FOOD AND DRINK / Honey and the sex life of Queen Bee: Michael Bateman on insemination technology and an ancient sweet

'STANDS the church clock at ten to three and is there honey still for tea?' Yes, yes. But the romantic image of honey painted in Rupert Brooke's 'Grantchester' is changing fast.

Of all modern foods, honey has resisted change the longest. It is a wondrous resource, the oldest 'manufactured' product, enjoyed by man for at least 5,000 years. A painting in the cave of La Arana, Spain, depicts a man harvesting an armful of honey, and until very recently all the beekeeper had to do was capture a swarm of bees, stick them in a hive, and sit back while they helped themselves to the nectar in his neighbours' flowerbeds.

But when the National Honey Show opens this Wednesday, at the National Army Museum in Royal Hospital Road, London, the murmur of innumerable beekeepers will be of sex and drugs - and science and technology.

The drugs talk will be about the search for something to halt the spread of a parasite called varroa, which appeared in Devon this spring and has been wiping out whole colonies. And sex: to ensure larger colonies of healthier, disease-resistant bees, commercial operators have started to breed colonies by artificially inseminating the queen bee.

Vivian's in Hatherleigh, Devon, which is one of the biggest bee-keeping concerns in Britain with 12 million bees (they take 200 hives on to Dartmoor each year to collect heather honey), is about to apply selective breeding. Queen bees aren't themselves very selective, says Nick Tonkin, whose parents founded the company 25 years ago. It seems that no royal dignity attends her choice of a partner, and she will mate with half a dozen or so drones on a first-come, first-served basis. So it's up to the breeder to choose a suitable suitor.

The process is similar to the insemination of cows, except that unlike prize bulls, stud bees live brief lives. Insect-lovers may not wish to read on. 'The favoured way to get sperm is to pull the head off the bee,' says Nick Tonkin. 'This sends an electric impulse to the nervous system which sexually arouses the bee. You squeeze the lower half of the body to make it ejaculate and collect the liquid in a hypodermic syringe.' Will a new master race of bees give us better honey? No, says Nick, but new technology might.

There's nothing comparable to honey from the comb because its distinctive flavours haven't been impaired by heating. Most commercial honey is heated in order to pump, filter and pack. At Vivian's they have introduced an American machine to separate the honey without using heat. 'It has a flail which flicks off the caps of the wax cells. We filter out the wax, bees' legs and any rubbish, without heating the honey, and it takes three days to fill a one-and-a-half ton stainless steel tank. But then we can run off the light, clear honey from the bottom.' Runny honey is not better than ordinary honey, he hastens to add. Honey is an invert sugar, and will crystallise in time (though such honeys as acacia and wild thyme are exceptions.) Honey-fanciers regard 'single-flower' honeys as reverentially as whisky-lovers do single malts. In France (where else?) apiarists turn this to profit, setting out their hives in acacia woods, or fields of thyme or lavender. Fortnum & Mason has a gourmet range of several dozen single-flower honeys for pounds 2.75 per lb, including the heady-scented, strong-flavoured Hungarian acacia, light Canadian clover, perfumed Mexican orange blossom and the pungent, smoky Tasmanian leatherwood (which came top at a honey-tasting I once attended). Antonio Carluccio of Covent Garden stocks the most powerful of all honeys: chestnut honey from Italy at pounds 4 per lb. It looks like dark syrup and has a scent of cedarwood boxes of Havana cigars.

The premium British products are the scented, bittersweet Scottish and English heather honeys (Fortnum & Mason, pounds 4.85 per lb), the high price reflecting a short flowering season and the small number of suppliers. Vivian's Heather Honey is pounds 5.35 per lb or pounds 21.54 for a 7lb pail by mail order (Vivian's Honey Farm, Hatherleigh, Devon EX20 3LJ, tel 0837 810437).

For honey-lovers there's a new book out this week: Honey by Sue Style (Pavilion pounds 9.99), charmingly illustrated by Graham Evernden. This is Style's recipe for her favourite honey dessert.

Recipe; HONEY PARFAIT

Serves 4-6

You don't need an ice-cream maker, and you don't have to stir it while freezing.

1 egg and 3 egg yolks

6oz (half a cup) single-flower honey (preferably)

1/2 pint double cream, or whipping cream

3 tablespoons chopped walnuts (optional)

With an electric mixer, beat egg, yolks and honey till light and fluffy. In another bowl beat cream till it stands in soft peaks. Fold the cream into the egg and honey mixture. Stir in the walnuts if using them. Pour into a small bread tin, lined with cling film. Freeze. Serve, cut in slices with a fruit coulis, a puree of sieved fresh fruit such as raspberries, or an orange salad.

You can also freeze the parfait in ramekins or yoghurt pots and turn it out for serving.-

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice