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In this edited extract from Backyard Bees Australian beekeeper Doug Purdie shares his passion for bees.
And try some of these sweet recipes!
Bees are incredible insects. They existed before the dinosaurs and evolved at about the same time as flowers in order to pollinate them thousands of years ago. Only now have we worked out how to wipe them out. Bees are under threat all around the world, with massive winter bee die-offs reported from almost every place and insecticide bans enforced in many countries to try to stem the losses.
Many people don't realise the vital role bees and other insects play in pollinating our food. When bees forage for nectar and pollen they pollinate each flower they visit, increasing the crop yield by as much as 60%. Without bees, many food crops that need pollination by insects couldn't be grown on a scale large enough to feed us. In some parts of the world, plants have to be hand-pollinated, a very labour-intensive and expensive process where a human touches each flower with a feather.
As well as the benefit to bee numbers, beekeeping is an amazing and rewarding hobby whether you eat lots of honey or not. Even after years of keeping bees I find them fascinating. If you get your own hive you will spend a lot of time just watching them come and go on their mission to pollinate and collect pollen and nectar. Sitting beside your hive with a cup of tea watching the girls (as I fondly refer to them) come and go is very gratifying; imagining where they are going and trying to identify the trees they have visited from the colour of the pollen sacks on their hind legs.
The first time you open a hive it’s overwhelming. There are lots of bees buzzing around, all armed with the much-feared stinger. But you soon realise that they are ignoring you and simply going about their business, seemingly unaware of the intruder in their midst.
Then there is that special moment of seeing a bee being born for the first time, as she crawls out of her cell all fluffy and new and ready to start work. Or seeing a queen being born — that is something special indeed.
So get a good grip on your fear of bees, if you have one, and get involved. You will be rewarded with a lovely gift: the gift of interacting with a super organisma beehive. Plus, you will be giving them a helping hand in surviving the insect apocalypse that is upon us. At the same time, tell people about what you are doing and why they should re-think that green lawn and plant flowers instead. And put down that insecticide can.
Go on, plant something!
Next is the fun bit — building a bee-friendly paradise, right in your own backyard. Have a look in your garden. How many of the plants you grow actually flower, and how many just have nice green leaves and not much else? The things you plant in your backyard, on your balcony or by the roadside can be beautiful, practical, low-maintenance and also provide excellent forage and habitat for a whole range of insects and birds, and even human food— all at the same time.
Those maintenance-free spiky plants and grass verges much preferred by commercial landscapers need to be replaced by (or at least intermingled with) flowering plants of all shapes and sizes. Mix it up between exotics and natives, the idea is to produce a cornucopia of forage that will suit all sorts of beneficial insects. Now don’t get scared, we are not talking rocket science (or should I say botanical science?) when it comes to making changes— these are simple.
You don’t need much. A couple of old cooking oil tins make great planters for herbs, so go foraging at the rear of your nearest fast-food restaurant and see if they’re discarding old tins. You’ll need to cut the top off and punch some holes in the bottom. Some people also find nice containers in op shops, or use old teapots or even old boots: almost any container can be used, even those reusable shopping bags. If that’s a bit too adventurous for you, buy some pots at your nursery or hardware store.
When you’re choosing pots, plastic ones are superior to anything porous as they hold water better and won’t wick it away from the roots. Avoid the expensive self-watering pots, as these are often just a gimmick.
The easiest things to grow are herbs. They’ll do well in small pots with a bit of sun, so try things like basil, borage, rosemary, rocket (arugula)— anything you would like to use in cooking. Just make sure you let some of them flower, as that’s the reason you’re growing them in the first place.
Just about anything that flowers will be good for all sorts of pollinators, and your aim is to have at least two plants flowering in your garden all year round — not just in spring — to provide a continuous food supply. They don’t need to be native species, they can be anything you like the look of. Even some weeds are fine, although you don’t want to be propagating a harmful species, so check with your local council before you plant a whole backyard of dandelions (Taraxacum officinale), or something that is classified as a noxious weed in your area.
Once things start flowering, resist the urge to spray the caterpillars and aphids with poison - try to use natural methods. Don’t forget that nature equipped you with some of the best pest-control devices there are - at the end of your arms - and although the idea of picking off caterpillars or snails might be a bit confronting to you, whack on a pair of gloves and give it a go. It’s surprisingly satisfying, and the bugs can be fed to chooks or added to compost so they don’t go to waste.
Great herbs for bees
With enough sun, most herbs are really easy to grow - they will grow like weeds in the right circumstances and you’ll find new ones popping up to replace the ones that are reaching the end of their cycle and becoming too woody.
