Bee vomit. That’s right. Bee vomit. Doesn’t sound too appetising, does it? But that is what honey is. Bees collect nectar from flowers, take it back to the hive, and regurgitate it, in order to store it as food. They keep it in honeycombs, which they make from wax, in the familiar hexagon shape – the optimum shape for covering a surface area with the minimum of material. Beekeepers encourage their bees to over-produce honey, which is then harvested from them. We don’t really farm many insects in the West, but bees are one example, and it’s a bonus that we can use both the honey and the wax.
I mentioned candles the other day, but we use beeswax for other things too – furniture and shoe polish, balms, to preserve some foods (like cheese), as a binder for encaustic painting, a resist in batik dyeing, to make cloth water resistant, and so on. (The waste residue remaining after rendering beeswax goes by the marvellous name of slumgum).
|Cheese preserved in wax.|
Honey was used as a sweetener in much of the world prior to the Eighteenth century, when sugar began to become more readily available, and for many people, it remains the more desirable alternative, not least because of the taste. It is one of the few foods that, under normal conditions, will not deteriorate or spoil, although it should not be kept in metal containers, which will cause it to oxidise. The usual containers are glass or ceramic, and decorative honey pots are commonly seen, quite often, like this one, in the shape of a beehive.
Honey can be used for many things, not least to produce drinks. Most people will have heard of mead, even if they have never drunk it, and may think of it as a medieval thing, all Good Queen Bess or Good King Hal, but it is a very pleasant drink and easy to make.
|Title Page The Closet 1669|
In Kenelm Digby’s The Closet Opened (mentioned here), there are numerous recipes for mead, together with other drinks made from honey, whose names are not quite as well known.
|Recipe for Mead (or Meathe) by Sir Kenelm Digby|
Mead is basically just fermented honey and water, another name is Hydromel – Greek for ‘Water-Honey’; if spices are added, the drink is Metheglin. If fruit is added, it is Melomel. If honey is added to malt and hops, it makes sack, another name for which is bragot. In Lancashire, a Sunday in mid-Lent was called Mothering Sunday, when apprentices and servants were allowed to visit their homes and mothers, taking gifts of sweet simnel cakes or money. Dyer’s British Popular Customs Past and Present (1900), notes,
“A sort of spiced ale called Braggot, Bragget, or Braggat, was used in many parts of Lancashire on these visits of relations, whence the day was called Braggot Sunday.”
The name may come Welsh – bräg = malt and gots or (mel)gor = honeycomb.
A false etymology is the word ‘honeymoon’, which some say is derived from the custom og providing newly-weds with enough mead to drink for a month, to ensure their fertility and prosperity. This is wrong; the ‘honey’ part comes from its meaning as ‘sweet’, as when love is new and fresh, and which dwindles, as the moon wanes, after about a month. Blount (1656) says “... it is hony now, but it will change as the moon,” and in his Glossographia he has
“Honey-Moon – the firft month of matrimony, fo termed for the firft fondnefs of a New Married couple.”
|Honey-Moon - from Johnson's Dictionary 1755|
None of the early dictionaries or etymologies give the false meaning (where, if it existed, it would appear); it appears to be a Victorian romanticism – it turns up in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable in 1870, (where is added the legend that Attila the Hun died on his wedding night from drinking an excess of hydromel).
|W C Hazlitt - Honeymoon - Faiths and Folklore 1905|
W Carew Hazlitt, in his extensive Faiths and Folklore (1905) makes no mention of it, but he does say that,
“The honeymoon does not seem to have been observed of old, and no stated time was understood to elapse between the nuptials and the reception of friends at home by the married couple,”
although the Old Norse hjūnōttsmānathr meant 'wedding-night-month', whereas in German it is flitterwochen – 'tinsel weeks', in southern Germany küssmonat – 'kiss month' and, touchingly, in Dutch wittebroodsweken – 'white bread weeks'.