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The honey bee
In the scrub of vegetation overhanging a roadside path to a town was the shiny fruit of the strawberry tree, or arbutus, which I had seen occasionally in Ireland, especially in Munster — a Lusitanian refugee, it has been suggested.
In Cork city there was a noted restaurant called Arbutus where once I nodded off before the main course, the result of a generous hand with an Italian cocktail then popular. The roadside bushes I passed were in southern Portugal, where I used to spend time before Covid restrictions put a halt to my gallop.
The red-berried shrubs grow in wild profusion here, especially in picturesque mountain country around a town called Monchique where there is a historic Roman spa with excellent spring water — free if you bring a container — and a distillery producing a famous pure spirit called medronho. This might remind Irish tipplers of poitín, although medronho is legally and commercially produced from the bright red berries of the strawberry tree. And it must be treated with respect.
In another part of Europe, on the isle of Sardinia, such fruits attract bees in spite of the paucity of sugar content, the autumnal flowering producing an unusual honey with sharpness of taste and with a history going back more than 2,000 years. This is called corbezzolo which, it is said, tricks the palate — instead of sweetness there are notes of leather, liquorice and smoke, as wine tasters might describe it.
Italian beekeepers have been setting up hives to collect this aromatic delight for centuries. Cicero (106-43BC) mentions the honey in a law case, satirically equating it with all things Sardinian being bitter. Pliny the Elder, the Roman naturalist, gave the strawberry tree its botanical name, Arbutus unedo, the unedo after the expression unum edo — “I’ll eat only one”. But behind the bitterness the honey is full of nutrients, vitamins and minerals with anti-inflammatory properties prized by locals who live notably long lives.
However, here in Ireland, honey is all sweetness — especially in Kerry where correspondent Paul J, an angler and nestbox-making enthusiast, last Tuesday had a dollop or more of sweet Mount Brandon honey on pancakes, lucky man.
In Cleggan, Co Galway, from where a ferry takes visitors to Inishbofin to bird-watch and enjoy fine food, writer on bees James Morrissey says, startlingly, that some apiarists sleep over a hive (not in one, of course) as it is soporific, with the warmth of 50,000 insects and the aroma of all that pollen, nectar and honey below one’s resting place. The mind boggles.
He has written about this in The Bee’s Knees (the insects carry all that richness back to the hives on their knees). In the book, published by Currach, journalist Lorna Siggins, also interviews bee people about their passion.
Morrissey describes himself as a “bee facilitator” who “leaves enough honey in the hive for the inhabitants”. The poet Kahlil Gibran wrote: “To the bee a flower is a fountain of life, to the flower the bee is a messenger of love.”
The naturalist Roger Deakin asked: “Just what would we do without bees?” who are now preparing to emerge and seek clovers and early-flowering plants such as dead-nettle, archangel, lupins, salvias, delphinium, thyme and especially lavender provided by thoughtful gardeners.
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