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
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.-