Food & Drink

Homegrown: Garden for bees and for the honey

A honeybee sips from a blossom on a basil plant.
A honeybee sips from a blossom on a basil plant. WICHITA EAGLE

This holiday season, think about giving a gift to some hard little workers who deserve special attention: honeybees.

As you spend winter days planning your spring and summer gardens, include plants that look great, liven up your cooking and are treats for bees. If you do, we’ll all win, because these pollinators are essential to the food supply and they produce a delightful ingredient – honey.

Bees are attracted by the shapes and patterns of flowers more than their colors. People think of red flowers as being attractive, but bees can’t see red.

Honeybees and flowers have evolved together to form cooperative relationships. Blooms exist to attract pollinators. Reaching the nectar at the flower’s base is the bee’s goal.

The most bee-friendly plants are ones that have been part of Southern gardens for centuries. Bees go quickly to familiar food sources, but it takes them time to get used to newer varieties of plants.

One great plant to include in your bee garden is culinary sage, a semi-evergreen perennial with fuzzy, silvery-gray leaves. Its lavender-blue blooms last from June through August and draw hordes of bees.

Chives are perennials that usually die back in the winter and return around the same time as spring-flowering bulbs. When the foliage is 8 to 10 inches high, stems appear bearing pinkish-lavender blossoms reminiscent of large clover. Plant plenty so you can harvest some to make delicious chive-blossom vinegar.

Both sage and chives work well in containers and in the garden, and they require little watering. Offer partial shade during the hotter months.

For an edible flowering summer annual, nasturtiums come in bright yellow, gold, orange and deep red. Their colors and mildly peppery flavor liven up hot-weather salads.

Nasturtiums prefer sandy-to-loamy soils or loose potting mix in containers. Trailing varieties can be trained on small trellises, and dwarf plants are great for small containers or tight garden spots.

Varieties of honey

Honey is as fascinating as the bees that produce it. Locally produced honey varies in color and flavor with the season, depending on what blossoms the bees are visiting.

Early-spring honey may be light gold with fresh, grassy flavors. Bees that feed on flowering trees, such as tulip poplar, may give a dark, richly flavored honey. Honey tastings, like beer or wine tastings, to point out the nuances of this ingredient are becoming popular. (There’s a honey bar in Asheville.)

In general, the darker the color, the stronger the flavor, which is important to remember when selecting honey for recipes.

To fully appreciate honey, search out local beekeepers. Mass-produced honey has little flavor besides sweetness.

Honey infused with additional flavors, such as herbs, is popular, but food safety experts advise against trying to do this in a home kitchen.

“You’re introducing something into an environment that does not have any oxygen, and there might still be enough water in the herbs, even dry ones, that could cause the spores that lead to botulism to grow,” says Benjamin Chapman, associate professor and food safety specialist at N.C. State University and N.C. Cooperative Extension.

He says that adding herbs also may lower the honey’s acidity below safe levels.

Honey does not need refrigeration; just keep it in the pantry. If it should crystallize, sit the jar in a small pan of hot water to reliquify it. However, if the honey foams, has dark spots or smells like alcohol, it may be contaminated with mold and should be thrown out.

Do not feed honey to infants age 1 or younger. Honey may contain Clostridium botulinum spores that can cause infant botulism.

Cooking with honey

Honey and sugar are not interchangeable in recipes, because honey is a liquid and sugar is a solid. Also, the flavor and sweetness of the dish may change.

The National Honey Board suggests substituting honey for up to half the sugar in the recipe. If you like the results, try using honey in place of all the sugar. Remember that honey is a stronger sweetener than sugar, so you can use less to obtain the same level of sweetness.

For substituting in baked goods, reduce any liquid in the recipe by 1/4 cup for each cup of honey used. Add about 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda for each cup of honey to compensate for the honey’s acid level and for help in rising. Because baked goods made with honey brown faster, reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees or watch the dish carefully.

Reach Carol Stein and Debbie Moose at homegrownmoosestein@hotmail.com.

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