10 July 2012 by Julienne du Toit

Aloes, bees and mead

What do aloes, honey and the Catholic Church have in common? The answer goes back to the Middle Ages and beyond.

Bees fuss over the aloe flowers. Photo Chris Marais

In winter, the colours of nature fade to fawn and blonde. But in the Eastern Cape, things are just beginning to brighten up.

Flowering aloes brighten the winterscape. Photo Chris Marais

The Aloe ferox plants that have been standing like spiky sentinels all year send up candelabra-like branches with tightly packed cylinders of tubed flowers. These inflorescences turn from green to chilli red in a matter of weeks. Then the tubes open up for the stamens to spill out, and nectar is freely available.

The bees and sunbirds dote on these flowers. Entire hillsides can be covered in red-flowering aloes, and they are quite glorious to see. It’s even better to stand among them at midday and watch the bees plunge into the flowers. The little panniers on their back legs are crimson from the red aloe pollen.

Golden mead from Makana Meadery in Grahamstown. Photo Chris Marais

The aloe nectar is such a help to beekeepers that Makana Meadery in Grahamstown moved tons of aloes to its property to help its bees through the winter.

The meadery was established by Dr Garth Cambray, who started to see the magic of bees while doing his zoology degree at Rhodes University and helping out a fellow researcher by measuring bee wings.

He set up beehives as a hobby, but was astounded when they were stolen. Who would steal beehives? As it turns out, they were being taken by mead-makers. Another surprise. Who was making mead in this day and age?

Turns out that this honey-based alcohol, the same one that everyone associates with medieval times, has never stopped being made in Africa.

Precious beeswax for candles in churches led to the making of mead on a grand scale. Photo Chris Marais

Cambray ended up doing his doctorate on mead’s long history.

This simple but intoxicating drink was first concocted by the San, and later Khoi, people about 15 000 years ago and was called iQhilika. Much later, the technique found its way to Europe.

Even better is to stand among the aloes at midday and watch the bees plunge into the flowers.

It was in the Middle Ages that the Catholic Church became a major player in the alcohol industry, and it all started with candles for the churches and cathedrals. 

Tallow candles were disliked because they spluttered and smoked. Far better were beeswax candles, which burnt cleanly. The bishops loved them. And of course, once you had captured a hive and harvested the wax, there was all that honey. Hence the mead...

In those days, any honey or beeswax came from the destruction of hives. There was no such thing as bee-keeping (which only started 130 years ago). The steady decline of beehives in Europe meant that mead-making as a widespread industry there vanished 500 years ago. But in Africa, where there wasn’t that amount of pressure, and where the bees were feisty enough to fend off humans, the making of mead continues to this day.

With the aloes lending a helping bloom, of course...

Dr Garth Cambray discovered the hard way that honey is still being made into mead in Africa. Photo Chris Marais

Category: Food & Wine, Wildlife

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