Sweet sensation: harvesting the honey
The bees are producing honey of amazing quality just now: beautiful, golden and gently perfumed, it is imbued with the taste of spring flowers. The supply is limited, but worth the wait (and its weight in gold!) And it puts a positive spring in our step…
There has been a bit of aggressive behaviour on the bees’ part: we think they are suspicious of my husband whenever he goes up on the roof and especially if they espy him dressed in all the gear he wears to harvest the honeycombs. Down in the garden, though, they are busy visiting the nasturtiums, now coming to the end of their season, the calendulas, borage, and the thyme that has begun flowering profusely in the herb bed. This morning, I found one of my friends totally absorbed in foraging inside a bright yellow rose, her legs already laden with packets of pollen:
In the deep past, honey was, as it is nowadays, a precious commodity here in Egypt. It was the only sweetener the ancient Egyptians had, used in the baking of bread and cakes, and to make beer and mead. Not that ordinary folk were allowed to taste it: It seems that honey was more often used for offerings in temples, to provide food supplies for the departed within tombs, and then for royalty, priests and other high officials.
Honey was also used as a medicine and antiseptic. The ancients made use of its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, including in the treatment of open wounds. Now, I also use it to help heal cuts, especially to my hands, usually arising from a session in the garden.
Other uses I have read about were more esoteric, and a bit hard to, er, get your head round: like extracting wax from the combs to set the complicated wigs they used to wear…
More seriously, the bee was a symbol of royal power. As early as the First Dynasty (2950-2750 BC) of the Old Kingdom, one of the king’s names was “nesw-bit” or “He of the sedge and the bee”. This was most likely a reference to Upper and Lower Egypt respectively: so the bee was integral to one of the most potent political statements of all, demonstrating the king’s sovereignty over a united Egypt. Images of the insect appear in relief within temples, and on obelisks, sarcophagi and statuary. They are also seen in wall paintings in tombs, sometimes in the context of detailed pictures of bee-keeping activities.
While our bees are housed in wooden hives on the roof, and simply left to roam around our and neighbours’ gardens, in ancient times they were kept in long earthenware cylinders stacked up to eight high. It seems likely that the hives were transported to Upper Egypt and then gradually brought northwards along the Nile from October to February, a system that allowed the bees maximum access to flowers in the countryside along the river following the annual inundation.
At the same time, wild honey was harvested from the more outlying areas by professional honey-collectors, or “bityw”.
Although I appreciate honey, I’ve never been a “honey-freak”, unlike some members of my family. I don’t go miles to find rarefied blossom honey, and I doubt I can identify which flower is dominant in any given jar. And some of the world’s most highly-valued honey is too strong for my taste.
But I have come to love the produce of our friends on the roof and I look forward to trying each new harvest, best of all with fresh bread from a local Iraqi bakery. It’s the sweetest of all the produce of the garden, endlessly varied in texture and taste, and truly one of the most miraculous of all of nature’s riches.
Photographs by Adel Ismail and Nadia Ismail