In Poland, honey - again - grows on trees

(AFP) -

Perched in a lofty pine tree a dozen metres (around 30 feet) from the forest floor, Tomasz Dzierzanowski carefully removed a clump of dry grass from a hole in the wood and wafted smoke into a bees' nest.

Using a wooden spatula, he delicately cut out the gleaming slices of honeycomb, and the dark, shining liquid ran down his fingers. After climbing down, he tore off a waxy chunk and tasted the powerfully-flavoured honey.

Dzierzanowski is one of a group of Polish enthusiasts reviving a form of beekeeping stretching back thousands of years but abandoned more than a century ago.

"There used to be thousands of bees' nests in Poland's forests, tens of thousands even," Dzierzanowski told AFP in the Spala forest, around 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of the capital, Warsaw.

"For now, we've set up around 20," added Dzierzanowski, whose day job is with the local environmental department.

After initially collecting honey from purely wild bees' nests, ancient hunter-gatherers gradually learned how to give the insects a helping hand by cutting holes in trees and leaving honeycomb to attract a swarm.

Under that ancestral method, the subsequent nest was opened just twice a year: once in the spring to check how well the bees have survived the winter, and again in the autumn to harvest the honey.

The practice persisted in Poland until the end of the 19th century, gradually losing ground because honey from the growing number of beehive farms was cheaper and the forests were hit by large-scale felling.

A natural mishap in the 1980s wiped out the remaining wild bees buzzing around Poland's forests -- a disease of Asian origin carried by a parasitic mite called Varroa destructor.

-- Forest honey has more micronutrients --

------------------------------------------

The current revival then is also a total reintroduction of the insect after a three-decade absence.

It comes thanks to a meeting of minds between the global environmental group World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), two Polish national parks, enthusiasts such as Dzierzanowski, and a group of beekeepers from Bashkortostan, a region of Russia near the Ural Mountains.

"We discovered that they still harvested honey from trees in Bashkortostan," said Przemyslaw Nawrocki, who is in charge of the project at the WWF.

"We got in touch with the Bashkir beekeepers who hosted us there and patiently taught us their craft. Last year, they came to Poland to set up the first hives," he added.

The Poles also spent their time trawling through museums to learn about the ancient method, making precision copies of the tools of their ancestors.

"According to the archives, they used to harvest between six and 10 kilos (13 to 22 pounds) of honey per tree. Our maximum is around three kilos (around seven pounds). But it's only our second year of harvesting, so we need to wait a while longer," said Dzierzanowski.

Tree-honey is distinctive -- Dzierzanowski's harvest had a deep-gold colour, an initially smoky taste, and wasn't over-sweet -- and is traditionally eaten mixed with remainders of pollen and chewy wax.

"Forest honey is much better than other kinds because it contains seven times more micronutrients," said Nawrocki.

In addition, it is a delight for organic food fans: the forest nests and the bees' pollen-gathering territory lie far from the fertiliser- and pesticide-strewn fields of agribusiness.

Besides tickling the palate, bringing back honey-harvesting has a broader ecological goal.

"In the past, bees were an integral part of the forests, and played a role in their biodiversity," Nawrocki explained.

While the amount of honey harvested is still tiny, the enthusiasts dream of a day when there will be thousands of such nests across the country.

Another long-term goal is to get Polish tree-honey inscribed in a European Union register of produce that is rooted in specific regions of the 27-nation bloc.

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