strange section of the Book of Judges when Samson finds bees and honey in the carcass of a lion, and merrily eats it and hands it around like it’s perfectly normal. John the Baptist survived in the wilderness on a diet of locusts and honey (coming soon to a branch of Wahaca near you). And, of course, the Promised Land is so beautifully described as the ‘land of milk and honey.’ In Judaism, honey is associated with the new year – a traditional Rosh Hashanah snack is slices of apple dipped into it. And the Quran has an entire chapter called The Bee (an-Nahl).

Bees themselves are something of a miracle. Not only do they produce honey, but they also make the extraordinary royal jelly which is fed to the larva destined to become Queen (how on earth do they decide?! One microscopic larva, white and plump and yucky, looks much the same as another to my untrained eye). They make wax and propolis and they build intricate hives and they fertilise flowers. They have a special ‘waggle dance’ they do when they find a particularly awesome source of food, and if some poor loser hasn’t got enough to eat, the others give charitably of their own stores.

Even the risk of the bee’s sting – more painful, even, than stubbing your toe – doesn’t deter us from collecting honey. The Greater Honeyguide Bird is thought to be one of the only animals to have evolved simultaneously with humans. They dart around sub-Saharan Africa giving their distinctive whistle to hunters on the ground, directing them to hives so they can have a hassle-free meal after the hunters have smoked the bees out. Winnie the Pooh spends his entire hapless life in search of honey. And now the foodie squad are on the prowl for it, too.

It started with Manuka honey – the super-spenny panacea beloved of rich hippies, which can cost £7 per teaspoon. Now other ‘single-source’ honeys are all the rage: we all know prosaic lavender and acacia honeys, but how about dandelion? Or orange blossom? Cannabis honey is also in production, with bees feeding from the plant’s resin. A word of warning, though: this stuff doesn’t come cheap. In fact, they’ll sting you for it.


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