You have to resist the temptation to trim off all the flowers and leave at least half behind so you get the seeds to allow the plant to continue, and of course provide pollen and nectar for the beneficial insects.
Some great herbs for bees are sweet basil, borage, chives, coriander, lavender, lemon balm, mint, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage and thyme.
Apiculture New Zealand recommends planting bee friendly plants such as rosemary, citrus trees, pumpkin, squash or courgettes, harakeke, sunflowers and pip fruit.
Preparation: 15 minutes
Cooking: 55 minutes
1.5kg chicken wings
260g (Ÿ cup) honey, plus extra for drizzling
2 tablespoons soy sauce
60ml (Œ cup) tomato sauce
1 tablespoon sweet chilli sauce
2 garlic cloves, very finely chopped or minced
1 knob ginger, finely grated
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Preheat oven to 220degC .
Separate chicken wings into drumettes and wings. Freeze the wing tips to make stock at a later date or discard.
To make the glaze, place honey, soy sauce, tomato sauce, sweet chilli sauce, garlic and ginger in a large jug and stir to combine.
Place chicken in a large deep-sided baking dish, add oil and toss to coat. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes until the skin is golden and starting to crisp. Remove from the oven and pour over the glaze, stirring to coat evenly. Return to the oven for another 10 to15 minutes until dark and sticky.
Remove from the oven and let cool until the chicken can be handled.
Drizzle over a bit of extra honey, season with salt to taste and serve, either warm or cold.
Bee sting cake
Preparation: 30 minutes plus 1-1½hours rising time, plus two hours cooling
Cooking: 40 minutes
300g (2 cups) plain flour
55g (¼ cup) caster (superfine) sugar
2 teaspoons dried yeast
185ml (¾ cup) milk, at room temperature
2 eggs, at room temperature
60g (¼ cup) softened butter, chopped
½ teaspoon salt
500g cream cheese, softened
250g ricotta cheese
finely grated zest of 2 lemons
2 tablespoons lemon juice
125g (1 cup) icing (confectioners) sugar, sifted
Honey almond topping
90g (⅓ cup) butter, diced
75g (⅓ cup) caster (superfine) sugar
40ml thick (double) cream
150g flaked almonds
Preheat the oven to 170degC. Grease and line the base and side of a 23cm spring-form cake tin.
For the filling, put the ingredients in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat until just combined. Refrigerate until needed.
For the cake, put the flour, sugar, yeast, milk, eggs, butter and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on medium speed for 2 minutes. Scrape the batter into the cake tin and spread out evenly with a spoon or offset spatula. Place the tin in a clean plastic bag and tie to enclose. Leave in a warm, draught-free place and allow to rise for 1-1½ hours.
Meanwhile, make the topping. Put butter, honey, sugar and cream in a medium saucepan over medium heat and bring to the boil. Simmer for 5-6 minutes until the mixture turns a slightly darker shade of yellow. Add almonds and stir through. Remove from the heat and allow to cool until the cake dough has finished rising.
Starting at the edges, spoon the topping evenly over the cake dough and bake for 30 minutes until golden brown. Cool in the tin for 10 minutes on a wire rack set over a baking tray to catch any caramel drips. Release the side of the cake tin and remove baking paper from the side. Leave until completely cool before slicing.
Use a long serrated knife to halve the cake horizontally. Place the top half on a flat plate.
Spread the filling evenly over the bottom half of the cake using a palette knife or spatula and cover with the top layer of cake.
Bee Sting cakes are best eaten on the day they are baked, though they can be partly prepared the day before: keep the risen dough in an airtight container at the room temperature, then bake and fill the following day.
Note: You can also use a non-spring form tin; just let the cake cool for 20 minutes before turning it out. Be very careful as the caramel will still be warm.
Preparation: 10 minutes
Cooking: 2½ hours
225g caster (superfine) sugar
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
250ml (1 cup) boiling water
450g (3 cups) plain (all-purpose) flour
2 teaspoons ground ginger
butter, to serve
Preheat oven to 120degC
Grease and line a 10 x 21cm loaf (bar) tin with baking paper. Set your oven shelf to the lower third of the oven so the top of the loaf won’t overbrown.
Place honey and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer with a paddle attachment. Mix bicarbonate of soda and boiling water in a jug and pour in. Mix on low speed until the honey dissolves. Sift flour, ground ginger and salt into a bowl and add to mixer. Mix on low speed until flour is incorporated, then mix on medium speed for 1 minute until it becomes a smooth batter.
Bake for 2½ hours until the centre springs back when gently pressed.
To serve, slice thinly and spread with butter.
The loaf keeps for 5 days in an airtight container. If hot or humid, store in the refrigerator.