Country Matters: Where would we be without bees, the messengers of love?

In the thicket of vegetation overhanging a roadside path to a town were the glossy fruits of the arbutus or arbutus tree I had seen occasionally in Ireland, particularly at Munster – a Lusitanian refugee, it has been suggested.

There was a well-known restaurant in Cork city called Arbutus, where I once nodded off before the main course, the result of a generous hand with an Italian cocktail popular at the time. The roadside bushes I passed were in southern Portugal where I used to spend time before Covid restrictions stopped my canter.

The red berry bushes grow in wild profusion here, particularly in the picturesque hill country around a town called Monchique, which has a historic Roman spa with excellent spring water free if you bring a container and a distillery that called a famous pure spirit Medronho. However, this might remind Irish drinkers of Poitín Medronho is legally and commercially made from the bright red berries of the strawberry tree. And it must be treated with respect.

In another part of Europe, on the island of Sardinia, such fruits, despite the low sugar content, attract bees, the autumn flowering produces an unusual honey with a pungent taste and a history of more than 2,000 years. This is called corbezzolo which supposedly fools the palate – instead of sweetness, there are notes of leather, liquorice and smoke, as wine tasters would describe it.

Italian beekeepers have been setting up hives to collect this aromatic delicacy for centuries. Cicero (106-43 BC) mentions honey in a court case and satirically equates it with all Sardinian things that are bitter. Pliny the Elder, the Roman naturalist, gave the strawberry tree its botanical name, Arbutus unedo, the unedited after the expression unum edo — “I only eat one”. But behind the bitterness, the honey is packed with nutrients, vitamins and minerals with anti-inflammatory properties prized by locals who live extra long lives.

Here in Ireland, however, honey is all things sweet especially in Kerry, where correspondent Paul J, an angler and bird box enthusiast, had a dollop or more of sweet Mount Brandon honey on pancakes last Tuesday, lucky bastard.

In Cleggan, County Galway, from where a ferry takes visitors to Inishbofin to watch birds and enjoy good food, bee author James Morrissey surprisingly says some beekeepers sleep over a hive (not in one of course) as it is soporific, with the warmth of 50,000 insects and the scent of all that pollen, nectar and honey beneath one’s resting place. The mind confused.

He wrote about it in The bee’s knees (The insects carry all this wealth back to the hives on their knees). In the book published by Currach, journalist Lorna Siggins also interviews bee people about their passion.

Morrissey bills himself as a “Bee Facilitator” who “leaves enough honey in the hive for the residents”. The poet Kahlil Gibran wrote: “To the bee a flower is a source of life, to the flower the bee is a messenger of love.”

Naturalist Roger Deakin asked, “What would we do without bees?” who are now preparing to seek out clover and early bloomers such as deadnettle, archangel, lupin, sage, delphinium, thyme and, most importantly, lavender, provided by thoughtful gardeners . Country Matters: Where would we be without bees, the messengers of love?

Fry Electronics Team

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