Humble honey bees

20 September 2013
Written by Sacha Kenny | Images by Sacha Kenny
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Fascinated by the humble bee, Sacha Kenny researched the resurgence of bee keeping around the world and chatted to a local bee keeper about all things honey

Did you know that Bees are the only insect to provide us with food? Honey bees and the workings of their close-knit hives are one of nature's great miracles - producing one of nature's greatest edible bounties: honey, liquid gold or as the ancient Greeks called it ‘Ambrosia’ (nectar of the gods). Not only that, did you know that one third of the world’s crop production is dependent on bee pollination?

Bee keeping, it seems, is having a renaissance. There are urban communities in major cities all around the world creating roof top gardens and apiaries (bee yards) producing top grade honey. The Brooklyn Grange a New York based collective farms over two and a half acres of organic rooftop gardens with an apiary of 35 hives. One Christchurch bee keeper has started his own RedZone Bees project, creating apiaries in locations around Christchurch’s earthquake affected red zone.

For Horticulturist, beekeeper, mead maker, sustainable lifestyler and author – Jacob De Ruiter, bees are at the heart of sustainable living. 

A bee keeper for over thirty years Jacob's knowledge of bees intertwines with his work as a horticulturist and his commercial hobby as a brewer of the honey wine - mead.

Jacob, with his partner Coral Hyam own and operate Haewai Meadery a small boutique brewery located in Houghton Bay on Wellington's South Coast. Haewai Meadery produces certified organic mead blended from an array of New Zealand bush honeys and mixed with water from the meadery’s own natural spring.

Mead - the mere mention of the word conjures up visions of drinking vessels swaying high in the air with throngs of Vikings singing rowdy songs into the night.

Thought to be the oldest known alcoholic drink, references note that mead was likely discovered by accident thousands of years ago when thirsty hunter-gathers found an upturned beehive filled with rainwater. The spontaneous fermentation of the honey, diluted by rain water created alcohol. Don’t know how much hunting or gathering went on that day!

For Jacob and Coral brewing mead was a natural progression in their love affair with honey. “Our dream was to capture the essence of New Zealand’s unique flora and great bush honey in a table wine”.

"New Zealand has lots of different, beautiful honeys. You know it sounds like a great idea - mead made from our native honey," Jacob says. "So you’re drinking, Tāwari, Kāmahi and Cabbage Tree or Rata and Fennel, each flavour from a different honey is quite unlike an other.”

With a distinct flavour, Jacob says mead is an acquired taste. “Lots of people can’t get used to the taste, it’s sort of foreign to them because they’re not only tasting a slight honey taste but also the essence of the flower.”

“So if you use Pōhutukawa honey the mead has a sort-of musty almost mouldy smell that is very organic. Then you’ve got Thyme honey which is very aromatic and has a very distinctive, powerful flavour so when you make the mead you have to dilute it with a milder honey such as clover. Fennel gives the mead an aniseed taste and aroma." 

A well known horticulturist, as an apprentice gardener Jacob worked at the Wellington Botanic Gardens before completing study at Lincon University and graduating as a Parks Officer in landscape design and architecture. In 1991 he wrote the best seller Gardens in the Wind  from whence he became known as the ‘wind man’. He then went on to pen two more publications Wind Gardens, published by Te Para and Creating the Natural Garden, published by Batemans.

Creating the Natural Garden discusses the ecology of plants competing with each other and how people naturalise them to fit within human habitats. Jacob says,"by not being a slave to the garden and letting the plants do their own thing you allow each plant to enjoy it’s life cycle".

“The book is essentially about orchestrating plants to suit people - allowing plants to grow until they become spent, by which time another one naturally takes over so you’ve got this constant flow of new and old plant life. It’s all about playing with the four seasons in the one year within one garden. Which is really where my passion lies – with the flowers and the natural ecology of gardens. Bee keeping is all part of it because the bees are essential in my garden for pollination, for our personal honey consumption and for the mead making, which is a joy. And I truly love it, I love what we do and the great thing about it is it’s all our own creation with great thanks to the bees."


Marla Spivak: Why bees are disappearing

Click here to listen to a fascinating TED Talk by Marla Spivak on why bees are disappearing. Here Spivak discusses the devastating effects of single crop farming and the use of herbicides and pesticides on honey bees.  She laments how over the past seven years, first in America, bee colonies have been dying en masse and what this means to plant growth and the worlds food production.


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